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to robert morris - Alexander Hamilton, The Works of Alexander Hamilton, (Federal Edition), vol. 9 
The Works of Alexander Hamilton, ed. Henry Cabot Lodge (Federal Edition) (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). In 12 vols. Vol. 9.
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to robert morris
August 13, 1782.
I promised you in former letters to give you a full view of the situation and temper of this State. I now sit down to execute that task.
You have already in your possession a pretty just picture of the State, drawn by the Legislature, perhaps too highly colored in some places, but just, and, in the main, true.
It is the opinion of the most sensible men with whom I converse, who are best acquainted with the circumstances of the State, and who are least disposed to exaggerate its distress as an excuse for inactivity, that its faculties for revenue are diminished at least two thirds.
It will not be difficult to conceive this when we consider that five out of the fourteen counties of which the State is composed, including the capital, are in the hands of the enemy; that two and part of a third have revolted; two others have been desolated the greater part by the ravages of the enemy and of our own troops, and the remaining four have more or less suffered partial injuries from the same causes. Adding the fragments of some to repair the losses of others, the efficient property, strength, and force of the State will consist in little more than four counties.
In the distribution of taxes before the war, the city of New York used to be rated at one third of the whole; but this was too high, owing probably to the prevailing of the country influence. Its proper proportion I should judge to have been about one fourth, which serves further to illustrate the probable decrease of the State.
Our population, indeed, is not diminished in the same degree, as many of the inhabitants of the dismembered and ruined counties, who have left their habitations, are dispersed through those which remain; and it would seem that the labor of the additional hands ought to ensure the culture and value of these. But there are many deductions to be made from this apparent advantage: the numbers that have recruited the British army; those that have been furnished to ours; the emigrations to Vermont and to the neighboring States, less harassed by the war, and affording better encouragements to industry, both which have been considerable.
Besides these circumstances, many of the fugitive families are a burthen for their substance upon the State. The fact is, labor is much dearer than before the war.
This State has certainly made, in the course of the war, great exertions, and, upon many occasions, of the most exhausting kind. This has sometimes happened from want of judgment; at others, from necessity. When the army, as has too often been the case, has been threatened with some fatal calamity—for want of provisions, forage, the means of transportation, etc.,—in consequence of pressing applications from the Commander-in-Chief, the Legislature have been obliged to have recourse to extraordinary expedients to answer the pressing emergency, which have both distressed and disgusted the people. There is no doubt that, with a prudent and systematic administration, the State might have rendered more benefit to the common cause, with less inconvenience to itself, than by all its forced efforts; but there, as everywhere else, we have wanted experience and knowledge. And, indeed, had this not been the case, every thing everywhere has been so radically wrong, that it was difficult, if not impossible, for any one State to be right.
The exposed situation of the frontier, and the frequent calls upon the inhabitants for personal service on each extremity, by interfering with industry, have contributed to impoverish the State and fatigue the people.
Deprived of foreign trade, our internal traffic is carried on upon the most disadvantageous terms. It divides itself into three branches: with the city of New York, with Jersey and Pennsylvania, and with New England.
That with New York consists chiefly of luxuries on one part and returns of specie on the other. I imagine we have taken goods from that place to the amount of near £30,000. The Legislature passed a severe law to prevent this intercourse, but what will laws avail against the ingenuity and intrepidity of avarice?
From Jersey and Pennsylvania we take about £30,000 more, and we pay almost entirely in cash.
From Massachusetts and other parts of New England we purchase to the amount of about £50,000, principally in tea and salt. (The articles of tea and salt alone cost this State the annual sum of £60,000.) We sell to these States to the value of about £30,000.
The immense land transportation, of which the chief part is carried on by the subjects of other States, is a vast incumbrance upon our trade.
The principal article we have to throw in the opposite scale is the expenditures of the army. Mr. Sands informs me that the contractors for the main army and West Point lay out in this State at the rate of about $60,000 a year; Mr. Duer, for these northern posts, about $30,000. If the Quartermaster-General expends as much more in his department, the whole will amount to about $180,000. I speak of what is paid for in specie, or such paper as answers the purpose of specie. These calculations cannot absolutely be relied on, because the data are necessarily uncertain, but they are the result of the best information I can obtain, and, if near the truth, prove that the general balance of trade is against us—a plain symptom of which is an extreme and universal scarcity of money.
