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Remarks on the Tax Bill,
Delivered On March 14, 1862 in Congress

 

    Mr. Stevens. (Responds to a comment from Roscoe Conkling about states’ collection of direct taxes) Now, Sir, I will discuss for a moment the feasibility of the present amendment offered by the gentleman from Massachusetts, (Mr. Eliot.) In the first place, sir, it is well known that we have incurred or authorized a debt amounting to $800,000,000. A portion of the interest upon that debt will be due between this and the end of six months. The bonds of the United States must be based upon the assurance that this tax will be a tax made out in such a way that it can be collected. That ought to be done before Congress rises, or else you defer it until the new machinery comes into operation. How is this State machinery, if practicable at all, to come into operation? By the time we have passed the bill, in whatever shape it may be, all the State Legislatures, except perhaps that of New Hampshire, which meets later, will have exhausted their sessions and have adjourned, some for one and some for two years. Many of the States, Maryland among the rest, hold their sessions once in two years. The Kentucky Legislature has adjourned. The Legislature of Maryland will adjourn soon.

    Mr. Calvert. It has already adjourned.

    Mr. Stevens. Adjourned for two years. If we leave this to the States, one of two things must happen. Either we will have to wait for two years before we get a response from the States, or an extra session of every one of these States must be called. I submit to the gentlemen who are anxious about the cost whether they will not, for these extra sessions, consume more money than can possibly be saved in making a difference between the Federal and State collections. I submit that it will be so. So that in point of economy there would not be a dollar saved, but money would be lost. If you allow them to wait until the Legislatures meet by constitutional authority, then you have defeated the whole object of the bill. Then there is not a man in the country who has a dollar to lend who will lend it upon our bonds. They are based upon this taxation and its efficient mode of collection. That is one insuperable objection, if there were none other.

    I ask the gentleman to inform me wherein this proposition differs from the proposition made in the old Confederation under the Articles of Confederation. By the Articles of Confederation, every State was to have designated by Congress the quota which was to be assessed upon it, and the States, under the Articles of Confederation, pledged their honor that they would faithfully carry out such requests. Yet, sir, so few of them complied promptly, so few of them complied at all, that that very defect in the organization of the old Confederation was one of the main causes which led to the calling of the convention to amend the Constitution, and produced our present Constitution, enabling Congress to act upon the individuals themselves in the States by its own legislation instead of operating through State machinery, which is so uncertain. Can the committee think that the States would now be more prompt in carrying it out than they were under the solemn pledge of the Articles of Confederation? There is no controlling power; there is no means of coercing the States to do it. If there be delinquencies, they are not delinquencies which can be remedied by this Congress or Government when you have once referred to the States the manner suggested by the gentleman from Massachusetts. How idle it is to lay a tax which coercion cannot collect?

    The gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Pendleton) informs us in somewhat of a minatory manner of the tremendous clamor that this bill will raise. He told us that a voice is to come up which will shake this Hall, and make even the firmest of us tremble in our boots. (Laughter) How are you going to coerce those States which are to make such a terrific clamor? I am not denying in this connection the remarks of the gentleman. I know how unpleasant taxes are, and the patriotism with which my friend from Massachusetts has assailed this bill. When they come to pay these taxes I know that they will make wry faces. They will dislike it. It is not, however, the tax gathers they hate so much as the taxes. If you forgive them the taxes, you may send tax gathers every day of the year. The only way that that difficulty can be avoided is to remit the tax. But we cannot do that. If this be looked upon as a party measure, and this Administration is to assume the responsibility of this tax, I fully understand the remarks of the gentleman that it will revolutionize this Government. I do not suppose that there is relieving energy enough in this Administration to take away the odium of this measure, and to return enough of its friends to the next House to make a majority. I do not expect that. I expect to see this majority superseded, Very well. If you have no provision in the bill by which the payment of these taxes can be coerced, they will never be paid. The Representatives here will act to represent their constituents, who will turn us out of power, and who will, of course, desire no taxes to be collected. Some system will then be adopted more consonant to the feelings of the people, and more in accordance with the wishes of demagogues, than that which we are devising for the purpose of enforcing this tax. We intend to lay this tax, and to take the chances of that tremendous voice which is to hurl us from power.

    There is another reason which compels us not only to lay the tax, but to provide the machinery for collecting it. I know that there will be changes of Congressmen and Executives in the mutations of party and the revolutions in this House. I think that my friend will see when this House is revolutionized, when State after State has changed its aspect before the weight of this burden, that there is all the more necessity for laying this tax now and providing the means of coercing its payment. Let us have a tax that will last during this war, and which cannot be disturbed by mere resolutions of one branch of this Legislature. Suppose the Governor of Virginia should notify us that she would assume the payment of her portion of the tax. Which Governor are we to look to? “Under which King Bezonian?”  Is Virginia under King Letcher or King Pierpont? I suppose that the Constitution is to be restored over that State, and I do not suppose that Virginia has any other constitutional Governor except Governor Letcher. When the Constitution is restored there, I have no doubt that under this bill we can district the State, and find loyal men enough to assess and collect this tax. If we do not collect today, we will next year; and if not next year, we will the year after; and we will pile up on Virginia her full burden of the taxes which she has brought upon us. It will be a lien upon her real estate, and we can collect it.

