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May not all reasonable desires upon this subject be satisfied without encountering any of these objections? All will concede the abstract principle, that the price of the public lands should be proportioned to their relative value, so far as that can be accomplished without departing from the rule heretofore observed, requiring fixed prices in cases of private entries. The difficulty of the subject seems to lie in the mode of ascertaining what that value is. Would not the safest plan be that which has been adopted by many of the states as to the basis of taxation an actual valuation of lands and classification of them into different rates ?
Would it not be practicable and expedient to cause the relative value of the public lands in the old districts, which have been for a certain length of time in market, to be appraised and classed into two or more rates below the present minimum price, by the officers now employed in this branch of the public service, or in any other mode deemed preferable, and to make those prices permanent, if, upon the coming in of the report, they shall prove satisfactory to Congress ? Cannot all the objects of graduation be accomplished in this way, and the objections which have hitherto been urged against it avoided ?
It would seem to me that such a step, with a restriction of the sales to limited quantities, and for actual improvement, would be free from all just exceptions.
By the full exposition of the value of the lands thug furnished and extensively promulgated, persons living at a distance would be informed of their true condition, and enabled to enter into competition with those residing in the vicinity; the means of acquiring an independent home would be brought within the reach of many who are unable to purchase at present prices; the population of the new states would be more compact, and large tracts would be sold which would otherwise remain on hand; not only would the land be brought within the means of a large number of purchasers, but many persons possessed of greater means would be content to settle on a larger quantity of the poorer lands, rather than emigrate farther west in pursuit of a smaller quantity of better lands.
Such a measure would also seem to be more consistent
with the policy of the existing laws — that of converting the public domain into cultivated farms owned by their occupants. That policy is not best promoted by sending emigration up the almost interminable streams of the west, to occupy in groups the best spots of land, leaving immense wastes behind them, and enlarging the frontier beyond the means of the government to afford it adequate protection ; but in encouraging it to occupy,
with reasonable denseness, the territory over which it advances, and find its best defence in the compact front which it presents to the Indian tribes. Many of you will bring to the consideration of the subject the advantage of local knowledge and greater experience, and all will be desirous of making an early and final disposition of every disturbing question in regard to this important interest. If these suggestions shall in any degree contribute to the accomplishment of so important a result, it will afford me sincere satisfaction.
In some sections of the country, most of the public lands have been sold, and the registers and receivers have little to do. It is a subject worthy of inquiry whether, in many cases, two or more districts might not be consolidated, and the number of persons employed in this business considerably reduced. Indeed, the time will come, when it will be the true policy of the general government, as to some of the states, to transfer to them, for a reasonable equivalent, all the refuse and unsold lands, and to withdraw the machinery of the federal land-offices altogether. All who take a comprehensive view of our federal system, and believe that one of its greatest excellences consists in interfering as little as possible with the internal concerns of the states, look forward with great interest to this result.
A modification of the existing laws in respect to the prices of the public lands, might also have a favorable inAuence on the legislation of Congress, in relation to another branch of the subject. Many who have not the ability to buy at present prices, settle on those lands, with the hope of acquiring from their cultivation the means of purchasing under preëmption laws, from time to time passed by Congress. For this encroachment on the rights of the United States, they excuse themselves under the plea of their own necessities; the fact that they dispossess
nobody, and only enter upon the waste domain; that they give additional value to the public lands in their vicinity, and their intention ultimately to pay the government prices. So much weight has from time to time been attached to these considerations, that Congress have passed laws giving actual settlers on the public lands a right of preëmption to the tracts occupied by them, at the minimum price.
These laws have in all instances been retrospective in their operations; but in a few years after their passage, crowds of new settlers have been found on the public lands, for similar reasons, and under like expectations, who have been indulged with the same privilege. This course of legislation tends to impair public respect for the laws of the country. Either the laws to prevent intrusion upon the public lands should be executed, or, if that should be impracticable or inexpedient, they should be modified or repealed. If the public lands are to be considered as open to be occupied by any, they should, by law, be thrown open to all.
