|This Week in History
June 21 - 27, 1848
Congressman Abraham Lincoln Assails President Polk's Veto of Internal Improvements
On June 20, 1848, Congressman Abraham Lincoln rose from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and delivered a speech in favor of Federal funding for internal improvements. He was acting in response to President James K. Polk's veto of an internal improvements bill, in which the President stated that the Federal Government had no powers under the Constitution to fund such infrastructure projects as roads, canals, and railroads.
Lincoln was a member of the Whig Party, and a supporter of Henry Clay's policies of American System economics. In the 1836-37 session of the Illinois Legislature, when Lincoln was one of the delegates from Sangamon County, he had played a major role in developing the plan for infrastructural development in Illinois.
At that time, Illinois was still a developing frontier state, and a convention of Sangamon County voters had instructed their "Long Nine" delegates, so nicknamed because all of them were taller than usual, to vote "for a general system of internal improvements." Another convention of delegates from all of the state's counties met in Vandalia, then the state capital, and made a similar charge to the members of the legislature, specifying that the measures adopted should be "commensurate with the wants of the people."
Lincoln served on the Committee of Finance in the legislature, and helped steer the development plans through the legislature. Those plans included 1300 miles of railroad track to link the northern part of the state on Lake Michigan to the southern part on the Ohio River, and the Indiana border with the Mississippi. Every important river was to be widened, deepened, and made navigable, to improve the ability of farmers to transport their goods to market.
A canal was to be dug to connect the Illinois River to Lake Michigan, thus creating a waterway from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario to the Welland Canal, which had been completed in 1833. From Lake Erie, ships would have been able to travel through the Great Lakes and down the Illinois River to the Mississippi, and from there to the Gulf of Mexico. Since no aid was available from the Federal Government, the State of Illinois authorized the taking out of a twelve million dollar loan. Hopes were high that such a magnificent transportation network would soon bring major benefits to the rude settlements and farms of the rural areas, as well as the emerging towns. But the Panic of 1837, resulting from currency manipulation and speculation, soon plunged the nation into a severe depression and the great project had to be abandoned for a number of years.
Lincoln had told his Illinois friend Joshua Speed that he aimed at the great honor of being called the "DeWitt Clinton of Illinois," referring to the Governor of New York who had built the Erie Canal with state funds when the Federal Government refused to back it. Ten years later, Lincoln was elected as a delegate to the River and Harbor Convention in Chicago. This very well-attended meeting in July of 1847 had been called to protest President Polk's veto of a bill which would have provided federal funding for internal improvements.
Lincoln was at this point the sole Whig Congressman-elect from Illinois, and as a firm supporter of internal improvements, he was invited to address the convention. It was this speech which first gave him national coverage, when Horace Greeley in the "New York Tribune" cited Lincoln's address to the delegates, writing that this "tall specimen of an Illinoisian... spoke briefly and happily."
The Thirtieth Congress assembled in December of 1847, and Lincoln was assigned to the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads, and to the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department. By the spring of 1848, Lincoln's talent and hard work had made him a rising force in the Whig Party. In early June, he attended the Whig National Convention in Philadelphia. After the convention nominated Zachary Taylor for President, Lincoln and three other members of the House of Representatives traveled to Wilmington, Delaware to make speeches at a ratification meeting. Lincoln was introduced as the "Lone Star of Illinois," and was loudly cheered as he predicted the coming Whig victory in November.
It was in this context of becoming a Whig Party national spokesman that Lincoln made his internal improvements speech in the House on June 20. He began his address by referring to the veto message by President Polk: "At an early day of this session the president sent us what may properly be called an internal improvement veto message... the question of improvements is verging to a final crisis; and the friends of the policy must now battle, and battle manfully, or surrender all. In this view, humble as I am, I wish to review, and contest as well as I may, the general positions of this veto message.
"Those general positions are: That internal improvements ought not to be made by the general government.... 'Do nothing at all, lest you do something wrong' is the sum of these positionsis the sum of this message. So that we must abandon the improvements of the country altogether, by any, and every authority, or we must resist, and repudiate the doctrines of this message. Let us attempt the latter.
"The first position is, that a system of internal improvements would overwhelm the treasury.... In the message, the president tells us that 'During the four succeeding years, embraced by the administration of president [John Quincy] Adams, the power not only to appropriate money, but to apply it, under the direction and authority of the General Government, as well to the construction of roads, as to the improvement of harbors and rivers, was fully asserted and exercised.
"This, then, was the period of greatest enormity. These, if any, must have been the days of the two hundred millions. And how much do you suppose was really expanded for improvements, during that four years? Two hundred millions? One hundred? Fifty? Ten? Five? No sir, less than two millions.... This fact shows, that when the power to make improvements 'was fully asserted and exercised' the congress did keep within reasonable limits; and what has been done, it seems to me, can be done again.
"Now for the second position of the message, namely, that the burthens of improvements would be general, while their benefits would be local and partial, involving an obnoxious inequality.... The next most general object I can think of would be improvements on the Mississippi river and its tributaries. They touch thirteen of our states, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Now I suppose it will not be denied, that these thirteen states are a little more interested in improvements on that great river, than are the remaining seventeen... Nothing is so local as to not be of some general benefit.
"Take, for instance, the Illinois and Michigan canal. Considered apart from its effects, it is perfectly local. Every inch of it is within the state of Illinois. That canal was first opened for business last April. In a very few days we were all gratified to learn, among other things, that sugar had been carried from New-Orleans through this canal to Buffalo in New-York. This sugar took this route, doubtless because it was cheaper than the old route.
"Supposing the benefit of the reduction in the cost of carriage to be shared between seller and buyer, the result is, that the New Orleans merchant sold his sugar a little dearer; and the people of Buffalo sweetened their coffee a little cheaper, than beforea benefit resulting from the canal, not to Illinois where the canal is, but to Louisiana and New-York, where it is not. In other transactions Illinois will, of course, have her share, and perhaps the larger share too, in the benefits of the canal; but the instance of the sugar clearly shows that the benefits of an improvement, are by no means confined to the particular locality of the improvement itself."
Near the end of his speech, Lincoln called for working through the problem of choosing which internal improvements should be made. "Determine that the thing can and shall be done, and then we shall find the way.... Suppose, that at each session, congress shall first determine how much money can, for that year, be spared for improvements; then apportion that sum to the most important objects. So far all is easy; but how shall we determine which are the most important?... To clear this difficulty, let us have that same statistical information, which the gentlemen from Ohio suggested at the beginning of this session....
"The surplusthat which is produced in one place, to be consumed in another; the capacity of each locality for producing a greater surplus; the natural means of transportation, and their susceptibility of improvement; the hindrances, delays, and losses of life and property during transportation, and the causes of each, would be among the most valuable statistics in this connection.
"From these, it would readily appear where a given amount of expenditure would do the most good. These statistics might be equally accessible, as they would be equally useful, to both the nation and the states. In this way, and by these means, let the nation take hold of the larger works, and the states the smaller ones; and thus, working in a meeting direction, discreetly, but steadily and firmly, what is made unequal in one place may be equalized in another, extravagance avoided, and the whole country put on that career of prosperity, which shall correspond with its extent of territory, its natural resources, and the intelligence and enterprise of its people."