MVB to the New York legislature, 6 January 1829
Tuesday, January 6, 1829.
Fellow Citizens of the Senate and Assembly,
I approach the high trust committed to my care, with a profound sense of the unmerited honor conferred upon me by the people, and an earnest solicitude to fulfil the obligations of gratitude which their favor has imposed. Associated with these feelings, is a consciousness of inferiority to that accomplished statesman, whose sudden removal from the post to which I have been called, excited the unfeigned regrets of the whole American people. These feelings are also greatly answered by the reflection that my illustrious predecessor was himself preceded in this responsible station by a succession of worthies, whose names and services are identified with the history of our state, and engraven upon the hearts of our people.
But relying, as I know I may, upon your able and patriotic co-operation; trusting to the indulgence of my fellow citizens; and looking for direction and support to that kind Providence, by whose favor the humblest instrument may be made to accomplish the greatest ends, I pledge myself to you and our constituents, to make every effort of which I am capable, to promote the interest and advance the honor of the state.
In discharging that portion of the constitutional duties of the executive, which consists in an obligation to communicate to the legislature, at every session, the condition of the state, it is a source of sincere pleasure to have it in my power to congratulate you, upon the great and almost unmingled prosperity which we have enjoyed during the past year. It would be superfluous to dilate upon the particulars of the general welfare, when addressing you, who come directly from the bosom of society, with full opportunities of observing the condition of the state—a condition certainly not surpassed in all that makes a country prosperous, and its people happy, and which demands, as it will assuredly receive, our humble and grateful thanks to the Giver of all Good.
An absence from the state for the greater part of seven years—the want of official or other opportunities to make myself fully acquainted with that portion of its various interests subject to your particular care—together with a desire not to occupy more of your time by this communication than is necessary, will induce me to call your attention at present to such topics only, as are of paramount importance, and fall within the appearance range of state legislation.
In relation to many of these topics, and indeed to all the great interests of the state, your duties will be greatly lessened by the entire revision of our statute laws, which has been so recently brought to a close. Of the success and usefulness of this great work, it would, perhaps, be premature to speak; but it is a satisfaction to know, that those who have had the best means of judging, and are well qualified to decide, concur in commending the distinguished ability with which it has been performed, and anticipate with confidence, that it will be a source of great and enduring benefit to the state. Some unavoidable embarrassments, will, probably, be found in the incipient stages of its operation; but that our most sanguine expectations will be realized in the end, there can be but little doubt. The unsurpassed zeal and assiduity of the learned and capable revisers who have been employed in the work, and the great industry and patriotic devotion of the two successive legislatures who have passed upon their labors, have been witnessed by all, and are, in an eminent degree, entitled to the approbation and thanks of the state.
The first subject that naturally presents itself to your consideration, is the condition of the finances of the state. The public funds are, the General Fund, the Literature Fund, the Common School Fund, and the Canal Fund.
Since the year 1826, we have had no state tax of any description. The expenses of the government are charged upon a revenue principally derived from the General Fund. The capital of that fund is $1,670,740. For a few years past, this revenue has not been sufficient to defray these expenses. It appears to have been the policy of the state, to supply this excess of expenditure over the income, by appropriating a portion of the capital of the general fund to that object, rather than resort to the renewal of the state tax, or the imposition of other direct burthens upon the people. It is left to the wisdom of the legislature, to sanction the policy of permitting, as has heretofore been done, this annual and necessarily increasing deficit, to be supplied by a corresponding reduction of the capital of the general fund, or to provide an addition to the present revenue, that shall make it fully equal to the charges upon it.
The Literature fund is $331,609.82; and its revenue for the current year, is estimated at $21,074.48.— The management of this fund, and the distribution of its income, are entrusted to the Regents of the University, under such restrictions, however, as to make the incorporated academies, and seminaries other than colleges, subject to the visitation of the Regents, the exclusive objects of this munificent benefaction.
The productive capital of the Common School Fund, is about $1,700,00. Although the revenue has not, in any past year, been quite sufficient to pay the appropriation of $100,000, directed by the law to be annually distributed to the common schools, it is believed that it will exceed that sum the present year.
The income of the Canal Fund for the year which has just terminated, cannot at this time be precisely ascertained; but it is estimated to be about $1,210, 387; of which $833,000 have been derived from tolls. The compensation paid to the various officers employed on the canals, the interest on the canal debts, and the expenses for repairs and damages, have amounted to about $790,632.
The present canal debt is $7,730,155.99. No part of it is payable till 1837 and greater part of it not till 1845 and 1846. Since the completion of the Erie and Champlain canals, the commissioners of this fund have been enabled, from its surplus revenue, to discharge $384,615 of the canal debt, by paying a loan that became due, and by purchasing and extinguishing a part of the stock of loans that are not yet reimbursable; and they have now on deposite and invested in other stocks, $625,982. The revenue of the last year has been sufficient to defray the expenses of keeping canals in good condition; to pay the interest on the canal debt and the salaries of the officers and agents employed on them; and to yield a surplus of $419,055; and there is most abundant reason to anticipate a like favourable result for the present year.
