History of the Constitution and Taxation Prior to the 16th Amendment

Charles Lincon
4 min readSep 12, 2020
“Detail from Government. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Main figure is seated atop a pedestal saying “GOVERNMENT” and holding a tablet saying “A GOVERNMENT / OF THE PEOPLE / BY THE PEOPLE / FOR THE PEOPLE”. Artist’s signature is “ELIHU VEDDER / ROMA–1896”.” Description and image from Wikipedia. I claim no copyright.

Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Company, 157 U.S. 429 (1895), affirmed on rehearing, 158 U.S. 601 (1895). It seems plausible it was surprising that during the Civil War there were no tax cases that dealt with the validity of taxation as it was being levied by the federal government during the time of the Civil War.

Hylton v. United States, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 171 (1796) involved Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s or debating the validity of a tax on carriages. As a tax on carriages but the Supreme Court didn’t recognize that it was a Tax that was direct on care just because it was not on property. Gouverneur Morris was one of the key drafters of the Constitutional language for defining the contours of the ability to have direct taxation.

Before the Pollock case, the Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586 (1881) appears to be the most relevant case discussing taxation and the apportionment. Discussing the history of including the Apportionment Clause (Article I, Section I, Clause 3) into the Constitution:

On the day following, Gouverneur Morris, of New York, submitted a proposition ‘that taxation shall be in proportion to representation.’ It is further recorded in this day’s proceedings, that Mr. Morris having so varied his motion by inserting the word ‘direct,’ it passed nem. con., as follows: ‘Provided always that direct taxes ought to be proportioned to representation.’ 2 Madison Papers, by Gilpin, pp. 1079–1081. On the 24th of the same month, Mr. Morris said that ‘he hoped the committee would strike out the whole clause. . . . He had only meant it as a bridge to assist us over a gulf; having passed the gulf, the bridge may be removed. He thought the principle laid down with so much strictness liable to strong objections.’ Id. 1197. The gulf was the share of representation … But the bridge remained. The builder could not remove it, much as he desired to do so. All parties seem thereafter to have avoided the subject. With one or two immaterial exceptions, not necessary to be noted, it does not appear that it was again adverted to in any way. It was silently incorporated into the draft of the Constitution as that instrument was finally adopted.

Ironically, all this debate about the appointment of taxes was not actually meant by the drafter to be in the Constitution. Many say that there are not really good notes or an accurate overall legislative history regarding the clauses in the constitution that it’s very interesting that we have an exceptionally and evidently accurate reflection of what was going on in regards to the drafters’ minds regarding the Apportionment Clause. Indeed, there are many speeches of the Constitutional Convention of perspectives. Although it could be argued that the Federalist papers were the legislative history of the constitutional convention, that is not necessarily so. The Federalist party only represented a faction which many people opposed.

This case ultimately states that the tax is an income tax and not a tax on the estate. Thus, not subject to property — which itself would have been a direct tax. But it seems that a direct tax was not contemplated to be an actual tax by the drafter — Gouverneur Morris — at the time it was drafted during the Constitutional Convention.

The Springer case further examined Alexander Hamilton’s writings quoting him as stating that: “capitation or poll taxes, and taxes on lands and buildings, and general assessments, whether on the whole property of individuals or on their whole real or personal estate. All else must, of necessity, be considered as indirect taxes.” Thus, taking Hamilton’s understanding of the clause as dealing with a tax on property, the Court states:

The tax here in question falls within neither of these categories. It is not a tax on the “whole . . . personal estate” of the individual, but only on his income, gains, and profits during a year, which may have been but a small part of his personal estate, and in most cases would have been so. This classification lends no support to the argument of the plaintiff in error.

The pivotal point that required a Constitutional Amendment was the Pollock case where the Supreme Court ruled that a tax on income from dividends, rent, or interest should be treated as a tax on property itself. Thus, such a tax qualified as a direct tax. Because the tax qualified as a “direct tax.” This meant that direct taxes were required to be apportioned according to the Apportionment Clause. It took the Sixteenth Amendment to overrule this.

© Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV

Charles Edward Andrew Lincoln IV

Texas A&M University Graduation 2016 — Receiving an award for the most pro bono awards of any student that graduating class.



Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.