America’s Founders baked the power of presidential veto into the Constitution right from its inception – in Article I, Section 7.
The only U.S. President from the state of New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce – our 14th – cast nine vetoes during his years in the White House, from 1853 to 1857. Five were overridden, but not his most eloquent one. It’s one of my favorites so here’s the story.
On May 3, 1854, President Pierce took great pains – and many pages – to justify his rejection of a bill to grant federal land or the cash equivalent to the States “for the benefit of indigent insane persons.” In the course of performing his Constitutional duty, he confessed feeling “compelled to resist the deep sympathies of my own heart in favor of the humane purpose sought to be accomplished.” He was concerned that he would be misunderstood and castigated as a man without compassion.
One of his reasons for the veto was a profoundly “federalist” one, in the sense of preserving the balance of power between Washington and the rest of the country. “Are we too prone to forget,” he implored, “that the Federal Union is the creature of the States, not they of the Federal Union?”
If there is a role for government to complement the many private efforts and institutions assisting the mentally handicapped, why should the States pawn it off to the distant federal government? And don’t we run the risk, he asked, that “the fountains of charity” might dry up if government at any level gets involved in such things?
Any reader interested in a logical, even – dare I say it – piercing defense of adherence to the “enumerated powers” of the Constitution would do well to read this veto message.
President Pierce advanced an argument that might draw both chuckles and grimaces today. If Congress has the power to provide for the insane, he said, then, before you know it, Congress will assume it has the power to provide for the sane, too – in any number of ways. He wrote,
If Congress may and ought to provide for any one of these objects, it may and ought to provide for them all. And if it be done in this case, what answer shall be given when Congress shall be called upon, as it doubtless will be, to pursue a similar course of legislation in the others?
More than a few nations in history have flushed themselves down the fiscal toilet with profligate, publicly financed and politicized “compassion.” It starts small, but politicians have a way of thinking up new constituencies to throw money at and buy votes from. Today, 165 years and $21 trillion in debt later, Franklin Pierce’s warnings are downright prophetic. Federal spending now subsidizes both the sane and the insane with sums unimaginable just a few generations ago.
Even one of our biggest spenders, Franklin Roosevelt, warned that this couldn’t continue forever: “Any Government, like any family, can for a year spend a little more than it earns,” he said. “But you and I know that a continuation of that habit means the poorhouse.”
Almost nobody in Washington today wants to cut spending. Poorhouse, here we come.
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. He writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .