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FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution, Federalist #30
A Publius/Billthedrill Essay | 24 June 2010 | Publius & Billthedrill

Posted on 06/24/2010 7:20:26 AM PDT by Publius

Hamilton Returns to Taxation

After Brutus’ attack, Hamilton put Federalist #29 back in his desk drawer, put quill pen to hemp paper, and wrote the first of seven essays to refute his old colleague. The issue of defense could wait a few weeks; the issue of taxation could not.

Hamilton starts by laying the foundation of his case that the method of taxation available to the federal government was insufficient not only to its present needs but to the possibility of future war.

Federalist #30

Concerning the General Power of Taxation (Part 1 of 7)

Alexander Hamilton, 28 December 1787

1 To the People of the State of New York:

***

2 It has been already observed that the federal government ought to possess the power of providing for the support of the national forces, in which proposition was intended to be included the expense of raising troops, of building and equipping fleets, and all other expenses in any wise connected with military arrangements and operations.

3 But these are not the only objects to which the jurisdiction of the Union, in respect to revenue, must necessarily be empowered to extend.

4 It must embrace a provision for the support of the national civil list, for the payment of the national debts contracted or that may be contracted, and in general for all those matters which will call for disbursements out of the national treasury.

5 The conclusion is that there must be interwoven in the frame of the government a general power of taxation in one shape or another.

***

6 Money is, with propriety, considered as the vital principle of the body politic as that which sustains its life and motion, and enables it to perform its most essential functions.

7 A complete power, therefore, to procure a regular and adequate supply of it, as far as the resources of the community will permit, may be regarded as an indispensable ingredient in every constitution.

8 From a deficiency in this particular, one of two evils must ensue: either the people must be subjected to continual plunder as a substitute for a more eligible mode of supplying the public wants, or the government must sink into a fatal atrophy and in a short course of time perish.

***

9 In the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, the sovereign, though in other respects absolute master of the lives and fortunes of his subjects, has no right to impose a new tax.

10 The consequence is that he permits the bashars, or governors of provinces, to pillage the people without mercy and in turn squeezes out of them the sums of which he stands in need to satisfy his own exigencies and those of the state.

11 In America, from a like cause, the government of the Union has gradually dwindled into a state of decay approaching nearly to annihilation.

12 Who can doubt that the happiness of the people in both countries would be promoted by competent authorities in the proper hands to provide the revenues which the necessities of the public might require?

***

13 The present Confederation, feeble as it is intended to repose in the United States, [possesses] an unlimited power of providing for the pecuniary wants of the Union.

14 But proceeding upon an erroneous principle, it has been done in such a manner as entirely to have frustrated the intention.

15 Congress, by the Articles which compose that compact, as has already been stated, are authorized to ascertain and call for any sums of money necessary in their judgment to the service of the United States, and their requisitions, if conformable to the rule of apportionment, are in every constitutional sense obligatory upon the states.

16 These have no right to question the propriety of the demand; no discretion beyond that of devising the ways and means of furnishing the sums demanded.

17 But though this be strictly and truly the case, though the assumption of such a right would be an infringement of the Articles of Union, though it may seldom or never have been avowedly claimed, yet in practice it has been constantly exercised and would continue to be so as long as the revenues of the Confederacy should remain dependent on the intermediate agency of its members.

18 What the consequences of this system have been is within the knowledge of every man the least conversant in our public affairs and has been amply unfolded in different parts of these inquiries.

19 It is this which has chiefly contributed to reduce us to a situation which affords ample cause both of mortification to ourselves and of triumph to our enemies.

***

20 What remedy can there be for this situation but in a change of the system which has produced it in a change of the fallacious and delusive system of quotas and requisitions?

21 What substitute can there be imagined for this ignis fatuus in finance but that of permitting the national government to raise its own revenues by the ordinary methods of taxation authorized in every well ordered constitution of civil government?

22 Ingenious men may declaim with plausibility on any subject, but no human ingenuity can point out any other expedient to rescue us from the inconveniences and embarrassments naturally resulting from defective supplies of the public treasury.

***

23 The more intelligent adversaries of the new Constitution admit the force of this reasoning, but they qualify their admission by a distinction between what they call internal and external taxation.

