Providence Bank v. Billings , 29 U.S. 514 ( 1830 )


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  • 29 U.S. 514 (____)
    4 Pet. 514

    THE PROVIDENCE BANK, PLAINTIFFS IN ERROR
    vs.
    ALPHEUS BILLINGS AND THOMAS G. PITTMAN.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    *517 The case was argued by Mr Whipple, for the plaintiffs in error; and by Mr Hazzard and Mr Jones, for the defendants.

    Mr Hazzard, for the defendants.

    *559 Mr Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

    This is a writ of error to a judgment rendered in the highest court for the state of Rhode Island, in an action of trespass brought by the plaintiff in error against the defendant.

    In November 1791 the legislature of Rhode Island grant-a charter of incorporation to certain individuals, who had associated themselves together for the purpose of forming a banking company. They are incorporated by the name of the "President, Directors, and Company of the Providence Bank;" and have the ordinary powers which are supposed to be necessary for the usual objects of such associations.

    In 1822 the legislature of Rhode Island passed "an act imposing a duty on licensed persons and others, and bodies corporate within the state;" in which, among other things, it is enacted that there shall be paid, for the use of the state, by each and every bank within the state, except the Bank of the United States, the sum of fifty cents on each and every thousand dollars of the capital stock actually paid in." This tax was afterwards augmented to one dollar and twenty-five cents.

    The Providence Bank, having determined to resist the payment of this tax, brought an action of trespass against the officers by whom a warrant of distress was issued against and served upon the property of the bank, in pursuance of the law. The defendants justify the taking set out in the declaration under the act of assembly imposing the tax; to which plea the plaintiffs demur, and assign for cause of demurrer that the act is repugnant to the constitution of the United States, inasmuch as it impairs the obligation of the contract created by their charter of incorporation. Judgment *560 was given by the court of common pleas in favour of the defendants; which judgment was, on appeal, confirmed by the supreme judicial court of the state: that judgment has been brought before this court by a writ of error.

    It has been settled that a contract entered into between a state and an individual, is as fully protected by the tenth section of the first article of the constitution, as a contract between two individuals; and it is not denied that a charter incorporating a bank is a contract. Is this contract impaired by taxing the banks of the state?

    This question is to be answered by the charter itself.

    It contains no stipulation promising exemption from taxation. The state, then, has made no express contract which has been impaired by the act of which the plaintiffs complain. No words have been found in the charter, which, in themselves, would justify the opinion that the power of taxation was in the view of either of the parties; and that an exemption of it was intended, though not expressed. The plaintiffs find great difficulty in showing that the charter contains a promise, either express or implied, not to tax the bank. The elaborate and ingenious argument which has been urged amounts, in substance, to this. The charter authorises the bank to employ its capital in banking transactions, for the benefit of the stockholders. It binds the state to permit these transactions for this object. Any law arresting directly the operations of the bank would violate this obligation, and would come within the prohibition of the constitution. But, as that cannot be done circuitously which may not be done directly, the charter restrains the state from passing any act which may indirectly destroy the profits of the bank. A power to tax the bank may unquestionably be carried to such an excess as to take all its profits, and still more than its profits for the use of the state; and consequently destroy the institution. Now, whatever may be the rule of expediency, the constitutionality of a measure depends, not on the degree of its exercise, but on its principle. A power therefore which may in effect destroy the charter, is inconsistent with it; and is impliedly renounced by granting it. Such a power cannot be exercised without impairing *561 the obligation of the contract. When pushed to its extreme point, or exercised in moderation, it is the same power, and is hostile to the rights granted by the charter. This is substantially the argument for the bank. The plaintiffs cite and rely on several sentiments expressed, on various occasions by this court, in support of these positions.

    The claim of the Providence Bank is certainly of the first impression. The power of taxing moneyed corporations has been frequently exercised; and has never before, so far as is known, been resisted. Its novelty, however, furnishes no conclusive argument against it.

    That the taxing power is of vital importance; that it is essential to the existence of government; are truths which it cannot be necessary to reaffirm. They are acknowledged and asserted by all. It would seem that the relinquishment of such a power is never to be assumed. We will not say that a state may not relinquish it; that a consideration sufficiently valuable to induce a partial release of it may not exist: but as the whole community is interested in retaining it undiminished; that community has a right to insist that its abandonment ought not to be presumed, in a case in which the deliberate purpose of the state to abandon it does not appear.

    The plaintiffs would give to this charter the same construction as if it contained a clause exempting the bank from taxation on its stock in trade. But can it be supposed that such a clause would not enlarge its privileges? They contend that it must be implied; because the power to tax may be so wielded as to defeat the purpose for which the charter was granted. And may not this be said with equal truth of other legislative powers? Does it not also apply with equal force to every incorporated company? A company may be incorporated for the purpose of trading in goods as well as trading in money. If the policy of the state should lead to the imposition of a tax on unincorporated companies, could those which might be incorporated claim an exemption, in virtue of a charter which does not indicate such an intention? The time may come when a duty may be imposed on *562 manufactures. Would an incorporated company be exempted from this duty, as the mere consequence of its charter?

