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most of the instances of alleged departure from the letter or spirit of the constitution, have ultimately received the sanction of a majority of the people. And the fact that many of our statesmen, most distinguished for talent and patriotism, have been, at one time or other of their political career, on both sides of each of the most warmly disputed questions, forces upon us the inference that the errors, if errors there were, are attributable to the intrinsic difficulty, in many instances, of ascertaining the intention of the framers of the constitution, rather than the influence of any sinister or unpatriotic motives.
But the great danger to our institutions does not appear to me to be in a usurpation, by the government, of
power not granted by the people, but by the accumulation, in one of the departments, of that which was assigned to others. Limited as are the powers which have been granted, they are sufficient to constitute a despotism, if concentrated in one of the departments. This danger is greatly heightened, as it has always been observable that men are less jealous of encroachments of one department upon another than upon their own reserved rights.
When the constitution of the United States first came from the hands of the convention which formed it, many of the sternest republicans of the day were alarmed at the extent of the power which had been granted to the federal government, and more particularly to that portion which had been assigned to the executive branch. There were in it features which appeared not to be in harmony with their ideas of a simple representative democracy or repablic. And knowing the tendency of power to increase itself, particularly when executed by a single individual, predictions were made that, at no very remote period, the government would terminate in virtual monarchy. It would not become me to say that the fears of these patriots have been already realized. But, as I sincerely believe that the tendency of measures and of men's opinions, for some years past, has been in that direction, it is, I conceive, strictly proper that I should take this occasion to repeat the assurances I have heretofore given, of my determination to arrest the progress of that tendency if it really exists, and restore the government to its pristine health and
vigor, as far as this can be effected by any legitimate exercise of the power placed in my hands.
I proceed to state, in as summary manner as I can, my opinion of the sources of the evils which have been so extensively complained of, and the correctives which may be applied. Some of the former are unquestionably to be found in the defects of the constitution; others, in my opinion, are attributable to a misconstruction of some of its provisions. Of the former is the eligibility of the same individual to a second term of the presidency. The sagacious mind of Mr. Jefferson early saw and lamented this error, and attempts have been made, hitherto without success, to apply the amendatory power of the states to its correction.
As, however, one mode of correction is in the power of every President, and consequently in mine, it would be useless, and perhaps invidious, to enumerate the evils of which, in the opinion of many of our fellow-citizens, this error of the sages who framed the constitution may have been the source, and the bitter fruits which we are still to gather from it, if it continues to disfigure our system. It may be observed, however, as a general remark, that republics can commit no greater error than to adopt or continue any feature in their systems of government which may be calculated to create or increase the love of power in the bosoms of those to whom necessity obliges them to commit the management of their affairs. And surely nothing is more likely to produce such a state of mind than the long continuance of an office of high trust. Nothing can be more corrupting, nothing more destructive to all those nobler feelings which belong to the character of a devoted republican patriot. When this corrupting passion once takes possession of the human mind, like the love of gold, it becomes insatiable. It is the never-dying worm in his bosom, grows with his growth, and strengthens with the declining years of its victim. If this is true, it is the part of wisdom for a republic to limit the service of that officer, at least, to whom she has intrusted the management of her foreign relations, the execution of her laws, and the command of her armies and navies, to a period so short as to prevent his forgetting that he is an accounta
ble agent, not the principal — the servant, not the master. Until an amendment of the constitution can be effected, public opinion may secure the desired object. I give my aid to it by renewing the pledge heretofore given, that under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term.
But if there is danger to public liberty from the acknowledged defect of the constitution, in the want of limit to the continuance of the executive power in the same hands, there is, I apprehend, not much less from a misconstruction of the instrument, as it regards the powers actually given. I cannot conceive that, by a fair construction, any or either of its provisions would be found to constitute the President a part of the legislative power. It cannot be claimed from the power to recommend, since, although enjoined as a duty upon him, it is a duty he holds in common with every other citizen. And although there may be something more of confidence in the propriety of the measures recommended in the one case than in the other, in the obligations of ultimate decision there can be no difference. In the language of the constitution, the legislative powers” which it grants
vested in the Congress of the United States.” It would be a solecism in language to say that any portion of these is not included in the whole.
