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first view, the question of power is an open one, and can be decided without the embarrassment attending the other, arising from the practice of the government. Although frequently and strenuously attempted, the power, to this extent, has never been exercised by the government in a single instance. It does not, in my opinion, possess it; and no bill, therefore, which admits it, can receive my official sanction.
But, in the other view of the power, the question is differently situated. The ground taken at an early period of the government was, " that, whenever money has been raised by the general authority, and is to be applied to a particular measure, a question arises, whether a particular measure be within the enumerated authorities vested in Congress. If it be, the money requisite for it may be applied to it; if not, no such application can be made.” The document in which this principle was first advanced is of deservedly high authority, and should be held in grateful remembrance for its immediate agency in rescuing the country from much existing abuse, and for its conservative effect upon some of the most valuable principles of the constitution. The symmetry and purity of the government would doubtless have been better preserved if this restriction of the power of appropriation could have been maintained without weakening its ability to fulfil the general objects of its institution an effect so likely to attend its admission, notwithstanding its apparent fitness, that every subsequent administration of the government, embracing a period of thirty out of forty-two years of its existence, has adopted a more enlarged construction of the power. It is not my purpose to detain you by a minute recital of the acts which sustain this assertion, but it is proper that I should notice some of the most prominent, in order that the reflections which they suggest to my mind may be better understood.
In the administration of Mr. Jefferson, we have two examples of the exercise of the right of appropriation, which, in the considerations that led to their adoption, and in their effects upon the public mind, have had a greater agency in marking the character of the power than any subsequent events. I allude to the payment of fifteen
millions of dollars for the purchase of Louisiana, and to the original appropriation for the construction of the Cumberland road; the latter act deriving much weight from the acquiescence and approbation of the three most powerful of the original members of the confederacy, expressed through their respective legislatures. Although the circumstances of the latter case may be such as to deprive so much of it as relates to the actual construction of the road, of the force of an obligatory exposition of the constitution, it must nevertheless be admitted that so far as the mere appropriation of money is concerned, they present the principle in its most imposing aspect. No less than twenty-three different laws have been passed through all the forms of the constitution, appropriating upwards of two millions and a half dollars out of the national treasury in support of that improvement, with the approbation of every President of the United States, including my predecessor, since its commencement.
Independently of the sanction giving appropriations for the Cumberland and other roads and objects, under this power, the administration of Mr. Madison was characterized by an act which furnishes the strongest evidence of its extent. A bill was passed through both houses of Congress, and presented for his approval," setting apart and pledging certain funds for constructing roads and canals, and improving the navigation of watercourses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several states, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defence.” Regarding the bill as asserting a power in the federal government to construct roads and canals within the limits of the states in which they were made, he objected to its passage, on the ground of its unconstitutionality, declaring that the assent of the respective states, in the mode provided by the bill, could not confer the power in question; that the only cases in which the consent and cession of particular states can extend the power of Congress, are those specified and provided for in the constitution; and superadding these avowals, his opinion that a restriction of the power provide for the common defence and general welfare” to cases which are to be provided for by the expenditure of money; would still leave within the legislative power of Congress all the great and most important measures of government, money being the ordinary and necessary means of carrying them into execution. I have not been able to consider these declarations in any other point of view than as a concession that the right of appropriation is not limited by the power to carry into effect the measure for which the money is asked, as was formerly contended.
The views of Mr. Monroe upon this subject were not left to inference. During his administration, a bill was passed through both houses of Congress, conferring the jurisdiction, and prescribing the mode by which the federal government should exercise it, in the case of the Cumberland road. He returned it, with objections to its passage, and, in assigning them, took occasion to say, that in the early stages of the government, he had inclined to the construction that it had no right to expend money except in the performance of acts authorized by the other specific grants of power, according to a strict construction of them; but that, on further reflection and observation, his mind had undergone a change; that his opinion then
was, “ that Congress have an unlimited power to raise money, and that in its appropriation they have a discretionary power, restricted by the duty to appropriate to purposes of common defence, and of general, not local ; national, not state benefit;” and this was avowed to be the governing principle through the residue of his administration. The views of the last administration are of such recent date as to render a particular reference to them unnecessary. It is well known that the appropriating power, to the utmost extent which had been claimed for it in relation to internal improvements, was fully recognized and exercised by it.
This brief reference to known facts will be sufficient to show the difficulty, if not impracticability, of bringing back the operations of the government to the construction of the constitution set up in 1798, assuming that to be its true reading, in relation to the power under consideration; thus giving an admonitory proof of the force of in
plication, and the necessity of guarding the constitution with sleepless vigilance against the authority of precedents which have not the sanction of its most plainly-defined powers. For, although it is the duty of all to look to that sacred instrument, instead of the statute-book; to repudiate, at all times, encroachments upon its spirit, which are too apt to be effected by the conjuncture of peculiar and facilitating circumstances; it is not less true that the public good and the nature of our political institutions require that individual differences should yield to a well-settled acquiescence of the people and confederated authorities, in particular constructions of the constitution on doubtful points. Not to concede this much to the spirit of our institutions, would impair their stability, and defeat the objects of the constitution itself.
The bill before me does not call for a more definite opinion upon the particular circumstances which will warrant appropriations of money by Congress, to aid works of internal improvement; for, although the extension of the power to apply money beyond that of carrying into effect the object for which it is appropriated, has, as we have seen, been long claimed and exercised by the federal government, yet such grants have always been professedly under the control of the general principle, that the works which might be thus aided, should be “ of a genral, not local.; national, not státe character.” A disregard of this distinction would of necessity lead to the subversion of the federal system. That even this is an unsafe one, arbitrary in its nature, and liable consequently to great abuses, is too obvious to require the confirmation of experience. It is, however, sufficiently definitive and imperative to my mind to forbid my approbation of any bill having the character of the one under consideration. I have given to its provisions all the reflection demanded by a just regard for the interests of those of our fellowcitizens who have desired its passage, and by the respect which is due to a coördinate branch of the government; but I am not able to view it in any other light than as a measure of purely local character ; or, if it can be considered national, that no further distinction between the appropriate duties of the general and state governments need be attempted; for there can be no local interest that may not with equal propriety be denominated national. It has no connection with any established system of improvements; is exclusively within the limits of a state, starting at a point on the Ohio River, and running out sixty miles to an interior town; and even so far as the state is interested, conferring partial, instead of general advantages.
Considering the magnitude and importance of the power, and the embarrassments to which, from the very nature of the thing, its exercise must necessarily be subjected, the real friends of internal improvement ought not to be willing to confide it to accident and chance. What is properly national in its character or otherwise, is an inquiry which is often difficult of solution. The appropriations of one year, for an object which is considered national, may be rendered nugatory by the refusal of a succeeding Congress to continue the work, on the ground that it is local. No aid can be derived from the intervention of corporations. The question regards the character of the work, not that of those by whom it is to be accomplished. Notwithstanding the union of the government with the corporation, by whose immediate agency any work of internal improvement is carried on, the inquiry will still remain, Is it national, and conducive to the benefit of the whole, or local, and operating only to the advantage of a portion of the Union ?
But, although I might not feel it to be my official duty to interpose the executive veto to the passage of a bill appropriating money for the construction of such works as are authorized by the states, and are national in their character, I do not wish to be understood as expressing an opinion that it is expedient, at this time, for the general government to embark in a system of this kind; and, anxious that my constituents should be possessed of
views on this as well as on all other subjects which they have committed to my discretion, I shall state them frankly and briefly. Besides many minor considerations, there are two prominent views of the subject which I think are well entitled to your serious attention, and will, I hope, be maturely weighed by the people.