James D. Richardson.

A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents Volume 5, part 3: Franklin Pierce online

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I shall consider it incumbent on me to present to Congress at its next
session a matured view of the whole subject, and to endeavor to define,
approximately at least, and according to my own convictions, what
appropriations of this nature by the General Government the great
interests of the United States require and the Constitution will admit
and sanction, in case no substitute should be devised capable of
reconciling differences both of constitutionality and expediency.

In the absence of the requisite means and time for duly considering the
whole subject at present and discussing such possible substitute, it
becomes necessary to return this bill to the House of Representatives,
in which it originated, and for the reasons thus briefly submitted to
the consideration of Congress to withhold from it my approval.


[The following message is inserted here because it is an exposition of
the reasons of the President for the veto of August 4, 1854, immediately

WASHINGTON, _December 30, 1854_.

_To the Senate and House of Representatives_:

In returning to the House of Representatives, in which it originated,
a bill entitled "An act making appropriations for the repair,
preservation, and completion of certain public works heretofore
commenced under the authority of law," it became necessary for me, owing
to the late day at which the bill was passed, to state my objections
to it very briefly, announcing at the same time a purpose to resume
the subject for more deliberate discussion at the present session of
Congress; for, while by no means insensible of the arduousness of the
task thus undertaken by me, I conceived that the two Houses were
entitled to an exposition of the considerations which had induced
dissent on my part from their conclusions in this instance.

The great constitutional question of the power of the General Government
in relation to internal improvements has been the subject of earnest
difference of opinion at every period of the history of the United
States. Annual and special messages of successive Presidents have been
occupied with it, sometimes in remarks on the general topic and
frequently in objection to particular bills. The conflicting sentiments
of eminent statesmen, expressed in Congress or in conventions called
expressly to devise, if possible, some plan calculated to relieve the
subject of the embarrassments with which it is environed, while they
have directed public attention strongly to the magnitude of the
interests involved, have yet left unsettled the limits, not merely of
expediency, but of constitutional power, in relation to works of this
class by the General Government.

What is intended by the phrase "internal improvements"? What does it
embrace and what exclude? No such language is found in the Constitution.
Not only is it not an expression of ascertainable constitutional power,
but it has no sufficient exactness of meaning to be of any value as the
basis of a safe conclusion either of constitutional law or of practical

President John Quincy Adams, in claiming on one occasion, after his
retirement from office, the authorship of the idea of introducing into
the administration of the affairs of the General Government "a permanent
and regular system" of internal improvements, speaks of it as a system
by which "the whole Union would have been checkered over with railroads
and canals," affording "high wages and constant employment to hundreds
of thousands of laborers;" and he places it in express contrast with the
construction of such works by the legislation of the States and by
private enterprise.

It is quite obvious that if there be any constitutional power which
authorizes the construction of "railroads and canals" by Congress, the
same power must comprehend turnpikes and ordinary carriage roads; nay, it
must extend to the construction of bridges, to the draining of marshes,
to the erection of levees, to the construction of canals of irrigation;
in a word, to all the possible means of the material improvement of the
earth, by developing its natural resources anywhere and everywhere, even
within the proper jurisdiction of the several States. But if there be
any constitutional power thus comprehensive in its nature, must not the
same power embrace within its scope other kinds of improvement of equal
utility in themselves and equally important to the welfare of the whole
country? President Jefferson, while intimating the expediency of so
amending the Constitution as to comprise objects of physical progress
and well-being, does not fail to perceive that "other objects of public
improvement," including "public education" by name, belong to the same
class of powers. In fact, not only public instruction, but hospitals,
establishments of science and art, libraries, and, indeed, everything
appertaining to the internal welfare of the country, are just as much
objects of internal improvement, or, in other words, of internal
utility, as canals and railways.

The admission of the power in either of its senses implies its existence
in the other; and since if it exists at all it involves dangerous
augmentation of the political functions and of the patronage of the
Federal Government, we ought to see clearly by what clause or clauses of
the Constitution it is conferred.

I have had occasion more than once to express, and deem it proper now
to repeat, that it is, in my judgment, to be taken for granted, as a
fundamental proposition not requiring elucidation, that the Federal
Government is the creature of the individual States and of the people
of the States severally; that the sovereign power was in them alone;
that all the powers of the Federal Government are derivative ones, the
enumeration and limitations of which are contained in the instrument
which organized it; and by express terms "the powers not delegated to
the United States by the Constitution nor prohibited by it to the States
are reserved to the States respectively or to the people."

