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For one, certainly, I could never give my support to this bill, unless I were convinced that such a distinction exists. I could never vote to tax with a view to distribution. If, indeed, such a surplus were again accumulated in the Treasury as we saw there a few years ago, I might be willing to get rid of it in the best way I could, from whatever source it might have been collected; but to impose taxes with one hand, and distribute them with the other, would, in my judgment, be utterly unjustifiable, as well as grossly unconstitutional.
Does, then, such a distinction exist? Do the proceeds of the public lands come into the Treasury under such different circumstances from its ordinary receipts, as to constitute in some sort a special fund ?
Gentlemen on the other side say, no. They maintain that when the lands have once been turned into moneys, and those moneys have been placed in the Treasury, they are in no degree distinguishable from the ordinary revenues of the country. And so entirely do they confound the two classes of receipts, as to tell us that, if Congress should pass this distribution bill, all the salutary safeguards thrown around the taxing power by our fathers would be broken down! This was the language of the honorable member from Maine, (Mr. Clifford.)
Now, what under the sun have the proceeds of the public lands to do with the taxing power? Is it a tax, to give a man an acre of the best land on the face of the earth for a dollar and a quarter, and that at his own particular demand? If it be, Sir, it is a tax which the people of this country may well be content to bear. Commend me to such taxes. I desire no safeguards against them. I am willing to submit to such taxation as this, even without representation.
Mr. Chairman, it seems to me that the most cursory examination of the Constitution is sufficient to show that there is no analogy whatever between these different classes of revenue. The power to lay taxes is a power, as we all know, created by the Constitution itself. No such power existed before the Constitution was established. And the exercise of the power is limited by the express letter of the Constitution to certain spe“The Congress shall have power (says the Constitution) to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States;"— language, certainly, pretty broad and comprehensive in itself, but which has received a construction limiting it to the objects for which Congress, in other parts of the Constitution, is empowered to provide.
But how is it as to the public lands? The power of Congress over those lands was not originally created by the Constitution. A large portion of those lands was ceded to the General Government prior to the adoption of that instrument. Another portion was ceded soon after its adoption. And a third and fourth portion were purchased at subsequent and separate periods. The Constitution was framed with little or no reference to the lands. In the original draft of that instrument, there was not a line, or a word, or a syllable, in allusion to them. And the only provi. sion which was afterwards inserted by the Convention, or which can be found in relation to them now, is as follows,
“The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular State."
And now, what is there, Mr. Chairman, in this provision which makes it incumbent on Congress to appropriate the proceeds of these lands to one purpose rather than to another? What language is there in this clause, or what construction of any language, which gives us the authority to place them in the Treasury for the ordinary expenditures of the government, which does not equally give us the authority to distribute them among the States? Where do we get the power to dispose of the proceeds at all, except as a necessary implication from the power to dispose of the lands? Sir, I put to the Committee this dilemma, if the power to dispose of the lands does not carry with it the power to dispose of the proceeds, we have no such power; and if it does, then the latter power is coequal and coextensive with the former. And is there any one who sets limits to the power of disposing of the lands? It is too late to do so. We have already appropriated them to almost every object that can be named, — to education, to internal improvements, to charity, to the use of individuals, of corporations, and of States.
And there is as little, Mr. Chairman, in the reason of the thing as there is in the language of the Constitution, for limiting the disposition of the moneys received from the sales of the public lands. The people may well be jealous of intrusting even their own representatives with the power of taxing them for every purpose at their pleasure. But, as I have already said, the sales of the public lands involve no taxation; they impose no burdens upon anybody. In regard to them, therefore, the people are entirely safe in giving us the full latitude of a sound and reasonable discretion. And such a discretion, I hold, they have given us.
But gentlemen tell us that inasmuch as the distribution of the proceeds of the public lands will involve the necessity of laying additional taxes on imports, it amounts to the same thing as distributing the receipts from taxation. Why, Sir, the same reasoning might almost as well be adduced against appropriating the Smithsonian fund to the object for which it was designed. That fund, if applied to the ordinary expenditures of the government, would save the necessity of raising an equal amount by taxation. And its appropriation to the diffusion of useful knowledge among mankind, according to the terms of the bequest, might, with almost as much justice, be complained of as involving the necessity of imposing additional burdens on the people, as the distribution for which this bill provides ; if, as I maintain, the proceeds of the public lands constitute a separate fund in the Treasury, entirely distinguishable from the ordinary revenues of the country.
