Grover Cleveland

Special Message

August 02, 1886

To the House of Representatives:

I have this day approved a bill originating in the House of Representatives entitled "An act defining butter, also imposing a tax upon and regulating the manufacture, sale, importation, and exportation of oleomargarine."

This legislation has awakened much interest among the people of the country, and earnest argument has been addressed to the Executive for the purpose of influencing his action thereupon. Many in opposition have urged its dangerous character as tending to break down the boundaries between the proper exercise of legislative power by Federal and State authority; many in favor of the enactment have represented that it promised great advantages to a large portion of our population who sadly need relief; and those on both sides of the question whose advocacy or opposition is based upon no broader foundation than local or personal interest have outnumbered all the others.

This upon its face and in its main features is a revenue bill, and was first introduced in the House of Representatives, wherein the Constitution declares that all bills for raising revenue shall originate.

The Constitution has invested Congress with a very wide legislative discretion both as to the necessity of taxation and the selection of the objects of its burdens; and though if the question was presented to me as an original proposition I might doubt the present need of increased taxation, I deem it my duty in this instance to defer to the judgment of the legislative branch of the Government, which has been so emphatically announced in both Houses of Congress upon the passage of this bill.

Moreover, those who desire to see removed the weight of taxation now pressing upon the people from other directions may well be justified in the hope and expectation that the selection of an additional subject of internal taxation so well able to bear it will in consistency be followed by legislation relieving our citizens from other revenue burdens, rendered by the passage of this bill even more than heretofore unnecessary and needlessly oppressive.

It has been urged as an objection to this measure that while purporting to be legislation for revenue its real purpose is to destroy, by the use of the taxing power, one industry of our people for the protection and benefit of another.

If entitled to indulge in such a suspicion as a basis of official action in this case, and if entirely satisfied that the consequences indicated would ensue, I should doubtless feel constrained to interpose Executive dissent.

But I do not feel called upon to interpret the motives of Congress otherwise than by the apparent character of the bill which has been presented to me, and I am convinced that the taxes which it creates can not possibly destroy the open and legitimate manufacture and sale of the thing upon which it is levied. If this article has the merit which its friends claim for it, and if the people of the land, with full knowledge of its real character, desire to purchase and use it, the taxes exacted by this bill will permit a fair profit to both manufacturer and dealer. If the existence of the commodity taxed and the profits of its manufacture and sale depend upon disposing of it to the people for something else which it deceitfully imitates, the entire enterprise is a fraud and not an industry; and if it can not endure the exhibition of its real character which will be effected by the inspection, supervision, and stamping which this bill directs, the sooner it is destroyed the better in the interest of fair dealing.

Such a result would not furnish the first instance in the history of legislation in which a revenue bill produced a benefit which was merely incidental to its main purpose.

There is certainly no industry better entitled to the incidental advantages which may follow this legislation than our farming and dairy interests, and to none of our people should they be less begrudged than our farmers and dairymen. The present depression of their occupations, the hard, steady, and often unremunerative toil which such occupations exact, and the burdens of taxation which our agriculturists necessarily bear entitle them to every legitimate consideration.

Nor should there be opposition to the incidental effect of this legislation on the part of those who profess to be engaged honestly and fairly in the manufacture and sale of a wholesome and valuable article of food which by its provisions may be subject to taxation. As long as their business is carried on under cover and by false pretenses such men have bad companions in those whose manufactures, however vile and harmful, take their place without challenge with the better sort in a common crusade of deceit against the public. But if this occupation and its methods are forced into the light and all these manufactures must thus either stand upon their merits or fall, the good and bad must soon part company and the fittest only will survive.

Not the least important incident related to this legislation is the defense afforded to the consumer against the fraudulent substitution and sale of an imitation for a genuine article of food of very general household use. Notwithstanding the immense quantity of the article described in this bill which is sold to the people for their consumption as food, and notwithstanding the claim made that its manufacture supplies a cheap substitute for butter, I venture to say that hardly a pound ever entered a poor man's house under its real name and in its true character.

While in its relation to an article of this description there should be no governmental regulation of what the citizen shall eat, it is certainly not a cause of regret if by legislation of this character he is afforded a means by which he may better protect himself against imposition in meeting the needs and wants of his daily life.

Having entered upon this legislation, it is manifestly a duty to render it as effective as possible in the accomplishment of all the good which should legitimately follow in its train.

This leads to the suggestion that the article proposed to be taxed and the circumstances which subject it thereto should be clearly and with great distinctness defined in the statute. It seems to me that this object has not been completely attained in the phraseology of the second section of the bill, and that question may well arise as to the precise condition the article to be taxed must assume in order to be regarded as "made in imitation or semblance of butter, or, when so made, calculated or intended to be sold as butter or for butter."

The fourteenth and fifteenth sections of the bill, in my opinion, are in danger of being construed as an interference with the police powers of the States. Not being entirely satisfied of the unconstitutionality of these provisions, and regarding them as not being so connected and interwoven with the other sections as, if found invalid, to vitiate the entire measure, I have determined to commend them to the attention of the House with a view to an immediate amendment of the bill if it should be deemed necessary and if it is practicable at this late day in the session of Congress.

The fact, too, that the bill does not take effect by its terms until ninety days have elapsed after its approval, thus leaving it but one month in operation before the next session of Congress, when, if time does not now permit, the safety and efficiency of the measure may be abundantly protected by remedial legislative action, and the desire to see realized the beneficial results which it is expected will immediately follow the inauguration of this legislation, have had their influence in determining my official action.

The considerations which have been referred to will, I hope, justify this communication and the suggestions which it contains.


Grover Cleveland, Special Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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