Grover Cleveland

Veto Message

June 06, 1896

To the House of Representatives:

I hereby return without my approval House bill No. 8293, entitled "An act making appropriations to supply deficiencies in the appropriations for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1896, and for prior years, and lot other purposes."

To the extent that the Constitution has devolved upon the President a participation in legislation I suppose his action on bills presented to him for approval involves a duty to be performed, like others pertaining to his office, with care and circumspection and in full view of his responsibility to the people and his obligation to subserve the public welfare . It is difficult to understand why under the Constitution it should be necessary to submit proposed legislation to Executive scrutiny and approval except to invoke the exercise of Executive judgment and invite independent Executive action.

The unpleasant incidents which accompany the use of the veto power would tempt its avoidance if such a course did not involve an abandonment of constitutional duty and an assent to legislation for which the Executive is not willing to share the responsibility.

I regret that I am constrained to disapprove an important appropriation bill so near the close of the present session of Congress. I have, however, by immediate action after the receipt of the bill, endeavored to delay as little as possible a reconsideration of this proposed legislation. though I am thus obliged to content myself with a less complete explanation of my objections than would otherwise be submitted.

This bill is in many of its features far removed from a legitimate deficiency bill, and it contains a number of appropriations which seem to me to be exceedingly questionable. Without noticing in detail many of these items, I shall refer to two of them which, in my judgment, justify my action in the premises.

The bill appropriates $1,027,314.09 for a partial payment upon claims which originated in depredations upon our commerce by French cruisers and vessels during the closing years of the last century. They have become quite familiar to those having Congressional experience, as they have been pressed for recognition and payment, with occasional intervals of repose, for nearly one hundred years.

These claims are based upon the allegations that France, being at war with England, seized and condemned many American vessels and cargoes in violation of the rules of international law and treaty provisions and contrary to the duty she owed to our country as a neutral power and to our citizens; that by reason of these acts claims arose in favor of such of our citizens as were damnified against the French nation, which claims our Government attempted to enforce, and that in concluding a treaty with France in the year 1800 these claims were abandoned or relinquished in consideration of the relinquishment of certain claims which France charged against us.

Upon these statements it is insisted by those interested that we as a nation having reaped a benefit in our escape from these French demands against us through the abandonment of the claims of our citizens against France, the Government became equitably bound as between itself and citizens to pay the claims thus relinquished.

I do not understand it to be asserted that there exists any legal liability against the Government on account of its relation to these claims. At the term of the Supreme Court just finished the Chief Justice, in opinion concerning them and the action of Congress in appropriating their payment, said:

We think that payments thus prescribed to be made were purposely brought within the category of payments by way of gratuity--payments of grace and not right.

From the time the plan was conceived to charge the Government with the payment of these claims they have abided in the atmosphere of controversy. Every proposition presented in their support has been stoutly disputed and every inference suggested in their favor has been promptly challenged.

Thus, inasmuch as it must, I think, be conceded that if a state of war existed between our country and France at the time these depredations were committed our Government was not justified in claiming indemnity for our citizens, it is asserted that we were at the time actually engaged in war with the French nation. This position seems to be sustained by an opinion of the Attorney-General of the United States written in 1798 and by a number of decisions of the Supreme Court delivered soon after that time.

We had certainly abrogated treaties with France, and our cruisers and armed ships were roaming the seas capturing her vessels and property.

So, also, when it is asserted that the validity of these claims was acknowledged in the treaty negotiations by the representatives of France, their declarations to a contrary purport are exhibited.

And when it is alleged that the abandonment of these claims against France was in consideration of great benefits to the Government, it is as confidently alleged that they were in point of fact abandoned because their enforcement was hopeless and that even if any benefit really accrued to us by insistence upon their settlement in the course of diplomatic negotiation such result gave no pretext for taxing the Government with liability to the claimants.

Without noticing other considerations and contentions arising from the alleged origin of these claims, a brief reference to their treatment in the past and the development of their presentation may be useful and pertinent.

It is, I believe, somewhat the fashion in interested quarters to speak of the failure by the Government to pay these claims as such neglect as amounts to repudiation and a denial of justice to citizens who have suffered. Of course the original claimants have for years been beyond the reach of relief; but as their descendants in each generation become more numerous the volume of advocacy, importunity, and accusation correspondingly increases. If injustice has been done in the refusal of these claims, it began early in the present century and may be charged against men then in public life more conversant than we can be with the facts involved and whose honesty and sense of right ought to be secure from suspicion.

