To the Senate of the United States:
I return to the Senate, in which it originated, the bill entitled "An act to provide for the ascertainment and satisfaction of claims of American citizens for spoliations committed by the French prior to the 31st day of July, 1801," which was presented to me on the 6th instant, with my objections to its becoming a law.
In attempting to give to the bill the careful examination it requires, difficulties presented themselves in the outset from the remoteness of the period to which the claims belong, the complicated nature of the transactions in which they originated, and the protracted negotiations to which they led between France and the United States.
The short time intervening between the passage of the bill by Congress and the approaching close of their session, as well as the pressure of other official duties, have not permitted me to extend my examination of the subject into its minute details; but in the consideration which I have been able to give to it I find objections of a grave character to its provisions.
For the satisfaction of the claims provided for by the bill it is proposed to appropriate $5,000,000. I can perceive no legal or equitable ground upon which this large appropriation can rest. A portion of the claims have been more than half a century before the Government in its executive or legislative departments, and all of them had their origin in events which occurred prior to the year 1800. Since 1802 they have been from time to time before Congress. No greater necessity or propriety exists for providing for these claims at this time than has existed for near half a century, during all which period this questionable measure has never until now received the favorable consideration of Congress. It is scarcely probable, if the claim had been regarded as obligatory upon the Government or constituting an equitable demand upon the Treasury, that those who were contemporaneous with the events which gave rise to it should not long since have done justice to the claimants. The Treasury has often been in a condition to enable the Government to do so without inconvenience if these claims had been considered just. Mr. Jefferson, who was fully cognizant of the early dissensions between the Governments of the United States and France, out of which the claims arose, in his annual message in 1808 adverted to the large surplus then in the Treasury and its "probable accumulation," and inquired whether it should "lie unproductive in the public vaults;" and yet these claims, though then before Congress, were not recognized or paid. Since that time the public debt of the Revolution and of the War of 1812 has been extinguished, and at several periods since the Treasury has been in possession of large surpluses over the demands upon it. In 1836 the surplus amounted to many millions of dollars, and, for want of proper objects to which to apply it, it was directed by Congress to be deposited with the States.
During this extended course of time, embracing periods eminently favorable for satisfying all just demands upon the Government, the claims embraced in this bill met with no favor in Congress beyond reports of committees in one or the other branch. These circumstances alone are calculated to raise strong doubts in respect to these claims, more especially as all the information necessary to a correct judgment concerning them has been long before the public. These doubts are strengthened in my mind by the examination I have been enabled to give to the transactions in which they originated.
The bill assumes that the United States have become liable in these ancient transactions to make reparation to the claimants for injuries committed by France. Nothing was obtained for the claimants by negotiation; and the bill assumes that the Government has become responsible to them for the aggressions of France. I have not been able to satisfy myself of the correctness of this assumption, or that the Government has become in any way responsible for these claims. The limited time allotted me before your adjournment precludes the possibility of reiterating the facts and arguments by which in preceding Congresses these claims have been successfully resisted.
The present is a period peculiarly unfavorable for the satisfaction of claims of so large an amount and, to say the least of them, of so doubtful a character. There is no surplus in the Treasury. A public debt of several millions of dollars has been created within the last few years.
We are engaged in a foreign war, uncertain in its duration and involving heavy expenditures, to prosecute which Congress has at its present session authorized a further loan; so that in effect the Government, should this bill become a law, borrows money and increases the public debt to pay these claims.
It is true that by the provisions of the bill payment is directed to be made in land scrip instead of money, but the effect upon the Treasury will be the same. The public lands constitute one of the sources of public revenue, and if these claims be paid in land scrip it will from the date of its issue to a great extent cut off from the Treasury the annual income from the sales of the public lands, because payments for lands sold by the Government may be expected to be made in scrip until it is all redeemed. If these claims be just, they ought to be paid in money, and not in anything less valuable. The bill provides that they shall be paid in land scrip, whereby they are made in effect to be a mortgage upon the public lands in the new States; a mortgage, too, held in great part, if not wholly, by nonresidents of the States in which the lands lie, who may secure these lands to the amount of several millions of acres, and then demand for them exorbitant prices from the citizens of the States who may desire to purchase them for settlement, or they may keep them out of the market, and thus retard the prosperity and growth of the States in which they are situated. Why this unusual mode of satisfying demands on the Treasury has been resorted to does not appear. It is not consistent with a sound public policy. If it be done in this case, it may be done in all others. It would form a precedent for the satisfaction of all other stale and questionable claims in the same manner, and would undoubtedly be resorted to by all claimants who after successive trials shall fail to have their claims recognized and paid in money by Congress.
This bill proposes to appropriate $5,000,000, to be paid in land scrip, and provides that "no claim or memorial shall be received by the commissioners" authorized by the act "unless accompanied by a release or discharge of the United States from all other and further compensation" than the claimant "may be entitled to receive under the provisions of this act." These claims are estimated to amount to a much larger sum than $5,000,000, and yet the claimant is required to release to the Government all other compensation, and to accept his share of a fund which is known to be inadequate. If the claims be well rounded, it would be unjust to the claimants to repudiate any portion of them, and the payment of the remaining sum could not be hereafter resisted. This bill proposes to pay these claims not in the currency known to the Constitution, and not to their full amount.
Passed, as this bill has been, near the close of the session, and when many measures of importance necessarily claim the attention of Congress, and possibly without that full and deliberate consideration which the large sum it appropriates and the existing condition of the Treasury and of the country demand, I deem it to be my duty to withhold my approval, that it may hereafter undergo the revision of Congress. I have come to this conclusion with regret. In interposing my objections to its becoming a law I am fully sensible that it should be an extreme ease which would make it the duty of the Executive to withhold his approval of any bill passed by Congress upon the ground of its inexpediency alone. Such a case I consider this to be.
JAMES K. POLK.
James K. Polk, Veto Message Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/201143