Henry Jones Ford.

Washington and his colleagues; a chronicle of the rise and fall of federalism online

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matter was thus settled. The point was covered by providing that the chief
clerk of the Department should take charge "whenever the principal officer
shall be removed from office by the President." The clause got through the
Senate by the casting vote of the Vice-President, and a similar provision
was inserted, without further contest, in all the acts creating the
executive departments. It is rather striking evidence of the Utopian
expectations which could then be indulged that Daniel Carroll of Maryland
was persistent in urging that the existence of the office should be
limited to a few years, "under a hope that a time would come when the
United States would be disengaged from the necessity of supporting a
Secretary of Foreign Affairs." Although Gerry and others expressed
sympathy with the motion it was voted down without a division.

When the bill establishing the Treasury Department was taken up, Page of
Virginia made a violent attack upon the clause authorizing the Secretary
to "digest and report plans." He denounced it as "an attempt to create an
undue influence" in the House. "Nor would the mischief stop here; it would
establish a precedent which might be extended until we admitted all the
Ministers of the government on the floor, to explain and support the plans
they have digested and reported; thus laying the foundation for an
aristocracy or a detestable monarchy." As a matter of fact, a precedent in
favor of access to Congress already existed. The old Superintendent of
Finance and the Board which succeeded him had the power now proposed for
the Secretary of the Treasury. Livermore of New Hampshire, who had been a
member of the Continental Congress, admitted this fact, but held that such
power was not dangerous at that time since Congress then possessed both
legislative and executive authority. They could abolish his plans and his
office together, if they thought proper; "but we are restrained by a
Senate and by the negative of the President," Gerry declared his assent to
the views expressed by Page. "If the doctrine of having prime and great
ministers of state was once well established, he did not doubt but that we
should soon see them distinguished by a green or red ribbon, or other
insignia of court favor and patronage."

The strongest argument in favor of retaining the clause referred to was
made by Fisher Ames, who had begun to display the powers of clear
statement and of convincing argument that soon established his supremacy
in debate. He brought the debate at once to its proper bearings by
pointing out that there were really only two matters to be considered:
whether the proposed arrangement was useful, and whether it could be
safely guarded from abuse. "The Secretary is presumed to acquire the best
knowledge of the subject of finance of any member of the community. Now,
if this House is to act on the best knowledge of circumstances, it seems
to follow logically that the House must obtain the evidence from that
officer: the best way of doing this will be publicly from the officer
himself, by making it his duty to furnish us with it." In one of those
eloquent passages which brighten the records of debate whenever Ames spoke
at any length, he pictured the difficulties that had to be surmounted. "If
we consider the present situation of our finances, owing to a variety of
causes, we shall no doubt perceive a great, although unavoidable confusion
throughout the whole scene; it presents to the imagination a deep, dark,
and dreary chaos; impossible to be reduced to order without the mind of
the architect is clear and capacious, and his power commensurate to the
occasion." He asked, "What improper influence could a plan reported openly
and officially have on the mind of any member, more than if the scheme and
information were given privately at the Secretary's office?" Merely to
call for information would not be advantageous to the House. "It will be
no mark of inattention or neglect, if he take time to consider the
questions you propound; but if you make it his duty to furnish you plans
... and he neglect to perform it, his conduct or capacity is virtually
impeached. This will be furnishing an additional check."

Sedgwick of Massachusetts made a strong speech to the same effect. "Make
your officer responsible," he said with prophetic vision, "and the
presumption is, that plans and information are properly digested; but if
he can secrete himself behind the curtain, he might create a noxious
influence, and not be answerable for the information he gives."

The weight of the argument was heavily on the side of the supporters of
the clause, and it looked as though the group of objectors would again be
beaten. But now a curious thing happened. Fitzsimmons remarked that, if he
understood the objection made to the clause, "it was a jealousy arising
from the power given the Secretary to report plans of revenue to the
House." He suggested that "harmony might be restored by changing the word
'report' into 'prepare'." Fitzsimmons was esteemed by the House because of
his zealous support of the War of Independence and also because he stood
high as a successful Philadelphia merchant, but he did not, however, rank
as a leader. Early in the session Ames described him as a man who "is
supposed to understand trade, and he assumes some weight in such matters.
He is plausible, though not over civil; is artful, has a glaring eye, a
down look, speaks low, and with apparent candor and coolness." He was
hardly the man to guide the House on a matter pertaining to the
organization of public authority.