24 The former they would reserve to the state governments; the latter, which they explain into commercial imposts, or rather duties on imported articles, they declare themselves willing to concede to the federal head.

25 This distinction, however, would violate the maxim of good sense and sound policy which dictates that every power ought to be in proportion to its object and would still leave the general government in a kind of tutelage to the state governments inconsistent with every idea of vigor or efficiency.

26 Who can pretend that commercial imposts are, or would be, alone equal to the present and future exigencies of the Union?

27 Taking into the account the existing debt, foreign and domestic, upon any plan of extinguishment which a man moderately impressed with the importance of public justice and public credit could approve, in addition to the establishments which all parties will acknowledge to be necessary, we could not reasonably flatter ourselves that this resource alone, upon the most improved scale, would even suffice for its present necessities.

28 Its future necessities admit not of calculation or limitation, and upon the principle more than once adverted to, the power of making provision for them as they arise, ought to be equally unconfined.

29 I believe it may be regarded as a position warranted by the history of mankind that in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources.

***

30 To say that deficiencies may be provided for by requisitions upon the states is on the one hand to acknowledge that this system cannot be depended upon, and on the other hand to depend upon it for every thing beyond a certain limit.

31 Those who have carefully attended to its vices and deformities, as they have been exhibited by experience or delineated in the course of these papers, must feel invincible repugnancy to trusting the national interests in any degree to its operation.

32 Its inevitable tendency, whenever it is brought into activity, must be to enfeeble the Union and sow the seeds of discord and contention between the federal head and its members, and between the members themselves.

33 Can it be expected that the deficiencies would be better supplied in this mode than the total wants of the Union have heretofore been supplied in the same mode?

34 It ought to be recollected that if less will be required from the states, they will have proportionably less means to answer the demand.

35 If the opinions of those who contend for the distinction, which has been mentioned, were to be received as evidence of truth, one would be led to conclude that there was some known point in the economy of national affairs at which it would be safe to stop and to say: Thus far the ends of public happiness will be promoted by supplying the wants of government, and all beyond this is unworthy of our care or anxiety.

36 How is it possible that a government half supplied and always necessitous can fulfill the purposes of its institution, can provide for the security, advance the prosperity, or support the reputation of the commonwealth?

37 How can it ever possess either energy or stability, dignity or credit, confidence at home or respectability abroad?

38 How can its administration be anything else than a succession of expedients temporizing, impotent, disgraceful?

39 How will it be able to avoid a frequent sacrifice of its engagements to immediate necessity?

40 How can it undertake or execute any liberal or enlarged plans of public good?

***

41 Let us attend to what would be the effects of this situation in the very first war in which we should happen to be engaged.

42 We will presume, for argument’s sake, that the revenue arising from the impost duties answers the purposes of a provision for the public debt and of a peace establishment for the Union.

43 Thus circumstanced, a war breaks out.

44 What would be the probable conduct of the government in such an emergency?

45 Taught by experience that proper dependence could not be placed on the success of requisitions, unable by its own authority to lay hold of fresh resources, and urged by considerations of national danger, would it not be driven to the expedient of diverting the funds already appropriated from their proper objects to the defense of the state?

46 It is not easy to see how a step of this kind could be avoided, and if it should be taken, it is evident that it would prove the destruction of public credit at the very moment that it was becoming essential to the public safety.

47 To imagine that at such a crisis credit might be dispensed with would be the extreme of infatuation.

48 In the modern system of war, nations the most wealthy are obliged to have recourse to large loans.

49 A country so little opulent as ours must feel this necessity in a much stronger degree.

50 But who would lend to a government that prefaced its overtures for borrowing by an act which demonstrated that no reliance could be placed on the steadiness of its measures for paying?

51 The loans it might be able to procure would be as limited in their extent as burdensome in their conditions.

52 They would be made upon the same principles that usurers commonly lend to bankrupt and fraudulent debtors, with a sparing hand and at enormous premiums.

***

53 It may perhaps be imagined that, from the scantiness of the resources of the country, the necessity of diverting the established funds in the case supposed would exist, though the national government should possess an unrestrained power of taxation.