It was reasonable to expect that the success which has so happily crowned our efforts in the great work of internal improvement, should lead to earnest solicitations for its continuance. Several applications embracing that object, have consequently been made to former legislatures, and will be renewed at the present session. The propriety of recommending them to your support has been suggested to me, particularly by the friends of the State Road, and the Chemung and Chenango canals; objects which have already occupied the attention of the legislature, and excited a deep interest in the public mind. The applicants for the Chenango canal, have transmitted to me a report from Mr. Wright, an engineer of great celebrity and acknowledged capacity. This report (which will doubtless be laid before you) is founded upon a review of the surveys, charts and estimates of other engineers, aided by a personal examination of the route of the canal, and throws new and very encouraging light upon that subject. But destitute as I am of that full and precise information, which alone would justify me in forming an opinion on particular applications, my duty, in the light in which I regard it, will be better discharged by submitting to you a general view of the considerations which ought to influence our deliberations.
In relation to the policy of applying such portions of the means of the state (including a judicious use of its credit) as can be spared from other necessary objects, to works of internal improvement, there cannot, I think, be any serious diversity of opinion amongst us. Whatever attempts may be made to divide us into parties on this subject, it is nevertheless true, that so great is the concurrence of opinion thereon, that it is extremely improbable that a single well informed citizen can be found, who is justly obnoxious to the charge of hostility to measures of that character.
Differences of opinion do, it is true, exist, as to the source from which, according to the true construction of the federal constitution, rightful authority to prosecute works of this description, can alone proceed—as to the expediency of that authority being vested in the federal or state governments, arising from the supposed relative capacities of those governments to carry them on with advantage—and as to the practicability and expediency of particular schemes. It would be strange indeed, if diversities of sentiment upon these points were not to be found. But their existence in no degree militates against the general position I have advanced.
It deserves to be considered how far the claims now made in this respect, are fortified by the course which has been heretofore pursued.
The Erie and Champlain canals were undertakings of the greatest magnitude, involving, in their commencement, a hazard, and in their completion, a responsibility, on the part of the whole people of this state, of unprecedented extent. Although the advantages that have resulted from their construction are gradually diffusing themselves over almost every part of the state, it must in candor be admitted that all are not equally benefitted by the facilities they afford. These considerations are relied upon, and not without reason, as justifying a claim, that the local advantages derivable from such improvements, should be equalized, as far forth, and as rapidly, as can be done, consistently with the localities, and a proper regard to the ability of the state. We must not, however, be unmindful of the imperative obligation resting upon us, to observe the utmost prudence and circumspection in our legislation upon this delicate and vitally interesting subject. The success of this state in the commencement, prosecution and completion of her public works, has exercised an important moral influence over the conduct of our sister states. It has encouraged, and is still encouraging, similar efforts throughout the Union: and it is reasonable to apprehend, that a failure here, where so far, every effort has been crowned with success, would, in addition to our loss at home, be productive of serious injury to the cause of internal improvement throughout the country. Whilst, therefore, we should not shrink from incurring all reasonable hazards for the benefit of those of our fellow-citizens more immediately interested, no consideration, however imposing, should lead us to commit the interest and character of the state to the promotion of any undertaking, in the practicability of which there is not the clearest reason to confide, or which, when accomplished, would be of doubtful utility.
I cannot dismiss this subject without adverting to the advantages it will receive from the liberality, moderation and unprejudiced coolness of your discussions. The feelings which characterize them, will be communicated to our constituents, and a more creditable as well as a more auspicious state of things produced, than has hitherto been witnessed. There can be no reason to doubt the disposition of any representative of the people, to aid in the improvement of any portion of the state other than that which he more immediately represents, if his judgment can be satisfied of the feasibility of the proposed measure, and that the expense of its accomplishment, would correspond with its probable utility, and be suited to the means of the state. The free spirit of our political institutions, and those social and liberal feelings which should always distinguish our deliberations, allow him the exercise of his unbiassed judgment upon that point, leaving him responsible only for the purity of his motives and his fidelity in the discharge of his public duties. Any other course must be injurious to all the interests involved. If honest differences of opinions on these points, in regard to which there is frequently so much room for diversity, are allowed to aleniate the affections of men, who, on other great subjects of public concern, adopt the same sentiments—if the means taken or attempted for the improvement of the state, are permitted to produce sectional jealousies and bitter local funds—a state of feeling will be ultimately produced, destructive to the great object in view, and deeply mortifying to all who have the honor and prosperity of the state sincerely at heart.
