Grover Cleveland

Veto Message

March 11, 1886

To the Senate of the United States:

I return herewith without approval, and with a statement of my objections thereto, Senate bill No. 150, entitled "An act to quiet title of settlers on the Des Moines River lands in the State of Iowa, and for other purposes."

This proposed legislation grows out of a grant of land made to the Territory of Iowa in the year 1846 to aid in the improvement of the navigation of the Des Moines River.

The language of this grant was such that it gave rise to conflicting decisions on the part of the Government Departments as to its extent, and it was not until 1860 that this question was authoritatively and finally settled by the Supreme Court of the United States. Its decision diminished the extent of the grant to a quantity much less than had been insisted on by certain interested parties and rendered invalid the titles of parties who held, under the Territory or State of Iowa, lands beyond the limit of the grant fixed by the decision of the court.

For the purpose of validating such titles and to settle all disputes so far as the General Government was concerned, the Congress, in the year 1861, by a joint resolution, transferred to the State of Iowa all the title then retained by the United States to the lands within the larger limits which had been claimed, and then held by bona fide purchasers from the State; and in 1862 an act of Congress was passed for the same general purpose.

Without detailing the exact language of this resolution and statute, it certainly seems to be such a transfer and relinquishment of all interests in the land mentioned on the part of the United States as to relieve the Government from any further concern therein.

The questions unfortunately growing out of this grant and the legislation relating thereto have been passed upon by the United States Supreme Court in numerous cases, and as late as 1883 that court, referring to its many previous decisions, adjudged that "the act of 1862 (12 U. S. Statutes at Large, ch. 161, p. 543) transferred the title from the United States and vested it in the State of Iowa for the use of its grantees under the river grant."

Bills similar to this have been before Congress for a number of years and have failed of passage; and at least on one occasion the Committee on the Judiciary of the Senate reported adversely upon a measure covering the same ground.

I have carefully examined the legislation upon the subject of this grant, and studied the decisions of the court upon the numerous and complicated questions which have arisen from such legislation, and the positions of the parties claiming an interest in the land covered by said grant, and I can not but think that every possible question that can be raised, or at least that ought to be raised, in any suit relating to these lands has been determined by the highest judicial authority in the land; and if any substantial point remains yet unsettled, I believe there is no difficulty in presenting it to the proper tribunal.

This bill declares that certain lands which nearly twenty-four years ago the United States entirely relinquished are still public lands, and directs the Attorney-General to begin suits to assert and protect the title of the United States in such lands.

If it be true that these are public lands, the declaration that they are so by enactment is entirely unnecessary; and if they are wrongfully withheld from the Government, the duty and authority of the Attorney-General are not aided by the proposed legislation. If they are not public lands because the United States have conveyed them to others, the bill is subject to grave objections as an attempt to destroy vested rights and disturb interests which have long since become fixed.

If a law of Congress could, in the manner contemplated by the bill, change, under the Constitution, the existing rights of any of the parties claiming interests in these lands, it hardly seems that any new questions could be presented to the courts which would do more than raise false hopes and renew useless and bitter strife and litigation.

It seems to me that all controversies which can hereafter arise between those claiming these lands have been fairly remitted to the State of Iowa, and that there they can be properly and safely left; and the Government, through its Attorney-General, should not be called upon to litigate the rights of private parties.

It is not pleasant to contemplate loss threatened to any party acting in good faith, caused by uncertainty in the language of laws or their conflicting interpretation; and if there are persons occupying these lands who labor under such disabilities as prevent them from appealing to the courts for a redress of their wrongs, a plain statute, directed simply to a remedy for such disabilities, would not be objectionable.

Should there be meritorious cases of hardship and loss, caused by an invitation on the part of the Government to settle upon lands apparently public, but to which no right or lawful possession can be secured, it would be better, rather than to attempt a disturbance of titles already settled, to ascertain such losses and do equity by compensating the proper parties through an appropriation for that purpose.

A law to accomplish this very object was passed by Congress in the year 1873.

Valuable proof is thus furnished, by the only law ever passed upon the subject, of the manner in which it was thought proper by the Congress at that time to meet the difficulties suggested by the bill now under consideration.

Notwithstanding the fact that there may be parties in the occupancy of these lands who suffer hardship by the application of strict legal principles to their claims, safety lies in noninterference by Congress with matters which should be left to judicial cognizance; and I am unwilling to concur in legislation which, if not an encroachment upon judicial power, trenches so closely thereon as to be of doubtful expediency, and which at the same time increases the elements of litigation that have heretofore existed and endangers vested rights.


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

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