Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Volume 1.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865.
Page  480

Speech in United States House of Representatives on Internal Improvements [1]

June 20, 1848

In committee of the whole on the state of the union, on the civil and diplomatic appropriation bill---

Mr. Chairman

I wish at all times in no way to practice any fraud upon the House or the committee, and I also desire to do nothing which may be very disagreeable to any of the members. I therefore state in advance that my object in taking the floor is to make a speech on the general subject of internal improvements; and if I am out of order in doing so, I give the chair the oppertunity of so deciding, and I will take my seat.

The Chair: I will not undertake to anticipate what the gentleman may say on the subject of internal improvements. He will, therefore, proceed in his remarks, and if any question of order shall be made, the chair will then decide it.

Mr. Lincoln: At an early day of this session the president sent us what may properly be called an internal improvement veto message. The late democratic convention which sat at Baltimore, and which nominated Gen: Cass for the presidency, adopted a set of resolutions, now called the democratic platform, among which is one in these words:

``That the constitution does not confer upon the general government the power to commence, and carry on a general system of internal improvements''

Gen: Cass, in his letter accepting the nomination, holds this language:

``I have carefully read the resolutions of the Democratic National convention, laying down the platform of our political faith, and I adhere to them as firmly, as I approve them cordially.''

These things, taken together, show that the question of internal improvements is now more distinctly made---has become more intense---than at any former period. It can no longer be avoided. The veto message, and the Baltimore resolution, I understand to be, in substance, the same thing; the latter being the mere general statement,Page  481 of which the former is the amplification---the bill of particulars. While I know there are many democrats, on this floor and elsewhere, who disapprove that message, I understand that all who shall vote for Gen: Cass, will thereafter be counted as having approved it---as having endorsed all it's doctrines. I suppose all, or nearly all the democrats will vote for him. Many of them will do so, not because they like his position on this question, but because they prefer him, being wrong in this, to another whom they consider farther wrong on other other [sic] questions. In this way, the internal improvement democrats are to be, by a sort of forced consent, carried over, and arrayed against themselves on this measure of policy. Gen: Cass, once elected, will not trouble himself to make a constitutional argument, or, perhaps, any argument at all, when he shall veto a river or harbor bill; he will consider it a sufficient answer to all democratic murmers, to point to Mr. Polk's message, and to the ``democratic platform.'' This being the case, the question of improvements is verging to a final crisis; and the friends of the policy must now battle, and battle manfully, or surrender all. In this view, humble as I am, I wish to review, and contest as well as I may, the general positions of this veto message. When I say general positions, I mean to exclude from consideration so much as relates to the present embarrassed state of the Treasury in consequence of the Mexican war.

Those general positions are: That internal improvements ought not to be made by the general government---

1. Because they would overwhelm the Treasury.

2. Because, while their burthens would be general, their benefits would be local and partial; involving an obnoxious inequality--- and

3. Because they would be unconstitutional.

4. Because the states may do enough by the levy and collection of tonnage duties---or if not

5. That the constitution may be amended.

``Do nothing at all, lest you do something wrong'' is the sum of these positions---is the sum of this message. And this, with the exception of what is said about constitutionality, applying as forcibly to making improvements by state authority, as by the national authority. So that we must abandon the improvements of the country altogether, by any, and every authority, or we must resist, and repudiate the doctrines of this message. Let us attempt the latter.

The first position is, that a system of internal improvements would overwhelm the treasury.

That, in such a system there is a tendency to undue expansion, isPage  482 not to be denied. Such tendency is founded in the nature of the subject. A member of congress will prefer voting for a bill which contains an appropriation for his district, to voting for one which does not; and when a bill shall be expanded till every district shall be provided for, that it will be too greatly expanded, is obvious. But is this any more true in congress, than in a state legislature? If a member of congress must have an appropriation for his district, so, a member of a legislature must have one for his county. And if one will overwhelm the national treasury, so the other will overwhelm the state treasury. Go where we will, the difficulty is the same. Allow it to drive us from the halls of congress, and it will, just as easily, drive us from the state legislatures.

