In early June of 1794, Congress passed a “carriage tax” aimed at carriages used for business purposes. The tax was to be collected annually for as long as the carriage owner maintained ownership of the carriage. The original Constitution of the U.S. recognized a distinction between direct taxes and indirect taxes, but it did not establish definitive guidelines for determining whether a new tax is direct or indirect. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution, it was established that poll taxes (or “capitation” taxes) and land taxes were direct taxes, but there was no formal mechanism for sorting a given tax into either category. Hence, though the authority of Congress to pass the carriage tax was never brought into question, what category the tax should be assigned was unclear.
In Hylton v. United States (1796), a suit was brought to collect a debt which was derived from the carriage tax. Hylton (the defendant in the original case) claimed that the carriage tax statute was unconstitutional. Hylton reasoned that the carriage tax was a direct tax and because the statute did not follow the rule of apportionment the tax had to be struck down under the Constitution. At the time of the suit, Hylton was in possession of 125 carriages.
The justices of the Supreme Court – who all wrote their own opinion of the case – determined that the carriage tax was an indirect tax and that, consequently, Hylton was liable for the debt. The justices decided that there was no compelling reason to suppose that the carriage tax fell within the meaning of a direct tax as understood by the framers of the Constitution. The framers understood that poll taxes and taxes on land were “direct” taxes; this classification had a basis in the conditions present among the states at that time. Although the carriage tax may have been superficially dissimilar from other indirect taxes in some ways, the justices could not find that this level of dissimilarity warranted classification as a direct tax.
Hylton entered the case with one critical disadvantage: the practical difficulties of apportioning the carriage tax by population were such that classifying the tax as a direct tax would have led to absurd results. Carriage ownership varied greatly from state to state, and so the carriage tax would have imposed an unfair burden on certain states if it were apportioned as a direct tax. The federal government would have been compelled to adopt new and unusual measures in order to artificially correct the unfair burden created by such a tax. The justices all concurred that the unfair results and practical difficulties of apportionment provided sufficient grounds for classification as an indirect tax.
Because the carriage tax was a tax on personal property, the Hylton decision came to the fore nearly one hundred years after it was made during the case of Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. (1895). The Pollock case ruled that a tax on income from personal property (and real property) was a direct tax and must follow the rule of apportionment; this ruling effectively overturned the decision made in Hylton. Those who objected to the Pollock decision predicated their objection on the fact that the decision made the imposition of a federal income tax a near impossibility. Implementing a federal income tax which followed the apportionment rule would have been excessively burdensome for the federal government for a number of reasons. The sixteenth amendment was drafted in order to bypass the sort of practical difficulties associated with apportionment which was discussed in Hylton.
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