It will doubtless be attentively considered, how far the public burthens arising from the construction of works of this character, may be relieved, and the efforts of the state judiciously aided, by the encouragement of individual associations for the same purpose. The leading case in which this policy has of late years been adopted, is that of the “Hudson and Delaware canal Company.” It gives me sincere pleasure to be able to inform you, that it has in this instance been crowned with the most cheering success. From the official statement of the company, confirmed by the personal inspection of two of the officers of the government, the Secretary of State and Comptroller, it appears that a canal, well adapted to the purposes for which it is designed, connecting the waters of the Hudson and Delaware rivers, extending eighty-one miles in the state of New-York, and nearly twenty-five miles in the state of Pennsylvania, commenced by that company in 1825, was fully completed in the month of October last; and that a rail-road of sixteen miles, designed to connect the canal with the valuable coal mines of Carbondale in the state of Pennsylvania, is in progress, and will probably be completed in the month of June next.
It is unnecessary that I should enlarge upon the advantages which are confidently anticipated from the construction of this work; not only to the section of the country through which it passes, but to other portions of the state, by the facilities it will afford to procure a cheap and valuable fuel; as the whole subject will be fully laid before you by the company, in support of an application which it is their intention to make at the present session. The cost of the canal is said to have been $1,875,000; of that sum, five hundred thousand dollars have been obtained upon the credit of the state, which holds for its security, the first lien upon the canal.
There is no reason to apprehend the slightest loss or inconvenience from the measure already adopted to assist the company. How far you can, consistent with other claims upon your favor, extend the relief they will ask, will, I am confident, receive an impartial examination and just decision at your hands.
The liberal endowments from time to time granted to our scientific and literary institutions, have added much to the character of the state, and reflected high honor on the enlightened counsels under whose auspices they were made. Although sometimes improvident, and occasionally unsuccessful, their general results have been highly auspicious to the great cause they were meant to subserve, and afford the strongest encouragement to a faithful perseverance in the same wise and liberal policy.
The more direct agency of the government in conducting the affairs of the common schools, as well as the more extensive range of usefulness that belongs to those very valuable elementary institutions, require a fuller statement of the different matters that appertain to that system, and concern its administration.
The returns in relation to them, exhibit the most gratifying results The number of organized schools is 8,122; in which 467,947 scholars have been instructed during the past year, for an average period of eight months. The number of children between five and fifteen, in the same district, is 439,427; shewing an excess of those instructed, over the whole number, between five and fifteen, of 21,317. The increase since the last annual return, of those attending the schools, is 26,101; and of those between five and fifteen, is 20,211. The whole amount of public money paid to the districts during the same period, is $232,772.
The question as to the renewal of the bank charters which are about to expire, will deservedly receive your early and most deliberate attention. I do not, I think, deceive myself in believing that it must become the important business of your session, upon a wise and successful disposition of which, its credit with the people and usefulness to the state, will materially depend. Having for many years ceased to have an interest in those institutions, and declined any agency in their management. I am deeply conscious of my want of that sort of information, which is so important in forming an intelligent and safe opinion upon the subject. Thus impressed, I should have contented myself with simply bringing the subject to your notice, did I not feel bound to communicate freely and unreservedly, with those with whom it is my duty to act, on a matter of such vast magnitude to our constituents.
Of the forty banks now in operation in this state, the charters of thirty-one expire within one, two, three, and four years, but chiefly within two and three years. From the best information that can be derived from the returns made by the banks whose charters are about to expire, their collective capital actually paid in, amounts to fifteen millions of dollars; and the debts due to them, to more than thirty millions. The debts due from these institutions to the community, including their stockholders, may be safely estimated at about the same amount.
As to the propriety of making a final disposition of the whole subject at the present session, there appears, so far as I can learn the public sentiment, to be but one opinion. The injurious consequences that may justly be apprehended from delay, seem to have impressed every mind, and to have produced a general expectation that the solicitude so properly felt upon this grave matter, will be relieved by your early decision.
Should your opinion correspond with this view of the matter, a question will arise as to the course which ought to be pursued under existing circumstances.— The difference between that question in the present condition of things, and what it would be if you were called upon for the first time to lay the foundation of a banking system for the state, will readily occur to you. What might in that case be expedient, may now from the length of time which the present system has been in operation, and the tendency which all pecuniary concerns have, to conform themselves to existing regulations, be found very difficult, if not impracticable.— To dispense with banks altogether, is an idea which seems to have no advocate; and to make ourselves wholly dependent upon those established by federal authority, deserves none. If these are correct views, the only alternative would seem to be, between a renewal of the charters of the sound part of the existing banks, or to anticipate the winding up of their concerns by the incorporation of new institutions.
In support of the latter course, the idea of a state bank, with as many branches as public convenience would require, has been very properly thrown out for public consideration. If by a state bank is intended an institution to be owned by the state, and conducted by its officers, it would not seem to require much knowledge of the subject, to satisfy us that the experiment would probably fail here, as it has elsewhere. The reasons for this apprehension are so cogent in their nature, so constant in their operation, and of such ready occurrence to intelligent minds, that I shall not detain you by stating them.