54 But two considerations will serve to quiet all apprehension on this head: one is that we are sure the resources of the community in their full extent will be brought into activity for the benefit of the Union; the other is that whatever deficiencies there may be can without difficulty be supplied by loans.

***

55 The power of creating new funds upon new objects of taxation, by its own authority, would enable the national government to borrow as far as its necessities might require.

56 Foreigners, as well as the citizens of America, could then reasonably repose confidence in its engagements, but to depend upon a government that must itself depend upon thirteen other governments for the means of fulfilling its contracts, when once its situation is clearly understood, would require a degree of credulity not often to be met with in the pecuniary transactions of mankind and little reconcilable with the usual sharp-sightedness of avarice.

***

57 Reflections of this kind may have trifling weight with men who hope to see realized in America the halcyon scenes of the poetic or fabulous age, but to those who believe we are likely to experience a common portion of the vicissitudes and calamities which have fallen to the lot of other nations, they must appear entitled to serious attention.

58 Such men must behold the actual situation of their country with painful solicitude and deprecate the evils which ambition or revenge might with too much facility inflict upon it.

Hamilton’s Critique

Hamilton has turned suddenly to meet Brutus’ attack in the latter’s #6 with an agility that suggests both the impact of that attack, and that Hamilton had long thought out his line of reply. For the essays that follow are no work of feverish late night brainstorming but show the measured cadences of long deliberation.

Inasmuch as there will be no fewer than seven of these, the reader need not emulate the haste with which they met the eyes of the New York reading public, but should take a moment to consider the economic world within which all of these men had to function in order to make sense of precisely from where, and whom, some of these ideas came.

Economics was very much a nascent science at the period of this writing. Hamilton was no academic economist because there were nearly none of those; the leading economists of the day, David Hume and Adam Smith, were philosophers by academic specialty. Smith had published his seminal Wealth of Nations in 1776, and it is clear from Hamilton’s writings that he was intimately familiar with that remarkable work, even if he was not entirely in agreement with its main argument: that free market economics provided benefits superior to the mercantilist economics that had informed British foreign policy. The latter, with their insistence that tariffs be instituted to ensure that domestic manufacturers were able to provide a net exporting status for their country, was very much in Hamilton’s own policies as well. This was probably a function of his own mercantile antecedents, the Dutch and British traders who had dominated under mercantilist policies the world in which he grew up.

Hamilton was in favor of tariffs for that reason. If such policies were necessary for the protection of established industries such as the British textile manufacturers, surely, he reasoned, the protection of infant American industries from deliberately destructive pricing on the part of their competitors was something an infant nation could hardly do without. Secondly, and more in keeping with Hamilton’s established arguments, they would provide the only dependable source of revenue for the new government of a country fated to be a net importer of goods for the foreseeable future. These positions will be examined in greater detail as his series on taxation develops.

At first, however, his emphasis is on taxation as the source of revenue for national defense (3). In this the reader sees not merely a smooth transition from his previous essays but a real reflection of Hamilton’s priorities. These were not, after all, formed in some salon or academic hall. To understand this, a brief review of the dynamic world in which he was struggling to shape a new government may be helpful.

France had looked at the abyss and had paused, horrified at the notion of a government so ancient and honorable being submerged in the rapidly rising waters of bankruptcy. In the year 1776, into that turbulence of a failing French government came one Jacques Necker, Swiss by birth and an ex-director of the French East Indian Company. Necker was in everything but title the French Minister of Finance, a title he could not formally assume due to his Protestant faith. The latter posed problems more significant than title – his principle struggle was the reformation of French tax policies that exempted both the aristocracy and the Church clerics. These practices denied the French government a source of revenue that was nearly fatal at the time and did prove fatal in the end. Tax-farming ensured that the people who were taxed were bitterly resentful against both classes who were not – and who would pay for that resentment with their heads before the century was out.

