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I offer you, again, Fellow-Citizens, my grateful acknowledgments, and all my sincere and cordial good wishes; and I propose to you —
“ THE CITY OF BOSTON: MAY IT CONTINUE TO BE THE Head QUARTERS OF GOOD PRINCIPLES, TILL THE BLOOD OF THE RevoLUTIONARY PATRIOTS SHALL HAVE RUN THROUGH A THOUSAND GENERATIONS !"
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, ON THE BILL TO GRADU
ATE THE PRICE OF THE PUBLIC LANDS, JANUARY 14, 1839.
On the 14th of January, on the question of postponing the bill indefinitely, moved by Mr. Rives —
MR. WEBSTER rose, and said, that he had hardly time to look at the bill before he was called on to vote on the question of its indefinite postponement. He should, however, take the occasion to say a few words, principally because it was known, on some of the subjects connected with the public lands, he had the misfortune to differ from those with whom he generally acted. He well recollected that his attention was earnestly called to this subject by Mr. Madison, at the close of his administration, who remarked that the Northern and Atlantic members of Congress had been quite too inattentive to it—that it was a great interest. And it might show how much even Mr. Madison underrated this interest, when he (Mr. Webster) stated that Mr. Madison's remark was, that he had no doubt, under a proper administration, the public lands would yield annually a million and a half of dollars.
Mr. W. said the earliest occasion for his taking a part in the deliberations of Congress on the public lands was the first session he took his seat in the Senate. A graduation bill was then before Congress, and the whole subject was much discussed. He, at that time, heard doctrines and sentiments advanced which struck him very strangely. He recollected an able and elaborate argument by a member from Indiana, designed to prove that all the new lands in any new State became the property of that State by the mere fact of her admission into the Union. He heard a speech in favor of the same sentiment, from a member from Alabama, so distinguished for legal and constitutional attainment, as since to have been made a Judge of the Supreme Court of the United States. These doctrines and opinions he bad certainly opposed with the utmost of his power, as having no foundation in constitutional law, and as subversive of all justice and equity to the States. They did not obtain much favor with the country, and, after a while, appear to have been abandoned. But, then, another proposition had subsequently arisen in another quarter, in his opinion equally objectionable, which
was, that, though the public lands rightfully belonged to this Government, yet Congress ought to cede them to the States in which they lie. This, also, he opposed, and should continue to oppose, because he regarded it as palpable injustice to the States generally, and a direct violation of the trust upon which the lands had been originally conveyed to Congress.
In regard to both these propositions, Mr. Webster said, that, while he had exerted himself to maintain what he thought the true interests of the country, he had the pleasure of concurring with those with whom he generally acted on political subjects. With regard, however, to some subordinate questions as to the mode of administering this trust, he had differed from them last session on the preemption bill. He was in favor of that bill. He wished then, and wished now, that the bill had been more perfect, so as to carry out more fully and completely the intentions of Congress. And, on this subject of graduation, he had expressed opinions at an early day, in which his friends did not concur. In the session of 1827, 1828, before referred to, he had moved to amend the bill then pending by striking out all after the enacting clause, and inserting what he would tben read. Mr. Webster then read the following:
“ Further to amend the bill by striking out all after the enacting clause, and inserting the following:
“ That, at any time from and after the first day of January, anno Domini one thousand eight hundred and twenty-nine, such portions of the public lands as shall have been offered at public sale, and shall also have been subject to entry at private sale, for the term of years, and shall still remain unsold, shall thenceforward be offered at private sale in parcels, conforming to sectional divisions and subdivisions, at the rate of per acre.
“ Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for any head of a family, young man over the age of twenty-one years, or widow, not having received a donation of land from the United States, and wishing to become an actual settler on any parcel of public land authorized by the first section of this act to be sold at per acre, and not exceeding in quantity the amount of one quarter section, to demand and receive, from the proper register and receiver, a written permission to settle on the same, upon payment, to be made to the proper receiver, of the sum of a cents per acre; and if such person, so applying for and receiving such permission, shall forth with settle on the said land, and he or she, or his or her heirs or legal representatives, shall cultivate the same for five successive years, and shall be a citizen or citizens of the United States at the end of that time, then, on proper proof being made, before the register and receiver, of such settlement, cultivation, and citizenship, a patent shall issue for the said land to the person who received such permission, or his or her heirs or legal representatives. And the faith of the United States is hereby pledged to all persons who may settle on the public lands, according to the provisions of this section, that no dispensation shall, at any time, be granted to any individual from complying with the substantial conditions herein prescribed. And if due proof of settlement, cultivation, and citizenship, as herein required, be not made within - years next after the expiration of said five years, the said land shall again be subject to entry at private sale, as land belonging to the United States."
