James K. Polk

Veto Message

August 03, 1846

To the House of Representatives:

I have considered the bill entitled "An act making appropriations for the improvement of certain harbors and rivers" with the care which its importance demands, and now return the same to the House of Representatives, in which it originated, with my objections to its becoming a law. The bill proposes to appropriate $1,378,450 to be applied to more than forty distinct and separate objects of improvement. On examining its provisions and the variety of objects of improvement which it embraces, many of them of a local character, it is difficult to conceive, if it shall be sanctioned and become a law, what practical constitutional restraint can hereafter be imposed upon the most extended system of internal improvements by the Federal Government in all parts of the Union. The Constitution has not, in my judgment, conferred upon the Federal Government the power to construct works of internal improvement within the States, or to appropriate money from the Treasury for that purpose. That this bill assumes for the Federal Government the right to exercise this power can not, I think, be doubted. The approved course of the Government and the deliberately expressed judgment of the people have denied the existence of such a power under the Constitution. Several of my predecessors have denied its existence in the most solemn forms.

The general proposition that the Federal Government does not possess this power is so well settled and has for a considerable period been so generally acquiesced in that it is not deemed necessary to reiterate the arguments by which it is sustained. Nor do I deem it necessary, after the full and elaborate discussions which have taken place before the country on this subject, to do more than to state the general considerations which have satisfied me of the unconstitutionality and inexpediency of the exercise of such a power.

It is not questioned that the Federal Government is one of limited powers. Its powers are such, and such only, as are expressly granted in the Constitution or are properly incident to the expressly granted powers and necessary to their execution. In determining whether a given power has been granted a sound rule of construction has been laid down by Mr. Madison. That rule is that--

Whenever a question arises concerning a particular power, the first question is whether the power be expressed in the Constitution. If it be, the question is decided. If it be not expressed, the next inquiry must be whether it is properly an incident to an expressed power and necessary to its execution. If it be, it may be exercised by Congress. If it be not, Congress can not exercise it.

It is not pretended that there is any express grant in the Constitution conferring on Congress the power in question. Is it, then, an incidental power necessary and proper for the execution of any of the granted powers? All the granted powers, it is confidently affirmed, may be effectually executed without the aid of such an incident. "A power, to be incidental, must not be exercised for ends which make it a principal or substantive power, independent of the principal power to which it is an incident." It is not enough that it may be regarded by Congress as convenient or that its exercise would advance the public weal. It must be necessary and proper to the execution of the principal expressed power to which it is an incident, and without which such principal power can not be carried into effect. The whole frame of the Federal Constitution proves that the Government which it creates was intended to be one of limited and specified powers. A construction of the Constitution so broad as that by which the power in question is defended tends imperceptibly to a consolidation of power in a Government intended by its framers to be thus limited in its authority. "The obvious tendency and inevitable result of a consolidation of the States into one sovereignty would be to transform the republican system of the United States into a monarchy." To guard against the assumption of all powers which encroach upon the reserved sovereignty of the States, and which consequently tend to consolidation, is the duty of all the true friends of our political system. That the power in question is not properly an incident to any of the granted powers I am fully satisfied; but if there were doubts on this subject, experience has demonstrated the wisdom of the rule that all the functionaries of the Federal Government should abstain from the exercise of all questionable or doubtful powers. If an enlargement of the powers of the Federal Government should be deemed proper, it is safer and wiser to appeal to the States and the people in the mode prescribed by the Constitution for the grant desired than to assume its exercise without an amendment of the Constitution. If Congress does not possess the general power to construct works of internal improvement within the States, or to appropriate money from the Treasury for that purpose, what is there to exempt some, at least, of the objects of appropriation included in this bill from the operation of the general rule? This bill assumes the existence of the power, and in some of its provisions asserts the principle that Congress may exercise it as fully as though the appropriations which it proposes were applicable to the construction of roads and canals. If there be a distinction in principle, it is not perceived, and should be clearly defined. Some of the objects of appropriation contained in this bill are local in their character, and lie within the limits of a single State; and though in the language of the bill they are called harbors , they are not connected with foreign commerce, nor are they places of refuge or shelter for our Navy or commercial marine on the ocean or lake shores. To call the mouth of a creek or a shallow inlet on our coast a harbor can not confer the authority to expend the public money in its improvement. Congress have exercised the power coeval with the Constitution of establishing light-houses, beacons, buoys, and piers on our ocean and lake shores for the purpose of rendering navigation safe and easy and of affording protection and shelter for our Navy and other shipping. These are safeguards placed in existing channels of navigation. After the long acquiescence of the Government through all preceding Administrations, I am not disposed to question or disturb the authority to make appropriations for such purposes.

When we advance a step beyond this point, and, in addition to the establishment and support, by appropriations from the Treasury, of lighthouses, beacons, buoys, piers, and other improvements within the bays, inlets, and harbors on our ocean and lake coasts immediately connected with our foreign commerce, attempt to make improvements in the interior at points unconnected with foreign commerce, and where they are not needed for the protection and security of our Navy and commercial marine, the difficulty arises in drawing a line beyond which appropriations may not be made by the Federal Government.

One of my predecessors, who saw the evil consequences of the system proposed to be revived by this bill, attempted to define this line by declaring that "expenditures of this character" should be "confined below the ports of entry or delivery established by law." Acting on this restriction, he withheld his sanction from a bill which had passed Congress "to improve the navigation of the Wabash River." He was at the same time "sensible that this restriction was not as satisfactory as could be desired, and that much embarrassment may be caused to the executive department in its execution, by appropriations for remote and not well-understood objects." This restriction, it was soon found, was subject to be evaded and rendered comparatively useless in checking the system of improvements which it was designed to arrest, in consequence of the facility with which ports of entry and delivery may be established by law upon the upper waters, and in some instances almost at the head springs of some of the most unimportant of our rivers, and at points on our coast possessing no commercial importance and not used as places of refuge and safety by our Navy and other shipping. Many of the ports of entry and delivery now authorized by law, so far as foreign commerce is concerned, exist only in the statute books. No entry of foreign goods is ever made and no duties are ever collected at them. No exports of American products bound for foreign countries ever clear from them. To assume that their existence in the statute book as ports of entry or delivery warrants expenditures on the waters leading to them, which would be otherwise unauthorized, would be to assert the proposition that the lawmaking power may ingraft new provisions on the Constitution. If the restriction is a sound one, it can only apply to the bays, inlets, and rivers connected with or leading to such ports as actually have foreign commerce--ports at which foreign importations arrive in bulk, paying the duties charged by law, and from which exports are made to foreign countries. It will be found by applying the restriction thus understood to the bill under consideration that it contains appropriations for more than twenty objects of internal improvement, called in the bill harbors , at places which have never been declared by law either ports of entry or delivery, and at which, as appears from the records of the Treasury, there has never been an arrival of foreign merchandise, and from which there has never been a vessel cleared for a foreign country. It will be found that many of these works are new, and at places for the improvement of which appropriations are now for the first time proposed. It will be found also that the bill contains appropriations for rivers upon which there not only exists no foreign commerce, but upon which there has not been established even a paper port of entry, and for the mouths of creeks, denominated harbors, which if improved can benefit only the particular neighborhood in which they are situated. It will be found, too, to contain appropriations the expenditure of which will only have the effect of improving one place at the expense of the local natural advantages of another in its vicinity. Should this bill become a law, the same principle which authorizes the appropriations which it proposes to make would also authorize similar appropriations for the improvement of all the other bays, inlets, and creeks, which may with equal propriety be called harbors, and of all the rivers, important or unimportant, in every part of the Union. To sanction the bill with such provisions would be to concede the principle that the Federal Government possesses the power to expend the public money in a general system of internal improvements, limited in its extent only by the ever-varying discretion of successive Congresses and successive Executives. It would be to efface and remove the limitations and restrictions of power which the Constitution has wisely provided to limit the authority and action of the Federal Government to a few well-defined and specified objects. Besides these objections, the practical evils which must flow from the exercise on the part of the Federal Government of the powers asserted in this bill impress my mind with a grave sense of my duty to avert them from the country as far as my constitutional action may enable me to do so.

