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IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, ON THE RESOLUTION
OF MR. FOOTE RESPECTING THE SALE, &c. OF PUBLIC LANDS. JAN. 1830.
The resolution was introduced on the 29th of December, 1829, as follows:
“Resolved, That the Committee on Public Lands be instructed to inquire and report the quantity of public lands remaining unsold within each State and Territory. And wbether it be expedient to limit, for a certain period, the sales of the public lands to such lands only as have heretofore been offered for sale, and are now subject to entry at the minimum price. And, also, whether the office of Surveyor General, and some of the land ofhces, may not be abolished without detriment to the public interest; or whether it be expedient to adopt measures to hasten the sales and extend more rapidly the surveys of the public lands."
On the 18th of January, Mr. Benton of Missouri addressed the Senate; and on the 19th, Mr. Hayne, of South Carolina, proceeded in the debate, and spoke at considerable length. After he had concluded Mr. Webster rose to reply, but gave way, on motion of Mr. Benton for an adjournment.
On the 20th, Mr. Webster took the floor, and spoke as follows:
Nothing has been farther from my intention than to take any part in the discussion of this resolution. It proposes only an inquiry on a subject of much importance, and one in regard to which it might strike the mind of the mover, and of other gentlemen, that inquiry and investigation would be useful. Although I am one of those who do not perceive any particular utility in instituting the inquiry, I have, nevertheless, not seen that harm would be likely to result from adopting the resolution. Indeed, it gives no new powers and hardly imposes any new duty, on the committee. All that the resolution proposes should be done, the committee is quite competent, without the resolution, to do by virtue of its ordinary powers. But, sir, although I have felt quite indifferent about the passing of the resolution, yet opinions were expressed yesterday on the general subject of the public lands, and on some other subjects, by the gentleman from South Carolina, so widely different from my own, that I am not willing to let the occasion pass without some reply. If I deemed the resolution as originally proposed hardly necessary, still less do I think it either necessary or expedient to adopt it, since a second branch has been added to it to day. By this second branch, the committee is to be instructed to inquire whether it be expedient to adopt measures to hasten the sales, and extend more rapidly the surveys of the public lands.
Now it appears, that, in forty years, Mr. President, we have sold no more than about twenty millions of acres of public lands. The annual sales do not now exceed, and never have exceeded, one million of acres. A million a year is, according to our experience, as much as the increase of population can bring into settlement. And it appears, also, that we have, at this moment, sir, surveyed and in the market, ready for sale, two hundred and ten millions of acres, or thereabouts. All this vast mass, at this moment, lies on our hands, for mere want of purchasers. Can any man, looking to the real interests of the country and the people, seriously think of inquiring whether we ought not still faster to hasten the public surveys, and to bring, still more and more rapidly, other vast quantities into the market? The truth is, that rapidly as population has increased, the surveys have, nevertheless, outran our wants. There are more lands than purchasers. They are now sold at low prices, and taken up as fast as the increase of people furnishes hands to take them up.-It is obvious, that no artificial regulation, no forcing of sales, no giving away of the lands even, can produce any great and sudden augmentation of population. The ratio of increase, though great, has yet its bounds. Hands for labor are multiplied only at a certain rate. The lands cannot be settled but by settlers; nor faster than settlers can be found. A system, if now adopted, of forcing sales, at whatever prices, may have the effect of throwing large quantities into the hands of individuals, who would, in this way, in time, become themselves competitors with the government, in the sale of land. My own opinion has uniformly been, that the public lands should be offered freely, and at low prices; so as to encourage settlement and cultivation as rapidly as the increasing population of the country is competent to extend settlement and cultivation.
Every actual settler should be able to buy good land, at a cheap rate; but on the other hand, speculation by individuals, on a large scale, should not be encouraged, nor should the value of all lands, sold and unsold, be reduced to nothing, by throwing new and vast quantities into the market at prices merely nominal.
I now proceed, sir, to some of the opinions expressed by the gentleman from South Carolina. Two or three topics were touched by him, in regard to which he expressed sentiments in which I do not at all concur.
