Front Page Titles (by Subject) GALLATIN TO J. R. INGERSOLL, M.C. - The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 2
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GALLATIN TO J. R. INGERSOLL, M.C. - Albert Gallatin, The Writings of Albert Gallatin, vol. 2 
The Writings of Albert Gallatin, ed. Henry Adams (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1879). 3 vols.
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GALLATIN TO J. R. INGERSOLL, M.C.
New York, March 25, 1846.
I received yesterday your letter of the 21st, in which you invite me to communicate my views on the tariff.
I have not attended to that subject since the year 1832, and have not the documents necessary to form an opinion on the details of the bill proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury. I have seen in the newspapers the bill and his annual report at the opening of the session, but not the documents annexed to it. At the time when the Act of 1842 was passed, the renewal of the minimum provision, and the exaggerated duties on sugar, iron, woollen goods, and some other items, appeared to me highly objectionable. But with the practical operation of that tariff I am but very imperfectly acquainted.
I have not been out of my house since the month of November, and I have no one to assist me in seeking and selecting, in public or private libraries, the requisite documents. Finally, I could not, if I had them, undertake at this time the arduous labor of arranging (and occasionally correcting) all the facts, not only found in official documents, but including also many respecting commerce and manufactures, which must be derived from private information. It is only from a thorough investigation of all the well-ascertained facts that can be obtained that I ever was able to draw any legitimate inferences. It may be otherwise with men more sagacious or bolder than I am, but if I have ever produced anything perspicuous and useful, it has uniformly been the result of long experience or of arduous and persevering labor. On the present occasion, I could only allude to some general principles, which alone are not sufficient to solve in a satisfactory manner the important problem of a permanent tariff.
I was, as far as I know, the earliest public advocate in America of the principles of free trade, and I have seen no cause to change my opinion, which has, on the contrary, been corroborated by the experience and the discussions, at home or abroad, of the sixty years which have since elapsed.
I agree, therefore, with the Secretary of the Treasury in considering a revenue tariff as a proper general basis; and he has defined it in a felicitous manner. But it is also necessary that the proposed tariff should not only receive the approbation of the present Congress, but also be such as may secure as far as practicable its permanency; for perpetual changes and uncertainty are amongst the most serious obstacles to the progressive development of national enterprise and industry. This end cannot be attained without some mutual concessions; and, for the sake of harmony and permanency, I would be willing to concede to a certain extent. Yet if the average rate of duty which the revenue requires should be from twenty to twenty-five [per] cent., I really think that manufactures which require a larger than that incidental protection must generally be considered as unnatural, forced, hot-house products.
There may be some few exceptions, respecting which I can only repeat that I am not sufficiently informed. You have, however, pointed out in the proposed bill two subjects which appeared to you exceptionable; and as they had struck me in the same way, I will confine my observations to these.
The first is, the principle adopted by the Secretary of the Treasury to convert all specific duties into duties ad valorem.
It is certainly necessary for a full understanding of the subject to ascertain the value of the various species of merchandise imported. It is the most important element in forming an estimate of the proper rate of duties under any tariff whatever: it is exclusively the basis of that which has been called a horizontal tariff. But so different are the views taken of the same subject by different minds, that there had been to this day a constant effort on the part of Congress and of those who administered the financial department to substitute whenever it was practicable specific for duties ad valorem. The only reason I can perceive for the proposed change is that the specific duty can hardly ever correspond with precision with the ad valorem duty for which it is substituted. For in almost all cases it is impossible to distinguish every variety of the same article so as to impose on each variety a distinct duty proportionate to its value; and, moreover, the same identical article varies in value from year to year, according to the variations in supply and demand. This objection may have some weight with those who contend for perfect uniformity, and who, in order to be consistent, should insist on laying the same rate of duty, according to its value, not only on every article now charged with a specific duty, but also on all those which are now imported free of duty. When this principle is abandoned and when various rates of duty are still proposed as heretofore, it seems to me that the objection loses almost all its force, and that, the principle of uniformity being set aside, an approximation is all that is necessary; that, for instance, the same duty may, without the slightest practical inconvenience, be laid on brown sugar, whether it comes from Cuba or Jamaica, from the East or from the West Indies, and notwithstanding any permanent or fluctuating difference in the prime cost of either.