    The great object of an incorporation is to bestow the character and properties of individuality on a collective and changing body of men. This capacity is always given to such a body. Any privileges which may exempt it from the burthens common to individuals, do not flow necessarily from the charter, but must be expressed in it, or they do not exist.

    If the power of taxation is inconsistent with the charter, because it may be so exercised as to destroy the object for which the charter is given; it is equally inconsistent with every other charter, because it is equally capable of working the destruction of the objects for which every other charter is given. If the grant of a power to trade in money to a given amount, implies an exemption of the stock in trade from taxation, because the tax may absorb all the profits; then the grant of any other thing implies the same exemption; for that thing may be taxed to an extent which will render it totally unprofitable to the grantee. Land, for example, has, in many, perhaps in all the states, been granted by government since the adoption of the constitution. This grant is a contract, the object of which is that the profits issuing from it shall enure to the benefit of the grantee. Yet the power of taxation may be carried so far as to absorb these profits. Does this impair the obligation of the contract? The idea is rejected by all; and the proposition appears so extravagant, that it is difficult to admit any resemblance in the cases. And yet if the proposition for which the plaintiffs contend be true, it carries us to this point. That proposition is, that a power which is in itself capable of being exerted to the total destruction of the grant, is inconsistent with the grant; and is therefore impliedly relinquished by the grantor, though the language of the instrument contains no allusion to the subject. If this be an abstract truth, it may be supposed universal. But it is not universal; and therefore its truth cannot be admitted, in these broad terms, in any case. We must look for the exemption in the language of the instrument; and if we do *563 not find it there, it would be going very far to insert it by construction.

    The power of legislation, and consequently of taxation, operates on all the persons and property belonging to the body politic. This is an original principle, which has its foundation in society itself. It is granted by all, for the benefit of all. It resides in government as a part of itself, and need not be reserved when property of any description, or the right to use it in any manner, is granted to individuals or corporate bodies. However absolute the right of an individual may be, it is still in the nature of that right, that it must bear a portion of the public burthens; and that portion must be determined by the legislature. This vital power may be abused; but the constitution of the United States was not intended to furnish the corrective for every abuse of power which may be committed by the state governments. The interest, wisdom, and justice of the representative body, and its relations with its constituents, furnish the only security, where there is no express contract, against unjust and excessive taxation; as well as against unwise legislation generally. This principle was laid down in the case of M'Cullough vs. The State of Maryland, and in Osborn et al. vs. The Bank of the United States. Both those cases, we think, proceeded on the admission that an incorporated bank, unless its charter shall express the exemption, is no more exempted from taxation, than an unincorporated company would be, carrying on the same business.

    The case of Fletcher vs. Peck has been cited; but in that case the legislature of Georgia passed an act to annul its grant. The case of the State of New Jersey vs. Wilson has been also mentioned; but in that case the stipulation exempting the land from taxation, was made in express words.

    The reasoning of the court in the case of M'Cullough vs. The State of Maryland has been applied to this case; but the court itself appears to have provided against this application. Its opinion in that case, as well as in Osborn et al. vs. The Bank of the United States, was founded, expressly, on the supremacy of the laws of congress, and the necessary consequence of that supremacy to exempt its instruments employed *564 in the execution of its powers, from the operation of any intefering power whatever. In reasoning on the argument that the power of taxation was not confined to the people and property of a state, but might be exercised on every object brought within its jurisdiction, this court admitted the truth of the proposition; and added, that "the power was an incident of sovereignty, and was co-extensive with that to which it was an incident. All powers, the court said, over which the sovereign power of a state extends, are subjects of taxation. The sovereignty of a state extends to every thing which exists by its own authority, or is introduced by its permission; but does it extend to those means which are employed by congress to carry into execution powers conferred on that body by the people of the United States? We think not.

    So in the case of Osborn vs. The Bank of the United States, the court said, "the argument" in favour of the right of the state to tax the bank, "supposes the corporation to have been originated for the management of an individual concern, to be founded upon contract between individuals, having private trade and private profit for its great end and principal object.

    If these premises were true, the conclusion drawn from them would be inevitable. This mere private corporation, engaged in its own business, would certainly be subject to the taxing power of the state as any individual would be."

    The court was certainly not discussing the question whether a tax imposed by a state on a bank chartered by itself, impaired the obligation of its contract; and these opinions are not conclusive as they would be had they been delivered in such a case: but they show that the question was not considered as doubtful, and that inferences drawn from general expressions pointed to a different subject cannot be correctly drawn.

    We have reflected seriously on this case, and are of opinion that the act of the legislature of Rhode Island, passed in 1822, imposing a duty on licensed persons and others, and bodies corporate within the state, does not impair the obligation of the contract created by the charter granted to the *565 plaintiffs in error. It is therefore the opinion of this court, that there is no error in the judgment of the supreme judicial court for the state of Rhode Island, affirming the judgment of the circuit court in this case; and the same is affirmed; and the cause is remanded to the said supreme judicial court, that its judgment may be finally entered.

    This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the supreme judicial court of the state of Rhode Island and Providence plantations, and was argued by counsel; on consideration whereof, it is ordered and adjudged by this court, that the judgment of the said supreme judicial court in this cause be, and the same is hereby affirmed, with costs.