Experience has shown that banking operations, to be successful, and consequently beneficial to the community, must be conducted by private men, upon their own account. A state bank, with branches established upon the same principles, in other respects, as the present institutions, and in which the state should stand as a private stockholder only, would probably better subserve the interests intended to be promoted by the establishment of banks, than the present system; and if the question was a new, and in all respects an open one, would doubtless have many advocates. But we cannot close our eyes to the difficulties and pecuniary embarrassments that must result from suddenly stopping the operations of so many and such long established institutions.— Of the thirty millions that are owing to them, the principal part is probably due from merchants, manufacturers, and other large dealers in their vicinity; but they in turn have their demands against persons pursuing similar business in the country, and those again must look to their customers; thus embracing all classes of society, in the liability to contribute towards a general settlement. The amount due from the banks, especially all that portion which consists in bills issued by them, would be found scattered through the whole community.
From even this superficial view of the subject, it must be evident to all reflecting minds, that the pecuniary convulsion that must result from a compulsory close of those extensive concerns, would be neither slight in its degree, or transient in its duration. You will, I am convinced, concur with me in the sentiment, that a responsibility of so serious a character and so fearful in its possible consequences, should not be incurred on slight grounds, or from motives of expediency in the least degree questionable. Of the inducements to such a step, it is your right and your duty to judge; and I sincerely hope, as I firmly believe, that your constituents will, in the end, have reason to rejoice, that a trust so sacred has been reposed in hands so deserving.
If you should decide in favor of renewing the charters of those banks whose solvency and present capacity to discharge all their duties, shall, after a rigid and impartial scrutiny, be found free from doubt, it will become necessary to consider the conditions upon which the new grants ought to be made.
The policy heretofore pursued, of requiring the payment of a large bonus to the state, or the performance of some specious service, as the price of bank charters, is condemned by experience. A statement of the injurious consequences that have resulted from it, cannot be necessary. The unbiassed judgment of all observing and thinking men, must concur in regarding it as an expedient, from which no good has resulted. Its tendency has been, and must always be, to weaken the security of the public in those institutions, for the performance of that in which the public interest mainly consists—the faithful redemption of their paper. Eager to obtain a charter, and stimulated by the golden harvest in view, they are most liberal in their promises. If these promises are performed, the capacity of the bank to redeem its paper is impaired, and the consideration that such incapacity is caused by the exaction of the government, not unfrequently leads to unreal dividends and fraudulent advances of the stock in the first instance, and to disreputable failures in the end; failures by which those classes of the community, who stand most in need of the protecting care of a good government, are usually the principal sufferers.
Strongly impressed by these considerations, I respectfully suggest the propriety of making all the conditions you prescribe, refer exclusively to the safety and stability of the institution.
The conceded difficulty of effecting that great object through the means proposed, should deter us from the attempt. In all our deliberations upon this subject, we should keep constantly in view the important consideration, that the solvency of the banks, and the consequent stability of their paper, is the principal and almost the only point, in which the public has much interest. Who are the particular recipients of your favor, is a matter of minor importance. The number of the stockholders in comparison with the great body of the people, is so very small, and the stock is so constantly changing hands, that the equity of its original distribution becomes a comparatively unimportant matter. Our chief duty in this respect, is to see that the farmer, when he exchanges his produce or estate—the mechanic his wares—the merchant his goods—and all other classes of community their property or services for bank paper—may rest contented as to its value.Provisions invalidating all confidential assignments or trusts of any description, imposing severe penalties upon acts designed to divert the funds from the appropriation which in justice and policy ought to be made of them, are of value, but necessarily restricted in their operation. The importance of some more efficient safeguard, has been felt by former legislatures, and they have endeavoured to obtain it through the medium of a personal responsibility of the stockholders. But it is objected, that the practical operation of such a provision would be, to defeat the object in view, by throwing this species of property, and of course its management, into the hands of irresponsible men. When it is considered that the dividends do not always, and seldom much, exceed the lawful interest—that the responsibility which the stockholders would necessarily have to place in others, would be disproportionate to the advantages secured, and that is rarely, if ever, possible to reach the property of those who fail, through such means, it is greatly to be feared the experiment, if tried, would be unsuccessful. The disastrous consequences necessarily flowing from such a result, need not to be stated.
You will, I am persuaded, give the subject your utmost attention; and, by the application to it of your long experience in such matters, be able, I hope, to devise some mode by which the public interest will be secured. It is unnecessary that I should say, that any plan that is proposed by you, that shall be preferable to those to which I have referred, shall receive my cordial and cheerful co-operation.
My own reflections upon this point, have derived much assistance from a sensible and apparently well considered plan that has been submitted to me, and which will, in due season, be laid before you. I have every reason to believe that the suggestions come from a disinterested source, and have the public good for their leading object. The limits of this communication will not allow me to do justice to its details, or to the argument by which it is supported. It proposes to make all the banks responsible or any loss the public may sustain by the failure of any one or more of them. It suggests provisions by which that result may be reached, as far as it respects the banks whose charters are about to expire; and be ultimately made universal or nearly so. The idea is not entirely new to the commercial world, although it has not heretofore been applied in this form. Most men will, upon the first impression, view it, as I certainly did myself, as presenting a rigorous condition. But it is confidently believed by competent judges, that the form in which it is proposed to enforce the responsibility—being an annual and adequate appropriation of a part of their income towards a common fund, to be placed under the controul of the state—the ample supervision over the institutions, which it proposes to place under the direction of the contributing banks, in conjunction with the authority of the state—the consequent high character and correspondent circulation it would give to our paper—the expulsion from circulation of the doubtful paper which now engrosses it, and the substitution in its place of that issued by banks in full credit—with other advantages—would make the condition such as would, upon more full consideration, be deemed admissable by all concerned. But of all these matters you will judge for yourselves. Every scheme submitted to you, should undergo the severest scrutiny; because, from the nature of the subject, a mistake committed in regard to it, must be more injurious than in relation to any other matter.
