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being held unconstitutional in the case of Pollock v. Farmers' Loan and Trust Company, 157 U. S. 429. After the foregoing review of such taxes, the opinion continues :)
Thus looking over the whole field, and considering death duties in the order in which we have reviewed them, that is, in the Roman and ancient law, in that of modern France, Germany and other continental countries, in England and those of her colonies where such laws have been enacted, in the legislation of the United States and the several States of the Union, the following appears: Although different modes of assessing such duties prevail, and although they have different accidental names, such as probate duties, stamp duties, taxes on the transaction, or the act of passing of an estate or a succession, legacy taxes, estate taxes, or privilege taxes, nevertheless tax laws of this nature in all countries rest in their essence upon the principle that death is the generating source from which the particular taxing power takes its being, and that it is the power to transmit, or the transmission from the dead to the living, on which such taxes are more immediately rested.
Having ascertained the nature of death duties, the first question which arises is this: Can the Congress of the United States levy a tax of that character? The proposition that it cannot rests upon the assumption that, since the transmission of property by death is exclusively subject to the regulating authority of the several States, therefore, the levy by Congress of a tax on inheritances or legacies, in any form, is beyond the power of Congress, and is an interference by the National Government with a matter which falls alone within the reach of State legislation. It is to be remarked that this proposition denies to Congress the right to tax a subjectmatter which was conceded to be within the scope of its power very early in the history of the government. The Act of 1797, which ordained legacy taxes, was adopted at a time when the founders of our government and framers of our Constitution were actively participating in public affairs, thus giving a practical construction to the Constitution which they had helped to establish. Even the then members of the Congress who had not been delegates to the convention which framed the Constitution must have had a keen appreciation of the influences which had shaped the Constitution and the restrictions which it embodied, since all questions which related to the Constitution and its adoption must have been, at that early date, vividly impressed on their minds. It would, under these conditions, be indeed surprising if a tax should have been levied without question upon objects deemed to be beyond the grasp of Congress because exclusively within State authority. It is, moreover, worthy of remark that similar taxes have at other periods and for a considerable time been enforced; and, although their constitutionality was assailed on other grounds held unsound by this court, the question of the want of authority of Congress to levy a tax on inheritances and legacies was never urged against the acts in question.
(The opinion then deals with the subject matter of the tax and the property in particular affected by the Act, as follows:)
On the very threshold, the theory that the tax is not on particular legacies or distributive shares passing upon a death, but is on the whole amount of the personal property of the deceased, is rebutted by the heading which describes what is taxed, not as the estates of deceased persons, but as “legacies and distributive shares of personal property.” This, whilst not conclusive, is proper to be considered in interpreting the statute, when ambiguity exists and a literal interpretation will work out wrong or injury.
The opening words of section 29 may, for clearness, be thus arranged :
“That any person or persons having in charge or trust, as administrators, executors or trustees, any legacies or distributive shares arising from personal property
passing, after the passage of this act, from any person possessed of such property, either by will or by the intestate laws of any State or Territory shall be, and hereby are, made subject to a duty or tax, to be paid to the United States, as follows:—that is to say", etc.
Thus collocated, the statute clearly imposes the duty on the particular legacies or distributive shares, and not on the whole personal estate. It does not say that the tax is levied on the personal estate left by the deceased person, but it is imposed on legacies or distributive shares arising from such property. This is made clearer by considering that in the very same section the tax is described as being upon any interest which may have been "transferred by deed, grant, bargain, sale, or gift, made or intended to take effect in possession or enjoyment after the death of the grantor, bargainor, to any person or persons", etc. That is to say, whilst the law places the duty on any legacy or distributive share passing by death, it puts a like burden on gifts which may have been made in contemplation of death and otherwise than by last will and testament.
Following the paragraph from which the foregoing has been quoted the statute makes five distinct classes or enumerations whereby the rate of the tax is varied, that is, it is made more or less, depending upon the relationship, or want of relationship of the legatee or distributee to the deceased. But this enumeration can only be explained upon the hypothesis that the law intended to impose a greater or less tax upon a legatee or distributee, arising from his degree of relationship or his heing a stranger in blood to the deceased. Thus it cannot be doubted that, in assessing the tax the position of each separate legatee or distributee must be taken into view in order to ascertain the primary rate which the statute establishes. (The court after discussion reaches the result that the amount of each particular legacy or share and not the entire personal estate of a decedent is the aniount on which the tax is imposed, and so determines the particular rate of the tax which is progressive from a low rate on legacies amounting to $10,000 to a high rate on legacies exceeding $1,000,000. Thus the mode
in which the tax was computed by the assessor upon the entire bulk of the estate of over two millions of dollars was held to be erroneous by this Court.)
The precise meaning of the law being thus determined, the question whether the tax which it imposes is direct, and hence subject to the requirement of apportionment, arises for consideration. That death duties, generally, have been from the beginning in all countries considered as different from taxes levied on property, real or personal, directly on account of the ownership and possession thereof, is demonstrated by the review which we have previously made. It has also been established by what we have heretofore said, that such taxes, almost from the beginning of our national life, have been treated as duties, and not as direct taxes. they concern the passing of property by death, for if there was no property to transmit, there would be nothing upon which the tax levied on the occasion of death could be computed. This legislative and administrative view of such taxes has been directly upheld by this court. In Scholey v. Rew, 23 Wall, 349, to which we have heretofore referred, the question presented was the constitutionality of the provisions of the act of 1864, imposing a succession duty as to real estate. The assertion was that the duty was repugnant to the Constitution, because it was a direct tax and had not been apportioned. The tax was decided to be constitutional. The court said (p. 346):
"But it is clear that the tax or duty levied by the act under consideration is not a direct tax within the meaning of either of these provisions. Instead of that it is plainly an excise tax or duty, authorized by section 8 of article 1, which vests the power in Congress to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare."