By 1781 France had taken out no less than half a million pounds sterling in loans, largely to finance the War of Independence in America, which Necker had recommended in respect to foreign policy rather than finance. Necker had by then been blamed by the nobles for the situation – Marie Antoinette was a particularly vocal critic – and had replied in the form of the first report of national finances to the French people, an innovation that granted him the permanent status of defender of the people against the Crown. It was, unfortunately, a work of considerable mendacity, hiding the enormous interest France was obliged to pay on that debt. It could not hide it forever, and by the time of the writing of the Federalist Papers, Necker had been dismissed for enough time both to uncover that debt and, ironically, to convince the French public that he was the only one in France capable of rescuing French finances from it.

Hamilton was aware of all of this. After all, the finances of the Confederation Congress had come to nearly the same pass. It had, in order to finance the war, committed financial assets it did not possess and could not collect from the constituent states. Worse, those states that did attempt to address the matter did so simply by printing currency, those veterans being paid in it finding that it did not discharge the debts they had incurred while fighting for the independence of the country. The result was Shays’ Rebellion.

But the matter was worse than merely impoverished veterans. The direct cost of the War of Independence to America was an estimated $135 million in the currency of the day (Hession and Sardy, Ascent to Affluence), fully half of which was yet to be discharged, and the current revenues of the federal government were less than one third of the interest on the debt. America was looking at the same abyss that gaped before the French and Hamilton knew it. The currency was derided by the popular phrase “not worth a Continental,” and American notes were, in the words of Professor John Egger, “the junk bonds of their day.”

This was the world in which Hamilton was trying to make sense of tax policy. Choices would have to be made. Policies chosen by Louis XVI would plunge his country into ten years of bloody chaos; policies chosen by the new American government risked despotism by contrast. There was an abyss, in truth, on either side.

It is not, therefore, an entirely abrupt break with the general course of the Federalist Papers for Hamilton to transition in this direction, albeit propelled in good measure by the toe of Brutus’ boot. Hamilton repeats his previous complaint, at 13 through 19, that the current system was quite simply broken, and that it was now up to the new government to begin not anew, but with the impediment of the pieces it had to pick up along the way.

20 What remedy can there be for this situation but in a change of the system which has produced it in a change of the fallacious and delusive system of quotas and requisitions?

He continues at 21 that the current system is ignis fatuus, a will-o-the-wisp, that pursuing it further is to risk destruction, and that its remedy is to be found by returning to the “ordinary” method of a government capable of levying taxation directly. The experiment of the Confederation is over, says Hamilton, and it is a failure. His opponents have reluctantly agreed.

23 The more intelligent adversaries of the new Constitution admit the force of this reasoning, but they qualify their admission by a distinction between what they call internal and external taxation.

It is a false distinction, and Hamilton will have none of the middle ground it purports to have identified; the federal government is not to be restricted to the revenues resulting from imposts, that is, taxes on imported goods.

26 Who can pretend that commercial imposts are, or would be, alone equal to the present and future exigencies of the Union?

They were, to be sure, some 85% of federal revenues between this writing and Hamilton’s death in 1804. But the remedy for this, according to Hamilton, was to be a federal government that was essentially unlimited in the ability to tax anything at all (28). The excuse was exigency; the cause for it the very survival of the nation. But underneath the impassioned words it was, in every way, a blank check.

Hamilton now makes a curious point, fodder for endless vigorous discussion in any historical society, but in this particular venue, deadly in its implication.

29 I believe it may be regarded as a position warranted by the history of mankind that in the usual progress of things, the necessities of a nation, in every stage of its existence, will be found at least equal to its resources.

Hence the eternal temptation toward deficit spending, toward borrowing against the future for the needs of the moment lest there be no future at all. Both the French government and the Confederation Congress had done precisely that. Far from condemnation, Hamilton’s is a gritty appreciation that there often is no choice, but the alternative he offers is one of no limits at all for the government based on the acknowledgment that no limits may be foreseen for the threat. True, a government “half supplied and always necessitous” (36) must, in the end, fail in its mission. But in peacetime this is an unlimited license to spend and to tax to make up for it, or worse, to spend and not to tax, leaving the economy on the short road to wreckage.

But it is not of peacetime that Hamilton is now speaking. It is of a time of emergency (44), and a government faced with it that is also limited to impost revenue streams (42) must find recourse to the borrowing of money to finance its defense.

