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Veto Message

June 29, 1842

To the House of Representatives of the United States:

I return the bill, which originated in the House of Representatives, entitled "An act to extend for a limited period the present laws for laying and collecting duties on imports," with the following objections:

It suspends--in other words, abrogates for the time--the provision of the act of 1833, commonly called the "compromise act." The only ground on which this departure from the solemn adjustment of a great and agitating question seems to have been regarded as expedient is the alleged necessity of establishing by legislative enactments rules and regulations for assessing the duties to be levied on imports after the 30th June according to the home valuation, and yet the bill expressly provides that "if before the 1st of August there be no further legislation upon the subject, the laws for laying and collecting duties shall be the same as though this act had not been passed." In other words, that the act of 1833, imperfect as it is considered, shall in that case continue to be and to be executed under such rules and regulations as previous statutes had prescribed or had enabled the executive department to prescribe for that purpose, leaving the supposed chasm in the revenue laws just as it was before.

I am certainly far from being disposed to deny that additional legislation upon the subject is very desirable; on the contrary, the necessity, as well as difficulty, of establishing uniformity in the appraisements to be made in conformity with the true intention of that act was brought to the notice of Congress in my message to Congress at the opening of its present session. But however sensible I may be of the embarrassments to which the Executive, in the absence of all aid from the superior wisdom of the Legislature, will be liable in the enforcement of the existing laws, I have not, with the sincerest wish to acquiesce in its expressed will, been able to persuade myself that the exigency of the occasion is so great as to justify me in signing the bill in question with my present views of its character and effects. The existing laws, as I am advised, are sufficient to authorize and enable the collecting officers, under the directions of the Secretary of the Treasury, to levy the duties imposed by the act of 1833.

That act was passed under peculiar circumstances, to which it is not necessary that I should do more than barely allude. Whatever may be, in theory, its character, I have always regarded it as importing the highest moral obligation. It has now existed for nine years unchanged in any essential particular, with as general acquiescence, it is believed, of the whole country as that country has ever manifested for any of her wisely established institutions. It has insured to it the repose which always flows from truly wise and moderate counsels--a repose the more striking because of the long and angry agitations which preceded it. This salutary law proclaims in express terms the principle which, while it led to the abandonment of a scheme of indirect taxation founded on a false basis and pushed to dangerous excess, justifies any enlargement of duties that may be called for by the real exigencies of the public service. It provides "that duties shall be laid for the purpose of raising such revenue as may be necessary to an economical administration of the Government." It is therefore in the power of Congress to lay duties as high as its discretion may dictate for the necessary uses of the Government without infringing upon the objects of the act of 1833. I do not doubt that the exigencies of the Government do require an increase of the tariff of duties above 20 per cent, and I as little doubt that Congress may, above as well as below that rate, so discriminate as to give incidental protection to manufacturing industry, thus to make the burdens which it is compelled to impose upon the people for the purposes of Government productive of a double benefit. This most of the reasonable opponents of protective duties seem willing to concede, and, if we may judge from the manifestations of public opinion in all quarters, this is all that the manufacturing interests really require. I am happy in the persuasion that this double object can be most easily and effectually accomplished at the present juncture without any departure from the spirit and principle of the statute in question. The manufacturing classes have now an opportunity which may never occur again of permanently identifying their interests with those of the whole country, and making them, in the highest sense of the term, a national concern. The moment is propitious to the interests of the whole country in the introduction of harmony among all its parts and all its several interests. The same rate of imposts, and no more, as will most surely reestablish the public credit will secure to the manufacturer all the protection he ought to desire, with every prospect of permanence and stability which the hearty acquiescence of the whole country on a reasonable system can hold out to him.

