Summer Video Roundup


Chief Justice John Marshall

Historical Spotlight is currently featuring a video series on the Supreme Court case of Hylton v. United States. Perhaps you are wondering why we chose such an obscure case to examine. Why couldn’t we have picked more commonly studied cases such as Marbury v. Madison, Dred Scott or Roe? The reason is because we believe that this often-overlooked case is one of the most important cases in Supreme Court history. It is actually the first case that involved judicial review. In Marbury v. Madison (1803), Chief Justice John Marshall and the the court reviewed a federal law and found it unconstitutional. However in Hylton (1796), the court reviewed a federal law and found it constitutional.

The Hylton case is also important because of the precedent that it set. In Hylton the court found that the only direct taxes were capitations and a federal tax on land. Though the Constitution does not explicitly state this or even infer it, the court interpreted it as so. And their interpretation has become law so to speak.

Since Hylton, many constitutional scholars have felt that the court ruled incorrectly. Why then was the ruling never challenged? The answer perhaps can be found in the evolving nature of the court itself. Prior to the Civil War, many believed – especially those from the Democratic party – that the court was only to act in advisory capacity concerning constitutional questions. In other words, the court was to offer an opinion on whether a law was constitutional or not. It did not possess absolute authority of interpretation. Interestingly, President Andrew Jackson did not believe that the court’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) had any authoritative standing at all. Rather, he believed that the court offered only one of four opinions, the others being the President’s, Congress’ and the State’s.

He said this about Supreme Court precedents,

President Andrew Jackson

President Andrew Jackson

 “It is maintained by the advocates of the bank that its constitutionality in all its features ought to be considered as settled by precedent and by the decision of the Supreme Court. To this conclusion I can not assent. Mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority, and should not be regarded as deciding questions of constitutional power except where the acquiescence of the people and the States can be considered as well settled. (see here)”

Following the Civil War, the Supreme Court has used the Hylton precedent to find constitutional a significant number of federal laws that have greatly expanded the scope of federal taxation.

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Most recently, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the case of National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) v. Sebelius (2012) relied on this precedent to find the individual mandate, a key piece of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), constitutional. Contrary to Justice Scalia’s contention that Obamacare might be a direct tax, Justice Roberts said it wasn’t because Hylton said that only capitations and land taxes were direct taxes. Supreme Court decisions from almost 220 years ago still matter a great deal.

Our first movie, Hylton v. United States Part 1: Federalist v. Antifederalists, concerns the wide national disagreement over the nature of a federal government prior to the signing of the United States Constitution. This disagreement became so contentious at times that many suspected that the Constitution might not even be ratified. We also explore the fears of antifederalists over the proposed taxation clauses in the Constitution, as well as James Madison’s attempts to assuage those fears.

Our next movie will be out within a month and will be entitled Hylton v. United States (1796) Part 2: Federal Taxation Expands. Here we will examine how Hylton was used by Roberts in NFIB, review the key facts in Hylton, and then explain the current federal government’s understanding of the constitutional direct and indirect clauses. Our following two movies will cover the ideological clash between two opposing views of federal taxation (limited v. expansive) and the justices’ decision in the case itself.

We hope these movies help our viewers better understand the nature of federal taxation. Although “what can the federal government do?” might be a superfluous question today, what is right and just for the federal government to do is never superfluous.

Thanks for watching and enjoy the rest of the summer!



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