Report of Legislative Proceeding regarding Postal Contracts, 5 January 18481
Mr. LINCOLN said that he had made an effort some few days since to obtain the floor in relation to this measure, but had failed.2 One of the objects he had then had in view was now in a great measure superseded by what had fallen from the gentleman from Virginia who had just taken his seat.3 He begged to assure his friends on the other side of the House, that no assault whatever was meant upon the Postmaster General; and he was glad that what the gentleman had now said, modified to a great extent the impression which might have been created by the language he had used on a previous occasion. He wanted to state to gentlemen who might have entertained such impressions, that the Committee on the Post Office was composed of five Whigs and four Democrats, and their report was understood as sustaining, not im-
<Page 2>pugning, the position taken by the Postmaster General.4 That report had met with the approbation of all the Whigs and of all the Democrats also, with the exception of one, and he wanted to go even further than this. (Intimations were here informally given to Mr. L. that it was not in order to mention on the floor what had taken place in committee.) He then observed that if he had been out of order in what he had said, he took it all back, (a laugh,) so far as he could. He had no desire, he could assure gentlemen, ever to be out of order—though he never could keep long in order.
Mr. L. went on to observe, that he differed in opinion, in the present case, from his honorable friend from Richmond, (Mr. Botts .) That gentleman had begun his remarks by saying that if all prepossessions in this matter could be removad out of the way, but little difficulty would be experienced in coming to an agreement. Now, he could assure that gentleman that he had himself begun the examination of this subject with prepossessions all in his favor. He had long and often heard of him, and, from what he had heard, was prepossessed in his favor. Of the Postmaster General he had also heard, but had no prepossessions in his favor, though certainly none of an opposite kind. He differed, however, from that gentleman in politics, while in this respect he agreed with the gentleman from Virginia, (Mr. Botts,) whom he wished to oblige whenever it was in his power. That gentleman had referred to the report made to the House by the Postmaster General, and had intimated an apprehension that gentlemen would be disposed to rely on that report alone, and derive their views of the case from that document alone. Now, it so happened that a pamphlet had been slipped into his (Mr. L.’s) hand before he read the report of the Postmaster General; so that, even in this, he had begun with prepossessions in favor of the gentleman from Virginia.5
As to the report, he had but one remark to make: he had carefully examined it, and he did not understand that there was any dispute as to the facts therein stated: the dispute, if he understood it, was confined altogether to the inferences to be drawn from those facts. It was a difference not about facts, but about conclusions. The facts were not disputed. If he was right in this, he supposed the House might assume the facts to be as they were stated, and thence proceed to draw their own conclusions.
The gentleman had said that the Postmaster General had got into a personal squabble with the railroad company. Of this, Mr. L. knew nothing; nor did he need or desire to know anything, because it had nothing whatever to do with a just conclusion from the premises. But the gentleman had gone on to ask whether so great a grievance as the present detention of the southern mail ought not to be remedied? Mr. L. would assure the gentleman that if there was a proper way of doing it, no man was more anxious that he that it should be done. The report made by the committee had been intended to yield much for the sake of removing that grievance. That the grievance was very great, there was no dispute in any quarter. He supposed the statements made by the gentleman from Virginia to show this were all entirely correct in point of fact. He did suppose that the interruptions of regular intercourse, and all the other inconveniences growing out of it, were all as that gentleman had stated them to be; and certainly, if redress could be rendered, it was proper it should be rendered as soon as possible. The gentleman said that, in order to effect this, no new legislative action was needed: all that was necessary was, that the Postmaster General should be required to do what the law, as it stood, authorized and required him to do.
We come, then, said Mr. L., to the law. Now the Postmaster General says that he cannot give to this company over $237[.]50 per railroad mile of transportation, and 12½ per cent. less for transportation by steamboats. He considers himself as restricted by law to this amount; and he says, further, that he would not give more if he could, because, in his apprehension, it would not be fair and just.