The situation of the State with respect to its internal government is not more pleasing. Here we find the general disease which infects all our constitutions—an excess of popularity. There is no order that has a will of its own. The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit the people. In such a government there can be nothing but temporary expenditure, fickleness, and folly.
But the point of view in which this subject will be interesting to you is that which relates to our finances. I gave you, in a former letter, a sketch of our plan of taxation, but I will now be more particular.
The general principle of it is apparent, according to circumstances and abilities collectively considered. The ostensible reason for adopting this vague basis was a desire of equality. It was pretended that this could not be obtained so well by any fixed tariff of taxable property, as by leaving it to the discretion of persons chosen by the people themselves to deter mine the ability of each citizen. But perhaps the true reason was a desire to discriminate between the Whigs and Tories. This chimerical attempt at perfect equality has resulted in total inequality, or rather this narrow disposition to overburthen a particular class of citizens (living under the protection of the government) has been retorted upon the contrivers or their friends, wherever that class has been numerous enough to preponderate in the election of the officers who were to execute the law. The exterior figure a man makes, the decency and meanness of his manner of living, the personal friendships or dislikes of the assessors, have much more share in determining what individuals shall pay, than the proportion of property.
The Legislature first assesses or quotas the several counties. Here the evil begins—the members cabal and intrigue to throw the burthen off their respective constituents. Address and influence, more than considerations of real ability, prevail. A great deal of time is lost, and a great deal of expense incurred, before the juggle is ended and the necessary compromise made.
The supervisors, of whom there are upon an average sixteen in each county, meet at the notification of the county clerk, and assign their proportions to the subdivisions of the county, and, in the distribution, play over the same game which was played in the Legislature.
The assessors, assembled on a like notification, according to their fancies, determine the proportion of each individual; a list of which being made out and signed by the supervisors, is a warrant to the collectors. There are near an hundred upon an average in each country. The allowance to these officers has been various. It is now six shillings a day, besides expenses. In some cases they have been limited to a particular time for executing the business; but, in general, it is left to their discretion, and the greater part of them are not in a hurry to complete it, as they have a conpensation for their trouble and live better at the public charge than they are accustomed to do at their own. The consequence is not only delay but a heavy expense.
It now remains for the collectors to collect the tax, and it is the duty of the supervisors to see that they do it. Both these offices are elective as well as that of the assessor; and, of course, there is little disposition to risk the displeasure of those who elect. They have no motive of interest to stimulate them to their duty equivalent to the inconvenience of performing it. The collector is entitled to the trifling compensation of sometimes four, sometimes six pence, out of each pound he collects, and is liable to the trifling penalty of twenty or twenty-five pounds for neglect of duty. The supervisors have no interest at all in the collections, and it will not on this account appear extraordinary, that, with continual delinquencies in the collection, there has never been a single prosecution. As I observed on a former occasion, if the collector happens to be a zealous man and lives in a zealous neighborhood, the taxes are collected; if either of these requisites are wanting, the collection languishes or entirely fails.
When the taxes are collected they are paid to the county treasurer, an officer chosen by the supervisors. The collectors are responsible to him also; but as he is allowed only one fourth or one half per cent., he has no sufficient inducement to incur the odium of compelling them to do their duty.
The county treasurer pays what he receives in to the State treasurer, who has an annual salary of £300, and has nothing to do but to receive and pay out according to the appropriation of the Legislature.
Notwithstanding the obvious defects of this system; notwithstanding experience has shown it to be iniquitous and inefficient, and that all attempts to amend it without totally changing it are fruitless; notwithstanding there is a pretty general discontent from the inequality of the taxes, still ancient habits, ignorance, the spirit of the times, the opportunity afforded to some popular characters of screening themselves by intriguing with the assessors, have hitherto proved an overmatch for common sense and common justice, as well as the manifest advantage of the State and of the United States.
The temper of the State, which I shall now describe, may be considered under two heads—that of the rulers and that of the people.
