Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 1.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.

Remarks in United States House of Representatives Concerning Postal Contracts [1]

January 5, 1848

Mr. LINCOLN said that he had made an effort some few days since to obtain the floor in relation to this measure [2], but had failed. One of the objects he had then had in view was now in a great measure superseded by what had fallen from the gentleman from Virginia [3] who had just taken his seat. He begged to assure his friends on the other side of the House, that no assault whatever was meant upon the Postmaster General; and he was glad that what the gentleman had now said, modified to a great extent the impression which might have been created by the language he had used on a previous occasion. He wanted to state to gentlemen who might have entertained such impressions, that the Committee on the Post Office was composed of five Whigs and four Democrats, and their report was understood as sustaining, not impugning, the position taken by the Postmaster General. That report had met with the approbation of all the Whigs and of all the Democrats also, with the exception of one, and he wanted to go even further than this. [Intimations were here informally given to Mr. L. that it was not in order to mention on the floor what had taken place in committee.] He than observed that if he had been out of order in what he had said, he took it all back, [a laugh,] so far as he could. He had no desire, he could assure gentlemen, ever to be out of order---though he never could keep long in order.

Page  424Mr. L. went on to observe, that he differed in opinion, in the present case, from his honorable friend from Richmond, [Mr. BOTTS]. That gentleman had begun his remarks by saying that if all prepossessions in this matter could be removed out of the way, but little difficulty would be experienced in coming to an agreement. Now, he could assure that gentleman that he had himself begun the examination of this subject with prepossessions all in his favor. He had long and often heard of him, and, from what he had heard, was prepossessed in his favor. Of the Postmaster General he had also heard, but had no prepossessions in his favor, though certainly none of an opposite kind. He differed, however, from that gentleman in politics, while in this respect he agreed with the gentleman from Virginia, [Mr. BOTTS,] whom he wished to oblige whenever it was in his power. That gentleman had referred to the report made to the House by the Postmaster General, and had intimated an apprehension that gentleman would be disposed to rely on that report alone, and derive their views of the case from that document alone. Now, it so happened that a pamphlet had been slipped into his [Mr. L.'s] hand before he read the report of the Postmaster General; so that, even in this, he had begun with prepossessions in favor of the gentleman from Virginia.

As to the report, he had but one remark to make: he had carefully examined it, and he did not understand that there was any dispute as to the facts therein stated: the dispute, if he understood it, was confined altogether to the inferences to be drawn from those facts. It was a difference not about facts, but about conclusions. The facts were not disputed. If he was right in this, he supposed the House might assume the facts to be as they were stated, and thence proceed to draw their own conclusions.

The gentleman had said that the Postmaster General had got into a personal squabble with the railroad company. Of this, Mr. L. knew nothing; nor did he need or desire to know anything, because it had nothing whatever to do with a just conclusion from the premises. But the gentleman had gone on to ask whether so great a grievance as the present detention of the southern mail ought not to be remedied? Mr. L. would assure the gentleman that if there was a proper way of doing it, no man was more anxious than he that it should be done. The report made by the committee had been intended to yield much for the sake of removing that grievance. That the grievance was very great, there was no dispute in any quarter. He supposed the statements made by the gentleman from Virginia to show this were all entirely correct in point of fact. He did suppose that the interruptions of regular intercourse, and allPage  425 the other inconveniences growing out of it, were all as that gentleman had stated them to be; and certainly, if redress could be rendered, it was proper it should be rendered as soon as possible. The gentleman said that, in order to effect this, no new legislative action was needed: all that was necessary was, that the Postmaster General should be required to do what the law, as it stood, authorized and required him to do.

We come, then, said Mr. L., to the law. Now the Postmaster General says that he cannot give to this company over $237 50 per railroad mile of transportation, and 121/2 per cent. less for transportation by steamboats. He considers himself as restricted by law to this amount; and he says, further, that he would not give more if he could, because, in his apprehension, it would not be fair and just.

Mr. Hilliard [4] here wished to be set right in his apprehension of the facts of the case, and he made some inquiry not distinctly heard across the Hall; and, after a brief conversation, expressing himself satisfied, resumed his seat.

Mr. Lincoln proceeded. I had the impression that the service rendered under the present contract cost the Government more than if the mail were carried by the railroad company, in consequence of its passing over a longer route. Understanding this, my view of the question remains unchanged.

