Page images

both have their harbors improved by the federal government, there would be no cause of complaint. If, however, Congress interfered, and gave the money to improve one harbor and refused it for the other, it was a discrimination in favor of the one city and against the other that would be most unjust and oppressive. It would be the interference by the federal government to build up one city and break down the other, out of a treasury upon which both had an equality of claim. If this policy would have been so unjust where there were only two cities, how much more so was it unjust when Congress would select one or two harbors on a lake, appropriate money for their improvement, and leave a score of others, equally needy, wholly unprovided for. Such has been and such must ever be the practical operation of the existing system.

Mr. Douglas proposed to throw open the doors in the manner provided in the Constitution, and allow each community to improve its own harbor; to let competition and commercial enterprise decide the question of commercial consequence. If one town made a good harbor, and drew to it a commerce that might have gone elsewhere had the harbor not been put in proper order, then that was an advantage and a success to which such town was entitled, and which its commercial spirit fairly merited. If another town failed to improve its harbor, and thus lost a trade and commerce that it would have otherwise enjoyed, it was a consequence fairly following its omission to do its duty. Why should the federal treasury be employed to build up the commerce of one point and not the other? Why should the federal government interpose its weight and its money for one city in its contest with a rival city? The strongest, and, indeed, only plausible argument urged against this proposal was that it imposed a tax upon the navigating interest. The objection is only plausible-it has no value in reality. All duties, whether upon imports, port duties, tolls, freights, insurance, or otherwise, are a tax: not a tax upon the importer or shipper, manufacturer or producer, but upon the consumer. The consumer eventually pays all the tax imposed upon articles of merchandise. If the tax upon a barrel of flour from Chicago to New York be fifty cents or two dollars, the tax is eventually paid by the consumer. If a tax of five cents per ton be levied upon all vessels passing the St. Clair River, that tax must eventually be added to the cost of

the merchandise carried in said vessels. The amount now paid for insurance upon vessels and merchandise passing that river is a tax imposed upon the articles shipped for the trip. If, instead of paying that tax in the shape of extra insurance because of the wretched condition of that great commercial highway, it was applied to the deepening and improvement of the river, it is doubtful, very doubtful, whether in five years the public would be subjected to an aggregate tax equal to that to which they are now subjected in the shape of extra insurance, loss of property, delay in receipt of goods, and all the other innumerable delays resulting from the dangerous and often impassable condition of that stream. The money expended now by the general government for purposes of river and harbor improvement is a tax-a tax mainly collected from the consumers of foreign imports. The same amount of money collected from those communities benefited by the work, and applied under their own direction, would accomplish ten-fold the good now accomplished. If this system were made general, people on the lakes would not be taxed for the improvement of harbors and rivers on the Atlantic, and the friends of the Savannah and Cape Fear River improvements might do all that they desire, and have no cause of complaint on account of the money lavished upon lake harbors and river improvements in the West.

Mr. Douglas supported his proposition in a very earnest speech, in which he argued the constitutional question, and the legislative history of river and harbor appropriations. It met with decided opposition in debate; and as it was intended. at that time merely as an index of what he should propose when Congress would eventually, as he supposed, be forced to adopt some plan or system upon the subject, he did not press it, but allowed it to drop.

Subsequently, in January, 1854, he addressed a letter to the Governor of Illinois upon the subject, which letter embodies in a brief form some of the reasons inducing him to favor that plan of providing for the improvement of rivers and harbors. The following is his


Washington, January 2d, 1854. SIR, I learn from the public press that you have under consideration the proposition to convene the Legislature in special session. In the event such