March 28. I had gone thus far when I received last night the report of the Secretary of the Treasury of 3d December, 1845, together with the accompanying papers and tables, a huge volume of nine hundred and fifty-seven pages. This document would alone have been sufficient to satisfy me, had I not been already fully sensible of it, that a thorough investigation of the subject is a task altogether beyond my strength. You cannot expect anything from me but some desultory observations. I place more confidence in the opinion I entertain respecting the propriety of specific duties than in any other in which I may differ from the Secretary of the Treasury, and will now resume the subject where I left.
It must be admitted that, considered only as an abstract proposition, duties ad valorem come nearer ideal perfection than specific duties. I contend at the same time that, whenever the nature of the article taxed is such that a specific duty may be laid which will on an average be an approximation of the rate of duty ad valorem intended to be imposed on such article, the want of perfect precision is but a subordinate consideration when compared with the great practical advantages of specific duties.
Amongst the articles now subject to specific duties there is none apparently less susceptible of that form than manufactures of silk. A single glance at the statement of imports for 1845 (D, page 55), in which the weight of those not specified is 763,463 pounds, and their value 7,791,285 dollars, shows that a duty of one dollar per pound is nearly equal to one of ten per cent. on the value; and we find accordingly in the same line of the same table that the present duty of two dollars and a half on the pound is equivalent to a duty of 24.27 per cent. on the value. In the statement of the commerce of the United States for the year ending 30th June, 1844, the weight of the same description of goods is stated at 634,426 pounds, and their value at 6,208,239 dollars, which makes the duty of two dollars and a half per pound equivalent to one of 25.55 per cent. on the value. The average of both makes the same duty per pound equivalent to one of 24.91 per cent. on the value. If, therefore, it be intended to lay a duty of 35 per cent. on the value of those manufactures, a specific duty of three dollars and a half per pound will be nearly its equivalent. Two objections may be made to this. The first, and, as I think, the only one which has any weight, is that the various manufactures of silk charged with a uniform specific duty do differ in value; and if the difference was considerable the objection would be fatal. But with respect to silk, the value of the raw material is so great, and in all silk tissues the difference in the labor bestowed on their various species so comparatively small, that it may for all practical purposes be neglected. Silk stockings are not subject to the same rule, and should be charged with a distinct specific duty.
The other objection, derived from the difference of the value of the same article in different years, appears to me not only to be groundless, but, on the contrary, to afford an argument in favor of the constant specific duty. Those fluctuations are not the consequence of an alteration in the prime cost or intrinsic value of the article, but of the variations in the annual crops of agricultural products, or of other incidental causes affecting the ratio of supply to actual demand. A duty ad valorem varying with those fluctuations is somewhat analogous to the sliding scale of the British corn duty, but its operation is the reverse. In England the duty was lessened in proportion as the price of the corn rose higher. A duty ad valorem, whether on corn, sugar, or cloth, becomes higher in proportion as the article, though of the same quality and intrinsic value, becomes dearer. In proportion as the article becomes dearer, the consumer is less able to purchase it, and in proportion to this lessened ability, he is charged with a higher duty. In this respect the constant average specific duty is decidedly preferable to that which varies according to the fluctuations of the market price of the article. Viewing the subject under all its aspects, the practical benefit derived from the conversion of specific into ad valorem duties appears to be doubtful, at all events very inconsiderable.
On the other hand, specific duties are laid not on value but on quantity, requiring, for a faithful execution, nothing more than to ascertain the amount, weight, or measurement of the article, an operation equally easy and certain, and by which all the delays, expenses, difficulties, and litigations attending a correct valuation are avoided. But the great and incalculable advantage of specific duties is that neither invoices nor oaths are required, and that all attempts to defraud the revenue, unless by direct smuggling, become impossible. It is undoubtedly for that reason that they have been everywhere preferred whenever it was practicable to substitute them for duties on the value. At the time when the rate of duties in the United States did not, with few exceptions, exceed fifteen per cent., the attempts to deceive by false invoices were very rare; they have become more frequent in the same ratio as that of the increased rate of duties. The substitution of cash duties for the terms of credit formerly allowed has had the effect of increasing considerably the importation of merchandise by foreign houses proper, meaning thereby those established in Europe and having only an agency in the United States. Amongst these there are undoubtedly many honorable exceptions, but the same respect for the laws cannot be expected from foreigners as from citizens, nor can, in many foreign countries, the same reliance be placed on oaths as in the United States. This observation applies with peculiar force to custom-house oaths; and we find accordingly that they are generally either not required at all or disregarded.
