The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

The navy, then, is the most general in its 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 its 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 Mississippi 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
its 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 benefit of the reduction in the cost of carriage to be
shared between seller and the buyer, 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, of the benefits of the canal; but
this instance of the sugar clearly shows that the benefits of an
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 its 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 anywhere, it is sufficient
everywhere, 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 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 its
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 its sessions, as the
loafer lodged, “in spots about”? I make no allusion to the
present President when I say there are few stronger cases in this
world of “burden 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 anything, 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 everything, especially
of government 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, upon 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, where 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. Jefferson’s views, I read from Mr. Polk’s veto

“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 improvement 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.”

I introduce this not to controvert just now the constitutional
opinion, but to show that, on the question of expediency, Mr.
Jefferson’s 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

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 moneys for internal
improvements. He mentions that the subject had never been
brought under judicial consideration, and proceeds to give a
brief summary of the discussion 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’s
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 on the notes; but the whole may be found on
page 267, and the two or three following pages, of the first
volume of the edition of 1844. As to 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., pp. 429-440, and again pp. 519-538,
has stated at large the arguments for and 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 discussion, and felt no prejudice or territorial 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. His attitude was most favorable to
correct conclusions. He wrote coolly, and in retirement. He was
struggling to rear a durable 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 President on a law
question, as this purely is, be at all compared or set 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 need 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
under State authority, with the consent of the General
Government. Now I suppose this matter of tonnage duties is well
enough in its 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 general beneficent 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 its
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 as the Irish bull about the new boots. “I shall
niver git ’em on,” says Patrick, “till I wear ’em a day or two,
and stretch ’em a little.” We shall never make a canal by
tonnage duties until 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 improvement which cannot be effected by
tonnage duties, and which it 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 cannot 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, cannot be removed, to enable
Congress to do what, in his opinion, they ought not to do if they

Here Mr. Meade of Virginia inquired if Mr. Lincoln understood the
President to be opposed, on grounds of expediency, to any and
every improvement.

Mr. Lincoln answered: In the very part of his message of which I
am speaking, I understand him as giving some vague expression in
favor of some possible objects of improvement; but in doing so I
understand him to be directly on 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 its 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 its
conclusions, entirely annihilates 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 its 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 much better
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 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
have analyzed its 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, cannot 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 anywhere 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 to
town; another cannot 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 it.
“Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt; nothing so hard, but
search will find it out.” 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.

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