Let us, then, grapple with it, and test it's strength. Let us, judging of the future by the past, ascertain whether there may not be, in the discretion of congress, a sufficient power to limit, and restrain this expansive tendency, within reasonable, and proper bounds. The president himself values the evidence of the past. He tells us that at a certain point of our history, more than two hundred millions of dollars had been, applied for, to make improvements; and this he does to prove that the treasury would be overwhelmed by such a system. Why did he not tell us how much was granted? Would not that have been better evidence? Let us turn to it, and see what it proves. In the message, the president tells us that ``During the four succeeding years, embraced by the administration of president Adams, the power not only to appropriate money, but to apply it, under the direction and authority of the General Government, as well [as] to the construction of roads, as to the improvement of harbors and rivers, was fully asserted and exercised''

This, then, was the period of greatest enormity. These, if any, must have been the days of the two hundred millions. And how much do you suppose was really expended for improvements, during that four years? Two hundred millions? One hundred? Fifty? Ten? Five? No sir, less than two millions. As shown by authentic documents, the expenditures on improvements, during 1825 1826---1827 and 1828, amounted to $1-879-627-01. These four years were the period of Mr. Adams' administration, nearly, and substantially. This fact shows, that when the power to make improvements ``was fully asserted and exercised'' the congress did keep within reasonable limits; and what has been done, it seems to me, can be done again.

Now for the second position of the message, namely, that the burthens of improvements would be general, while their benefitsPage  483 would [be] local and partial, involving an obnoxious inequality. That there is some degree of truth in this position, I shall not deny. No commercial object of government patronage can be so exclusively general, as to not be of some peculiar local advantage; but, on the other hand, nothing is so local, as to not be of some general advantage. The Navy, as I understand it, was established, and is maintained at a great annual expense, partly to be ready for war when war shall come, but partly also, and perhaps chiefly, for the protection of our commerce on the high seas. This latter object is, for all I can see, in principle, the same as internal improvements. The driving a pirate from the track of commerce on the broad ocean, and the removing a snag from it's more narrow path in the Mississippi river, can not, I think, be distinguished in principle. Each is done to save life and property, and for nothing else.

The Navy, then, is the most general in it's benefits of all this class of objects; and yet even the Navy is of some peculiar advantage to Charleston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New-York and Boston, beyond what it is to the interior towns of Illinois. The next most general object I can think of would be improvements on the Mississippi river and it's tributaries. They touch thirteen of our states, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa. Now I suppose it will not be denied, that these thirteen states are a little more interested in improvements on that great river, than are the remaining seventeen. These instances of the Navy, and the Miss[iss]ippi river, show clearly that there is something of local advantage in the most general objects. But the converse is also true. Nothing is so local as to not be of some general benefit. Take, for instance, the Illinois and Michigan canal. Considered apart from it's effects, it is perfectly local. Every inch of it is within the state of Illinois. That canal was first opened for business last April. In a very few days we were all gratified to learn, among other things, that sugar had been carried from New-Orleans through this canal to Buffalo in New-York. This sugar took this route, doubtless because it was cheaper than the old route. Supposing the benefit of the reduction in the cost of carriage to be shared between seller and buyer, the result is, that the New Orleans merchant sold his sugar a little dearer; and the people of Buffalo sweetened their coffee a little cheaper, than before---a benefit resulting from the canal, not to Illinois where the canal is, but to Louisiana and New-York where it is not. In other transactions Illinois will, of course, have her share, and perhaps the larger share too, in the benefits of the canal; but the instance of the sugar clearly shows that the benefits of anPage  484 improvement, are by no means confined to the particular locality of the improvement itself.

The just conclusion from all this is, that if the nation refuse to make improvements, of the more general kind, because their benefits may be somewhat local, a state may, for the same reason, refuse to make an improvement of a local kind, because it's benefits may be somewhat general. A state may well say to the nation ``If you will do nothing for me, I will do nothing for you.'' Thus it is seen, that if this argument of ``inequality'' is sufficient any where,---it is sufficient every where; and puts an end to improvements altogether. I hope and believe, that if both the nation and the states would, in good faith, in their respective spheres, do what they could in the way of improvements, what of inequality might be produced in one place, might be compensated in another, and that the sum of the whole might not be very unequal.