a step shall be demanded by the public voice and necessities, I desire to invite your attention to a subject of great interest to our people, which may require legislative action. I refer to the establishment of some efficient and permanent system for river and harbor improvements. Those portions of the Union most deeply interested in internal navigation naturally feel that their interests have been neglected, if not paralyzed, by an uncertain, vacillating, and partial policy. Those who reside upon the banks of the Mississippi, or on the shores of the great Northern Lakes, and whose lives and property are frequently exposed to the mercy of the elements for want of harbors of refuge and means of safety, have never been able to comprehend the force of that distinction between fresh and salt water, which affirms the power and duty of Congress, under the Constitution, to provide security to navigation so far as the tide ebbs and flows, and denies the existence of the right beyond the tidal mark. Our lawyers may have read in English books that, by the common law, all waters were deemed navigable so far as the tide extended and no farther; but they should also have learned from the same authority that the law was founded upon reason, and where the reason failed the rule ceased to exist. In England, where they have neither lake nor river, nor other water which is, in fact, navigable, except where the tide rolls its briny wave, it was natural that the law should conform to the fact, and establish that as a rule which the experience of all men proved to be founded in truth and reason. But it may well be questioned whether, if the common law had originated on the shores of Lake Michigan-a vast inland sea with an average depth of six hundred feet-it would have been deemed "not navigable," merely because the tide did not flow, and the water was fresh and well adapted to the uses and necessities of man. therefore feel authorized to repudiate, as unreasonable and unjust, all injurious discrimination predicated upon salt water and tidal arguments, and to insist that if the power of Congress to protect navigation has any existence in the Constitution, it reaches every portion of this Union where the water is in fact navigable, and only ceases where the fact fails to exist. This power has been affirmed in some form, and exercised to a greater or less extent, by each successive Congress and every administration since the adoption of the federal Constitution. All acts of Congress providing for the erection of lighthouses, the placing of buoys, the construction of piers, the removal of snags, the dredging of channels, the inspection of steam-boat boilers, the carrying of life-boats-in short, all enactments for the security of navigation, and the safety of life and property within our navigable waters, assert the existence of this power and the propriety of its exercise in some form.


The great and growing interest of navigation is too important to be overlooked or disregarded. Mere negative action will not answer. The irregular and vacillating policy which has marked our legislation upon this subject is ruinous. Whenever appropriations have been proposed for river and harbor improvements, and especially on the Northern lakes and the Western rivers, there has usually been a death-struggle and a doubtful issue. We have generally succeeded with an appropriation once in four or five years; in other words, we have, upon an average, been beaten about four times out of five in one house of Congress or the other, or both, or by the presidential veto. When we did succeed, a large portion of the appropriation was expended in providing dredging-machines and snag-boats, and other necessary machinery and implements; and by the time the work was fairly begun, the appropriation was exhausted, and farther operations suspended. Failing to procure an additional appropriation at the next session, and perhaps for two, three, or four successive sessions, the administration has construed the refusal of Congress to provide the funds for the prosecution of the works into an abandonment of the system, and has accordingly deemed it a duty to sell,

at public auction, the dredging-machines and snag-boats, implements and materials on hand, for whatever they would bring. Soon the country was again startled by the frightful accounts of wrecks and explosions, fires and snags upon the rivers, the lakes, and the sea-coast. The responsibility of these appalling sacrifices of life and property were charged upon those who defeated the appropriations for the prosecution of the works. Sympathy was excited, and a concerted plan of agitation and organization formed by the interested sections and parties to bring their combined influence to bear upon Congress in favor of the re-establishment of the system on an enlarged scale, sufficiently comprehensive to embrace the local interests and influences in a majority of the Congressional districts of the Union. A legislative omnibus was formed, in which all sorts of works were crowded together, good and bad, wise and foolish, national and local, all crammed into one bill, and forced through Congress by the power of an organized majority, after the fearful and exhausting struggle of a night session. The bill would receive the votes of a majority in each house, not because any one senator or representative approved all the items contained in it, but for the reason that humanity, as well as the stern demands of an injured and suffering constituency, required that they should make every needful sacrifice of money to diminish the terrible loss of human life by the perils of navigation. The result was a simple re-enactment of the former scenes. Machinery, implements, and materials purchased, the works recommenced-the money exhaustedsubsequent appropriations withheld—and the operations suspended, without completing the improvements, or contributing materially to the safety of navigation. Indeed, it may well be questioned whether, as a general rule, the money has been wisely and economically applied, and in many cases whether the expenditure has been productive of any useful results beyond the mere distribution of so much money among contractors, laborers, and superintendents in the favored localities; and in others, whether it has not been of positive detriment to the navigating interest.

