The Original Compromise: What the Constitution's Framers Were Really Thinking

By David Brian Robertson | Go to book overview

15
Economic Authority

The delegates began to negotiate the scope of national power just as delegates were growing more wary of the policies the national government would pursue. Both broad and narrow nationalists agreed that the reconstituted national government required the power to tax and to manage money, credit, debt, commerce, land, and economic development. But these powers were double-edged. National officials could use this authority to favor one region or alliance of states and to harm others.

The delegates, then, tried to strengthen national powers selectively. Individual delegates sought stronger national powers they believed would be beneficial, and opposed granting the national powers that could harm vital interests. The Convention approved extensive taxing powers for the government, for example, but tried to make it difficult to use this power to benefit or harm any state or region. Most of the framers were determined to end the profligate currency and credit policies of the states and to boost the credit standing of the national government. The Convention strengthened national authority to pursue more conservative currency and credit policies and to restrict significantly the states’ authority in these areas. It delegated such controversial issues as the state debts, bankruptcy laws, and the distribution of public land to the new Congress and courts. Finally, the delegates refused explicitly to grant new powers to the national government to dig canals, build roads, charter corporations, or establish a national university.


Taxes and Their Limits

Taxes were the lifeblood of the new national government. As James Wilson pointed out, the government’s most basic tasks, including national defense and trade regulation, all depended on revenue.1 Pierce Butler viewed taxation as one of the “distinguished marks of Sovereignty.”2 The delegates agreed that the new government needed a much more reliable source of revenue than the requisitions

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