Concluding then that the tax under consideration is not direct within the meaning of the Constitution, but, on the contrary, is a duty or excise, we are brought to consider the question of uniformity.
The contention is that because the statute exempts legacies and distributive shares in personal property below $10,000, because it classifies the rate of tax according to the relationship or absence of the relationship of the taker to the deceased, and provides for a rate progressing by the amount of the legacy or share, therefore the tax is repugnant to that portion of the first clause of section 8 of article 1 of the Constitution, which provides that “duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States."
The argument to the contrary, whilst conceding that the tax devised by the statute does not fulfil the requirement of equality and uniformity, as those words are construed when found in state constitutions, asserts that it does not thereby follow that the taxes in question are repugnant to the Consitution of the United States, since the provision in the Constitution, that “duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States," it is in
sisted, has a different meaning from the expression "equal and uniform,” found in state constitutions. In order to decide these respective contentions it becomes at the outset necessary to accurately define the theories upon which they rest.
On the one side, the proposition is that the command that duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States relates to the inherent and intrinsic character of the tax; that it contemplates the operation of the tax upon the property of the individual taxpayer, and exacts that when an impost, duty, or excise is levied, it shall operate precisely in the same manner upon all individuals; that is to say, the proposition is that "uniform throughout the United States" commands that excises, duties, and imposts, when levied, shall be equal and uniform in their operation upon persons and property in the sense of the meaning of the words equal and uniform, as now found in the constitutions of most of the states of the Union. The contrary construction is this: That the words “uniform throughout the United States” do not relate to the inherent character of the tax as respects its operation on individuals, but simply requires that whatever plan or method Congress adopts for laying the tax in question, the same plan and the same method must be made operative throughout the United States; that is to say, that wherever a subject is taxed anywhere, the same must be taxed everywhere throughout the United States, and at the same rate. The two contentions then may be summarized by saying that the one asserts that the Constitution prohibits the levy of any duty, impost or excise which is not intrinsically equal and uniform in its operations upon indviduals, and the other that the power of Congress in levying the taxes in question is by the terms of the Constitution restrained only by the requirement that such taxes be geographically uniform.
Considering the text, it is apparent that if the word "uniform" means “equal and uniform” in the sense now asserted by the opponents of the tax, the words "throughout the United States, are deprived of all real significance, and sustaining the contention must hence lead to a disregard of the elementary canon of construction which requires that effect be given to each word of the Constitution.
The proceedings of the Continental Congress also make it clear that the words "uniform throughout the United States" which were afterwards inserted in the Constitution of the United States, had, prior to its adoption, been frequently used, and always with reference purely to a geographical uniformity and as synonymous with the expression "to operate generally throughout the United States." The foregoing situation so thoroughly permeated all the proceedings of the Continental Congress that we might well rest content with their mere statement. We shall, however, make a few references on the subject.
Thus it is apparent that the expression “uniform throughout the United States” was at that time considered as purely geographical, as being synonymous with the expression "general operation through
out the United States" and that no thought of restricting Congress to intrinsic uniformity obtained, since the powers recommended were absolutely in conflict with such theory.
In the convention which framed the Constitution the same argument was used without success, and, as we have seen, the only ground upon which the striking out of the words “and equal" after the word “uniform,” in the Constitution, can be reasonably explained, is that it was done to prevent the implication that the duties, imposts, and excises which were to be uniform throughout the United States were to be placed upon rights equally existing in the several states. To now adopt the proposition relied on would be virtually, then, to nullify the action of the convention, and would relegate the taxing power of Congress to the impotent condition in which it was during the confederation.
Lastly, it is urged that the progressive rate feature of the statute is so repugnant to fundamental principles of equality and justice that the law should be held to be void, even although it transgresses no express limitation in the Constitution. Without intimating any opinion as to the existence of a right in the courts to exercise the power which is thus invoked, it is apparent that the argument as to the enormity of the tax is without merit. It was disposed of in Magoun v. Illinois Trust & Sav. Bank, 170 U. S. 293.
The review which we have made exhibits the fact that taxes imposed with reference to the ability of the person upon whom the burden is placed to bear the same have been levied from the foundation of the government. So, also, some authoritative thinkers, and a number of economic writers, contend that a progressive tax is more just and equal than a proportional one. In the absence of constitutional limitation, the question whether it is or is not is legislative, and not judicial. The grave consequences which it is asserted must arise in the future if the right to levy a progressive tax be recognized involves in its ultimate aspect the mere assertion that free and representative government is a failure, and that the grossest abuses of power are foreshadowed unless the courts usurp a purely legislative function. If a case should ever arise, where an arbitrary and confiscatory exaction is imposed bearing the guise of a progressive or any other form of tax, it will be time enough to consider whether the judicial power can afford a remedy by applying inherent and fundamental principles for the protection of the individual, even though there be no express authority in the Constitution to do so. That the law which we have construed affords no ground for the contention that the tax imposed is arbitrary and confiscatory is obvious.
It follows from the foregoing opinion that the court below erred in denying all relief, and that it should have held the plaintiff entitled to recover so much of the tax as resulted from taxing legacies not exceeding $10,000, and from increasing the tax rate with reference to the whole amount of the personal estate of the deceased from which the legacies or distributive shares were derived. For these reasons the judgment below must be reversed, and the