While the removal issue was before the House, Madison had been prominent
in debate, and had spoken with great power and earnestness; but up to this
time he had said nothing on the issue now pending. He now remarked that he
did not believe that the danger apprehended by some really existed, but
twice in his speech he admitted that "there is a small possibility,
though it is but small, that an officer may derive a weight from this
circumstance, and have some degree of influence upon the deliberations of
the legislature." In its practical effect the speech favored the
compromise which Fitzsimmons had just proposed; in fact, the only
opposition to the change of phrasing now came from a few extremists who
still clamored for the omission of the entire clause. The decisive effect
of Madison's intervention was a natural consequence of the leadership he
had held in the movement for the new Constitution and of his standing
as the representative of the new Administration, of his possessing
Washington's confidence and acting as his adviser. Washington, then being
without a cabinet, had turned to Madison for help in discharging the
duties of his office, and at Washington's written request Madison had
drafted for him his replies to the addresses of the House and the Senate
at the opening of the session. It was a matter of course in such
circumstances that the House accepted Fitzsimmons' amendment, - "by a great
majority," according to the record, - and thus the Secretary of the
Treasury was shut out of the House and was condemned to work in the lobby.

The consequences of this decision have been so vast that it is worth while
making an inquiry into motive, although the materials upon which judgment
must rest are scant. No one can read the record of this discussion without
noting that Madison's approval of the original clause was lukewarm as
compared with the ardor he had shown when the question was whether
Washington should be allowed to remove his subordinates. This contrast
suggests that Madison's behavior was affected by fear of Hamilton's
influence. Would it be prudent for him to give Hamilton the advantage of
being able to appear in person before the House, and probably to supplant
Madison himself as the spokesman of the Administration? Divergence between
the two men had already begun in details. At the time the vote on the
powers of the Secretary of the Treasury was taken, the tariff bill and the
tonnage bill were still pending, and Hamilton's influence operated against
Madison's views on some points. Moreover, the question of the permanent
residence of the federal government was coming forward and was apparently
overshadowing everything else in the minds of members. Ames several
times in his correspondence at this period remarks upon Madison's
timidity, which was due to his concern about Virginia State politics. Any
arrangement that might enable Hamilton to cross swords with an opponent on
the floor of the House could not be attractive to Madison, who was a lucid
reasoner but not an impressive speaker. Hamilton was both of these, and he
possessed an intellectual brilliancy which Madison lacked. Ames, who
respected Madison's abilities and who regarded him as the leading member
of the House, wrote that "he speaks low, his person is little and
ordinary; he speaks decently as to manner, and no more; his language is
very pure, perspicuous, and to the point." Why Fitzsimmons should be
opposed to the appearance of the Secretary in person in the House, as had
been Robert Morris's practice when he was Superintendent of Finance, is
plain enough. Maclay's diary has many references to Fitzsimmons's
negotiations with members on tariff rates. It was not to the advantage of
private diplomacy to allow the Secretary to shape and define issues on the
floor of the House. But Fitzsimmons could not have had his way about the
matter without Madison's help.

Gibbon remarks that the greatest of theological controversies which racked
the Roman Empire and affected the peace of millions turned on the question
whether a certain word should be spelled with one diphthong or another. A
like disproportion between the vastness of results and the minuteness of
verbal distinction is exhibited in this decision by the House. The change
of "report" into "prepare" threw up a ridge in the field of constitutional
development that has affected the trend of American politics ever since.
This is the explanation of a problem of comparative politics that has
often excited much wondering notice: why it is that alone among modern
representative assemblies the American House of Representatives tends to
decline in prestige and authority. The original expectation was that the
House of Representatives would take a dominant position like that of the
House of Commons, but its degradation began so soon that Fisher Ames noted
it as early as 1797. Writing to Hamilton he observed:

"The heads of departments are chief clerks. Instead of being the ministry,
the organs of the executive power, and imparting a kind of momentum to the
operation of the laws, they are precluded even from communicating with the
House by reports.... Committees already are the Ministers and while the
House indulges a jealousy of encroachment in its functions, which are
properly deliberative, it does not perceive that these are impaired and
nullified by the monopoly as well as the perversion of information by
these committees."

Justice Story, who entered Congress in 1808 as a Jeffersonian Republican,
noted the process of degradation, and in his _Commentaries_ he pointed out
the cause: "The Executive is compelled to resort to secret and unseen
influences, to private interviews and private arrangements to accomplish
its own appropriate purposes, instead of proposing and sustaining its own
duties and measures by a bold and manly appeal to the nation in the face
of its representatives."