Our duties in this great concern, may truly be said to be full of delicacy, and surrounded by difficulties.— But it is our consolation to know, that if the field of duty is beset with dangers, there are enduring honors that lie beyond it. The interest which attaches itself to the representative character, can never be greater than when a fulfilment of the trust committed to the representative, may bring him in conflict with the claims of the great monied interests of the country.— Where can we find a political exhibition more truly gratifying, than to see the faithful public servant, after having turned away every approach, and put far from him every sinister consideration that could divert him from the discharge of his duty, return to his constituents, conscious that he deserves, and feeling that he possesses, their unabated confidence? I sincerely hope, that such may be the good fortune that awaits our conduct. We have every thing to stimulate us to perseverance and fidelity. We are members of a state that is rapidly progressing in improvement, in public spirit, and in all the attributes of a great and flourishing republic—a state of which, without exposing ourselves to the inspiration of vanity, we may be proud to call ourselves citizens. We shall, I trust, shew ourselves worthy of this exalted privilege, by guarding, with sleepless vigilance, its interests, its honor, and its future glory.
Allow me also to call your attention to another subject, in which the state has an interest that deserves your notice. I allude to the duties derived from sales at auction. The amount of revenue received from that source during the last year, is two hundred and fifty-seven thousand one hundred and eighty-seven dollars and forty cents; and for the last five years, has amounted to one million three hundred and three thousand nine hundred and sixty-eight dollars and eighty cents. Its appropriation for the latter term, has been as follows: To the canal fund, one million one hundred and forty-two thousand two hundred and sixty-eight dollars and eighty cents; to the hospital in the city of New-York, one hundred and twelve thousand five hundred dollars; for the support of foreign poor in that city, fifty thousand dollars; and five thousand dollars to the Economical School and Orphan Asylum.
A numerous and very respectable class of our citizens, who think themselves aggrieved by the existing regulations, have applied to Congress for the imposition of a federal duty of ten per centum, with the avowed design of destroying the business altogether.— It is respectfully submitted, whether the amount of revenue derived from this source by the state; the valuable purposes to which it is appropriated, and the difficulty of supplying its place, should not induce you to consider, whether measures may not be adopted by you, which, whilst they save the interests of the state, would at the same time respect those of the complainants.
The leading objection that is made to the present system, is, that the business of selling goods at auction, in the mode now practiced, is, to every essential purpose, the occupation of a merchant; and that therefore sales by auction, as regulated by our law, constitute a monopoly, securing all the advantages of that branch of trade to a few individuals, to the exclusion of the rest of the community. Whatever reasons may have existed at the commencement of our system, for making the privilege of selling by auction exclusive, they are certainly not very apparent at the present day. Fully convinced of the general injustice and inexpediency of commercial monopolies, and apprehending that there is reasonable cause to regard sales by auction, as at present regulated, objectionable on that score, I respectfully submit to your consideration the policy of so modifying the existing law, as to allow every citizen, who can give security for the duties, to sell at auction by wholesale only, upon a license to be obtained from some proper tribunal, to be for that purpose designated and empowered by law. Such is now the law in several of the largest states; and there is no reason to believe that their regulation has been less advantageous than ours.
That such a provision, whilst it secured and probably improved the revenue of the state, would obviate the leading objection that is made to the present system, is undoubted. It would not, however, of itself, reach all the grounds of complaint that are urged.— Many of them consist of alleged mal-practices in the mode of conducting those sales, which may be reached, and can only be remedied, by state legislation.— Those who object to the present system, do, it is true, attribute to it other injuries to trade, and of a character which could not be reached by any law that you could pass, short of an entire prohibition of sale by auction. The allegations that are made in this respect, may be well founded; and the respectability of the source whence they have proceeded, leaves no doubt of the sincerity with which they have been advanced. But those who make them, are too enlightened not to be sensible, and would be too candid not to admit, how often it is, that we find measures that have become obnoxious to any portion of the community, made responsible for results which, it is found in the sequel, they have had no agency in producing. This may be so in the present case; and it would at all events seem to be in season, after an experiment of the elect of the alteration now suggested, to consider what further provision is necessary, and may be adopted, with a just regard to the interests of all.
I should disregard the admonitions of recent experience, and fail in my duty, were I not to bring to your notice the state of the laws by which our elections are at present regulated.
