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Taxing Federalism

The Power to Tax and the Federalist Papers

The Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays designed to encourage ratification of the United States Constitution, provide important insight on the history of U.S. federal taxation. Published in late 1787 and early 1788, they illuminate key ideas behind America's constitutional creation, including the federal taxing power.

Written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, the Federalist Papers served a dual rhetorical purpose. On the one hand, they outlined the need for a strong central government. Essays stressed the weakness of the Articles of Confederation and explained the strength of the proposed Constitution. Simultaneously, however, the essays were intended to allay fears that the new federal government would become too powerful; while arguing that the Confederation government was entirely too weak, the authors insisted that its replacement would never grow too strong.

Federal revenue was a key concern for the authors of the federalist Papers, looming large in their critique of the Articles and their defense of the Constitution. At various points, they expounded on the efficacy and fairness of consumption taxes, specifically customs duties. They insisted, however, that the federal government be granted unlimited taxing powers, including the authority to assess domestic excise taxes. Debates over "direct" vs. "indirect" taxation received considerable attention, as did the constitutional requirement for tax uniformity.

The Tax History Project has reproduced the full text of nine of the Federalist Papers, including all substantive discussion of federal revenue powers. The links above will take you to the relevant documents.