The rulers are generally zealous in the common cause, though their zeal is oftentimes misdirected. They are jealous of their own power; but yet, as this State is the immediate theatre of the war, these apprehensions of danger, and an opinion that they are obliged to do more than their neighbors, make them very willing to part with power in favor of the Federal Government. This last opinion and an idea added to it, that they have no credit for their past exertions, has put them out of humor and indisposed many of them for future exertions. I have heard several assert that in the present situation of this State, nothing more ought to be expected than that it maintain its own government and keep up its quota of troops.
This sentiment, however, is as yet confined to few, but it is too palpable not to make proselytes.
The rulers of this State are attached to the alliance, as are Whigs generally. They have also great confidence in you personally, but pretty general exception has been taken to a certain letter of yours written, I believe, in the winter or spring. The idea imbibed is that it contains a reflection upon them for their past exertions. I have on every account combated this impression, which could not fail to have an ill effect, and I mention it to you with freedom, because it is essential you should know the temper of the States respecting yourself.
As to the people, in the early periods of the war, near one half of them were avowedly more attached to Great Britain than to their liberty, but the energy of the government has subdued all opposition. The State by different means has been purged of a large part of its malcontents; but there still remains, I dare say, a third, whose secret wishes are on the side of the enemy; the remainder sigh for peace, murmur at taxes, clamor at their rulers, change one incapable man for another more incapable, and, I fear, if left to themselves, would, too many of them, be willing to purchase peace at any price—not from inclination to Great Britain or disaffection to independence, but from mere supineness and avarice.
° The speculation of evils from the claims of Great Britain gives way to the pressure of inconveniences actually felt, and we required the event which has lately happened—the recognition of our independence by the Dutch—to give a new spring to the public hopes and the public passions. This has had a good effect, and if the Legislature can be brought to adopt a wise plan for its finances, we may put the people in better humor, and give a more regular and durable movement to the machine. The people of this State, as far as my observation goes, have as much firmness in their make and as much submission to government as those of any part of the Union. It remains for me to give you an explicit opinion of what is practicable for this State to do.
Even with a judicious plan of taxation I do not think the State can afford, or the people will bear, to pay more than £70,000 or £80,000 a year. In its entire and flourishing state, according to my mode of calculation it could not have exceeded £230,000 or £240,000; and reduced as it is, with the wheels of circulation so exceedingly clogged for want of commerce and a sufficient medium, more than I have said cannot be expected. Past experience will not authorize a more flattering conclusion. Out of this is to be deducted the expense of the interior administration and the money necessaries for the levies of men. The first amounts to about £15,000, as you will perceive by the inclosed slate; but I suppose the Legislature would choose to retain £20,000. The money hitherto yearly expended in recruits has amounted to between £20,000 and £30,000; but on a proper plan £10,000 might suffice. There would then remain £40,000 for your department.
But this is on a supposition of a change of system; for with the present I doubt there being paid into the Continental treasury one third of that sum. I am endeavoring to collect materials for greater certainty upon this subject. But the business of supplies has been so diversified, lodged in such a variety of independent hands, and so carelessly transacted, that it is hardly possible to get any tolerable idea of the gross and net product.
With the help of these materials I shall strive to convince the committee, when they meet, that a change of measures is essential; if they enter cordially into right views, we may succeed; but I confess I fear more than I hope.
I have taken every step in my power to procure the information you have desired in your letter of July 18th. The most material part of it, an account of the supplies furnished since March, ’80, has been committed to Col. Hay. I have written to him in pressing terms to accelerate the preparation.
You will perceive, sir, I have neither flattered the State nor encouraged high expectations. I thought it my duty to exhibit things as they are, not as they ought to be. I shall be sorry to give you an ill opinion of the State for want of equal candor in the representations of others; for, however disagreeable the reflection, I have too much reason to believe that the true picture of other States would be, in proportion to their circumstances, equally unpromising. All my inquiries and all that appears induce this opinion. I intend this letter in confidence to yourself, and therefore I endorse it private.
Before I conclude I will say a word on a point that possibly you could wish to be informed about. The contract up this way is executed generally to the satisfaction of the officers and soldiers, which is more meritorious in the contractor, as in all probability it will be to him a losing undertaking.1
[°]See page 280.
This long and interesting letter is now first printed entire from the Hamilton papers in the State Department. A small portion beginning at the sentence, “The speculation of evils,” marked thus †, [page 277] and continuing to the end, has been printed in the edition of 1850, vol. 1., 295.