I may here be permitted to observe that the frequency of oaths administered without due solemnity or on trivial occasions, or when the party interested is compelled to swear in his own case, has a most fatal tendency. This might be brought as a strong additional argument against the present system of valuation; but it appears to me that the custom-house oaths may now and should be altogether dispensed with. Since, according to the present regulations, the goods are appraised, at least in all doubtful cases, without regard to such oaths, why should these be required at all? The original invoices are one of the elements by which the appraisers are guided in valuing merchandise; and it seems sufficient for that purpose that such invoices should be delivered to them. I am under the impression that in England the right reserved by government to take the merchandise at the price stated in the invoice, with a certain addition per cent., has been found an efficient check against attempts to deceive.
On looking at the last statement in the documents accompanying the Secretary’s report, which gives the annual amount of the gross and net revenue and of the expenses of collection for the years 1821 to 1845, I was astonished at the great increase of those expenses. Comparing the period of the eight years 1822 to 1829 with that of seven years and a half, 1st January, 1838, to 30th June, 1845, we have the following results:
Comparing these two periods, the positive increase of the annual expenses of collection is near nine hundred thousand dollars, and the increase of the ratio of those expenses to the net revenue is as 1 to 2.41. The most correct way of comparing the amount of business done in the custom-houses at different times appears, however, to be by adding for each period the aggregate amount of imports to that of foreign goods reexported. For as no duties are raised on domestic exports, the estimate of their value occupies comparatively but a short time. It appears, by the document N annexed to the Secretary’s report, that this amount was nearly equal in the two periods of three years each of 1805 to 1807 and of 1835 to 1837. These, together with the corresponding expenses of collection taken from the official documents, are as follows:
Thus we find that, for transacting about the same mass of business, the positive annual increase of expenses is eight hundred thousand dollars, and that the ratio of expense to business has, within the same period of thirty years, increased at the rate of 1 to 2.43.
I am far from ascribing the whole of that increase to the present system of valuation and appraisement. Two other causes have had a much more powerful effect in producing that result. The first is the general and constant tendency of every department and branch of the government to enlarge the scale of expenditure with which it is connected. This is most strongly exhibited by the chiefs of bureaus and other similar subordinate officers, who never see or think of more than one single object; but it is visible everywhere, in the contingent expenses of Congress and others of a civil nature as well as in those of the military and naval departments. The Secretary of the Treasury, on whom devolves the task of devising means sufficient to defray the whole national expenditure, may be an exception; but he is powerless unless sustained by the President and by Congress; and the preceding statements show a great increase of expense in that branch which is under his immediate control.
The other general course to which I have alluded is the abuse of patronage, the system of political rotation and proscription applied to clerks and to the most subordinate officers, which, as it originates in the thirst for offices, cannot supply the appetite of the applicants without increasing the number of offices. Still, a certain portion of the increased expenditure incident to the collection of the revenue must be ascribed to the rigorous system of appraisement rendered necessary by an exaggerated tariff. And this is an additional argument in favor of specific duties, which, so far as they may be applied, lessen in the same proportion the expenses of collection.
Viewing the subject under all its aspects, I would say that a general system of duties ad valorem may appear most convenient to the lawgiver, inasmuch as he has nothing more to do in that case than to decide on the rate of duty to be imposed on each species of merchandise. The substitution of specific duties requires considerable additional labor in order to ascertain the species of goods to which they may be applied and the proper equivalent for the duty to which such goods would be subject if this was laid according to their respective value; and I have no doubt that the specific duties now laid require in many instances modifications and corrections. But, on the other hand, after that labor shall have been performed and the law rendered as perfect as the nature of the case will admit, it appears to me, for the reasons which have been stated, that for all practical purposes, in reference to a faithful execution of the laws and to justice, specific duties should be preferred to those founded on a valuation of the article in all the cases where they may be properly applied. I may be permitted to add that, limited as is my intercourse with the world, I am assured that fair traders, engaged in the importation of certain descriptions of goods, declare that they cannot stand the double competition of underrated invoices and direct smuggling.
30th March. I will, if I can, address you another letter on the subject of goods which may be imported free of duty. But you may perceive from the deficiencies and desultory tenor of the preceding observations that I am neither prepared nor able to treat the subject in a manner satisfactory to me or useful to the public. Such imperfect and vague suggestions are not worth the labor they cost me. I pray you to accept, &c.