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IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, ON THE BILL FOR THE
RELIEF OF THE SURVIVING OFFICERS OF THE REVOLUTION. APRIL 25, 1828.
It has not been my purpose to take any part in the discussion of this bill. My opinions in regard to its general object, I hope are well known; and I had intended to content myself with a steady and persevering vote in its favor. But, when the moment of final decision has come, and the division is so likely to be nearly equal, I feel it to be a duty to put not only my own vote, but my own earnest wishes, also, and my fervent entreaties to others, into the doubtful scale.
It must be admitted, sir, that the persons for whose benefit this bill is designed, are, in some respects, peculiarly unfortunate. They are compelled to meet not only objections to the principle, but, whichever way they turn themselves, embarrassing objections also to details. One friend hesitates at this provision, and another at that; while those who are not friends at all, of course oppose everything, and propose nothing. When it was contemplated, heretofore, to give the petitioners an outright sum, in satisfaction of their claim, then the argument was, among other things, that the treasury could not bear so heavy a draught on its means, at the present moment.
The plan is accordingly changed: an annuity is proposed; and then the objection changes also; and it is now said, that this is but granting pensions, and that the pension system has already been carried too far. I confess, sir, I felt wounded—deeply hurt—at the observations of the gentleman from Georgia. “So then,” said he,“ these modest and high-minded gentlemen take a pension at last!” How is it possible, that a gentleman of his generosity of character, and general kindness of feeling, can indulge in such a tone of triumphant irony towards a few old, gray headed, poor, and broken warriors of the revolution! There is, I know, something repulsive and opprobrious in the name of pension. But, God forbid that I should taunt them with it! With grief, heart-full grief, do I behold the necessity which leads these veterans to accept the bounty of their country, in a manner not the most agreeable to their feelings. Worn out and decrepit, represented before us by those, their former brothers in arms, who totter along our lobbies, or stand leaning on their crutches. I, for one, would most gladly support such a measure as should con
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 diligence 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 moment, 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 offer. 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 compliance 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
ought not to think of doing, everything in regard to revolutionary debts, which might be strictly right, if the whole settlement were now to be gone over anew. The honorable member from New York [Mr. Van Buren,] has stated, what I think the true ground of the bill. I regard it as an act of discreet and careful bounty, drawn forth by meritorious services, and by personal necessities. "I cannot argue, in this case, with the technicality of my profession; and because I do not feel able to allow the claim on the ground of mere right, I am not willing, for that reason, to nonsuit the petitioners, as not having made out their case. Suppose we admit, as I do, that on the ground of mere right, it would not be safe to allow it; - or, suppose that to be admitted for which others contend, that there is in the case no strict right upon which, under any circumstances, the claim could stand; still, it does not follow that there is no reasonable and proper foundation for it, or that it ought not to be granted. If it be not founded on strict right, it is not to be regarded as being, for that reason alone, an undeserved gratuity, or the effusion of mere good will. If that which is granted be not always granted on the ground of absolute right, it does not follow that it is granted from merely an arbitrary preference, or capricious beneficence. In most cases of this sort, mixed considerations prevail, and ought to prevail Some consideration is due to the claim of right; much to that of merit and service; and more to that of personal necessity. If I knew that all the persons to be benefited by this bill were in circumstances of comfort and competency, I should not support it. But this I know to be otherwise. I cannot dwell with propriety, or delicacy, on this part of the case; but I feel its force, and I yield to it. A single instance of affluence, or a few cases where want does not tread close on those who are themselves treading close on the borders of the grave, does not affect the general propriety and necessity of the measure. I would not draw this reason for the bill into too much prominence. We all know it exists; and we may, I think, safely act upon it, without so discussing it as to wound, in old, but sensitive, and still throbbing bosoms, feelings which education inspired, the habits of military life cherished, and a just self-respect is still desirous to entertain. I confess I meet this claim, not only with a desire to do something in favor of these officers, but to do it in a manner indicative not only of decorum but of deep respect,--that respect which years, age, public service, patriotism, and broken fortune, command to spring up in every manly breast.
It is, then, sir, a mixed claim, of faith and public gratitude; of justice and honorable bounty; of merit and benevolence. It stands on the same foundation as that grant, which no one regrets, of which all are proud, made to the illustrious foreigner, who showed himself so early, and has proved himself so constantly, and zealously, a friend to our country.
But then, again, it is objected, that the militia have a claim upon us; that they fought at the side of the regular soldiers, and ought to share in the country's remembrance. It is known to be impossible, to carry the measure to such an extent as to embrace the militia; and it is plain, too, that the cases are different. The bill, as I have