But suppose, after all, there should be some degree of inequality. Inequality is certainly never to be embraced for it's own sake; but is every good thing to be discarded, which may be inseparably connected with some degree of it? If so, we must discard all government. This capitol is built at the public expense, for the public benefit[;] but does any one doubt that it is of some peculiar local advantage to the property holders, and business people of Washington? Shall we remove it for this reason? and if so, where shall we set it down, and be free from the difficulty? To make sure of our object, shall we locate it nowhere? and have congress hereafter to hold it's sessions, as the loafer lodged ``in spots about''? I make no special allusion to the present president when I say there are few stronger cases in this in this [sic] world, of ``burthen to the many, and benefit to the few''---of ``inequality''---than the presidency itself is by some thought to be. An honest laborer digs coal at about seventy cents a day, while the president digs abstractions at about seventy dollars a day. The coal is clearly worth more than the abstractions, and yet what a monstrous inequality in the prices! Does the president, for this reason, propose to abolish the presidency? He does not, and he ought not. The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost every thing, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded. On this principle the president, his friends, and the world generally, act on most subjects. Why not apply it, then, uponPage  485 this question? Why, as to improvements, magnify the evil, and stoutly refuse to see any good in them?

Mr. Chairman, on the third position of the message, the constitutional question, I have not much to say. Being the man I am, and speaking when I do, I feel, that in any attempt at an original constitutional argument, I should not be, and ought not to be, listened to patiently. The ablest, and the best of men, have gone over the whole ground long ago. I shall attempt but little more than a brief notice of what some of them have said. In relation to Mr. Jeffersons views, I read from Mr. Polk's veto message---

President Jefferson, in his message to Congress in 1806, recommended an amendment of the constitution, with a view to apply an anticipated surplus in the Treasury ``to the great purposes of the public education, roads, rivers, canals, and such other objects of public improvements as it may be thought proper to add to the constitutional enumeration of the federal powers;'' and he adds: ``I suppose an amendment to the constitution, by consent of the States, necessary, because the objects now recommended are not among those enumerated in the constitution, and to which it permits the public moneys to be applied.'' In 1825, he repeated, in his published letters, the opinion that no such power has been conferred upon Congress. [2]

I introduce this, not to controvert, just now, the constitutional opinion, but to show that on the question of expediency, Mr. Jeffersons opinion was against the present president---that this opinion of Mr. Jefferson, in one branch at least, is, in the hands of Mr. Polk, like McFingal's gun:---``Bears wide, and kicks the owner over.''

But to the constitutional question---In 1826, Chancellor Kent first published his Commentaries on American Law. He devoted a portion of one of the lectures to the question of the authority of congress to appropriate public moneyes for internal improvements. He mentions that the question had never been brought under judicial consideration, and proceeds to give a brief summary of the discussions it had undergone between the legislative, and executive branches of the government. He shows that the legislative branch had usually been for, and the executive against the power, till the period of Mr. J. Q. Adams' administration, at which point he considers the executive influence as withdrawn from opposition, and added to the support of the power. In 1844 the chancellor published a new edition of his commentaries, in which he adds some notes of what had transpired on the question since 1826. I have not time to read the original text, or the notes; but the whole may be found onPage  486 page 267, and the two or three following pages of the first volume of the edition of 1844. As what Chancellor Kent seems to consider the sum of the whole, I read from one of the notes:

``Mr. Justice Story, in his commentaries on the constitution of the United States, vol. ii p 429-440, and again p 519-538 has stated at large the arguments for and and [sic] against the proposition, that congress have a constitutional authority to lay taxes, and to apply the power to regulate commerce as a means directly to encourage and protect domestic manufactures; and without giving any opinion of his own on the contested doctrine, he has left the reader to draw his own conclusions. I should think, however, from the arguments as stated, that every mind which has taken no part in the discussions, and felt to prejudice or teritorial bias on either side of the question, would deem the arguments in favor of the congressional power vastly superior.'' It will be seen, that in this extract the power to make improvements is not directly mentioned; but by examining the context, both of Kent and Story, it will be seen that the power mentioned in the extract, and the power to make improvements are regarded as identical. It is not to be denied that many great and good men have been against the power; but it is insisted that quite as many, as great and as good, have been for it; and it is shown that, on a full survey of the whole, Chancellor Kent was of opinion that the arguments of the latter were vastly superior. This is but the opinion of a man, but who was that man? He was one of the ablest and most learned lawyers of his age, or of any age. It is no disparagement to Mr. Polk, nor, indeed to any one who devotes much time to politics, to be placed far behind Chancellor Kent as a lawyer. [3] His attitude was most favorable to correct conclusions. He wrote coolly, and in retirement. He was struggling to rear a durable [an enduring] monument of fame; and he well knew that truth and thoroughly sound reasoning were the only sure foundations. Can the party opinion of a party [the] president, on a law question, as this purely is, be at all compared, or set in in opposition to that of such a man, in such an attitude, as Chancellor Kent?