Far be it from my purpose to call in question the integrity, science, or skill of those whose professional duty it was to devise the plan and superintend the construction of the works. But I do insist that from the nature of their profession and their habits of life they could not be expected to possess that local knowledge-that knowledge of currents and tides-the effects of storms, floods, and ice, always different and ever changing-in each locality of this widely-extended country, which is essential in determining upon the proper site and plan for an improvement to the navigation. Without depreciating the value of science or disregarding its precepts, I have no hesitation in saying that the opinion of an intelligent captain or pilot, who for a long series of years had sailed out of and into a given port in fair weather and foul, and who had carefully and daily watched the changes produced in the channel by the currents and storms, wrecks and other obstructions, would inspire me with more confidence than that of the most eminent professional gentleman, whose knowledge and science in the line of his profession were only equaled by his profound ignorance of all those local and practical questions which ought to determine the site and plan of the proposed improvement. To me, therefore, it is no longer a matter of surprise that errors and blunders occur in the mode of constructing the works, and that follies and extravagance every where appear in the expenditure of the money. These evils seem to be inherent in the system; at least, they have thus far proven unavoidable, and have become so palpable and notorious that it is worse than folly to close our eyes to their existence.

In addition to these facts, it should be borne in mind that a large and intelligent portion of the American people, comprising, perhaps, a majority of the Democratic party, are in the habit of considering these works as consti

tuting a general system of internal improvements by the federal government, and therefore in violation of the creed of the Democratic party and of the Constitution of the United States. These two-fold objections-the one denying the constitutional power, and the other the expediency of appropriations from the national treasury-seem to acquire additional strength and force in proportion as the importance of the subject is enhanced, and the necessity for more numerous and extensive improvements is created by the extension of our territory, the expansion of our settlements, and the development of the resources of the country. As a friend to the navigating interest, and especially identified by all the ties of affection, gratitude, and interest with that section of the republic which is the most deeply interested in internal navigation, I see no hope for any more favorable results from national appropriations than we have heretofore realized. If, then, we are to judge the system by its results, taking the past as a fair indication of what might reasonably be expected in the future, those of us who have struggled hardest to render it efficient and useful are compelled to confess that it has proven a miserable failure. It is even worse than a failure, because, while it has failed to accomplish the desired objects, it has had the effect to prevent local and private enterprise from making the improvements under state authority, by holding out the expectation that the federal government was about to

make them.

By way of illustration, let us suppose that twenty-five years ago, when we first began to talk about the construction of railroads in this country, the federal government had assumed to itself jurisdiction of all works of that description to the exclusion of state authority and individual enterprise. In that event, does any one believe we would now have in the United States fourteen thousand miles of railroad completed, and fifteen thousand miles in addition under contract. Is it to be presumed that, if our own state had prostrated itself in humble supplication at the feet of the federal government, and with folded arms had waited for appropriations from the national treasury, instead of exerting state authority, and stimulating and combining individual enterprise, we should now have in Illinois three thousand miles of railroad in process of construction? Let the history of internal improvements by the federal government be fairly written, and it will furnish conclusive answers to these interrogatories. For more than a quarter of a century the energies of the national government, together with all the spare funds in the treasury, were directed to the construction of a Macadamized road from Cumberland, in the State of Maryland, to Jefferson City, in the State of Missouri, without being able to complete one third of the work. If the government were unable to make three hundred miles of turnpike road in twenty-five years, how long would it take to construct a railroad to the Pacific Ocean, and to make all the harbor and river improvements necessary to protect our widely-extended and rapidly-increasing commerce on a seacoast so extensive that in forty years we have not been able to complete even the survey of one half of it, and on a lake and river navigation more than four times as extensive as that sea-coast? These questions are worthy of the serious consideration of those who think that improvements should be made for the benefit of the present generation as well as for our remote posterity; for I am not aware that the federal government ever completed any work of internal improvement commenced under its auspices.

The operations of the government have not been sufficiently rapid to keep pace with the spirit of the age. The Cumberland Road, when commenced, may have been well adapted for the purposes for which it was designed; but after the lapse of a quarter of a century, and before any considerable portion of it could be finished, the whole was superseded and rendered useless by the introduction of the railroad system. One reason, and perhaps the principal Q

« PreviousContinue »