The last of the organic acts of the session was the one establishing the
judiciary. The student will be disappointed if he examines the record to
note whether there was any vision of the ascendancy which the judiciary
was to obtain in the development of the American constitutional system.
The debates were almost wholly about the possibilities of conflict between
the state and the federal courts. Although Maclay's diary gives a
one-sided and distorted account of the proceedings in the Senate, the
course of the debate is clear. Ellsworth of Connecticut had principal
charge of the bill. At the outset Lee and Grayson of Virginia made an
ineffectual effort to confine the original jurisdiction of the federal
courts to cases of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, and argued that
jurisdiction over other cases involving federal law might be conferred
upon state courts. This was a point on which there had been some
difference of opinion between Hamilton and Madison. The former held that
it was within the competency of Congress, when instituting tribunals
inferior to the Supreme Court, to adopt the state courts for that purpose.
Madison held that nothing less than a system of federal courts quite
distinct from the state courts would satisfy the requirements of the
Constitution. When the bill was taken up in the House, there was a long
debate over this matter. The costly duplication of judicial establishments
that has ever since existed in the United States is certainly not
necessary to a federal system, but is an American peculiarity. The
advocates of a unified system were hampered by the fact that this view was
pressed by some in a spirit of hostility to the Constitution. The decisive
argument was the untrustworthiness of the state courts. Madison urged this
fact with great force and pointed out that in some of the States the
courts "are so dependent on the state legislatures, that to make the
federal laws dependent on them, would throw us back into all the
embarrassments which characterized our former situation." Such was the low
repute of the state legislatures that the only way in which this argument
could be met was to argue that "Congress shall have power, in its fullest
extent, to correct, reverse, or affirm, any decree of a state court." This
high assertion of federal authority was made by Jackson of Georgia in the
course of a long legal argument. The debate did not follow sectional
lines, and in general it was not unfairly described by Maclay as a
lawyer's wrangle. The bill was put into shape by the Senate, and reached
the House toward the close of the session when the struggle over the site
of the national capital was overshadowing everything else. It was so
generally believed that nothing important could be gained by attempts at
amendment that, after an airing of opinions, the House accepted the
measure just as it had come from the Senate.



The subject of national finance had long interested Hamilton. His ideas
had been matured by a diligent and minute study of English precedents, and
now that his opportunity had come he was ready to grasp it. Soon after he
took office, the House resolved that "an adequate provision for the
support of the public credit" should be made, and it directed the
Secretary of the Treasury "to prepare a plan for that purpose and to
report the same to the House at its next meeting." This was, in effect, a
postponement until the second session of the First Congress, which began
in January, 1790. In his opening address to Congress, Washington pointedly
referred to the public credit resolution which he had noted "with peculiar
pleasure." On the next day a letter from Hamilton was read in the House
stating that he had prepared his plan and was ready to report the same to
the House when they should be pleased to receive it.

This announcement brought up anew the question in what manner the
Secretary should make his report. Gerry was on his feet at once with a
motion that it should be made in writing. Boudinot "hoped that the
Secretary of the Treasury might be permitted to make his report in person
in order to answer such inquiries as the members might be disposed to
make, for it was a justifiable surmise that gentlemen would not be able
clearly to comprehend so intricate a subject without oral illustration."
The allusion to the intricacy of the subject had the effect of turning
against the plan of oral communication some who had favored giving the
Secretary the same direct access to Congress that the Superintendent of
Finance had formerly enjoyed. Ames, for instance, now desired that the
Secretary's communications should be in writing since "in this shape they
would obtain a degree of permanency favorable to the responsibility of the
officer, while, at the same time, they would be less liable to be
misunderstood." Benson suggested that since the resolution of Congress had
directed the Secretary to make a report, it was left to his discretion to
"make it in the manner for which he is prepared." Gerry adroitly countered
by saying that the resolution provided for a report. That done, it would
be time enough "to give him the right to lay before them his explanations,
if he thinks explanations necessary." The debate was brief and one-sided;
the motion for receiving the report in writing was adopted without a
division. Five days later the written report was laid before the House,
but the Secretary was never accorded an opportunity to offer any personal

This masterly report, which is justly regarded as the corner-stone of
American public credit, excites the admiration of the reader by the
clearness of its analysis, the cogency of its argument, and the broad
range of its vision. The principles of action that it embodied, however,
were few and simple, chief among them being exact and punctual fulfillment
of contract. "States, like individuals, who observe their engagements, are
respected and trusted; while the reverse is the fate of those who pursue
an opposite conduct." To discharge the principal of the public debt was of
course impracticable; nor was it desirable, as the creditors would be well
pleased to leave it at interest. Incidentally the funding of the debt
would provide securities that would serve trade as a species of currency,
and would set in motion a long train of benefits that would extend
throughout the community. In the funding operation the debts contracted by
the States should be included. As to this Hamilton remarked: "The general
principle of it seems to be equitable, for it seems difficult to conceive
a good reason why the expenses for the particular defense of a part in a
common war should not be a common charge, as well as those incurred
professedly for the general defense. The defense of each part is that of
the whole; and unless the expenditures are brought into a common mass, the
tendency must be to add to the calamities suffered by being the most
exposed to the ravages of war and increase of burthens."

