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Increasingly frequent calls for a wealth tax in some form highlight the importance of understanding whether such a tax would be considered an unconstitutional “direct tax” if not apportioned according to population. The definition of direct tax was left deliberately vague at the Constitutional Convention, and consequently its meaning has been shaped through battles between the opposing political philosophies represented by Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton and his allies prioritized an energetic national government with taxing powers adequate to support its functions and unite the states; had great respect for tradition, precedent, and practical experience; and preferred a broad mode of constitutional interpretation that showed strong deference to Congress. Jefferson and his allies prized individual liberty above all and viewed the national government as the chief threat to liberty. Accordingly, Jeffersonians wanted strict limits on the national government’s taxing powers; supported the rights and powers of state governments as a buffer between individuals and the national government; and wanted the Supreme Court to act as a bulwark for individual rights by strictly interpreting the Constitution and exercising judicial supremacy over Congress. I trace the key Supreme Court cases interpreting the Direct Tax clause and show that these Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian beliefs consistently appeared in and shaped the Court’s opinions. The Hamiltonian vs. Jeffersonian contest is far from settled and will surely play a role in deciding the fate of any future wealth tax.

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This document was originally published in Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal by University of Southern California, Gould School of Law. Copyright restrictions may apply.

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