It may be said, indeed, that the constitution has given to the executive the power to annul the acts of the legislative body, by refusing to them his assent. So a similar power has necessarily resulted from that instrument to the judiciary, and yet the judiciary forms no part of the legislature. There is, it is true, this difference between these grants of power; the executive can put his negative upon the acts of the legislature for other cause than that of want of conformity to the constitution, while the judiciary can only declare void those which violate that instrument. But the decision of the judiciary is final in such a case, whereas, in every instance where the veto of the executive is applied, it may be overcome by a vote of two thirds of both houses of Congress. The negative upon the acts of the legislative, by the executive authority, and that in the hands of one individual, would seem to be an incongruity
in our system. Like some others of a similar character, however, it appears to be highly expedient, and if used only with the forbearance and in the spirit which was intended by its authors, it may be productive of great good, and be found one of the best safeguards to the Union.
At the period of the formation of the constitution, the principle does not appear to have enjoyed much favor in the state governments. It existed but in two, and in one of these there was a plural executive. If we would search for the motives which operated upon the purely patriotic and enlightened assembly which framed the constitution, for the adoption of a provision so apparently repugnant to the leading democratic principle, that the majority should govern, we must reject the idea that they anticipated from it any benefit to the ordinary course of legislation. They knew too well the high degree of intelligence which existed among the people, and the enlightened character of the state legislatures, not to have the fullest confidence that the two bodies elected by them would be worthy representatives of such constituents, and, of course, that they would require no aid in conceiving and maturing the measures which the circumstances of the country might require. And it is preposterous to suppose that a thought could for a moment have been entertained that the President, placed at the capitol in the centre of the country, could better understand the wants and wishes of the people than their own immediate representatives, who spend a part of every year among them, living with them, often laboring with them, and bound to them by the triple tie of interest, duty, and affection.
To assist or control Congress, then, in its ordinary legislation, could not, I conceive, have been the motive for conferring the veto power on the President. This argument acquires additional force from the fact of its never having been thus used by the first six Presidents — and two of them were members of the convention, one presiding over its deliberations, and the other having a larger share in consummating the labors of that august body than any
But if bills were never returned to Congress by either of the Presidents above referred to, upon the ground of their being inexpedient, or not as well
adapted as they might be to the wants of the people, the veto was applied upon that of want of conformity to the constitution, or because errors had been committed from a too hasty enactment.
There is another ground for the adoption of the veto principle, which had probably more influence in recommending it to the convention than any other : I refer to the security which it gives to the just and equitable action of the legislature upon all parts of the Union. It could not but have occurred to the convention, that in a country so extensive, embracing so great a variety of soil and climate, and consequently of products, and which, from the same causes, must ever exhibit a great difference in the amount of the population of its various sections, calling for a great diversity in the employments of the people, - that the legislation of the majority might not always justly regard the rights and interests of the minority; and that acts of this character might be passed, under an express grant by the words of the constitution, and, therefore, not within the competency of the judiciary to declare void; that however enlightened and patriotic they might suppose, from past experience, the members of Congress might be, and however largely partaking, in the general, of the liberal feelings of the people, it was impossible to expect that bodies so constituted should not sometimes be controlled by local interests and sectional feeling. It was proper, therefore, to provide some umpire, from whose situation and mode of appointment, more independence and freedom from such influences might be expected. Such a one was afforded by the executive department, constituted by the constitution. A person elected to that high office, having his constituents in every section, state, and subdivision of the Union, must consider himself bound by the most solemn sanctions to guard, protect, and defend the rights of all, and every portion, great or small, from the injustice and oppression of the rest.
I consider the veto power, therefore, given by the constitution to the executive of the United States, solely as a conservative power; to be used only, 1st, to protect the constitution from violation ; 2dly, the people from the effects of hasty legislation, where their will has been proba