Mr. HILLIARD here wished to be set right in his apprehension of the facts of the case, and he made some inquiry not distinctly heard across the Hall; and, after a brief conversation, expressing himself satisfied, resumed his seat.
Mr. LINCOLN proceeded. I had the impression that the service rendered under the present contract cost the Government more than if the mail were carried by the railroad company, in consequence of its passing over a longer route. Understanding this, my view of the question remains unchanged.
And now as to the law: I am not disposed to discuss it at any very great length; for, as the appeal is here to the law-making power, which can alter the law whenever a modification is required, there does not seem any necessity of very nicely discussing what it is as it now stands. If it shall be clearly shown what naked justice requires, it will be easy to make the law conform to that requirement. But let us look at it as it stands.
There are three laws which have a bearing on this question: the first authorizes the Postmaster General to give to a contractor 25 per cent. more for the transportation of the mail over railroads than for similar transportation in mail-coaches; another law says that the Postmaster General shall not allow more than $300 per mile for daily transportation, provided that his contract does not conflict with the provisions of the law first referred to. Then there is a third law which directs the Postmaster General to classify the sorts of service rendered[.]6 It was this which caused him to give less for transportation by steamboats than over railroads; he graduated the compensation for this at a point midway between that by railroad and that by mail-coaches. The difference between railroad and coach being but 25 per cent., he placed the price for steamboat transportation at 12½ per cent. above the one and below the other. I do not understand that this construction of the law by the Postmaster General is held in any quarter to be wrong. The fact that the law allows him to pay $300 for daily transportation and for more frequent than daily, has been alluded to; but, as I understand, the position is not taken that he is authorized to allow this company $300 per mile. If it is, I shall proceed to examine it. All must admit that all the laws on the subject are extremely loose and general in their language; that they admit of different constructions; and that no one construction that can be given them leaves the mind entirely satisfied. The law allows $300 to be paid for transporting the mail daily or oftener, thereby fixing the compensation for one transportation and for two at the same amount. This alone is enough to show that the law is not very definite in its provisions, and in fact it is hardly possible to put an equitable construction upon it. It refers to a prior law, and says it is not to be construed so as to interfere with it.
From the whole of what the gentleman from Virginia has said, I understand his sense of the matter to be, that we are in this case to be governed by the old law. Now, I ask the lawyers in this House (I suppose there are some) (a laugh) whether I am not right when I say, that where a law has been passed in terms so general as to require a construction to be put upon it, (and this is the case with most laws,) and constructions of its provisions are accordingly given, and a second law is afterwards passed referring to the first, this second law is held to recognize and to confirm the constructions put upon that first passed? If this is so, then I say that the Postmaster General was not wrong when he insisted that the latter law, when it referred to the former, meant to refer to it as construed; in which case the construction seems to be confirmed and strengthened by the last passed.
But, looking only to the original construction itself of the old law, the gentleman from Virginia says that Mr. Kendall’s construction of the terms “similar transportation by mail coaches,” was wrong, and that he ought to have construed it to mean transportation of the same mail not only, but by the same route. But, now, suppose there was no mail-coach transportation on that route, what must his construction be in that case? What did the present Postmaster General in fact do? He took the most expensive mail-coach route in the nation. He took the prices allowed for coach transportation on different portions of that route, and averaged them, and then built his construction of the law upon that average. It came to $190 per mile. He added 25 per cent. to that rate, and offered the result to this railroad company. The gentleman from Virginia says that this was wrong: I say it was right.
