MVB, Senate speech on constitutional amendment, 22 January 1824
Mr. Van Buren rose, in pursuance of notice given on Wednesday last, to ask leave to introduce a joint resolution, proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, on the subject of the power of Congress to make roads and canals. He said he was as much opposed as any man, to frequent alterations of the form of government under which we live, but he would make no apology for bringing this matter before the Senate, in so imposing a form as that of an amendment to the Constitution. He would not do so, because he was entirely convinced that no one could dispassionately consider the present state of the question, to which his resolution relates, without feeling the imperious necessity of some Constitutional provision on the subject. It was not his intention, at this time, to enter into the discussion of the matter; he would only submit one or two general remarks in relation to it. Of the importance of the question, it was not necessary to speak. Suffice it to say, that, in its scope, it embraces the funds of the nation to an unlimited extent, and in its result must affect, as far as the agency of the Federal Government was concerned, the future internal improvement of a great and flourishing country. Is the power to make roads and canals, within the States, now vested in the Federal Government? Individuals, said Mr. V. B., may give their impressions, with their reasons for the various ingenious constructions they put upon the different parts of the Constitution, to make out that this power exists; but all candid men will admit that there are few questions more unsettled. Whilst, in some States, the power is universally conceded, and its exercise loudly required, in others, its existence is as generally denied, and its exercise as ardently resisted. Is there cause to believe that, as the Constitution now stands, a construction will obtain, which will be so far acquiesced in as to be regarded and enforced as one of the established powers of the General Government? He thought there was not. For about twenty years, this subject had been one of constant and earnest discussion. Efforts have at various times been made in Congress to exercise the power in question. They have met sometimes with more, and sometimes with less, favor. Bills, containing the assertion, and directing the exercise of this power, have passed the two Houses, and been returned, with objections, by two successive Presidents, and failed for want of the Constitutional majority. The last Congress and the Executive were arrayed against each other, upon the question, and as far as a recent vote of the other House may be regarded as evidence of the present opinion of Congress, there is every reason to believe that such is now the case.
The Government has now been in operation rising of thirty years; and although the subject has always been a matter of interest, no law clearly embracing the power has ever yet been passed. There is, therefore, but little reason to hope, that, without some Constitutional provision, the question will ever be settled. If the General Government has not now the power, Mr. V. B. said, that he for one, thought that, under suitable restrictions, they ought to have it. As to what those restrictions ought to be, there might, and probably would, be diversity of opinion. But, as to the abstract proposition, that as much of the funds of the nation as could be raised, without oppression, and as are not necessary to the discharge of existing and indispensable demands upon the Government, should be expended upon internal improvements, under restrictions regarding the sovereignty and securing the equal interest of the States, he presumed there would be little difference of opinion. He could not but hope, that those who think the better construction of the Constitution is, that Congress now have the power, would also consent to some amendment. They must, at all events, admit that it is far from being a clear, and certainly not a settled matter, and in view of the danger always attending the exercise of a doubtful right by the Federal Government against the persevering opposition of the several States, they would decide whether, instead of contesting this matter as it has been done for so many years, it would not be more for the interest of the nation, as well as the credit of the Government, to place the matter on well defined ground. There were many strong reasons why he thought this course ought to be pursued, and which, at the proper time, he would take the liberty to urge. For the present, he would simply add, that, independent of the collisions of State interests, which this power is more likely than any other to produce, the exercise of it in the present state of the Constitution, and with an Executive whose reading of it should be different from that of the present, and the two who last preceded him, could not fail to be grossly unequal among the States; because it is well known that there were some States who have invariably, and who will, as long as they prefer the inviolability of the Constitution to their local interest, continue to oppose the exercise of this power with them. Without, therefore, the ability to prevent, they would be excluded from the benefits of its exercise. The course now proposed had been earnestly recommended to the last Congress by the present Executive, and, when the subject came up for discussion, he would endeavor to show that its adoption was called for by the best interests of the nation.