As early as 1802 a committee of the House of Representatives reported the facts connected with these claims, but apparently without recommendation. No action was taken on the report. In 1803 a resolution declaring that indemnity ought to be paid was negatived by a vote of the same body. A favorable committee report was made in 1807, but it seems that no legislative action resulted. In 1818 an adverse report was made to the Senate, followed by the passage of a resolution declaring "that the relief asked by the memorialists and petitioners ought not to be granted." In 1822 and again in 1824 adverse committee reports on the subject were made to the House, concluding with similar resolutions.

The presumption against these claims arising from such unfavorable reports and resolutions and from the failure of Congress to provide for their payment at a time so near the events upon which they are based can not be destroyed by the interested cry of injustice and neglect of the rights of our citizens.

Until 1846 these claims were from time to time pressed upon the attention of Congress with varying fortunes, but never with favorable legislative action. In that year, however, a bill was passed for their ascertainment and satisfaction, and $5,000,000 were appropriated for their payment. This bill was vetoed by President Polk, who declared that he could "perceive no legal or equitable ground upon which this large appropriation can rest." This veto was sustained by the House of Representatives.

Nine years afterwards, and in 1855, another bill was passed similar to the one last mentioned, and appropriating for the settlement of these claims a like sum of money. This bill was also vetoed, President Pierce concluding a thorough discussion of its demerits with these words:

In view of what has been said there would seem to be no ground on which to raise a liability of the United States, unless it be the assumption that the United States are to be considered the insurer and the guarantor of all claims, of whatever nature, which any individual citizen may have against a foreign nation.

This veto was also sustained by the House of Representatives.

I think it will be found that in all bills proposed in former times for the payment of these claims the sum to be appropriated for that purpose did not exceed $5,000,000. It is now estimated that those already passed upon, with those still pending for examination in the Court of Claims, may amount to $25,000,000. This indicates either that the actual sufferers or those nearer to them in time and blood than the present claimants underestimated their losses or that there has been a great development in the manner of their presentation.

Nothwithstanding persistent efforts to secure payment from the Government and the importunity of those interested, no appropriation has ever been made for that purpose except a little more than $1,300,000, which was placed in the general deficiency bill in the very last hours the session of Congress on March 3, 1891.

In the long list of beneficiaries who are provided for in the bill now before me on account of these claims 152 represent the owners of ships and their cargoes and 186 those who lost as insurers of such vessels or cargoes.

These insurers by the terms of their policies undertook and agreed "to bear and take upon themselves all risks and perils of the sea, men-of-war, fire, enemies, rovers, thieves, jettison, letters of mart and counter mart, surprisals, takings at sea, arrests, restraints, and detainments of all kings, princes, or people of what nation, condition, or quality whatsoever."

The premiums received on these policies were large, and the losses were precisely those within the contemplation of the insurers. It is well known that the business of insurance is entered upon with the expectation that the premiums received will pay all losses and yield a profit to the insurance in addition; and yet, without any showing that the business did not result in a profit to these insurance claimants, it is proposed that the Government shall indemnify them against the precise risks they undertook, notwithstanding the fact that the money appropriated is not to be paid except "by way of gratuity--payments as of grace and not of right."

The appropriations to indemnify against insurance losses rest upon weaker grounds, it seems to me, than those of owners; but in the light of all the facts and circumstances surrounding these spoliation claims, as they are called, none of them, in my opinion, should be paid by the Government.

Another item in this bill which seems to me especially objectionable is an appropriation in favor of Charles P. Chouteau, survivor, etc., of$174,445.75, in full satisfaction of all claims arising out of the construction of the ironclad steam battery Etlah.

The contract for the construction of this battery was made by the Government with Charles W. McCord during the war, and he was to be paid therefor the sum of $386,000. He was paid this sum and $210,991 for extras, and in May, 1866, gave his receipt in full. The assignee of McCord in bankruptcy assigned to Chouteau and his associates in 1868 all claims of McCord against the United States for the precise extras for which he had receipted in full two years before. Chouteau brought suit in the Court of Claims for such extras and was defeated. I can not gather from the facts I have been able to collect concerning this appropriation that it is justified on any ground.

In 1890 my immediate predecessor vetoed a bill allowing the matter to be examined again by the Court of Claims.

If the additional payment proposed in this bill was made, the cost of the battery in question would be almost double that of the contract price.

I have determined to submit this incomplete presentation of my objections to this bill at once in order that the Congress may act thereon without embarrassment or the interruption of plans for an early adjournment.


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

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