But of this universal acquiescence, and the harmony and confidence and the many other benefits that will certainly result from it, I regard the suspension of the law for distributing the proceeds of the sales of the public lands as an indispensable condition. This measure is, in my judgment, called for by a large number, if not a great majority, of the people of the United States; by the state of the public credit and finances; by the critical posture of our various foreign relations; and, above all, by that most sacred of all duties--public faith. The act of September last, which provides for the distribution, couples it inseparably with the condition that it shall cease--first, in case of war; second, as soon and so long as the rate of duties shall for any reason whatever be raised above 20 per cent. Nothing can be more clear, express, or imperative than this language. It is in vain to allege that a deficit in the Treasury was known to exist and that means were taken to supply this deficit by loan when the act was passed. It is true that a loan was authorized at the same session during which the distribution law was passed, but the most sanguine of the friends of the two measures entertained no doubt but that the loan would be eagerly sought after and taken up by capitalists and speedily reimbursed by a country destined, as they hoped, soon to enjoy an overflowing prosperity. The very terms of the loan, making it redeemable in three years , demonstrate this beyond all cavil. Who at the time foresaw or imagined the possibility of the present real state of things, when a nation that has paid off her whole debt since the last peace, while all the other great powers have been increasing theirs, and whose resources, already so great, are yet but in the infancy of their development, should be compelled to haggle in the money market for a paltry sum not equal to one year's revenue upon her economical system? If the distribution law is to be indefinitely suspended, according not only to its own terms, but by universal consent, in the case of war, wherein are the actual exigencies of the country or the moral obligation to provide for them less under present circumstances than they could be were we actually involved in war? It appears to me to be the indispensable duty of all concerned in the administration of public affairs to see that a state of things so humiliating and so perilous should not last a moment longer than is absolutely unavoidable. Much less excusable should we be in parting with any portion of our available means, at least until the demands of the Treasury are fully supplied. But besides the urgency of such considerations, the fact is undeniable that the distribution act could not have become a law without the guaranty in the proviso of the act itself.

This connection, thus meant to be inseparable, is severed by the bill presented to me. The bill violates the principle of the acts of 1833 and September, 1841, by suspending the first and rendering for a time the last inoperative. Duties above 20 per cent are proposed to be levied, and yet the proviso in the distribution act is disregarded. The proceeds of the sales are to be distributed on the 1st of August, so that, while the duties proposed to be enacted exceed 20 per cent, no suspension of the distribution to the States is permitted to take place. To abandon the principle for a month is to open the way for its total abandonment. If such is not meant, why postpone at all? Why not let the distribution take place on the 1st of July if the law so directs (which, however, is regarded as questionable)? But why not have limited the provision to that effect? Is it for the accommodation of the Treasury? I see no reason to believe that the Treasury will be in better condition to meet the payment on the 1st of August than on the 1st of July.

The bill assumes that a distribution of the proceeds of the public lands is, by existing laws, to be made on the 1st day of July, 1842, notwithstanding there has been an imposition of duties on imports exceeding 20 per cent up to that day, and directs it to be made on the 1st of August next. It seems to me very clear that this conclusion is equally erroneous and dangerous, as it would divert from the Treasury a fund sacredly pledged for the general purposes of the Government in the event of a rate of duty above 20 per cent being found necessary for an economical administration of the Government.

The bill under consideration is designed only as a temporary measure; and thus a temporary measure, passed merely for the convenience of Congress, is made to affect the vital principle of an important act. If the proviso of the act of September, 1841, can be suspended for the whole period of a temporary law, why not for the whole period of a permanent law? In fact, a doubt may be well entertained, according to strict legal rules, whether the condition, having been thus expressly suspended by this bill and rendered inapplicable to a case where it would otherwise have clearly applied, will not be considered as ever after satisfied and gone. Without expressing any decided opinion on this point, I see enough in it to justify me in adhering to the law as it stands in preference to subjecting a condition so vitally affecting the peace of the country, and so solemnly enacted at a momentous crisis, and so steadfastly adhered to ever since, and so replete, if adhered to, with good to every interest of the country, to doubtful or captious interpretation.

In discharging the high duties thus imposed on me by the Constitution I repeat to the House my entire willingness to cooperate in all financial measures, constitutional and proper, which in its wisdom it may judge necessary and proper to reestablish the credit of the Government. I believe that the proceeds of the sales of the public lands being restored to the Treasury--or, more properly speaking, the proviso of the act of September, 1841, being permitted to remain in full force--a tariff of duties may easily be adjusted, which, while it will yield a revenue sufficient to maintain the Government in vigor by restoring its credit, will afford ample protection and infuse a new life into all our manufacturing establishments. The condition of the country calls for such legislation, and it will afford me the most sincere pleasure to cooperate in it.


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

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