Morgan v. Parham

Decision Date01 December 1872
Citation21 L.Ed. 303,16 Wall. 471,83 U.S. 471
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Alabama; the case being thus:

The Constitution ordains that

'Congress shall have power to regulate commerce between the States.'

An act of Congress passed December 31st, 1792,1 enacts that

'Every ship or vessel shall be registered by the collector of the district in which such ship or vessel shall belong at the time of her registry, and her port shall be that nearest to which her owner, husband, or acting and managing owner usually resides, and the name of the vessel and the port to which she shall so belong shall be painted on her stern, on a black ground in white letters, not less than three inches in length.'

The omission to designate the name 'and port to which she belongs' is made penal.

An act of February 18th, 1793,2 for enrolling and licensing vessels employed in the coasting trade, enacts thus:

'SECTION 3. That it shall and may be lawful for the collectors of the several districts to enrol and license any ship or vessel that may be registered, upon such registry being given up; or to register any ship or vessel that may be enrolled upon such enrolment and license being given up. And when any ship shall be in any other district than the one to which she belongs the collector of such district, on the application of the master or commander thereof, and upon his taking an oath or affirmation that according to his best knowledge and belief the property remains as expressed in the register or enrolment proposed to be given up, &c., shall make the exchanges aforesaid; but in every such case the collector, to whom the register or enrolment and license may be given up, shall transmit the same to the Register of the Treasury; and the register, or enrolment and license granted in lieu thereof, shall within ten days after the arrival of such ship or vessel within the district to which she belongs, be delivered to the collector of the said district, and be by him cancelled.'

This provision of the Constitution, and these acts being in force, the steamer 'Frances' was assessed in the years 1866 and 1867 as personal property in the city of Mobile, belonging to one Morgan. A tax was laid upon the vessel, and remaining unpaid, the same was seized by the collector of the city of Mobile. The owner, Morgan, brought an action of trespass in the court below against the collector for such seizure, and the collector justified by virtue of his tax warrant.

The facts upon which the question of the liability to taxation of the vessel depended, were these:

The Frances was brought to Mobile in 1865, and from that time until the trial in 1870, had been employed as a coasting steamer between Mobile and New Orleans. Before being brought to Mobile, the vessel was duly registered at the port of New York, under the ownership of the plaintiff, and the name of the vessel and her port of New York were then painted on her stern, according to the acts of Congress, and the same had ever since so remained. The plaintiff then was and since had remained a citizen of New York. The vessel then was the property of the plaintiff, and had continued to be his property from that time to the day of the trial.

In January, 1867, the vessel was regularly enrolled at the custom-house in Mobile by her master, as a coaster, and her license as a coasting vessel was renewed in the several years 1868 and 1869, and with other similar vessels constituted one of a daily line of steamers plying between Mobile and New Orleans. During this term the captain of the vessel had been a resident of Mobile, and the agent conducting the business of the vessels at Mobile was resident there, occupied an office there for such business, and employed and paid the persons who assisted him therein, but such agent was under the control of a superior agent residing in New Orleans, who employed and paid the captain and other officers of the vessel. A wharf and office in Mobile were occupied for the use of these vessels. The vessels were built at Wilmington for the domestic trade. They transported the mails, freight, and passengers between Mobile and New Orleans, and this business was extensive and profitable. Upon these facts the question arose, was this vessel subject to taxation as personal property under the laws of the State of Alabama?

The court held that the vessel was taxable under those laws, and gave judgment for the defendant. To review that judgment the present suit was brought.

Mr. P. Phillips, for the plaintiff in error, contended that the vessel was owned in New York, had not been blended with the commerce and business of Alabama, was engaged in the interstate coasting trade, and that her taxation by the authority of Alabama would be in violation of that provision of the Constitution of the United States which gives to Congress the regulation of commerce between the States.

Mr. C. W. Rapier (with whom was Mr. C. F. Moulton), contra, insisted that the vessel was personal property within the State of Alabama, and subject to the general rule of taxability.

Mr. Justice HUNT delivered the opinion of the court.

The fact that the vessel was physically within the limits of the city of Mobile, at the time the tax was levied, does not decide the question. Thus, if a traveller on that day had been passing through that city in his private carriage, or an emigrant with his worldly goods on a wagon, it is not contended that the property of either of these persons would be subject to taxation as property within the city. It is conceded by the respective counsel that it would not have been.

On the other hand this vessel, although a vehicle of commerce, was not exempt from taxation on that score. A steamboat or a post-coach engaged in a local business within a State may be subject to local taxation, although it carry the mail of the United States. The commerce between the States may not be interfered with by taxation or other interruption, but its instruments and vehicles may be.3 It is not, therefore, upon this principle that we are to decide the case. Nor does it fall within that range of cases of which The Steamship Company v. The Portwardens,4 and Gibbons v. Ogden,5 furnish illustrations. In each of those cases the taxation was upon a subject directly connected with the navigation of the public waters and with the commerce of the country. In the first case a statute had been passed requiring every vessel entering the harbor of New Orleans to pay five dollars to the port wardens, in addition to other fees, whether any service were performed or not. In the second case vessels navigating the waters of the Hudson River were required to take a license for that purpose from the State of New York. The imposition in this class of cases was a tax upon the use of the public waters of the country, and tended immediately to interfere with and to obstruct the commerce between the States. In the instance before us the tax was upon a vessel at the wharf. It was in this respect as if a tax had been laid upon lumber or cotton lying on the dock at Mobile.

This vessel was owned by and employed...

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