Motion on Impost
Printed text (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 420).
On 26 March a letter of 10 March 1781, written in the name of the General Court of Massachusetts to the president of Congress by Jeremiah Powell, president of the Senate of the General Court of Massachusetts, was laid before Congress. The letter implied that if the proposed amendment to the Articles of Confederation authorizing Congress to levy a 5 per cent tariff on imports (Papers of Madison description begins William T. Hutchinson, William M. E. Rachal, et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (2 vols. to date; Chicago, 1962——). description ends , II, 303–4) went into effect, it would work too grave an injustice to Massachusetts to be obeyed. That Commonwealth, according to Powell, was always willing to pay its just share of the war costs and, in fact, had contributed more than its due proportion since 1775. The General Court, Powell added, would not agree to an impost unless the proposed amendment stipulated that the revenue collected therefrom in each state should be credited to that state as a part of its quota of continental expenses (NA: PCC, No. 65, I, 521–22).
Congress referred Powell’s dispatch to a committee, whose members were Samuel Adams (Mass.), James Duane, and Oliver Wolcott (Conn.), and instructed them to draft a reply (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 311). When they submitted their report to Congress on 18 April, the action related below was taken.
[18 April 1781]
The committee to whom was referred a letter or representation, of 10 March, in the name and behalf of the general court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, delivered in a report.1
A motion was made by Mr. [James]2 Madison, seconded by Mr. [William] Sharpe:
Ordered, That it be referred to a committee of three:
The members, Mr. [James] Madison, Mr. [James Mitchell] Varnum, Mr. [William] Sharpe.3
1. The original of this report, in Duane’s hand, is in NA: PCC, No. 20, I, 65–73. The report declared that the “several objections” of the General Court of Massachusetts have too much “insufficiency to justify any alteration in the act” (proposed amendment); that British ravages in Georgia and South Carolina “have unavoidably occasioned an encrease of the quotas of such states as enjoy greater internal tranquility and freedom of commerce”; that any sort of tax is opposed by some economic group, but that an import duty, provided that it is levied by the general government rather than competitively by each state or several states, is more easily made effective and is more impartial in its incidence than is “an excise, a land tax, or a capitation”; that “a moderate duty on trade cannot give dissatisfaction to a people who have nothing less at stake than their honor, good faith, liberty and independence”; that, contrary to the assertion of the General Court, the ultimate consumer and not the importer pays the tariff; and that it manifestly would be “illiberal,” unreasonable, and inequitable, in view of the fact that foreign imports necessarily concentrate in a few U.S. ports although they come in return for exports from most of the states, to alter the proposed amendment so as to assure each state, rather than the treasury of the United States, the revenue from the tariff collected in its ports. The proposed reply closed by urging Massachusetts to ratify the amendment as holding out the best “prospect of some satisfaction to the public creditors, whose just complaints ought to be redressed without delay.”
2. These brackets and those which follow are in the JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends .
3. On 19 April this committee resubmitted to Congress the Duane draft, unaltered except for a few unimportant changes not in JM’s hand. Congress thereupon adopted the report without a recorded vote and ordered that a copy of it be sent “to the general court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 421–27).