Starting from this foundation of our constitutional faith and proceeding
to inquire in what part of the Constitution the power of making
appropriations for internal improvements is found, it is necessary to
reject all idea of there being any grant of power in the preamble.
When that instrument says, "We, the people of the United States, in
order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic
tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general
welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our
posterity," it only declares the inducements and the anticipated results
of the things ordained and established by it. To assume that anything
more can be designed by the language of the preamble would be to
convert all the body of the Constitution, with its carefully weighed
enumerations and limitations, into mere surplusage. The same may be said
of the phrase in the grant of the power to Congress "to pay the debts
and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United
States;" or, to construe the words more exactly, they are not
significant of grant or concession, but of restriction of the specific
grants, having the effect of saying that in laying and collecting
taxes for each of the precise objects of power granted to the General
Government Congress must exercise any such definite and undoubted power
in strict subordination to the purpose of the common defense and general
welfare of all the States.

There being no specific grant in the Constitution of a power to sanction
appropriations for internal improvements, and no general provision broad
enough to cover any such indefinite object, it becomes necessary to look
for particular powers to which one or another of the things included in
the phrase "internal improvements" may be referred.

In the discussions of this question by the advocates of the organization
of a "general system of internal improvements" under the auspices of the
Federal Government, reliance is had for the justification of the measure
on several of the powers expressly granted to Congress, such as to
establish post-offices and post-roads, to declare war, to provide and
maintain a navy, to raise and support armies, to regulate commerce, and
to dispose of the territory and other public property of the United

As to the last of these sources of power, that of disposing of the
territory and other public property of the United States, it may be
conceded that it authorizes Congress, in the management of the public
property, to make improvements essential to the successful execution of
the trust; but this must be the primary object of any such improvement,
and it would be an abuse of the trust to sacrifice the interest of the
property to incidental purposes.

As to the other assumed sources of a general power over internal
improvements, they being specific powers of which this is supposed to be
the incident, if the framers of the Constitution, wise and thoughtful
men as they were, intended to confer on Congress the power over a
subject so wide as the whole field of internal improvements, it is
remarkable that they did not use language clearly to express it, or, in
other words, that they did not give it as a distinct and substantive
power instead of making it the implied incident of some other one; for
such is the magnitude of the supposed incidental power and its capacity
of expansion that any system established under it would exceed each of
the others in the amount of expenditure and number of the persons
employed, which would thus be thrown upon the General Government.

This position may be illustrated by taking as a single example one of
the many things comprehended clearly in the idea of "a general system of
internal improvements," namely, roads. Let it be supposed that the power
to construct roads over the whole Union, according to the suggestion of
President J.Q. Adams in 1807, whilst a member of the Senate of the
United States, had been conceded. Congress would have begun, in
pursuance of the state of knowledge at the time, by constructing
turnpikes; then, as knowledge advanced, it would have constructed
canals, and at the present time it would have been embarked in an almost
limitless scheme of railroads.

Now there are in the United States, the results of State or private
enterprise, upward of 17,000 miles of railroads and 5,000 miles of
canals; in all, 22,000 miles, the total cost of which may be estimated
at little short of $600,000,000; and if the same works had been
constructed by the Federal Government, supposing the thing to have
been practicable, the cost would have probably been not less than
$900,000,000. The number of persons employed in superintending,
managing, and keeping up these canals and railroads may be stated at
126,000 or thereabouts, to which are to be added 70,000 or 80,000
employed on the railroads in construction, making a total of at least
200,000 persons, representing in families nearly 1,000,000 souls,
employed on or maintained by this one class of public works in the
United States.

In view of all this, it is not easy to estimate the disastrous
consequences which must have resulted from such extended local
improvements being undertaken by the General Government. State
legislation upon this subject would have been suspended and private
enterprise paralyzed, while applications for appropriations would have
perverted the legislation of Congress, exhausted the National Treasury,
and left the people burdened with a heavy public debt, beyond the
capacity of generations to discharge.