It not only leads to a consolidation of power in the Federal Government at the expense of the rightful authority of the States, but its inevitable tendency is to embrace objects for the expenditure of the public money which are local in their character, benefiting but few at the expense of the common Treasury of the whole. It will engender sectional feelings and prejudices calculated to disturb the harmony of the Union. It will destroy the harmony which should prevail in our legislative councils.

It will produce combinations of local and sectional interests, strong enough when united to carry propositions for appropriations of public money which could not of themselves, and standing alone, succeed, and can not fail to lead to wasteful and extravagant expenditures.

It must produce a disreputable scramble for the public money, by the conflict which is inseparable from such a system between local and individual interests and the general interest of the whole. It is unjust to those States which have with their own means constructed their own internal improvements to make from the common Treasury appropriations for similar improvements in other States.

In its operation it will be oppressive and unjust toward those States whose representatives and people either deny or doubt the existence of the power or think its exercise inexpedient, and who, while they equally contribute to the Treasury, can not consistently with their opinions engage in a general competition for a share of the public money. Thus a large portion of the Union, in numbers and in geographical extent, contributing its equal proportion of taxes to the support of the Government, would under the operation of such a system be compelled to see the national treasure--the common stock of all--unequally disbursed, and often improvidently wasted for the advantage of small sections, instead of being applied to the great national purposes in which all have a common interest, and for which alone the power to collect the revenue was given. Should the system of internal improvements proposed prevail, all these evils will multiply and increase with the increase of the number of the States and the extension of the geographical limits of the settled portions of our country. With the increase of our numbers and the extension of our settlements the local objects demanding appropriations of the public money for their improvement will be proportionately increased. In each case the expenditure of the public money would confer benefits, direct or indirect, only on a section, while these sections would become daily less in comparison with the whole.

The wisdom of the framers of the Constitution in withholding power over such objects from the Federal Government and leaving them to the local governments of the States becomes more and more manifest with every year's experience of the operations of our system.

In a country of limited extent, with but few such objects of expenditure (if the form of government permitted it), a common treasury might be used for their improvement with much less inequality and injustice than in one of the vast extent which ours now presents in population and territory. The treasure of the world would hardly be equal to the improvement of every bay, inlet, creek, and river in our country which might be supposed to promote the agricultural, manufacturing, or commercial interests of a neighborhood.

The Federal Constitution was wisely adapted in its provisions to any expansion of our limits and population, and with the advance of the confederacy of the States in the career of national greatness it becomes the more apparent that the harmony of the Union and the equal justice to which all its parts are entitled require that the Federal Government should confine its action within the limits prescribed by the Constitution to its power and authority. Some of the provisions of this bill are not subject to the objections stated, and did they stand alone I should not feel it to be my duty to withhold my approval.

If no constitutional objections existed to the bill, there are others of a serious nature which deserve some consideration. It appropriates between $1,000,000 and $2,000,000 for objects which are of no pressing necessity, and this is proposed at a time when the country is engaged in a foreign war, and when Congress at its present session has authorized a loan or the issue of Treasury notes to defray the expenses of the war, to be resorted to if the "exigencies of the Government shall require it." It would seem to be the dictate of wisdom under such circumstances to husband our means, and not to waste them on comparatively unimportant objects, so that we may reduce the loan or issue of Treasury notes which may become necessary to the smallest practicable sum. It would seem to be wise, too, to abstain from such expenditures with a view to avoid the accumulation of a large public debt, the existence of which would be opposed to the interests of our people as well as to the genius of our free institutions.

Should this bill become a law, the principle which it establishes will inevitably lead to large and annually increasing appropriations and drains upon the Treasury, for it is not to be doubted that numerous other localities not embraced in its provisions, but quite as much entitled to the favor of the Government as those which are embraced, will demand, through their representatives in Congress, to be placed on an equal footing with them. With such an increase of expenditure must necessarily follow either an increased public debt or increased burdens upon the people by taxation to supply the Treasury with the means of meeting the accumulated demands upon it.

With profound respect for the opinions of Congress, and ever anxious, as far as I can consistently with my responsibility to our common constituents, to cooperate with them in the discharge of our respective duties, it is with unfeigned regret that I find myself constrained, for the reasons which I have assigned, to withhold my approval from this bill.


James K. Polk, Veto Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/201084

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