The Founding Father's views on taxation.

During the framing of the Constitution, the founding fathers quarreled over many issues. The issue of taxation was no different. The two main schools of thought, in regards to taxation, resided between Federalists and anti-Federalist parties. Federalists pushed for national authority over the power to tax, in addition to state proposals. Anti-Federalists objected to federal authority to tax, feeling the power would be illiberally abused.[1] There were, however, issues in which the majority of the founding fathers agreed upon. Contrary to today’s popular beliefs, many of the founding fathers believed the poor should be taxed at a higher rate, in an attempt to motivate them to work thus propelling them out of their poverty.  Also conflicting with modern beliefs, they felt those who worked should be taxed less heavily so as to remunerate them for their endeavors: “To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association.”[2] These views are found in the founding fathers private papers as well as delineated throughout the Constitution. 

As previously mentioned, the amount of power in which the Federal Government should be granted regarding taxes, was a major altercation amid Federalist and anti-Federalist parties. To further explain these viewpoints, however, one must first understand the difference between external and internal taxation.  An external tax was a duty on any item which was being shipped to a specific colony or state. The tax would be originally paid by the shipper, but then imposed unto the item itself. This is known in present day terms as a tariff. An internal tax, however, was a tax which was imposed directly upon an item, such as a sales tax. The anti-Federalists made a clear distinction between these two types of taxes, which they argued the Federalists grouped into one category. Richard Henry Lee, a renowned anti-Federalist, argued that external taxes were safe because their abuses were minimal and bounded. In regards to internal taxation, he felt the national government would gradually shift tax policy in order to favor their personal prosperity.[3] He explained: “…the power would be improperly lodged in congress, and that it might be abused by imprudent and designing men.”  Lee also questioned the authority of those in power, and made arguments for the power to be left with the people.  “Why give the power to the few, who, when possessed of it, may have address enough to prevent the increase of representation? Why not keep the power, and, when necessary, amend the constitution”[4]

The Federalists tried the best they could to compromise on the issues being voiced at the time. Alexander Hamilton directly addressed the issue in the New York Packet writing:

“There is a simple point of view in which this [tax dispute] may be placed that must be altogether satisfactory. The national legislature can make use of the system of each state within that state. The method of laying and collecting taxes in each State can, in all its parts, be adopted and employed by the federal government.”[5]

Hamilton felt the power should reside in the Federal Government first, and then distributed throughout each state. Lee on the other hand, believed the power should reside in the state first, and maintained by the government. The preeminent argument of the Federalists remained in the belief that one could have a ‘rule of the people’ through representation of the government. Alexander Hamilton argued: “whether the representation of the people be more or less numerous, it will consist almost entirely of proprietors of land, of merchants, and of members of the learned professions, who will truly represent all those different interests and views.”  While authority cannot reside directly in the hands of each individual, he believed that within a state, but both the state and the individual are indirectly granted power by means of representation. 

            In regards to the amount which one should be taxed, Federalists, those in between, and even some anti-Federalists all thought the like. If those who were out of work are taxed a low amount, they would feel only a small need to try and get a job. If the taxes were higher, ample enough to cause burdensome upon the individual, they would need to find work in order to survive. This was the view of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin alike.  While this seems an extreme position to take, Benjamin Franklin argues:

 I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. -- I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.[6] 

While the poor would clearly object to higher taxes, Franklin argues that those poor who have harder initial burdens, do better on average verses those having money given to them or deducted from payments by a higher authority. Thus, clearly objecting to tax cuts and extreme national help on low-income families. 

            When it came down to the specific arguments that were made, Federalist and anti-Federalists parties were not in disagreement of national verses no national authority. Rather, what and how much power should be given to the national authority in order to assure it would not be abused nor mistreated. Internal Taxes were one of the issues which the anti-Federalists felt would be abused. Although their opinions were different, the Founding Fathers were able to work together and compromise on the issue of taxation. As can be seen by the wording of the Constitution, which addresses the needs of both parties: “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises…Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers”[7]



[1] Lee. The Anti-Federalist No. 36. 1788. p. 1

[2] Jefferson Memorial Association. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. 1903. 14:446.

[3] Lee. The Anti-Federalist No. 36. 1788. p. 1

[4] Lee. The Anti-Federalist No. 36. 1788. p. 1

[5] Hamilton. The Federalist #36: The Constitution Society. 8 Jan. 1788. p. 1

[6] Benjermin. On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor.  1766. P. 1

[7] Jefferson. The Constitution of the United States.  1778. Article 1 section 2-8.

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