Is it conceivable that the framers of the Constitution intended that
authority drawing after it such immense consequences should be inferred
by implication as the incident of enumerated powers? I can not think
this, and the impossibility of supposing it would be still more glaring
if similar calculations were carried out in regard to the numerous
objects of material, moral, and political usefulness of which the idea
of internal improvement admits. It may be safely inferred that if the
framers of the Constitution had intended to confer the power to make
appropriations for the objects indicated, it would have been enumerated
among the grants expressly made to Congress.. When, therefore, any one
of the powers actually enumerated is adduced or referred to as the
ground of an assumption to warrant the incidental or implied power of
"internal improvement," that hypothesis must be rejected, or at least
can be no further admitted than as the particular act of internal
improvement may happen to be necessary to the exercise of the granted
power. Thus, when the object of a given road, the clearing of a
particular channel, or the construction of a particular harbor of refuge
is manifestly required by the exigencies of the naval or military
service of the country, then it seems to me undeniable that it may be
constitutionally comprehended in the powers to declare war, to provide
and maintain a navy, and to raise and support armies. At the same time,
it would be a misuse of these powers and a violation of the Constitution
to undertake to build upon them a great system of internal improvements.
And similar reasoning applies to the assumption of any such power as
is involved in that to establish post-roads and to regulate commerce.
If the particular improvement, whether by land or sea, be necessary to
the execution of the enumerated powers, then, but not otherwise, it
falls within the jurisdiction of Congress. To this extent only can
the power be claimed as the incident of any express grant to the
Federal Government.

But there is one clause of the Constitution in which it has been
suggested that express authority to construct works of internal
improvement has been conferred on Congress, namely, that which empowers
it "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever over such
district (not exceeding 10 miles square) as may by cession of particular
States and the acceptance of Congress become the seat of the Government
of the United States, and to exercise like authority over all places
purchased by the consent of the legislature of the State in which the
same shall be for the erection of forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards,
and _other needful buildings_..." But any such supposition will be seen
to be groundless when this provision is carefully examined and compared
with other parts of the Constitution.

It is undoubtedly true that "like authority" refers back to "exclusive
legislation in all cases whatsoever" as applied to the District of
Columbia, and there is in the District no division of powers as between
the General and the State Governments.

In those places which the United States has purchased or retains within
any of the States - sites for dockyards or forts, for example - legal
process of the given State is still permitted to run for some purposes,
and therefore the jurisdiction of the United States is not absolutely
perfect. But let us assume for the argument's sake that the jurisdiction
of the United States in a tract of land ceded to it for the purpose of a
dockyard or fort by Virginia or Maryland is as complete as in that ceded
by them for the seat of Government, and then proceed to analyze this
clause of the Constitution.

It provides that Congress shall have certain legislative authority over
all places purchased by the United States for certain purposes. It
implies that Congress has otherwise the power to purchase. But where
does Congress get the power to purchase? Manifestly it must be from some
other clause of the Constitution, for it is not conferred by this one.
Now, as it is a fundamental principle that the Constitution is one of
limited powers, the authority to purchase must be conferred in one of
the enumerations of legislative power; so that the power to purchase is
itself not an unlimited one, but is limited by the objects in regard to
which legislative authority is directly conferred.

The other expressions of the clause in question confirm this
conclusion, since the jurisdiction is given as to places purchased
for certain enumerated objects or purposes. Of these the first great
division - forts, magazines, arsenals, and dockyards - is obviously
referable to recognized heads of specific constitutional power. There
remains only the phrase "and other _needful_ buildings." Wherefore
needful? Needful for any possible purpose within the whole range of
the business of society and of Government? Clearly not; but only such
"buildings" as are "needful" to the United States in the exercise of
any of the powers conferred on Congress.

Thus the United States need, in the exercise of admitted powers, not
only forts, magazines, arsenals, and dockyards, but also court-houses,
prisons, custom-houses, and post-offices within the respective States.
Places for the erection of such buildings the General Government may
constitutionally purchase, and, having purchased them, the jurisdiction
over them belongs to the United States. So if the General Government has
the power to build a light-house or a beacon, it may purchase a place
for that object; and having purchased it, then this clause of the
Constitution gives jurisdiction over it. Still, the power to purchase
for the purpose of erecting a light-house or beacon must depend on the
existence of the power to erect, and if that power exists it must be
sought after in some other clause of the Constitution.

From whatever point of view, therefore, the subject is regarded, whether
as a question of express or implied power, the conclusion is the same,
that Congress has no constitutional authority to carry on a system of
internal improvements; and in this conviction the system has been
steadily opposed by the soundest expositors of the functions of the

It is not to be supposed that in no conceivable case shall there be
doubt as to whether a given object be or not a necessary incident
of the military, naval, or any other power. As man is imperfect, so
are his methods of uttering his thoughts. Human language, save in
expressions for the exact sciences, must always fail to preclude all
possibility of controversy. Hence it is that in one branch of the
subject - the question of the power of Congress to make appropriations
in aid of navigation - there is less of positive conviction than in
regard to the general subject; and it therefore seems proper in this
respect to revert to the history of the practice of the Government.