Again, Sir, it has been suggested that, upon this principle, the national government might do to almost any extent indirectly, that which it is admitted they have no power to do directly. They might tax the people, we are told, to almost any amount for the purchase of new lands, and then go on to sell them forthwith and distribute the proceeds. But it is to be observed, Mr. Chairman, in the first place, that such an abuse would have its origin in the power to purchase, and not in the power to distribute. And the power to purchase new territory, we all know, is one of very questionable constitutionality. The honorable member from Pennsylvania (Mr. Ingersoll) the other day alluded to my respected colleague in front of me, (Mr. Adams,) as hav. ing denied the constitutionality of the Louisiana purchase. My colleague was not alone in that denial. Mr. Jefferson himself, in a letter to Mr. Breckenridge, written at the time, expressly declared that the Executive, in making that purchase, “ had done an act beyond the Constitution.”
But even were it not so, - even were the power of purchasing territory entirely indisputable and unlimited, what would this suggestion amount to, but to one of those arguments against the use or existence of a power from its liability to abuse, which may be brought alike against any and every branch of authority which the Constitution bestows? Sir, if such arguments are to have weight, we must revoke all authority, renounce all government, abandon all society. Every power may be abused, and the only check or safeguard we can have is in the responsibility of those to whom power is intrusted.
I hold, therefore, Mr. Chairman, that there is a plain and palpable distinction between the proceeds of the public lands and the other receipts into the Treasury of the nation, and that while the latter are limited to certain specified objects of appropriation, the former are placed freely, so far at least as the Constitution is concerned, at the discretion of Congress, - a discretion only controlled by the responsibility of those who exercise it to the people who elected them.
And, indeed, this doctrine has too often been admitted, asserted, and acted upon, even by those who have been the most strenuous opponents of this measure of distribution, to require any more extended illustration. It was expressly asserted by General Jackson, as long ago as 1832. In his Annual Message of that year, he says, —
“As the lands may now be considered as relieved from this pledge (the payment of the public debt,) the object for which they were ceded having been accomplished, it is in the discretion of Congress to dispose of them in such way as best to conduce to the quiet, harmony, and general interest of the American people.”
The same doctrine has been adınitted, or certainly implied, by all the friends of cession, as it is called, whether absolute or conditional, from that day to this. For on what principle could Congress cede away the whole or any part of the lands themselves, which does not imply a high and plenary discretion on their part to dispose of the proceeds also ?
I turn, then, Mr. Chairman, from this first point in my argument, to inquire what considerations should influence us in the exercise of this discretion, and, more especially, what considerations will justify us in the particular exercise of it which is now proposed.
And, first, I maintain that Congress is not bound in such a case to look altogether to the necessities of the National Treasury. This would be to destroy the whole effect of the distinction just established, and practically to place the proceeds of the public lands on the same footing with any other description of income. We may take a larger and more liberal view of things. We may look, and we ought to look, to considerations of equity, to considerations of expediency, to considerations commensurate with the whole country, or, as General Jackson said, with “ the quiet, harmony, and general interest of the American people.”
Why, Sir, even in relation to the ordinary revenues of the country, the wants of the government are not always exclusively regarded. What would be the conduct of Congress at the present session in relation to what is called the compromise act, if the necessities of the nation were to be the only rule of action? Under the provisions of that act, five millions of dollars are to be withdrawn from the annual revenues of the country, at a moment when, as I have said, there is already a debt and deficiency of twelve millions. We are about to give a silent assent, by leaving that act in operation and laying new duties at the same time, to a course of proceeding by no means remotely analogous, and to my mind, quite as objectionable, abstractly considered, as that now under discussion. We are about to remit duties with one hand, while we collect them with the other. Upon what principle will this be done? Why, upon the principle of a previous compact, an existing understanding, or a high and eminent expediency. For myself, I take leave to say, I admit no compact. Those whom I have the honor to represent