Woodruff v. Parham
75 U.S. 123 (1868)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Woodruff v. Parham, 75 U.S. 8 Wall. 123 123 (1868)

Woodruff v. Parham

75 U.S. (8 Wall.) 123




The term "import," as used in that clause of the Constitution which says, that "no state shall levy any imposts or duties on imports or exports," does not refer to articles imported from one state into another, but only to articles imported from foreign countries into the United States. Hence, a uniform tax imposed by a state on all sales made in it, whether they be made by a citizen of it or a citizen of some other state, and whether the goods sold are the produce of that state enacting the law or of some other state, is valid.

The Constitution thus ordains:

"Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states."

"No state shall levy any imposts or duties on imports or exports."

"The citizens of each state shall be entitled to all the immunities and privileges of citizens of the several states."

With these declarations of the Constitution in force, the City of Mobile, Alabama, in accordance with a provision in its charter, authorized the collection of a tax for municipal purposes on real and personal estate, sales at auction, and sales of merchandise, capital employed in business and income within the city. This ordinance being on the city statute book Woodruff and others, auctioneers, received, in the course of their business for themselves, or as consignees and

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agents for others, large amounts of goods and merchandise, the product of states other than Alabama, and sold the same in Mobile to purchasers in the original and unbroken packages. Thereupon, the tax collector for the city, demanded the tax levied by the ordinance. Woodruff refused to pay the tax, asserting that it was repugnant to the above-quoted provisions of the Constitution. The question coming finally, on a case stated, into the supreme court of the state, where the first two of the above-quoted provisions of the Constitution were relied on by the auctioneers as a bar to the suit, the said court decided in favor of the tax. And the question was now here for review.

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MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The case was heard in the courts of the State of Alabama upon an agreed statement of facts, and that statement fully raises the question whether merchandise brought from other states and sold, under the circumstances stated, comes within the prohibition of the federal Constitution, that no state shall, without the consent of Congress, levy any imposts or duties on imports or exports. And it is claimed that it also brings the case within the principles laid down by this Court in Brown v. Maryland. [Footnote 1]

That decision has been recognized for over forty years as governing the action of this Court in the same class of cases, and its reasoning has been often cited and received with approbation in others to which it was applicable. We do not now propose to question its authority or to depart from its principles.

The tax of the State of Maryland, which was the subject of controversy in that case, was limited by its terms to importers of foreign articles or commodities, and the proposition that we are now to consider is whether the provision of

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the Constitution to which we have referred extends, in its true meaning and intent, to articles brought from one state of the Union into another.

The subject of the relative rights and powers of the federal and state governments in regard to taxation, always delicate, has acquired an importance by reason of the increased public burdens growing out of the recent war, which demands of all who may be called in the discharge of public duty to decide upon any of its various phases, that it shall be done with great care and deliberation. Happily for us, much the larger share of these responsibilities rests with the legislative departments of the state and federal governments. But when, under the pressure of a taxation necessarily heavy, and in many cases new in its character, the parties affected by it resort to the courts to ascertain whether their individual rights have been infringed by legislation, and assert rights supposed to be guaranteed by the federal Constitution, they, in every such case properly brought before us, devolve upon this Court an obligation to decide the question raised from which there is no escape.

The words impost, imports, and exports are frequently used in the Constitution. They have a necessary correlation, and when we have a clear idea of what either word means in any particular connection in which it may be found, we have one of the most satisfactory tests of its definition in other parts of the same instrument.

In the case of Brown v. Maryland, the word imports, as used in the clause now under consideration, is defined, both on the authority of the lexicons and of usage, to be articles brought into the country; and impost is there said to be a duty, custom, or tax levied on articles brought into the country. In the ordinary use of these terms at this day, no one would, for a moment, think of them as having relation to any other articles than those brought from a country foreign to the United States, and at the time the case of Brown v. Maryland was decided -- namely, in 1827 -- it is reasonable to suppose that the general usage was the same, and that in defining imports as articles brought into the country,

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the Chief Justice used the word country as a synonym for United States.

But the word is susceptible of being applied to articles introduced from one state into another, and we must inquire if it was so used by the framers of the Constitution.

Leaving, then, for a moment, the clause of the Constitution under consideration, we find the first use of any of these correlative terms in that clause of the eighth section of the first article, which begins the enumeration of the powers confided to Congress.

"The Congress shall have power to levy and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises, . . . but all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States."

Is the word impost, here used, intended to confer upon Congress a distinct power to levy a tax upon all goods or merchandise carried from one state into another? Or is the power limited to duties on foreign imports? If the former be intended, then the power conferred is curiously rendered nugatory by the subsequent clause of the ninth section, which declares that no tax shall be laid on articles exported from any state, for no article can be imported from one state into another which is not, at the same time, exported from the former. But if we give to the word imposts, as used in the first-mentioned clause, the definition of Chief Justice Marshall, and to the word export the corresponding idea of something carried out of the United States, we have, in the power to lay duties on imports from abroad, and the prohibition to lay such duties on exports to other countries, the power and its limitations concerning imposts.