    How can we do that, if we allow those who have caused this trouble to make this assessment? We will not know then how much they are to pay. That is the reason why the President should be allowed to send agents there who will assess and collect it. I trust in the course of the summer we shall be able to assess them. We may not be able to collect them just yet; but we shall hold them bound for the taxes, unless our mild and benevolent friends are too humane to enforce collection after this people are brought back under the restored, rejuvenated, and unaltered Constitution. Now, it seems to me that there is an insuperable objection to that. We are to forgive our debtors, not as they forgive us; but to forgive our debtors as they forgive nobody on earth. (Laughter.) But even if there were no rebellion, how could you equalize your taxes? If every State is allowed to assess its own taxes, Pennsylvania would say, let us assess them so as to shrink our fair share, and throw it upon New York. I remember that in our State, under the old tax system, where every county assessed the State for itself, there was one county – I will not name it, for I do not wish to be invidious – where there assessors assessed the property of fifty percent of its value, and then their commissioners got together and readjusted it, and put it down to thirty percent, while many of the counties in the interior taxed their property at its full value; and hence one county paid its full proportion of the State tax, while other counties did not pay theirs, and the State was driven to the necessity of establishing a board of revenue, to meet every year and bring up the sunken ones, and if any were too high – as I believe none were – to bring them down. Now, would it not just so with the States? Have you any reason to suppose that State corporations would not just as lenient to the States as the county corporations were to the counties? And if so, where is the equalizing power? But if you keep this machinery within the power of the United States Government, and they find that anything of this sort is going on, the Government can at once discard their unfaithful agents, and see that the matter is properly adjusted. I have seen the iniquity of this system in my own State, and I understand that it is the same in other States. Some seven or eight of our counties got about one third more out of the State Treasury from the school fund than the whole tax they paid into it. And I understand that there was a county in New York where the same thing occurred. What county was it – Oneida?

    Mr. Roscoe Conkling. Oh, no.

    Mr. Stevens. Then it was Chemung? I believe it was. (Laugher.)

    Mr. Diven. I can only say, then, that the gentleman is mistaken.

    Mr. Stevens. I am happy to be corrected. Was it St. Lawrence?

    Mr. Diven. No, sir, it was not.

    Mr. Stevens. Then I am completely at sea. I know it was a county in New York.

    Mr. Diven. The gentleman guessed it the first time he tried.

    Mr. Stevens. What was it?

    Mr. Diven. Oneida.

    Mr. Roscoe Conkling. Oh, no; the only pretext for saying that, is this, that there was a time when the county of Oneida, which is the most enlightened part of the State of New York, was assessed in such a way that its valuation was not a great deal higher than that of Onondaga, Chemung, and other third rate counties. (Laughter.)

    Mr. Sedgwick. Oneida is the most ingenious county in the State of New York in avoiding taxes. (Renewed Laughter.)

    Mr. Stevens. I give it all credit. But I merely mention these things for illustrations, for nothing illustrates an argument so well as a fact, and I hope that no one objects to the statement of facts merely as illustrations.

    Now, sir, I think I have given reasons enough why this amendment should not be adopted. There have been objections made to the number of officeholders which this bill creates. Why, sir, will there be any more officeholders if they are appointed by the United States than if they are appointed by the States? Would they go to any more houses? Would they frighten any more people? I dare say, if the States had this matter under their control, these officers would not go to so many houses, and the people might in that way be relieved; but I cannot otherwise perceive where the difference is between the two. The President is to appoint but a single collector and a single assessor in each collection district, and they are to do the work. They have the power, if they cannot do it themselves, to appoint assistants for whom they are responsible. The assistant assessors make their returns to the chief assessor, and he makes a return to the collector as well as to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue here; so that it may always be known, by three different records, exactly what amount is collected, and how these officers are performing their duties. An assessor, if he can do all the work himself, may do it, of course.

    Mr. Eliot. The bill provides that he shall divide his district into a convenient number of sub-divisions, and shall appoint an assistant assessor for each.

    Mr. Stevens. He may make it one district.

    Mr. Eliot. There is a provision that the collector, if he can do so, may do the whole work himself; but the assessor must appoint assistant assessors.

    Mr. Stevens. Very well; he may make two districts, and appoint one assistant, and do the work of the other himself. There is no danger that he will appoint too many assistants, for their compensation is all to come out of his fees. It does not increase the expense to the Government one dollar.

 

    I move that the committee do now rise, for the purpose of closing debate.

 

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