MONROE, James. Autograph letter signed ("James Monroe") as President, to an unidentified recipient, Washington, 9 July 1821. 3 1/3 pages, 4to (9 15/16 x 8 in.), professional restorations, minor damp-stains.
"I CONSIDER IT MY DUTY TO TAKE MY STAND AGAINST THE POWERS OF THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT": MONROE AND THE CONSTITUTIONAL IMPLICATIONS OF INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS
The close of the War of 1812 brought new prosperity and growth to the nation. Critical to this expansion of trade and manufacturing was the improvement of the nation's transportation system. While public works such as canals, turnpikes, bridges and port facilities were typically funded by private interests or else by the states, increasing pressure was placed upon the Federal Government to initiate and subsidize such "internal improvements," especially in the new frontier regions. Many Jeffersonians, though, adhering to the ideal of a virtuous agrarian republic, opposed any federal role in internal improvements, fearing it would "stimulate commercial interests unduly, undermine agriculture, centralize power in the federal government and violate the Constitution" (Watson, Liberty and Power, pp. 61-62).
Monroe, following the lead of his predecessors, believed that there was nothing in the Constitution that authorized Congress to allocate public funds for internal improvements. Henry Clay became the foremost champion of those who favored Federal involvement in public works. Clay advocated a so-called American system, embracing both internal improvements and a protective tariff to encourage industry. Here, Monroe staunchly defends his position, promising "perfect simplicity & candour." He recalls that "soon after I came into this office, I considered it my duty, to take my stand against the powers of the general government in regard to internal improvements: that I declared in a message to Congress, that I did not think that it possess'd that power, & that I should be compelled to refuse my assent to any bill founded on that principle." Monroe notes that he corresponded with Madison on the subject, and prepared a lengthy statement to present in his third annual message (he was persuaded not to include the position statement by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams). "I have written much on that subject, and have endeavour'd, to the utmost of my ability, to embrace the general scope of our system. It is possible that I may publish this paper, even while I am in office." He assures his correspondent that in his study of the issues, "I have been guided by principle only, aided by my own experience and observations, and by the lights which virtuous & enlightened men have shed on it," including "every thing that has issued from your pen." He explains that he has not decided when he should present this essay: "I have thought it due to my country...when called on by some obligation bearing on that office, such as to reject [veto] or approve a law, or by a full exposition, founded on general principles, and dictated by a sense of duty, in consequence of the opinion express'd in the message to which I have referr'd."
Monroe reserved his extended position paper until the Spring of 1822, when he found it necessary to veto Congress's bill authorizing Federal construction and maintenance of toll booths along the Cumberland Road, which linked Cumberland, Maryland with the west. The tolls generated by the road were to be used to finance the westward extension of this early interstate highway. In his veto message, Monroe invoked his Jeffersonian interpretation of the Constitution, and insisted that only an amendment would permit Federal involvment is such public works.
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby's, 31 October 1985, lot 161).