It is also to be remembered that the Convention was here giving the right to lay taxes by national authority in connection with paying the debts and providing for the common defense and the general welfare, and it is a reasonable inference that they had in view, in the use of the word imports, those articles which, being introduced from other nations and diffused generally over the country for consumption, would contribute, in a common and general way, to the support

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of the national government. If internal taxation should become necessary, it was provided for by the terms taxes and excises.

There are two provisions of the clause under which exemption from state taxation is claimed in this case, which are not without influence on that prohibition, namely that any state may, with the assent of Congress, lay a tax on imports, and that the net produce of such tax shall be for the benefit of the Treasury of the United States. The framers of the Constitution, claiming for the general government, as they did, all the duties on foreign goods imported into the country, might well permit a state that wished to tax more heavily than Congress did, foreign liquors, tobacco, or other articles injurious to the community, or which interfered with their domestic policy, to do so, provided such tax met the approbation of Congress, and was paid into the federal Treasury. But that it was intended to permit such a tax to be imposed by such authority on the products of neighboring states for the use of the federal government, and that Congress, under this temptation, was to arbitrate between the state which proposed to levy the tax and those which opposed it, seems altogether improbable.

Yet this must be the construction of the clause in question if it has any reference to goods imported from one state into another.

If we turn for a moment from the consideration of the language of the Constitution to the history of its formation and adoption, we shall find additional reason to conclude that the words imports and imposts were used with exclusive reference to articles imported from foreign countries.

Section three, article six, of the Confederation provided that no state should lay imposts or duties which might interfere with any stipulation in treaties entered into by the United States; and section one, article nine, that no treaty of commerce should be made whereby the legislative power of the respective states should be restrained from imposing such imposts and duties on foreigners as their own people were subjected to, or from prohibiting the exportation or

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importation of any species of goods or commodities whatsoever. In these two articles of the Confederation, the words "imports, exports," and "imposts" are used with exclusive reference to foreign trade, because they have regard only to the treatymaking power of the federation.

As soon as peace was restored by the success of the Revolution, and commerce began to revive, it became obvious that the most eligible mode of raising revenue for the support of the general government and the payment of its debts was by duties on foreign merchandise imported into the country. The Congress accordingly recommended the states to levy a duty of five percent on all such imports, for the use of the Confederation. To this Rhode Island, which, at that time, was one of the largest importing states, objected, and we have a full report of the remonstrance addressed by a committee of Congress to that state on that subject. [Footnote 2] And the discussions of the Congress of that day, as imperfectly as they have been preserved, are full of the subject of the injustice done by the states who had good seaports, by duties levied in those ports on foreign goods designed for states who had no such ports.

In this state of public feeling in this matter, the Constitutional Convention assembled.

Its very first grant of power to the new government about to be established, was to lay and collect imposts or duties on foreign goods imported into the country, and among its restraints upon the states was the corresponding one that they should lay no duties on imports or exports. It seems, however, from Mr. Madison's account of the debates, that while the necessity of vesting in Congress the power to levy duties on foreign goods was generally conceded, the right of the states to do so likewise was not given up without discussion, and was finally yielded with the qualification to which we have already referred, that the states might lay such duties with the assent of Congress. Mr. Madison moved that the words "nor lay imposts or duties on imports" be placed in

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that class of prohibitions which were absolute, instead of those which were dependent on the consent of Congress. His reason was that the states interested in this power (meaning those who had good seaports) by which they could tax the imports of their neighbors passing through their markets were a majority, and could gain the consent of Congress to the injury of New Jersey, North Carolina, and other non-importing states. But his motion failed. [Footnote 3] In the Convention of Virginia, called to adopt the Constitution, that distinguished expounder and defender of the instrument, so largely the work of his own hand, argued in support of the authority to lay direct taxes that without this power, a disproportion of burden would be imposed on the Southern states because, having fewer manufactures, they would consume more imports and pay more of the imposts. [Footnote 4] So, in defending the clause of the Constitution now under our consideration, he says:

"Some states export the produce of other states. Virginia exports the produce of North Carolina, Pennsylvania those of New Jersey and Delaware, and Rhode Island those of Connecticut and Massachusetts. The exporting states wished to retain the power of laying duties on exports to enable them to pay expenses incurred. The states whose produce was exported by other states were extremely jealous lest a contribution should be raised of them by the exporting states by laying heavy duties on their own commodities. If this clause be fully considered, it will be found to be more consistent with justice and equity than any other practicable mode, for if the states had the exclusive imposition of duties on exports, they might raise a heavy contribution of the other states for their own exclusive emoluments. [Footnote 5]"

Similar observation from the same source are found in the 42d number of the Federalist, but with more direct reference to the power to regulate commerce.

Governor Ellsworth, in opening the debate of the Connecticut Convention on the adoption of the Constitution, says:

"Our being tributary to our sister states is in consequence of

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the want of a federal system. The State of New York raises

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