At our last election, there was polled more than 276,000 votes; a number nearly double to that of any other state in the confederacy, and constituting the largest free suffrage of any single government in the world. To protect the freedom, preserve the purity, and regulate the exercise of such a suffrage, deserves to be ranked among the leading objects of our care.— The range that is given to the influence of this privilege by our system, has no other limit than the extension of political power. Wherever the one exists, the other is felt also. Thus reaching from the chief magistrate of the Union, to the most inconsiderable municipal officer, its discreet exercise must of necessity frequently involve principles of action of a character entirely dissimilar. In some cases, great and difficult questions of national and state policy are put at issue, whilst in regard to others, it is a mere dispute as to the relative capacities of individuals for the discharge of specific duties. It is not to be hoped that electors coming to the polls under the pressure of such dissimilar motives, will exercise their privileges as discreetly as might, under different circumstances, be expected. But we are not left to conjecture upon the subject. We have complaints from numerous sources, of the injurious consequences that have resulted from the practice of choosing our federal, state, and county officers at the same time—a practice which is pursued in no other state in the Union. Many instances may be referred to, where the public mind has been wholly engrossed by the election of a county or town officer, whilst the subject of President of the United States was in a great degree lost sight of. Allow me, therefore, to suggest for your consideration, the propriety of amending our election law, in this particular, so far at least, as to direct the choice of electors of president and vice-president to be held at a time different from any other election.— Recent events have made so strong an impression on the public mind, and provoked so free a discussion, in relation to our present district system for the choice of electors, as to render any observations from me unnecessary to secure your prompt attention to that subject.
There is another matter connected with this subject, of a still graver character; and upon which I must ask to be indulged in a few observations. I allude to the extent to which the use of money at our elections, has increased within a few years. I do not mean to affirm, that as yet direct corruption has to any extent been practised; on the contrary, I hope that such has not been the case, nor is it necessary that the evil should have arrived at that height to require your interposition. The practice of employing persons to attend the polls for compensation, of placing large sums in the hands of others to entertain the electors, and the various other devices by which the existing laws are evaded, the cupidity of the electors strongly tempted, their principles undermined, and the elective franchise, the most valuable of all our temporal privileges, brought into disrepute, is too well known to need description. I cannot refrain from pressing the existence of these practices upon your consideration, as an evil of the greatest magnitude. Of the salutary agency of this privilege in the purification of our public councils, and its indispensable necessity to the maintenance of public liberty, no citizen can be insensible; and we should all be alive to the obligation that rests upon us, whose enjoyment of it is so unlimited, to preserve it from the dangers to which it may at any time be exposed. The allowance of such means is giving to wealth a superiority over virtuous mediocrity, that should excite apprehensions in the mind of every real friend to the equal rights of man. If the expenses of our elections continue to increase with the same rapidity that they have done for some years past, the time will soon arrive when a man in middling circumstances, however virtuous, will not be able to compete upon any thing like equal terms, with a wealthy opponent. The evil is certainly within the reach of legislation. Evasions of any law that may pass, will, without doubt, take place; but their range can be greatly circumscribed, by the discreet and intelligent action of the legislature. I respectfully submit it to your consideration, whether a law which should impose severe and enforceable penalties upon the advance of money by individuals, for any purposes connected with the election, except the single one of printing, would not be salutary in its consequences, and is not called for by the deep interests that our constituents have in the subject.
It is unnecessary to say that these observations are not intended to have reference to any one class of men more than another. If injurious practices have existed in this respect, it is not probable that they have been confined to any description of politicians.
I transmit herewith a report from Mr. Mosley, who was in pursuance of an act passed in April last, and which will expire in May next, appointed special attorney to make certain inquiries and perform certain duties, in relation to the abduction of William Morgan.
Of his fate we have as yet no positive evidence; but it is certain that the laws of the state have been violated in his person, if not the highest crime committed. That an act so alarming in its character; so destructive of the peace of society, and the safety of its members; should have made a deep impression upon the public mind, ought not to surprise us. It would have been an unfavorable indication of the state of our public morals, and our respect for the laws, had it been otherwise. We have accordingly witnessed an excitement upon the subject, of great interest and extent, amongst a portion of our citizens, greatly and justly distinguished for their piety, industry and intelligence. It would not be extraordinary if attempts should be made, to pervert this honest indignation of the people to selfish and sinister purposes. But the character of those who really feel what they profess upon this subject, affords the best security, that the success of such unworthy schemes cannot be great, or of long duration.
It is the duty of those to whom the people have delegated the sacred trust of executing their laws, to see that no constitutional means are left unemployed, that may contribute to exonerate the innocent, and satisfy the requirements of the law, by bringing down judgment and punishment upon the heads of the guilty.— Whatever portion of those duties devolves upon me, shall be discharged with diligence and fidelity. It will be for you to consider whether, to that end, any further legislation is necessary.
