The Curious Case of the Green Tomato and the Tax Collector

What a nineteenth century U.S. Supreme Court case over taxes on a bushel of green tomatoes tells us about truth in an era of fraying reality.

A tomato might be a fruit in a horticulture textbook. But on the docks of western Manhattan? Well there it is most definitely a vegetable. (Photo by Mary Gober)

The Rise of John Nix, the International Merchant

John Nix, a New Yorker, was “broad-minded, and clear visioned.” In 1839, he established John Nix & Co., the first merchant firm, buying and selling fruits and vegetables from farms on the East Coast. He spent decades building his business not just in New York, but across the United States.

Washington Market, circa 1880s, where John Nix set up shop.

Congress and the Half-Loaf Tomato Tax

In the early 1880s, Congress argued over the terms of a new tariff bill meant to reduce exorbitant taxes on foreign good — the lingering effect of a protectionist United States after the Civil War. The bill’s critics called it “half-loaf,” and lobbed various uncouth 1800s insults at it. “Better than nothing” and “at least a beginning” was the best political spin offered.

The Arrival Of Green Tomatoes Stateside

Nix was fine with all of this, except the last part. After three years of paying the tax collector, Nix renewed his protest, this time to the tax collector. In the Spring of 1886, a Nix & Co. steamer floated into New York Harbor. It was full of green tomatoes from Bermuda. The collector classified the tomatoes as “vegetables in their natural state” subject to the 10% tax.

To The United States Supreme Court

Convinced that the judge got it wrong, Nix appealed to the Supreme Court. The wheels of justice ground slowly — even back then. It took seven years from the time the green tomatoes hit the docks to get to the Court. But once Nix was there, it did not take long for the Court to show him the exit.

The End for John Nix

John Nix died in 1895, three years after his trip to the Court. After his death, Nix & Co. ended up in the Supreme Court once more in a different case. It lost that one too. Still Nix’s business survived for decades longer, and celebrated its hundred-year anniversary. Good wishes were sent by President Roosevelt’s secretary and the governor of New York.

Tomatoes, Information, And The War For Reality

Nix has left two things in his wake. One is a vegetarian restaurant named Nix off Union Square (of course) that I’m sure has some nod to Nix on the back of the menu… because why not I guess? It’s New York and bars and restaurants are, often, the only remembrances of what things were.

Media Lawyer. Adjunct Professor/Mass Media Law at Fordham University School of Law.

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