In the first place, sir, the honorable gentleman spoke of the whole course and policy of the government, towards those who have purchased and settled the public lands; and seemed to think this policy wrong. He held it to have been, from the first, hard and rigorous; he was of opinion, that the United States had acted towards those who had subdued the western wilderness, in the spirit of a stepmother; that the public domain had been improperly regarded as a source of revenue; and that we had rigidly compelled payment for that which ought to have been given away. He said we ought to have followed the analogy of other governments, which had acted on a much more liberal system than ours, in planting colonies. He dwelt, particularly, upon the settlement of America by colonies from Europe; and reminded us, that their governments had not exacted from those colonists payment for the soil; with them, he said,
sult at once their services, their years, their necessities, and the delicacy of their sentiments. I would gladly give, with promptitude and grace, with gratitude and delicacy, that which merit has earned, and necessity demands.
Sir, what are the objections urged against this bill? Let us look at them, and see if they be real; let us weigh them, to know if they be solid. For, sir, we are not acting on a slight matter. Nor is what we do likely to pass unobserved now, or to be forgotten hereafter. I regard the occasion as one full of interest and full of responsibility. Those individuals, the little remnant of a gallant band, whose days of youth and manhood were spent for their country in the toils and dangers of the field, are now before us, poor and old, -intimating their wants with reluctant delicacy, and asking succour from their country with decorous solicitude. How we shall treat them, it behooves us well to consider, not only for their sake, but for our own sake, also, and for the sake of the honor of the country.Whatever we do, will not be done in a corner. Our constituents will see it; the people will see it; the world will see it.
Let us candidly examine, then, the objections which have been raised to this bill; with a disposition to yield to them, if from necessity we must; but, to overcome them, if in fairness we can.
In the first place, it is said, that we ought not to pass the bill, because it will involve us in a charge of unknown extent. We are reminded, that when the general pension law for revolutionary soldiers passed, an expense was incurred far beyond what had been contemplated; that the estimate, of the number of surviving revolutionary soldiers, proved altogether fallacious; and that, for aught we know, the same mistake may be committed now.
Is this objection well-founded? Let me say, in the first place, that if one measure, right in itself, has gone farther than it was intended to be carried, for want of accurate provisions, and adequate guards, this may furnish a very good reason for supplying such guards and provisions in another measure, but can afford no ground at all for rejecting such other measure, altogether, if it be in itself just and necessary. We should avail ourselves of our experience, it seems to me, to correct what has been found amiss; and not draw from it an undistinguishing resolution to do nothing, merely because it has taught us, that, in something we have already done, we have acted with too little care. In the next place, does the fact bear out this objection? Is there any difficulty in ascertaining the number of the officers who will be benefited by this bill, and in estimating the expense, therefore, which it will create? I think there is none. The records in the department of war, and the treasury, furnish such evidence as that there is no danger of material mistake. The dihgence of the chairman of the committee has enabled him to lay the facts, connected with this part of the case, so fully and minutely before the Senate, that I think no one can feel serious doubt. Indeed, it is admitted by the adversaries of the bill, that this objection does not apply here with the same force as in the former pension-law. It is admitted that there is a greater facility in this case than in that, in ascertaining the number and names of those who will be entitled to receive that bounty.
This objection, then, is not founded in true principle; and if it were, it is not sustained by the facts. I think we ought not to yield to it, unless, (which I know is not the sentiment which pervades the Senate,) feeling that the measure ought not to pass, we still prefer not to place our opposition to it on a distinct and visible ground, but to veil it under vague and general objections.
In the second place, it has been objected, that the operation of the bill will be unequal, because all officers of the same rank will receive equal benefit from it, although they entered the army at different times, and were of different ages. Sir, is not this that sort of inequality which must always exist in every general provision? Is it possible that any law can descend into such particulars? Would there be any reason why it should do so, if it could? The bill is intended for those, who, being in the Army in October, 1780, then received a solemn promise of half-pay for life, on condition that they would continue to serve through the war. Their ground of merit, is, that whensoever they had joined the army, being thus solicited by their country to remain in it, they at once went for the whole; they fastened their fortunes to the standards which they bore, and resolved to continue their military service till it should terminate either in their country's success or in their own deaths. This is their merit and their ground of claim. How long they had been already in service, is immaterial and unimportant. They were then in service; the salvation of their country depended on their continuing in that service. Congress saw this imperative necessity, and earnestly solicited them to remain, and promised the compensation. They saw the necessity, also, and they yielded to it.
