Author:Johnson, Calvin H.


The Philadelphia Convention framed the text of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 that was only a proposal to be given effect only by ratification by the states. (1) Ratification was debated in New York with partisan vigor; indeed, participants on either side of the divide were said to detest each other. (2) New York ratification is important enough to look at again, perhaps as a synecdoche for the whole, but at least to illuminate the meaning of the Constitution in one important segment of the ratification debates.

The critical framework for New York's 1788 debates over ratification was set by the debates over the 1783 proposal to nationalize the tax on imports, called the "impost." (3) New York vetoed the 1783 impost proposal, according to the Federalists, to preserve the tax on imports coming through the New York harbor for selfish, exclusive New York State uses. (4) Veto of the impost betrayed the great cause of the Revolution. (5) The defeated proponents of the 1783 impost in New York became the Federalists in favor of the Constitution in 1788, and the party that had defeated the 1783 impost remained intact to become the Anti-Federalists in opposition to the Constitution in 1788. (6)

Nationalizing the state imposts was also the key economic necessity for the Constitution as a whole. (7) The first mission of the Constitution, as the proponents understood it, was to give Congress a tax of its own to make payments on the debts of the Revolutionary War. (8) In the next and inevitable war, Congress would need to borrow from the Dutch again. (9) The impost was considered across the nation as the most appropriate tax under the mercantilist economics of the times and the easiest to collect. (10) Without the veto of the impost proposals offered under the Articles of Confederation, it is fair speculation, although counterfactual, that the Constitution would not have proposed nor adopted such a measure. (11) The confederation mode of government under the Articles was a mere firm league of friendship between sovereign states and it would have survived, with minor modifications, had the national-level government been given its own sufficient source of tax. The confederate Congress would not have been replaced by the self-sufficient, vigorous, supreme national government that the Constitution formed, or at least not until some future crisis. As Hamilton appropriately put it: "Impost begat Convention." (12)

It is a subsidiary thesis here that rights talk was not key to the proposal or ratification of the Constitution. The New York Anti-Federalists offered a long series of amendments to the proposed Constitution to weaken the national government in favor of the states. The ideas in a quarter of their amendments were later reflected in the Bill of Rights. Both the Federalists proponents and Anti-Federalist opponents were part of the Revolutionary War generation that believed that independence was necessary for the protection of the rights of free men. (13) The Federalists, however, considered the Anti-Federalist amendments in New York to be mere excuses offered in an endeavor to preserve state power. (14) None of the Anti-Federalist amendments were incorporated into New York's ratification. (15) Even within Anti-Federalism, the proposed amendments were candidly not considered worth secession from the Union. (16)

Our understanding of the ratification debate in New York has been greatly enhanced by the recent completion of publication of the five volumes on the New York debate in the massive Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution. (17) The Documentary History has attempted to collect every scrap of surviving documents on ratification, and it greatly expands the archives, especially on the latter part of the New York ratification convention, where the official report is spare. (18) This article on New York ratification originated as a presentation on a panel held in celebration of the publication of the New York volumes of the Documentary History. (19)

This reading of the record in New York differs from prior ones in emphasizing the importance of the impost. (20) One hundred years after Charles Beard's Economic History, (21) this reading emphasizes the predominant economic motivation in New York, albeit without making the Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution the heroes of the story, as Beard did. (22) This piece turns Beard upside-down: the Federalist victors in New York are the heroes of the story and the fight over the impost is the primary economic driver behind the debates.

The New York Convention eventually ratified the Constitution, although over seventy percent of its delegates had been elected as Anti-Federalist opponents. (23) Eventually, a group of delegates led by Melancton Smith of Poughkeepsie moved over to ratify the Constitution, although they had been elected as opponents. (24) There was, however, a group of intransient Albany Anti-Federalists who refused to ratify the Constitution. The Albany, intransient wing, upped the ante and added a long list of mandatory amendments, just as their objective position deteriorated: the Constitution had been established by its own terms without New York. If New York City split off to rejoin the Union, as was plausible, Albany would have been a small and land-locked country that would have had to pay a New York City impost to import and export goods. Opposition to the Constitution, in any event, expired as a politically viable movement with establishment of the new national government, in spite of the partisan rancor of the New York debates.