This constitutional question will probably never be better settled than it is, until it shall pass under judicial consideration; but I do think no man, who is clear on the questions of expediency, needs feel his conscience much pricked upon this.

Mr. Chairman, the president seems to think that enough may be done, in the way of improvements, by means of tonnage duties,Page  487 under state authority, with the consent of the General Government. Now I suppose this matter of tonnage duties is well enough in it's own sphere. I suppose it may be efficient, and perhaps, sufficient, to make slight improvements and repairs, in harbors already in use, and not much out of repair. But if I have any correct general idea of it, it must be wholly inefficient for any generally benificent purposes of improvement. I know very little, or rather nothing at all, of the practical matter of levying and collecting tonnage duties; but I suppose one of it's principles must be, to lay a duty for the improvement of any particular harbor, upon the tonnage coming into that harbor. To do otherwise---to collect money in one harbor, to be expended on improvements in another, would be an extremely aggravated form of that inequality which the president so much deprecates. If I be right in this, how could we make any entirely new improvement by means of tonnage duties? How make a road, a canal, or clear a greatly obstructed river? The idea that we could, involves the same absurdity of the irish bull about the new boots---``I shall niver git em on'' says Patrick ``till I wear em a day or two, and strech em a little[.]'' We shall never make a canal by tonnage duties, u[n]til it shall already have been made awhile, so the tonnage can get into it.

After all, the president, concludes that possibly there may be some great objects of improvements which can not be effected by tonnage duties, and which, therefore, may be expedient for the General Government to take in hand. Accordingly he suggests, in case any such be discovered, the propriety of amending the constitution. Amend it for what? If, like Mr. Jefferson, the president thought improvements expedient, but not constitutional, it would be natural enough for him to recommend such an amendment; but hear what he says in this very message:

``In view of these portentous consequences, I can not but think that this course of legislation should be arrested, even were there nothing to forbid it in the fundamental laws of our union.''

For what, then, would he have the constitution amended? With him it is a proposition to remove one impediment, merely to be met by others, which, in his opinion, can not be removed---to enable congress to do what, in his opinion they ought not to do, if they could!---(Here Mr. Meade, [4] of Virginia, enquired if Mr. L. understood the president to be opposed, on grounds of expediency to any and every improvement; to which Mr. L. answered) In the very part of his message of which I am [now] speaking, I understand him as giving some vague expression in favor of some possible objectsPage  488 of improvements; but in doing so, I understand him to be directly in the teeth of his own arguments, in other parts of it. Neither the president, nor any one, can possibly specify an improvement, which shall not be clearly liable to one or another of the objections he has urged on the score of expediency. I have shown, and might show again, that no work---no object---can be so general, as to dispense it's benefits with precise equality; and this inequality, is chief among the ``portentous consequences'' for which he declares that improvements should be arrested. No sir, when the president intimates that something, in the way of improvements, may properly be done by the General Government, he is shrinking from the conclusions to which his own arguments would force him. He feels that the improvements of this broad and goodly land, are a mighty interest; and he is unwilling to confess to the people, or perhaps to himself, that he has built an argument which, when pressed to it's conclusions, entirely anihilates this interest.

I have already said that no one, who is satisfied of the expediency of making improvements, needs be much uneasy in his conscience about it's constitutionality. I wish now to submit a few remarks on the general proposition of amending the constitution. As a general rule, I think, we would [do] much better [to] let it alone. No slight occasion should tempt us to touch it. Better not take the first step, which may lead to a habit of altering it. Better, rather, habituate ourselves to think of it, as unalterable. It can scarcely be made better than it is. New provisions, would introduce new difficulties, and thus create, and increase appetite for still further change. No sir, let it stand as it is. New hands have never touched it. The men who made it, have done their work, and have passed away. Who shall improve, on what they did?