Among the very earliest acts of the first session of Congress was that
for the establishment and support of light-houses, approved by President
Washington on the 7th of August, 1789, which contains the following

That all expenses which shall accrue from and after the 15th day of
August, 1789, in the necessary support, maintenance, and repairs of
all light-houses, beacons, buoys, and public piers erected, placed, or
sunk before the passing of this act at the entrance of or within any
bay, inlet, harbor, or port of the United States, for rendering the
navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the Treasury
of the United States: _Provided, nevertheless_, That none of the said
expenses shall continue to be so defrayed after the expiration of one
year from the day aforesaid unless such light-houses, beacons, buoys,
and public piers shall in the meantime be ceded to and vested in the
United States by the State or States, respectively, in which the same
may be, together with the lands and tenements thereunto belonging and
together with the jurisdiction of the same.

Acts containing appropriations for this class of public works were
passed in 1791, 1792, 1793, and so on from year to year down to the
present time; and the tenor of these acts, when examined with reference
to other parts of the subject, is worthy of special consideration.

It is a remarkable fact that for a period of more than thirty years
after the adoption of the Constitution all appropriations of this class
were confined, with scarcely an apparent exception, to the construction
of light-houses, beacons, buoys, and public piers and the stakage of
channels; to render navigation "safe and easy," it is true, but only
by indicating to the navigator obstacles in his way, not by removing
those obstacles nor in any other respect changing, artificially, the
preexisting natural condition of the earth and sea. It is obvious,
however, that works of art for the removal of natural impediments to
navigation, or to prevent their formation, or for supplying harbors
where these do not exist, are also means of rendering navigation safe
and easy, and may in supposable cases be the most efficient, as well as
the most economical, of such means. Nevertheless, it is not until the
year 1824 that in an act to improve the navigation of the rivers Ohio
and Mississippi and in another act making appropriations for deepening
the channel leading into the harbor of Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, and
for repairing Plymouth Beach, in Massachusetts Bay, we have any example
of an appropriation for the improvement of harbors in the nature of
those provided for in the bill returned by me to the House of

It appears not probable that the abstinence of Congress in this respect
is attributable altogether to considerations of economy or to any
failure to perceive that the removal of an obstacle to navigation might
be not less useful than the indication of it for avoidance, and it may
be well assumed that the course of legislation so long pursued was
induced, in whole or in part, by solicitous consideration in regard to
the constitutional power over such matters vested in Congress.

One other peculiarity in this course of legislation is not less
remarkable. It is that when the General Government first took charge of
lighthouses and beacons it required the works themselves and the lands
on which they were situated to be ceded to the United States. And
although for a time this precaution was neglected in the case of new
works, in the sequel it was provided by general laws that no light-house
should be constructed on any site previous to the jurisdiction over the
same being ceded to the United States.

Constitutional authority for the construction and support of many of the
public works of this nature, it is certain, may be found in the power
of Congress to maintain a navy and provide for the general defense; but
their number, and in many instances their location, preclude the idea of
their being fully justified as necessary and proper incidents of that
power. And they do not seem susceptible of being referred to any other
of the specific powers vested in Congress by the Constitution, unless it
be that to raise revenue in so far as this relates to navigation. The
practice under all my predecessors in office, the express admissions of
some of them, and absence of denial by any sufficiently manifest their
belief that the power to erect light-houses, beacons, and piers is
possessed by the General Government. In the acts of Congress, as we
have already seen, the inducement and object of the appropriations
are expressly declared, those appropriations being for "light-houses,
beacons, buoys, and public piers" erected or placed "within any bay,
inlet, harbor, or port of the United States for rendering the navigation
thereof easy and safe."

If it be contended that this review of the history of appropriations
of this class leads to the inference that, beyond the purposes of
national defense and maintenance of a navy, there is authority in the
Constitution to construct certain works in aid of navigation, it is
at the same time to be remembered that the conclusions thus deduced
from cotemporaneous construction and long-continued acquiescence are
themselves directly suggestive of limitations of constitutionality, as
well as expediency, regarding the nature and the description of those
aids to navigation which Congress may provide as incident to the revenue
power; for at this point controversy begins, not so much as to the
principle as to its application.

In accordance with long-established legislative usage, Congress may
construct light-houses and beacons and provide, as it does, other means
to prevent shipwrecks on the coasts of the United States. But the
General Government can not go beyond this and make improvements of
rivers and harbors of the nature and to the degree of all the provisions
of the bill of the last session of Congress.

To justify such extended power, it has been urged that if it be

Online LibraryJames D. RichardsonA Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents Volume 5, part 3: Franklin Pierce → online text (page 8 of 27)