48 In the modern system of war, nations the most wealthy are obliged to have recourse to large loans.

49 A country so little opulent as ours must feel this necessity in a much stronger degree.

A government whose policies had led its creditors to conclude that it was unlikely to pay off will find itself short of lenders (50, 52), its credit shot, its bonds worthless and incapable of raising the revenue vital to meet the emergency, or if so capable, only at a ruinous rate. That was, in fact, precisely the situation that both the French and American governments now faced. It was the sort of quandary that theorists might dismiss but that practical men must face.

57 Reflections of this kind may have trifling weight with men who hope to see realized in America the halcyon scenes of the poetic or fabulous age, but to those who believe we are likely to experience a common portion of the vicissitudes and calamities which have fallen to the lot of other nations, they must appear entitled to serious attention.

Hamilton’s case so far is that the present government’s ability to gather revenue suitable to its needs had proven inadequate for systemic reasons, and that the new system must be structured such that it be unhindered by the restrictions placed on its predecessor that had so nearly brought it to ruin as a result of an emergency that had forced it to contract for debts it was prevented from meeting. The probability that this might result in a runaway government, always justifying a rapacious tax policy by a fictional threat on the horizon, was to Hamilton a risk more distant than the very present threat.

Discussion Topics



TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Free Republic
KEYWORDS: federalist; federalistpapers; freeperbookclub

1 posted on 06/24/2010 7:20:32 AM PDT by Publius
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To: 14themunny; 21stCenturion; 300magnum; A Strict Constructionist; abigail2; AdvisorB; Aggie Mama; ...
Ping! The thread has been posted.

Earlier threads:

FReeper Book Club: The Debate over the Constitution
5 Oct 1787, Centinel #1
6 Oct 1787, James Wilson’s Speech at the State House
8 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #1
9 Oct 1787, Federal Farmer #2
18 Oct 1787, Brutus #1
22 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #1
27 Oct 1787, John DeWitt #2
27 Oct 1787, Federalist #1
31 Oct 1787, Federalist #2
3 Nov 1787, Federalist #3
5 Nov 1787, John DeWitt #3
7 Nov 1787, Federalist #4
10 Nov 1787, Federalist #5
14 Nov 1787, Federalist #6
15 Nov 1787, Federalist #7
20 Nov 1787, Federalist #8
21 Nov 1787, Federalist #9
23 Nov 1787, Federalist #10
24 Nov 1787, Federalist #11
27 Nov 1787, Federalist #12
27 Nov 1787, Cato #5
28 Nov 1787, Federalist #13
29 Nov 1787, Brutus #4
30 Nov 1787, Federalist #14
1 Dec 1787, Federalist #15
4 Dec 1787, Federalist #16
5 Dec 1787, Federalist #17
7 Dec 1787, Federalist #18
8 Dec 1787, Federalist #19
11 Dec 1787, Federalist #20
12 Dec 1787, Federalist #21
14 Dec 1787, Federalist #22
18 Dec 1787, Federalist #23
18 Dec 1787, Address of the Pennsylvania Minority
19 Dec 1787, Federalist #24
21 Dec 1787, Federalist #25
22 Dec 1787, Federalist #26
25 Dec 1787, Federalist #27
26 Dec 1787, Federalist #28
27 Dec 1787, Brutus #6

2 posted on 06/24/2010 7:22:12 AM PDT by Publius (Unless the Constitution is followed, it is simply a piece of paper.)
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To: Publius
What substitute can there be imagined for this ignis fatuus in finance but that of permitting the national government to raise its own revenues

Of course, Hamilton, Madison, and Washington all already knew before Philly that they wanted a complete national government. They took advantage of the weaknesses in the articles to make it so.

But this question raised by Hamilton is an interesting one. Are you aware of any direct answer to this question? Was it truly a choice of unenforced requisitions or direct taxation? It seems there ought to have been a way to enforce state requisitions. Then again, it seems that when the delegates met in Philly, ostensibly to amend the articles, the power of direct taxation was already tacitly approved as a needed change. Could we have had direct taxation within a federal system, or did that necessitate a national system?