    The U.S. Constitution of 1787 was proposed and adopted first to give the federal government revenue to continue payments on the debts of the Revolutionary War by enough to restore the national government's ability to borrow again in the next inevitable war. (25) Under the Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution, Congress was to collect the funds to pay for the common defense primarily by requisitions upon the states. (26) After the end of the war, the states stopped paying their quotas of a requisition. (27) The requisition of 1786, the last before the Constitution, collected no money from any state. (28) The federal government, in the words of Alexander Hamilton, was "imbecilic" and "impotent" because it did not have its own power to tax and therefore could not pay its debts. (29)

    The primary need was to make payments on the Dutch debt. (30) Both the debts to domestic suppliers of war products and to veterans would have to be put off, given Congress's sparse funds. (31) The French financing and troops had made victory possible in the Revolutionary War, but the French were bankrupt and could not lend again. (32) But Congress could not default on payments to the Dutch. (33) In the coming inevitable wars, the nation would need to borrow from the Dutch again. (34) The Constitution was driven, not by creditors trying to get collections, but by debtors in distress, trying to restore public credit by enough to be able to borrow again. (35)

    The Founders had reason for fear. Their nation, spread out largely along the Eastern coastline, was vulnerable to three predator empires: Britain, Spain, and France. (36) Congress had the obligation to provide for the common defense, but it could not pay for a cannon, a soldier, or a sloop. (37) "Without a ship, without a soldier, without a shilling in the federal treasury, and without a... government to obtain one," as Edward Rutledge put it, "[W]e hold the property that we [do] at the courtesy of other powers." (38)

    A five percent tax on imports, called the "impost," collected by the federal government, had been proposed in 1781 and again in 1783. (39) The impost proposals, together with sale of Western land, would have allowed the confederation form to survive, with Congress making at least the required payments on the Dutch debt. (40) The impost proposals were considered, however, to require amendment to the Articles, which, under the Articles themselves, required unanimous consent of the states. (41)

    Both the 1781 impost and the 1783 impost proposals were vetoed by at least one state. (42) Rhode Island vetoed the 1781 impost on the grounds that any federal tax would violate its independence and sovereignty. (43) Virginia then withdrew its prior ratification, saying that giving Congress power over taxation was injurious also to Virginia's sovereignty. (44) "[H]ow all these sovereign people will agree in the establishment of national security," Oliver Wolcott reacted, "is difficult to say." (45)

    When Rhode Island vetoed the impost, the rest of the states were unforgiving. Rhode Island was thereafter "an evil genius" that had "injured the United States more than the worth of that whole state." (46) Rhode Island was a "cursed state," (47) and a "perverse sister." (48) To Melancton Smith, a talented moderate New York Anti-Federalist, Rhode Island was an illustration of "political depravity," "genuine infamy," and "a wicked administration." (49) Rhode Island, according to the scholarly Noah Webster, was that "little detestable corner of the continent." (50)

    In 1783, Congress re-proposed the impost with some accommodating features. For example, the federal impost would expire after twenty-five years, so it would not be a permanent transfer of tax power to the Congress. (51) Also, states were allowed to appoint the tax collectors, so the patronage would be on the state level. (52)

    For 1783, it was New York that did not consent. (53) New York had ratified the 1781 impost when New York City was still occupied by British troops, but by the time of its consideration of the 1783 impost proposal, New York had created a state impost of its own on the imports coming in through the New York harbor. (54) The state impost on the New York harbor supplied between a third to over half of New York's revenue, and it kept land...

To continue reading