An opportunity was recently presented to me, through the politeness of the managers of the Society, for the reformation of juvenile delinquents, to visit the house of refuge established by that society in the city of New York. The public are indebted for the original establishment of this institution, to the benevolence of the association; and it has subsequently in consequence of its obvious and great usefulness, and the extension of its operations to the state at large, received the patronage of the legislature. Of its salutary agency in promoting the objects of its establishment, there can be no doubt. The nature of this communication will not allow me to present you a more particular statement of its beneficial results, but they will be fully laid before you by the society, on an application which it is their intention to make for your interposition.— The nature of the relief to be asked, is such as will enable the institution to conduct its operations with more stability and success, without, as the managers suppose, materially increasing the present allowance made by the state. I should do injustice to my convictions of duty, if I failed to recommend this praiseworthy establishment to the protecting care of the legislature. Permit me also to suggest for your consideration, the expediency of extending this system throughout the state, under such modifications as may be thought proper.
I have been requested to present to your notice, the condition of several of the numerous institutions for the promotion of literature, science and the arts, with which our state happily abounds. Some have desired it with a view to applications they design to make for your assistance, and others from the laudable motive of bringing into more general notice, the success with which their meritorious labours have been rewarded. I have to regret that the necessary limits of this message, put it out of my power to comply with their wishes. Such as require it, will be noticed in subsequent communications, together with several other matters of public concernment upon which it may become your duty to act.
The abiding obligations to do every thing within the range of our respective authorities, to protect the great interests of agriculture, commerce and manufactures, will, I am confident be duly respected by you. In relation to the former and most important of these interests, I have been solicited to renew a suggestion made by my predecessor, submitting to the legislature the propriety of granting a bounty for the encouragement of the growth of hemp. Of the effects that will be produced upon the latter by the act of congress passed for its relief at the last session, it would, I am convinced, be yet premature to judge. If its operation can derive aid from any legislation on your part or any other advantage obtained, it will, I am well satisfied, be your pleasure, as it will be your duty, to afford all the assistance in your power to this great and valuable interest.
The great importance of a full and extensive publication of those parts of the Revised Statutes, which are of more general applications, and in respect to which, the most important alterations have been made of the existing laws, cannot fail to occur to you, and will, I hope, receive your early attention.
My elevation to the station which, by the favour of the people. I now enjoy, makes it necessary that I should resign the office of senator in the congress of the United States. You will, therefore, please to regard this as my resignation of that high office; and allow me to accompany it with an expression of my sincere thankfulness for the undeserved honor conferred upon me by two successive appointments, and my regret that it has not been in my power to make myself more useful in the discharge of its important and responsible duties. The nature of those duties are so well understood, and so fully appreciated, that it is scarcely necessary that I should ask you, in supplying the vacancy, to remember, that there are but few if any public stations in this country, presenting a fairer field for the successful exercise of great talents and sound patriotism, than that now referred to
Allow me, in conclusion, to submit some observations of a more general character That a jealousy of the exercise of all delegated political power, a solicitude to keep public agents within the precise limits of their authority, and an anxious desire to see all public expenditures under the control of a rigid and scrupulous economy, are indications of a contracted spirit, unbecoming the character of a statesman, is a sentiment that most men at some period of their lives, are prone to entertain. I cannot claim to have been always exempt from its influence. But the limited experience which it has been my fortune to have in public affairs, has abundantly satisfied me that it is a political heresy, which cannot be too soon or too effectually exploded.
It was truly said by one of my predecessors in office, who was one of the most distinguished and efficient of the civil patriots of the revolution, that “few circumstances are more essential to the duration of civil liberty and the well being of a free people, than that the departments and officers of the government do, on the one hand, exercise on proper occasions, all the powers and authorities constitutionally committed to them; and on the other hand, that they do not exercise on any occasion, powers and authorities which are not constitutionally committed to them” The enforcement of these excellent and saving principles, so far as they relate to most of the departments of the government, rests with you, and with the right is the duty to exercise it.
It is also a truth, confirmed by the experience of this, as well as every other country, that no people are so well served as those whose laws exact the most strict accountability from their public servants, and enjoin frugality in expenditures, as a cardinal political virtue. Acting upon these principles, I do not hesitate, in fulfilment of the duties imposed upon me by the constitution, to recommend to you the propriety of a faithful survey of the existing laws relating to the powers and duties of public officers, and the enforcement, as far as possible, of strict conformity to their provisions—of limiting, as far as practicable, the range of official discretion, always remembering, as a general rule, it can not be confided to any one, without danger of abuse, of ascertaining whether the securities now required from those intrusted with public moneys, may not be increased—of making the instances in which the government releases those, who, forgetful of the sacred character of their trust, wrongfully apply the public funds to their own use, as rare as may be consistent with the claims of humanity—and, generally, of compelling a vigilant accountability, and strict economy in the public disbursements through all their ramifications. There is no reason to apprehend impediments to a successful administration of the government through unreasonable jealousies upon these points. As long as public sentiment, the great lever of our political machine, remains as now, intelligent and patriotic, we need not fear that any measure with which the public interest is essentially connected, will fail of support.
