Hylton v. US (1796)


Hylton v. United States :: 3 U.S. 171 (1796) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that answered questions about the laws on direct taxes. In the case, a tax on personal use carriages was in question. If the tax be a direct tax, it must be apportioned properly as stated in article 1, section 2. The seriatim opinions presented by the justices decreed that the tax was not direct, ergo it did not have to meet apportionment requirements. This was an important case because it solidified what a direct tax could be and was the first case to apply judicial review.

First Timeline


Hylton v. US is one of the more obscured cases in United States history, though one of the most important for setting the precedent of future cases to come. Hylton v. US was, in essence, an argument about what could be taxed directly by the United States government. It is made clear in the constitution that a capitation tax is a direct tax. However, the constitution does not define whether there could possibly be other types of direct taxes because of the purposely vague context laid within. A bit more clarity was given on this issue during this case. Daniel Hylton believed a duty set on his personal use carriages was a direct tax and needed to be apportioned as prescribed by the constitution. The apportionment clause in article 1, section 2 states “that representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the states according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and including Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons.” (Justia) This means if a tax is deemed direct, it must be equally distributed through out the union by population in the separate states. This was the heart of the argument: could other things be considered direct taxes and, if so, would they have to be apportioned as deemed in article 1, section 2? This was one of the first cases to be heard by the supreme court and was an important precedent for judicial review.

Procedural History

On the sixth of June, 1794, Congress issued “a tax on carriages for the conveyance of persons, kept for the use of the owner.” In May of 1795, A district attorney of the United States pursued an action of debt to recover duties not paid by one, Mr. Daniel Hylton. The defendant pleaded nil debet to the duty stating that the law was unconstitutional and, thus, void. The supreme court ruled in seriatim opinion, with all agreeing that the tax itself was sufficient in a constitutional scope with a few differences in the Justices’ reasoning.


  • Is a tax upon carriages a direct tax?
  • What does it mean for an indirect tax to be “uniform” as required by Article I?


The issue presented to the Supreme Court was whether the passenger carriage tax, enacted by a congressional act which had not been apportioned among the states, was a direct tax. If it were a direct tax, then the tax would have been deemed unconstitutional. The Supreme Court unanimously held that the passenger carriage tax was simply not a direct tax. However, prior to 1801 the court was allowed to deliver something called a Seriatim Opinion. In courts containing multiple judges, these judges were allowed to express their own separate opinions rather than one judge speaking the opinion of the whole court. This is the case for Hylton vs. US where the Supreme Court judges delivered separate seriatim opinions. Chief Justice Ellsworth, Justice Cushing, Justices Samuel Chase, William Paterson, James Wilson, and James Iredell were the six judges sitting on the court at the time. Out of the six, only 4 gave seriatim opinions on the case. Justice Cushing was ill during oral arguments and felt unprepared to give an opinion and Justice Ellsworth was only being sworn in at the time. Though a divided court was expected, this was not the case. All of the given seriatim opinions were similar, which gave way for a unanimous decision that affirmed the lower Virginia circuit courts decision that the law was constitutional.

Majority Opinion

The case included several seriatim opinions. Thus, there is no majority opinion. The fact that a capitation tax is a direct tax is clearly parsed in the constitution, but, due to this case and the justice’s opinions within, it was also made clear that a tax on land was a direct tax. The justices held through their opinions that the tax on carriages was not a direct tax due to it being a tax on neither of these things. Thus, the tax did not have to follow apportionment requirements stated in Article 1, Section 2.

Full Text of Opinions

Significance / Impact

The significance of Hylton V. US had an important impact on both judicial review and on direct tax laws. Not a decade after this decision, this case was used as precedent in Marbury v. Madison to justify the court’s use of judicial review. Though the format of judicial review has changed over the centuries, the idea that a court can refrain from reviewing a case is directly linked back to Hylton v. US. As this was the first case with a question of what a direct tax was, it is considered as a stepping stone for all subsequent cases pertaining to the matter. In the case of Pacific Insurance Co. vs Soule, Hylton v. US was used as precedent on the issue of direct tax over insurance companies. Congress passed acts that taxed insurance companies to foot the bill after the civil war. Justice Swayne, who wrote the opinion of the court, observed that apportionment would lead to uneven results, which demonstrated that the taxes in question were not direct taxes. This argument can be seen in many other tax related suits. More famously, Hylton v. US was used as precedent in Pollock v Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. As it was made clear in Hylton v. US, a tax on land is a direct tax. If this is true than a tax on income from land is still a direct tax and thus must be apportioned. The sixteenth amendment also was affected by Hylton v. US. Before the sixteenth amendment, taxes on personal property or income had to be on a specific kind of item or income such as carriages or annuity taxes. The sixteenth amendment laid this to rest, as was stated in the amendment, “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.” (Dixler)


Second Timeline

Constitutional Provisions

  • Article 1 section 2 of the Constitution states that “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
  • Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution states that “No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in Proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken.

Government Law Under Review

In 1794, Congress passed a law to tax carriages used for passenger transportation.

Important Precedents

Due to this being the first Supreme Court case to tackle the direct tax issue, there were no precedents.

Important Subsequent Cases

Web Resources

“Hylton v United States.” Oyez. Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech, n.d. June 29, 2016.  https://www.oyez.org/cases/1789-1850/3us171 .

  • Provides facts of the case, the question of the case which is, “Did Congress violate the Constitution and go beyond its taxing and spending powers in implementing the tax on carriages?” and the conclusion of what was decided.

Hylton v. United States. 3 U.S. 3 Dall.171 171 1796. 4 Feb.1976. Web. 8 Jul. 2016. https://www.armstrongeconomics.com/research/rule-of-law/hylton-v-united-states-3-u-s-171-1796/.

  • Provides full text of case syllabus as well as introduce the two appointed deciding factors in the case. Giving an overview of the impact of the case.

Dixler, Alan. Tax History Project: Direct Taxes Under the Constitution: A Review of the Precedents, 2003. Web. 20 Jul 2016. http://www.taxhistory.org/

  • Alan Dixler provides a history of tax in the form of chronological supreme court cases.

Academic Books, Articles and Law Reviews

Wickham, J. “The substance of an argument in the case of the carriage duties: Delivered before the Circuit Court of the United States, in Virginia, May term,” Richmond: 1795. 8 July.2016.

Frankel, R., “Before Marbury: Hylton V. United States the Origins of Judicial Review”. Journal of Supreme Court History.Vol.28 Issue 1, p1-13.13p. Historical Period: 1794 to 1803. DOI: 10.1111/1540-5818.00052. , Database: America: History & Life. 2003. 29 June 2016.


Summer 2016: Sylvia Mensah, Cassandra Woods, Leah Williams, Andrew Reeves

Tasks for Future Contributor

To Future Contributors please help find more information to add to the summary and subsequent cases, which would explain more in depth the impact of the case. This case was truly a landmark but often gets overshadowed by Marbury v. Madison, so help us help it shine!