But, again, it is said that the present time is not auspicious. The bill, it is urged, should not pass now. The venerable member from North Carolina says, as I understood him, that he would be almost as willing that the bill should pass at some other session, as be discussed at this. He speaks of the distresses of the country at the present momént, and of another bill, now in the Senate, having, as he thinks, the effect of laying new taxes upon the people. He is for postponement. But it appears to me, with entire respect for the honourable member, that this is one of the cases least of all fit for postponement. It is not a measure, that, if omitted this year, may as well be done next. Before next year comes, those who need the relief may be beyond its reach. To postpone for another year, an annuity to persons already so aged; an annuity, founded on the merit of services which were rendered half a century ago; to postpone, for another whole year, a bill for the relief of deserving men,-proposing not aggrandizement but support; not emolument but bread; is a mode of disposing of it, in which I cannot concur.
But it is argued, in the next place, that the bill ought not to pass, because those who have spoken in its favor have placed it on different grounds. They have not agreed, it is said, whether it is to be regarded as a matter of right, or matter of gratuity, or bounty. Is there weight in this objection? If some think the grant ought to be made, as an exercise of judicious and well deserved bounty, does it weaken that ground that others think it founded in strict right, and that we cannot refuse it without manifest and palpable injustice? Or, is it strange, that those who feel the legal justice of the claim, should address to those who do not feel it, considerations of a different character, but fit to have weight, and which they hope may have weight? Nothing is more plain and natural than the course which this application has taken. The applicants, themselves, have placed it on the ground of equity and law. They advert to the resolve of 1780, to the commutation of 1783, and to the mode of funding the certificates. They stand on their contract. This is perfectly natural. On that basis, they can wield the argument themselves. Of what is required by justice and equity, they may reason even in their own case. But when the application is placed on different grounds; when personal merit is to be urged, as the foundation of a just and economical bounty; when services are to be mentioned; privations recounted; pains enumerated; and wounds and scars counted; the discussion necessarily devolves to other hands. In all that we have seen from these officers in the various papers presented by them, it cannot but be. obvious to every one, how little is said of personal merit, and how exclusively they confine themselves to what they think their rights under the contract.
I must confess, sir, that principles of equity, which appear to me as plain as the sun, are urged by the memorialists themselves with great caution, and much qualification. They advance their claim of right, without extravagance or overstraining; and they submit to it the unimpassioned sense of justice of the Senate.
For myself, I am free to say, that if it were a case between individual and individual, I think the officers would be entitled to relief in a court of equity. I may be mistaken, but such is my opinion. My reasons are, that I do not think they had a fair option, in regard to the commutation of half-pay. I do not think it was fairly in their power to accept or reject that affer. The condition they were in, and the situation of the country, compelled them to submit to whatever was proposed. In the next place it seems to me too evident to be denied, that the five years' full pay was never really and fully made to them. A formal compliartce with the terms of the contract, not a real compliance, is at most all that was ever done. For these reasons, I think, in an individual case, law and equity would reform the settlement. The conscience of chancery would deal with this case as with other cases of hard bargains; of advantages obtained by means of inequality of situation; of acknowledged debts, compounded from necessity, or compromised without satisfaction. But, although such would be my views of this claim, as between man and man, I do not place my vote for this bill on that ground. I see the consequence of admitting the claim, on the foundation of strict right. I see at once, that, on that ground, the heirs of the dead would claim, as well as the living; and that other public creditors, as well as these holders of commutation certificates, would also have whereof to complain. I know it is altogether impossible to open the accounts of the revolution, and to think of doing justice to everybody. Much of suffering there necessarily was, that can never be paid for; much of loss that can never be repaired. I do not, therefore, for myself, rest my vote on grounds leading to any such consequences. I feel constrained to say, that we cannot do, and