Let me not, however, be understood as inculcating any thing like parsimony or injustice of any description, towards the servants of the public. The difference between that course and the one I have referred to, is wide and palpable. Although it is incompatible with the spirit of our political system, that the emoluments of office should be such as to enrich the incumbents, it is nevertheless due to its character and preservation, that our public functionaries should receive a just equivalent for the services they render. It is your province to decide whether such is now, in all respects, the case. I have no reason to believe that the gross amount received by the public officers of this state, is not an adequate recompense for their services: but I am fully persuaded that the compensation allowed by our laws, is unjustly and unequally distributed. The salaries paid to the chancellor and judges of the supreme and circuit courts, in particular, is less than what is paid to judges of the same grade in several of the states of the Union; and considering the expenses to which they are unavoidably exposed, I fear insufficient to save them from actual loss. I do not believe that our constituents could reconcile it to that strong sense of natural justice, by which they are influenced to receive the entire services of any of their fellow-citizens, without yielding them a compensation at least sufficient for their support; and I am yet to learn, that they would wish to see a rule applied to their public concerns, of which they would not approve in those that are personal. I have therefore no hesitation in saying, that any bill which shall correct the inequality that at present exists, and place the salaries to those to whom I have particularly alluded, upon a just footing, shall receive my cordial concurrence.
The relation in which we stand to the Federal Government, occasionally imposes upon us the discharge of delicate and highly responsible duties. Of the invariable disposition of this state to sustain the federal arm, in the exercise of all its constitutional power, it would be superfluous to speak; it has been fully exemplified both in peace and in war. But whilst we thus evince our unabated loyalty to the general government, we must not be unmindful of our obligations at home, or forget that it is only to the principles upon which the confederacy was based, and which were intended to be enforced by the provisions of the federal constitution, that our support is justly due. As the theory of our general government was without precedent, its practical operation could only, at the period of its formation, be matter of conjecture. The motives of those who framed it, were, doubtless, of the purest and most elevated character. The great question that was agitated by them, was the distribution of the powers necessary to good government between the federal and state authorities; and the conflicting speculations of the men of that day, as to what was to be hoped and feared, from those respective sources, divided them into parties, which have continued, without material alteration, to the present period. The experience of forty years has vindicated and fully sustained the opinions and principles of those, who, at that time, insisted that the tendency of the system would be to encourage encroachments by the federal power upon that of the states. That tendency may well be regarded as the imperfection of our otherwise most happy system, and deriving force from principles of a kindred character, it may always be expected to disturb it. But it is, at the same time, gratifying to have witnessed a willingness as well as a capacity on the part of the people to resist such encroachments as often as their existence becomes manifest. Of that disposition and capacity, our political history records at least the prominent and illustrious instances. As long as the good spirit that triumphed on those memorable occasions is preserved, the republic will be safe. That it may always be preserved, should be the unceasing prayer of every patriot. The state governments have been justly described, by one of the best of men, as “the most competent administration for our domestic concerns, and the surest bulwarks against anti republican tendencies”—and it is among our highest duties as the representatives of a state, certainly not the least considerable of the number, to exercise the greatest vigilance in their preservation. That those who are either regardless of the success of the republican principle, or whose love for it is merged in other considerations, should decry the solicitude that is manifested upon this subject, and seek to discredit its authors, is naturally to be expected. But the sincere friends of our hitherto successful system, may well find consolation in the fact, that its defenders are neither to be deterred or intimidated by such efforts, and that the people have sustained, and will again and again, support them.
The influence of the recent contest for the Presidency, upon the success and permanency of those principles, must, for a long time to come, be of a very decisive character. Of that great struggle, it may truly be said, that if it brought with it much to regret, it has also afforded subjects for congratulation, without reference to its particular result. Ours is the only nation in the world which can fairly be said to enjoy the high privilege of selecting its chief magistrate, by the unbiassed choice of its citizens. That the exercise of a right, so interesting in its character, and so important in its results would disturb the body politic in all its relations, was to have been anticipated, and in the present instance has been fully realized. It is certainly true, that the reputation of the country has in some degree suffered from the uncharitable and unrelenting scrutiny to which private as well as public character has been subjected. But, on the other hand, the injury produced by this discreditable exhibition has been relieved, if not removed, by seeing how soon the overflowing waters of bitterness have spent themselves, and that already the current of public feeling has resumed its accustomed channels. These excesses are the price we pay for that full enjoyment of the right of opinion, which is emphatically the birthright of an American citizen. It is with perfect deference to that sacred privilege, and in the humble exercise of it which belongs to myself—with a sincere desire not to offend the feelings of those whose views in this respect differ from my own—that I beg leave to congratulate you, and through you, our constituents, on the result of the late election for President and Vice-President of the United States: A result which, while it infuses fresh vigour into our political system, and adds new beauties to the Republican character, once more refutes the odious imputation that Republics are ungrateful; dissipates the vain hope that our citizens can be influenced by aught save appeals to their understanding and love of country; and finally, exhibits in bold relief, the omnipotence of public opinion, and the futility of all attempts to overawe it by the denunciations of power, or to seduce it by the allurements of patronage.
MARTIN VAN BUREN