MVB Senate speech on constitutional amendment for internal improvements, 20 December 1825
Mr. VAN BUREN submitted the following motion for consideration:
“Resolved, That Congress does not possess the power to make Roads and Canals within the respective States.
“Resolved, That a select committee be appointed, with instructions to prepare and report a Joint Resolution, for an amendment of the Constitution, prescribing and defining the power Congress shall have over the subject of Internal Improvements, and subjecting the same to such restrictions as shall effectually protect the sovereignty of the respective States, and secure to them a just distribution of the benefits resulting from all appropriations made for that purpose.”
In introducing these resolutions–
Mr. VAN BUREN said, that it would be recollected that he had, some days since, given notice of his intention to ask for leave to introduce a joint resolution, proposing an amendment of the Constitution on the subject of the power of Congress over the subject of Internal Improvements. Upon the suggestion of gentlemen who feel an interest in the subject, and think the principal object can, in that way, be better effected, he had consented so far to change the course originally contemplated, by substituting resolutions expressive of the sense of the Senate on the Constitution, as it now is, and proposing the appointment of a select committee to report upon the subject, under such instruction as the Senate may think proper to give. Such resolutions he would now take the liberty of submitting. He did not, of course, wish to press their immediate consideration, but would call them up at as early a day as would comport with the state of public business and the ordinary course of proceeding in the Senate. He hoped he would be excused for expressing an earnest wish that the conceded importance of the subject would induce gentlemen to turn their attention to it as soon as they conveniently could, to the end that, when it was taken up, it might be carried to a speedy decision, and not exposed to those unprofitable delays and postponements which had heretofore attended measures of a similar character, and ultimately prevented an expression of the sense of the Senate on their merits. He deceived himself, if there was any matter in which, at this moment, their constituents felt a more intense interest, than the question of the rightful and probable agency of the General Government in the great work of Internal Improvement. Whilst, in the States, measures of that description had been harmonious in their progress, and, as far as the means of the States would admit of, successful in their results, the condition of things here had been of a very different character. From the first agitation of the subject, the constitutional power of Congress to legislate upon the subject had been a source of unbroken, and, frequently, angry and unpleasant controversy. The time, he said, had never yet been, when all the branches of the Legislative Department were of the same opinion upon the question. Even those who united in the sentiment as to the existence of the power, differed in almost every thing else in regard to it. Of its particular source in the Constitution, its extent and attributes, very different views were entertained by its friends. There had not been any thing in the experience of the past, nor was there any thing in the prospect of the future, on which a reasonable hope could be founded, that this great subject could ever be satisfacterly adjusted by any means short of an appeal to the States. The intimate connexion between the prosperity of the country and works of the description referred to, would always induce efforts to induce the General Government to embark in them, and there was but little reason to believe that its claim of power would ever be abandoned. As little reason was there, in his judgment, to expect that the opposition to it would ever be given up. The principles upon which that opposition is founded; the zeal and fidelity with which it has hitherto been sustained, preclude such an expectation. If this view of the subject was a correct one, and it appeared to him that it was, he respectfully submitted it as a matter of imperious duty, on the part of Congress, to make a determined effort to have the question settled in the only way which can be final—an amendment of the Constitution, prescribing and defining what Congress may, and what they shall not do, with the restrictions under which what is allowed to them shall be done. It appeared to him that, not only every interest connected with the subject, but the credit, if not safety, of our enviable political institutions, required that course; for it must be evident to all reflecting men, that the reiterated complaints of constitutional infraction must tend to relax the confidence of the People in the Government, and that such measures as may be undertaken upon the subject must be constantly exposed to peril from the fluctuations of the opinion of successive Legislatures. The subject, he said, had been viewed in this light by some of the best and ablest men the country has produced. As early as 1808, the propriety of an appeal to the States upon the point in question, had been suggested by Mr. Jefferson, in his last message to Congress. The same course had been recommended by Mr. Madison, and the recommendation repeated by Mr. Monroe.
As yet, no decided effort to effect this great object had been made; he permitted himself to hope that such effort would now be made. It was true, he said, the subject had not been referred to by the present Executive, and the reasons why he had not done so, were apparent, from the communications he has made to us. From those, it appeared that the President entertained opinions, as to the power of Congress, which removed all difficulties upon the subject. But, Mr. V. B. said, that, although that circumstance might possibly diminish, it certainly did not obviate the necessity of now acting upon the subject, as the Senate were not left to conjecture as to the fact, that there existed a discordance of opinion between the Executive and portions, at least—how large time would shew—of the other branches of the Legislative Department. Mr. V. B. said, that, entertaining such views upon the subject, he had felt it his duty to bring the subject thus early before the Senate, and when the proper period for discussion arrived, would avail himself of their indulgence to assign his reasons for the course proposed.