That which is intended, in all instances, to be legalized, should at once be made legal, that those who are disposed to conform to the laws, may enjoy at least equal privileges with those who are not. But it is not believed to be the disposition of Congress to open the public lands to occupancy without regular entries and payment of the government price, as such a course must tend to worse evils than the credit system, which it was found necessary to abolish.
It would seem, therefore, to be the part of wisdom and sound policy to remove, as far as practicable, the causes which produce intrusions upon the public lands, and then take efficient steps to prevent them in future. Would any single measure be so effective in removing all plausible grounds for these intrusions as the graduation of price already suggested? A short period of industry and economy in any part of our country would enable the poorest citizen to accumulate the means to buy him a home at the lowest prices, and leave him without apology for settling on lands not his own. If he did not, under such circumstances, he would enlist no sympathy in his favor; and the laws would be readily executed without doing violence to public opinion.
A large portion of our citizens have seated themselves on the public lands, without authority, since the passage of the last preëmption law, and now ask the enactment of another, to enable them to retain the lands occupied, upon payment of the minimum government price. They ask that which has been repeatedly granted before. If the future
be judged of by the past, little harm can be done to the interests of the treasury by yielding to their request. Upon a critical examination, it is found that the lands sold at the public sales since the introduction of cash payments in 1820, have produced, on an average, the net revenue of only six cents on an acre more than the minimum government price. There is no reason to suppose that future sales will be more productive. The government, therefore, has no adequate pecuniary interest to induce it to drive those people from the lands they occupy, for the purpose of selling them to others.
Entertaining these views, I recommend the passage of a . preëmption law for their benefit, in connection with the preparatory steps towards the graduation of the price of the public lands, and further and more effectual provisions to prevent intrusions hereafter. Indulgence to those who have settled on these lands with expectations that past legislation would be made a rule for the future, and at the same time removing the most plausible ground on which intrusions are excused, and adopting more efficient means to prevent them hereafter, appears to me the most judicious disposition which can be made of this difficult subject.
The limitations and restrictions to guard against abuses in the execution of the preëmption law, will necessarily attract the attention of Congress; but under no circumstances is it considered expedient to authorize floating claims in any shape. They have been heretofore, and doubtless would be hereafter, most prolific sources of fraud and oppression, and instead of operating to confer the favor of the
government on industrious settlers, are often used only to minister to a spirit of cupidity at the expense of the most meritorious of that class.
The accompanying report of the secretary of war will bring to your view the state of the army, and all the va
rious subjects confided to the superintendence of that officer.
The principal part of the army has been concentrated in Florida, with a view and in the expectation of bringing the war in that territory to a speedy close. The necessity of stripping the posts on the maritime and inland frontiers of
their entire garrisons, for the purpose of assembling in the • field an army of less than four thousand men, would seem
to indicate the necessity of increasing our regular forces; and the superior efficiency, as well as greatly diminished expense, of that description of troops, recommend this measure as one of economy, as well as of expediency. I refer to the report for the reasons which have induced the secretary of war to urge the reorganization and enlargement of the staff of the army, and of the ordnance corps, in which I fully concur.
It is not, however, compatible with the interest of the people to maintain, in time of peace, a regular force adequate to the defence of our extensive frontiers. In periods of danger and alarm, we must rely principally upon a well-organized militia; and some general arrangement that will render this description of force more efficient, has long been a subject of anxious solicitude. It was recommended to the first Congress by General Washington, and has since been frequently brought to your notice, and recently its importance strongly urged by my immediate pred
The provision in the constitution that renders it necessary to adopt a uniform system of organization for the militia throughout the United States, presents an insurmountable obstacle to an efficient arrangement by the classification heretofore proposed, and I invite your attention to the plan which will be submitted by the secretary of war, for the organization of the volunteer corps, and the instruction of militia officers, as more simple and practicable, if not equally advantageous, as a general arrangement of the whole militia of the United States.
A moderate increase of the corps both of military and topographical engineers, has been more than once recommended by my predecessor, and my conviction of the propriety, not to say necessity, of the measure, in order to