3 posted on 06/24/2010 7:39:56 AM PDT by Huck (Q: How can you tell a party is in the minority? A: They're complaining about the deficit.)
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To: Pride in the USA

ping


4 posted on 06/24/2010 7:41:39 AM PDT by Pride in the USA
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To: Publius

Hamilton’s defense of big government isn’t getting a lot of hits.


5 posted on 06/24/2010 10:44:36 AM PDT by Huck (Q: How can you tell a party is in the minority? A: They're complaining about the deficit.)
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To: Huck
It seems there ought to have been a way to enforce state requisitions.

It was impossible to enforce them even under the Constitution, which is why the tariff issue festered for so long.

6 posted on 06/24/2010 2:00:06 PM PDT by Publius (Unless the Constitution is followed, it is simply a piece of paper.)
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To: Huck
Hamilton insisted repeatedly that the only means of enforcing the debts apportioned to the states was open military coercion, there being no court in which the matter might receive a binding judgment. His argument that the federal government must be able to deal directly with civilians ran along the same lines. It is possible he was considering things from the British point of view; with the exception of representation in Parliament for the colonists, that is pretty much what they attempted, the enforcement of tax policy with military arms.

And when even that did not work, it was the end of government. Hamilton is beginning to sound (in the next one as well) as if he considers that the natural, and only, remedy for abuses of government on the federal level. The corollary to that is that anything the government can get away with short of evoking open violence is, if not exactly fair game, at least imaginable. It doesn't seem to me too cynical to describe federal taxation policies in precisely that way - anything they can get away with short of open violence. And I consider myself a moderate on the issue.

7 posted on 06/24/2010 6:23:40 PM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: Huck; Publius; Billthedrill
Could we have had direct taxation within a federal system, or did that necessitate a national system?

Of course we can! All we need do is insist on having it! (http://www.fairtax.org).

Even the statist Hamilton never envisioned anything like the communist inspired mess we have today!

"It is a signal advantage of taxes on articles of consumption that they contain in their own nature a security against excess. They prescribe their own limit, which cannot be exceeded without defeating the end proposed - that is, an extension of the revenue. When applied to this object, the saying is as just as it is witty that, "in political arithmetic, two and two do not always make four." If duties are too high, they lessen the consumption; the collection is eluded; and the product to the treasury is not so great as when they are confined within proper and moderate bounds. This forms a complete barrier against any material oppression of the citizens by taxes of this class, and is itself a natural limitation of the power of imposing them.

Excerpted from Federalist #21 by Hamilton himself.

Jefferson, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith all concured with that reasoning apparently.

"A capitation is more natural to slavery; a duty on merchandise is more natural to liberty, by reason it has not so direct a relation to the person."

From Thomas Jefferson's Commonplace Book.

“It is fairer to tax people on what they extract from the economy, as roughly measured by their consumption, than to tax them on what they produce for the economy, as roughly measured by their income.”

Thomas Hobbes

“The tax which each individual is bound to pay ought to be certain, and not arbitrary. The time of payment, the manner of payment, the quantity to be paid, ought all to be clear and plain to the contributor, and to every other person, so that the tax payer is not put in the power of the tax gatherer.”

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

8 posted on 06/25/2010 5:47:25 AM PDT by Bigun ("It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere." Voltaire)
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To: Huck
The hypocrisy of arch-antifederalist Henry at the Virginia ratifying convention was remarkable.

While he predicted abuses of the letter of the Constitution, he simultaneously advocated that states abuse the letter of the Articles.

Article VIII of the Articles granted Congress the power to determine the amount of taxes due from each state, in proportion to the value of lands.

Henry vehemently maintained state authority to decide how much to pay Congress, in direct violation of the Articles.

9 posted on 06/25/2010 4:59:30 PM PDT by Jacquerie (Ronaldus Magnus - The last American President.)
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To: Billthedrill

The Virginia House of Delegates in 1784 considered a resolution to force Congress to compel the delinquent states to pay their respective quotas, by means of an armed force. At that time the US was borrowing money to pay interest on war time loans.


10 posted on 06/25/2010 5:05:24 PM PDT by Jacquerie (It is happening here.)
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To: Huck

Of course, all attending delegates to the convention wished to save their country. They did.


11 posted on 06/25/2010 5:11:36 PM PDT by Jacquerie (It is happening here.)
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