And now as to the law: I am not disposed to discuss it at any very great length; for, as the appeal is here to the law-making power, which can alter the law whenever a modification is required, there does not seem any necessity of very nicely discussing what it is as it now stands. If it shall be clearly shown what naked justice requires, it will be easy to make the law conform to that requirement. But let us look at it as it stands.

There are three laws which have a bearing on this question: the first authorizes the Postmaster General to give to a contractor 25 per cent. more for the transportation of the mail over railroads than for similar transportation in mail-coaches; another law says that the Postmaster General shall not allow more than $300 per mile for daily transportation, provided that his contract does not conflict with the provisions of the law first referred to. Then there is a third law which directs the Postmaster General to classify the sorts of service rendered. It was this which caused him to give less for transportation by steamboats than over railroads; he graduated the compensation for this at a point midway between that by railroad and that by mail-coaches. The difference between railroad andPage  426 coach being but 25 per cent., he placed the price for steamboat transportation at 12 1/2 per cent. above the one and below the other. I do not understand that this construction of the law by the Postmaster General is held in any quarter to be wrong. The fact that the law allows him to pay $300 for daily transportation and for more frequent than daily, has been alluded to; but, as I understand, the position is not taken that he is authorized to allow this company $300 per mile. If it is, I shall proceed to examine it. All must admit that all the laws on the subject are extremely loose and general in their language; that they admit of different constructions; and that no one construction that can be given them leaves the mind entirely satisfied. The law allows $300 to be paid for transporting the mail daily or oftener, thereby fixing the compensation for one transportation and for two at the same amount. This alone is enough to show that the law is not very definite in its provisions, and in fact it is hardly possible to put an equitable construction upon it. It refers to a prior law, and says it is not to be construed so as to interfere with it.

From the whole of what the gentleman from Virginia has said, I understand his sense of the matter to be, that we are in this case to be governed by the old law. Now, I ask the lawyers in this House (I suppose there are some) [a laugh] whether I am not right when I say, that where a law has been passed in terms so general as to require a construction to be put upon it, (and this is the case with most laws,) and constructions of its provisions are accordingly given, and a second law is afterwards passed referring to the first, this second law is held to recognize and to confirm the constructions put upon that first passed? If this is so, then I say that the Postmaster General was not wrong when he insisted that the latter law, when it referred to the former, meant to refer to it as construed; in which case the construction seems to be confirmed and strengthened by the last passed.

But, looking only to the original construction itself of the old law, the gentleman from Virginia says that Mr. Kendall's construction of the terms ``similar transportation by mail coaches,'' was wrong, and that he ought to have construed it to mean transportation of the same mail not only, but by the same route. But, now, suppose there was no mail-coach transportation on that route, what must his construction be in that case? What did the present Postmaster General in fact do? He took the most expensive mail-coach route in the nation. He took the prices allowed for coach transportation on different portions of that route, and averaged them, and then built his construction of the law upon that average. It came to $190 perPage  427 mile. He added 25 per cent. to that rate, and offered the result to this railroad company. The gentleman from Virginia says that this was wrong: I say it was right.

But the gentleman says he ought to have reckoned coach transportation on that specific route. Well, if he had done so, he would have added 25 per cent. upon $5,000, and no more; for the Postmaster General tells us that before he made his contract with this railroad company, the same mail had been carried for between $5,000 and $6,000. The company now get $28,000, and are not satisfied. Had he taken the same rate then, where would they have been? If there had been a coach line, he would not have gained anything by that. For I have inquired at what rate the mail could be carried by coaches from Washington to Richmond, and I have heard that the lowest bid ever made was $28,000. If he had added 25 per cent. to that, it would have been more than the company asks. This fact, and one other item that I obtained, are all that I had to enable me to get at justice in this case. An old gentleman, whose very good looks prepossessed me in his favor, and would incline me to believe any statement he should make, told me that he had been a stockholder in the road, and had never got over 5 per cent. dividend on his stock. The same source of information admitted that since the construction of the railroad, mail-coaches had been wholly disused. It is a bad road, and always has been, and the mail could not now be carried over it in coaches for three or four times what it might have been, had not the railroad been constructed.