Mr. Webster said, the Senate would take notice that the bill then pending was a bill “to graduate the price of the public lands, to make donations thereof to actual settlers, and to cede the refuse to the States in which they lie;" that his amendment embraced two objects — the graduation of price, and the donation to actual settlers, but that it rejected all cessions to the States. It would be noticed, too, that this graduation proposed but one step, and to stop there. As to donations to actual settlers, he had often expressed the opinion, and still entertained it, that it would have been a wise policy in Government, from the first, to have made a donation of half a quarter or one quarter section to every actual settler, the head of a family, upon condition of habitation and cultivation ; that this would have been far better, and freer from abuse, than any system of preëmption.
And, as to graduation, what was it? It simply meant a reduction of the price, in order to make sale of lands that would not sell at the existing price. Certainly it could be no matter of principle that all lands, good and bad, should be held at the same rate. It might be expedient or inexpedient, but no principle was involved in the matter. The law of 1820, which reduced the price of all lands from $2 to $1 25 an acre, was itself a graduation bill, and a most important one, and its effects have been generally thought to be useful. When lands have been a long time in market at a certain price, and have not commanded it, why should they not be put at a price at which they will sell? In all this matter, he had always felt the conviction that the real object of the conveyance of these lands to the United States was, that they should be sold and settled. Sale and settlement were the great ends in view. He did not mean that they were to be sold in a hurry, or crowded on the market beyond the demand. But they were to be sold at reasonable prices, as fast as the country could be settled. In some cases, lands had been in market for twenty years. They were inferior lands, and could not be sold at the general price. Why should they, then, not be sold at such a price as they would bring? Was this not what an individual would do who held lands in trust to sell ? He knew very well that where these poorer lands were mixed in with better lands which had been sold, the sale and cultivation of these better lands in the neighborhood had raised the price of the poorer lands; so that, in such places, some of these poorer lands were disposed of every year at the common price. Yet, even here, the sales were inconsiderable and lingering.
But, then, there were other causes which formed the main occasion for graduation of prices. They were when very large tracts of lands were altogether of very inferior quality. Such large tracts did exist in several of the South-Western States --- in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama. There was reason to believe
VOL. III. 48
that large territories of this description would not sell, at the present price, in half a century, nor a century. This state of things is inconvenient to the States, without being useful to the United States. While held by the United States, these lands are not subject to State taxation. They contribute nothing to the burdens thrown on other lands. A great proprietor is in the State, holding large territory, exempt from common burdens. Let it be remembered (Mr. Webster repeated) that our trust is to sell and settle, not to hold permanently. It is to sell and settle, and to apply the proceeds to purposes beneficial to all the People of the United States. He was against all notion of permanent holding. He had always been opposed to the policy of reserving lands supposed to contain mines, with a view of leasing them, and deriving rent to Government. His opinion had always been that these lands should be examined, explored, their true value ascertained and disclosed, and then the lands sold, like other lands, to the highest bidder.
He said that, when he brought forward his proposition, in April, 1828, most of his political friends voted for it. But it was rejected by a majority of the Senate; and the bill then before the Senate, being on its passage, was also rejected.
Mr. Webster said he had now stated, in very few words, the history of his opinion on this subject of graduation. He hoped it was apparent, at least, that he had embraced no new sentiments suddenly. He thought, as he always had thought, graduation was a question of degree. It was wise or unwise as it was slow and reasonable, or as it was sudden and extravagant. He was for a slow graduation. He had proposed but one step. He was for trying that first, and for seeing the effect. He had felt confident, and still felt perfectly confident, that there were vast tracts of lands now lying within the limits of some of the States, that would not be disposed of for some generations to come without a reduction of price. If the present bill should be made conformable to his proposition in 1828, he should vote for it. But be doubted exceedingly whether a bill satisfactory to any part of the House could be carried through Congress at this session. There was beginning to be a good deal of exciteinent on the subject in the country. The doctrines that had been set up had at length alarmed the States and the People. For his part, he was glad to see this roused attention. He was glad to see the public mind thus awakened. The public lands were a fund for the use of all the People of the United States; and while he wished that this fund should be administered in a spirit of the utmost kindness to the actual settlers and the People of the new States, he should consent to no trifling with it, no wasting of it, no cession of it, no diversion of it in any manner from that general public use for which it was created.