Hamilton computed the amount of the foreign debt, principal and arrears,
at $11,710,378.62; the domestic debt, including that of the States, at
$42,414,085.94, - a total of over fifty-four millions with an annual
interest charge at existing rates amounting to $4,587,444.81, - a
staggering total for a nation whose revenue was then insufficient to meet
its current expenses. Nevertheless Hamilton refused to admit that "such a
provision would exceed the abilities of the country," but he was "clearly
of the opinion that to make it would require the extension of taxation to
a degree and to objects which the true interest of the public creditor
forbids." He therefore favored a composition, in arranging which there
would be strict adherence to the principle "that no change in the rights
of creditors ought to be attempted without their voluntary consent; and
that this consent ought to be voluntary in fact as well as in name." It
followed that "every proposal of a change ought to be in the shape of an
appeal to their interests; but not to their necessities." Hamilton then
went into details of a funding loan, in which various options were offered
to the creditors, including land grants in part payment, and conversion in
whole or in part into annuities, several sorts of which were offered. He
submitted estimates of how the various plans would work out in practice,
and he concluded that the annual revenue which would be required to enable
the government to meet its obligations under the scheme and also to
maintain its current service would amount to $2,239,163.09, a sum that
could be readily provided.

There could not have been a more striking contrast than there was between
the humiliating conditions which actually existed and the grand results
which Hamilton designed and confidently expected. The ardent and hopeful
tone of his plan, conceived in apparently desperate circumstances, is very
marked. He declared: "It cannot but merit particular attention that among
ourselves the most enlightened friends of good government are those whose
expectations are the highest. To justify and preserve their confidence; to
promote the increasing respectability of the American name; to answer the
calls of justice; to restore landed property to its due value; to furnish
new resources both to agriculture and commerce; to cement more closely the
union of the States; to add to their security against foreign attack; to
establish public order on the basis of a liberal and upright policy - these
are the great and invaluable ends to be secured by a proper and adequate
provision at the present period for the support of public credit."

All these great objects were indeed attained, but Hamilton's anticipation
of them was at the time regarded as either a pretext made to cajole
Congress or else merely an ebullition from his own sanguine nature not to
be taken too seriously by sensible people. Senator Maclay of Pennsylvania
regarded Hamilton's plans as wildly extravagant in their conception and
iniquitous in their practical effect. In his opinion, Hamilton had "a very
boyish, giddy manner, and Scotch-Irish people could well call him a
'skite.'" Jackson of Georgia exposed to the House the folly of Hamilton's
proposals by pointing out that a funded debt meant national decay. He
mentioned England as "a melancholy instance of the ruin attending such
engagements." To such a pitch had the "spirit of funding and borrowing
been carried in that country" that its national debt was now "a burthen
which the most sanguine mind can never contemplate they will ever be
relieved from." France also was "considerably enfeebled and languishes
under a heavy load of debt." He argued that by funding the debt in America
"the same effect must be produced that has taken place in other nations;
it must either bring on national bankruptcy, or annihilate her existence
as an independent empire."

Such dismal prognostications on the very eve of the Napoleonic era, with
its tremendous revelations of national power, were quite common at that
time. The long rambling debate that took place in the House when
Hamilton's report was taken up for consideration abounds with similar
instances of shortsightedness. Many members did not scruple to advise
repudiation, in whole or in part. Livermore of New Hampshire admitted that
the foreign debt should be provided for, since it was "lent to the United
States in real coin, by disinterested persons, not concerned or benefited
by the revolution," but that the domestic debt was "for depreciated paper,
or services done at exorbitant rates, or for goods or provisions supplied
at more than their real worth, by those who received all the benefits
arising from our change of condition." True, Congress had pledged its
faith to the redemption of issues at their face value, "but this was done
on a principle of policy, in order to prevent the rapid depreciation which
was taking place." He argued that "money lent in this depreciated and
depreciating state can hardly be said to be lent from a spirit of
patriotism; it was a mere speculation in public securities."

The distinction between the foreign debt and the domestic was seized by
many members as providing a just basis for discrimination. Page of
Virginia observed that "our citizens were deeply interested, and, I
believe, if they were never to get a farthing for what is owing to them
for their services, they would be well paid; they have gained what they
aimed at; they have secured their liberties and their laws; they will be
satisfied that this House has pledged itself to pay foreigners the
generous loans they advanced to us in the day of distress." In the course
of the debate the power to do was so often mentioned as implying the right
to do that Ames was moved to remark: "I have heard that in the East Indies
the stock of the labor and the property of the empire is the property of
the Prince; that it is held at his will and pleasure; but this is a
slavish doctrine, which I hope we are not prepared to adopt here." As a
matter of fact, there had already been extensive scaling of the debt, and
the note emissions had been pretty nearly wiped out. To save the public

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Online LibraryHenry Jones FordWashington and his colleagues; a chronicle of the rise and fall of federalism → online text (page 3 of 12)