I think that abundant reasons have been given to show that the construction put upon the law by the Postmaster General is the right construction, and that subsequent acts of Congress have confirmed it. I have already said that the grievance complained of ought to be remedied. But it is said that the sum of money about which all this difficulty has arisen is exceeding small---not more than $2,700. I admit it is very small; and if nothing else were involved, it would not be worth the dispute. But there is a principle involved; and if we once yield to a wrong principle, that concession will be the prolific source of endless mischief. It is for this reason, and not for the sake of saving $2,700, that I am unwilling to yield what is demanded. If I had no apprehensions that the ghost of this yielding would rise and appear in various distant places, I would say, pay the money, and let us have no more fuss about it. But I have such apprehensions. I do believe, that if we yield this, our act will be the source of other claims equally unjust, and therefore I cannot vote to make the allowance.

Page  428And now, I suppose, I may, without being out of order, tell what I was willing, in committee, to yield for the sake of removing this evil. I was willing to give as damages what the department would have to pay the Bay Company for breach of contract, be it $2,700, or whatever amount. Be it what it might, it would be so much money gone; it would never rise again.

Mr. L. insisted that the true and great point to which the attention of this House or the committee should be directed was, what is a just compensation? Inasmuch as this railroad and steamboat company could afford greater facilities than any other line, the service ought to be done upon this route; but it ought to be done upon just and fair principles. If it could not be done at what had been offered, let it be shown that a greater amount was just. But, until it was shown, he was opposed to increasing it. He had seen many things in the report of the Postmaster General and elsewhere that stood out against the river route. Now, the daily steamboat transportation between Troy and New York was performed for less than one hundred dollars per mile. This company was dissatisfied with two hundred and twelve or two hundred and thirteen dollars per mile. It had not been shown, and he thought it could not be shown to them why this company was entitled to more, or so much more, than the other received. It was true, they had to encounter the ice, but was there not more ice further north? There might possibly be shown some reason why the Virginia line should have more; but was there any reason why they should have so much more? Again, the price paid between Cincinnati and Louisville for daily transportation was not two hundred and thirteen dollars per mile, or one hundred dollars, or fifty; it was less than twenty-eight dollars per mile. Now, he did not insist that there might not be some peculiar reasons connected with this route between this city and Richmond that entitled it to more than was paid on the routes between Cincinnati and Louisville, and Troy and New York. But, if there were reasons, they ought to be shown. And was it supposed that there could be any, or so peculiar reasons, as to justify so great a difference in compensation as was claimed by this company? It did seem that there could be none.

These reasons actuated him in taking the position he had taken, painfully refusing to oblige his friend from Virginia, which he assured the gentleman he had the greatest inclination to do.

In relation to the report of the committee, let him state one thing: It proposed that the Postmaster General should again offer this company what he had already offered and they had refused. It was for the reason that the Postmaster General, as he understood,Page  429 had informed them that he was not himself going to renew the proposition. The committee supposed---at any rate, he (Mr. L.) supposed---that as soon as the company should know that they could get what he had offered them, and no more---as soon as all hope of greater compensation was cut off---that instant they would not take ten thousand dollars a year for the privilege of doing it. Whether this was actually the case he did not profess positively to know; it was a matter of opinion, but he firmly believed it. In proposing to offer them the contract again, as he had already said, the committee yielded something, viz. the damage that the Government would have to pay for the breaking up of the present arrangement. He was willing to incur that damage; some other gentlemen were not; they were further away from the position which his friend from Virginia took. He was willing to yield something, but could not consent to go the whole length with the gentleman.

In relation to what the damage would be, it would of course depend upon what was shown to this House and to the Senate to be fair and reasonable. It was a general principle of law that this Government could not be sued upon any contract. It was a principle of the common law that no judgment can go against the State, and it had been confirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in repeated instances. Now, how was this company to get anything for their damages? Why, simply by coming here and laying their case before Congress.

Mr. L. concluded by remarking that this was all he wished to say. If there was any portion of his hour left, he would only ask that it should be passed to his credit for some future occasion.


[1]   Congressional Globe, Thirtieth Congress, First Session, pp. 107-108, 108-109. Brackets are in the source.

[2]   A joint resolution to direct the postmaster general to make arrangements with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad for transporting the mail between Washington and Richmond. The House was sitting in committee of the whole. Lincoln was a member of the committee on post office and post roads.

[3]   John M. Botts, who supported the railroad's petition for an increase and accused the postmaster general (Cave Johnson of Tennessee) of personal antagonism toward the railroad company.

[4]   Henry W. Hilliard of Alabama.