Mr. Chairman, for the purpose of reviewing this message in the least possible time, as well as for the sake of distinctness, I had analized it's arguments, as well as I could, and reduced them to the propositions I have stated. I have now examined them in detail. I wish to detain the committee only a little while longer with some general remarks upon the subject of improvements. That the subject is a difficult one, can not be denied. Still it is no more difficult in congress, than in the state legislatures, in the counties, or in the smallest municipal districts, which any where exist. All can recur to instances of this difficulty in the case of county-roads, bridges, and the like. One man is offended because a road passes over his land, and another is offended because it does not pass over his; one is dissatisfied because the bridge, for which he is taxed, crosses the river on a different road from that which leads from his house toPage  489 town; another can not bear that the county should be got in debt for these same roads and bridges; while not a few struggle hard to have roads located over their lands, and then stoutly refuse to let them be opened until they are first paid the damages. Even between the different wards, and streets, of towns and cities, we find this same wrangling, and difficulty. Now these are no other than the very difficulties, against which and out of which, the president constructs his objections of ``inequality'' ``speculation'' and ``crushing the treasury.'' There is but a single alternative about them; they are sufficient, or they are not. If sufficient, they are sufficient out of congress as well as in it, and there is the end. We must reject them, as insufficient, or lie down and do nothing, by any authority. Then, difficulty though there be, let us meet, and encounter [overcome] it.

Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt;

Nothing so hard, but search will find it out. [5]

Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way. The tendency to undue expansion is unquestionably the chief difficulty. How to do something, and still not do too much, is the desideratum. Let each contribute his mite in the way of suggestion. The late Silas Wright, in a letter to the Chicago convention, contributed his, which was worth something; and I now contribute mine, which may be worth nothing. At all events, it will mislead nobody, and, therefore will do no harm. I would not borrow money. I am against an overwhelming, crushing system. Suppose, that at each session, congress shall first determine how much money can, for that year, be spared for improvements; then apportion that sum to the most important objects. So far all is easy; but how shall we determine which are the most important? On this question comes the collision of interests. I shall be slow to acknowledge, that your harbor, or your river is more important than mine---and vice versa. To clear this difficulty, let us have that same statistical information, which the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Vinton) [6] suggested at the beginning of this session. In that information, we shall have a stern, unbending basis of facts---a basis, in nowise subject to whim, caprice, or local interest. The pre-limited amount of means, will save us from doing too much, and the statistics, will save us from doing, what we do, in wrong places. Adopt, and adhere to this course, and it seems to me, the difficulty is cleared.

One of the gentlemen from South Carolina (Mr. Rhett) [7] veryPage  490 much deprecates these statistics. He particularly objects, as I understand him, to counting all the pigs and chickens in the land. I do not perceive much force in the objection. It is true that if every thing be enumerated, a portion of such statistics may not be very useful to this object. Such products of the country as are to be consumed where they are produced, need no roads or rivers---no means of transportation, and have no very proper connection with this subject. The surplus---that which is produced in one place, to be consumed in another; the capacity of each locality for producing a greater surplus; the natural means of transportation, and their susceptability of improvement; the hindrances, delays, and losses of life and property during transportation, and the causes of each, would be among the most valuable statistics in this connection. From these, it would readily appear where a given amount of expenditure would do the most good. These statistics might be equally accessable, as they would be equally useful, to both the nation and the states. In this way, and by these means, let the nation take hold of the larger works, and the states the smaller ones; and thus, working in a meeting direction, discreetly, but steadily and firmly, what is made unequal in one place may be equalized in another, extravagance avoided, and the whole country put on that career of prosperity, which shall correspond with it's extent of teritory, it's natural resources, and the intelligence and enterprize of it's people.

Annotation

[1]   AD, DLC-RTL. This document was written, or recopied, by Lincoln after delivering the speech, for printing in the Congressional Globe Appendix (letter to Herndon, June 22, infra). Except in minor matters of style and punctuation, which the Globe edited to its own style, the text is largely the same. Principal variations of phrase appearing in the Globe Appendix are indicated in brackets in the text as taken from the document. The speech was also printed in the Illinois Journal, July 20, 1848.

[2]   The quotation is a newspaper clipping which Lincoln pasted on his manuscript.

[3]   As an afterthought, apparently, this sentence was written lengthwise in the margin, with its place marked by an asterisk.

[4]   Richard K. Meade.

[5]   Quotation from Terence.

[6]   Samuel F. Vinton.

[7]   Robert Barnwell Rhett.