But the gentleman says he ought to have reckoned coach transportation on that specific route. Well, if he had done so, he would have added 25 per cent. upon $5,000, and no more; for the Postmaster General tells us that before he made his contract with this railroad company, the same mail had been carried for between $5,000 and $6,000. The company now get $28,000, and are not satisfied. Had he taken the same rate then, where would they have been? If there had been a coach line, he would not have gained anything by that. For I have inquired at what rate the mail could be carried by coaches from Washington to Richmond, and I have heard that the lowest bid ever made was $28,000. If he had added 25 per cent. to that, it would have been more than the company asks. This fact, and one other item that I obtained, are all that I had to enable me to get at justice in this case. An old gentleman, whose very good looks prepossessed me in his favor, and would incline me to believe any statement he should make, told me that he had been a stockholder in the road, and had never got over 5 per cent. dividend on his stock. The same source of information admitted that since the construction of the railroad, mail-coaches had been wholly disused. It is a bad road, and always has been, and the mail could not now be carried over it in coaches for three or four times what it might have been, had not the railroad been constructed.
I think that abundant reasons have been given to show that the construction put upon the law by the Postmaster General is the right construction, and that subsequent acts of Congress have confirmed it. I have already said that the grievance complained of ought to be remedied. But it is said that the sum of money about which all this difficulty has arisen is exceeding small—not more than $2,700. I admit it is very small; and if nothing else were involved, it would not be worth the dispute. But there is a principle involved; and if we once yield to a wrong principle, that concession will be the prolific source of endless mischief. It is for this reason, and not for the sake of saving $2,700, that I am unwilling to yield what is demanded. If I had no apprehensions that the ghost of this yielding would rise and appear in various distant places, I would say, pay the money, and let us have no more fuss about it. But I have such apprehensions. I do believe, that if we yield this, our act will be the source of other claims equally unjust, and therefore I cannot vote to make the allowance.
And now, I suppose, I may, without being out of order, tell what I was willing, in committee, to yield for the sake of removing this evil. I was willing to give as damages what the department would have to pay the Bay Company for breach of contract, be it $2,700, or whatever amount. Be it what it might, it would be so much money gone; it would never rise again.
Mr. L. insisted that the true and great point to which the attention of this House or the committee should be directed was, what is a just compensation? Inasmuch as this railroad and steamboat company could afford greater facilities than any other line, the service ought to be done upon this route; but it ought to be done upon just and fair principles. If it could not be done at what had been offered, let it be shown that a greater amount was just. But, until it was shown, he was opposed to increasing it. He had seen many things in the report of the Postmaster General and elsewhere that stood out against the river route. Now, the daily steamboat transportation between Troy and New York was performed for less than one hundred dollars per mile. This company was dissatisfied with two hundred and twelve or two hundred and thirteen dollars per mile. It had not been shown, and he thought it could not be shown to them why this company was entitled to more, or so much more, than the other received. It was true, they had to encounter the ice, but was there not more ice further north? There might possibly be shown some reason why the Virginia line should have more; but was there any reason why they should have so much more? Again, the price paid between Cincinnati and Louisville for daily transportation was not two hundred and thirteen dollars per mile, or one hundred dollars, or fifty; it was less than twenty-eight dollars per mile. Now, he did not insist that there might not be some peculiar reasons connected with this route between this city and Richmond that entitled it to
<Page 3>more than was paid on the routes between Cincinnati and Louisville, and Troy and New York. But, if there were reasons, they ought to be shown. And was it supposed that there could be any, or so peculiar reasons, as to justify so great a difference in compensation as was claimed by this company? It did seem that there could be none.
These reasons actuated him in taking the position he had taken, painfully refusing to oblige his friend from Virginia, which he assured the gentleman he had the greatest inclination to do.
In relation to the report of the committee, let him state one thing: It proposed that the Postmaster General should again offer this company what he had already offered and they had refused. It was for the reason that the Postmaster General, as he understood, had informed them that he was not himself going to renew the proposition. The committee supposed—at any rate, he (Mr. L.) supposed—that as soon as the company should know that they could get what he had offered them, and no more—as soon as all hope of greater compensation was cut off—that instant they would not take ten thousand dollars a year for the privilege of doing it. Whether this was actually the case he did not profess positively to know; it was a matter of opinion, but he firmly believed it. In proposing to offer them the contract again, as he had already said, the committee yielded something, viz: the damage that the Government would have to pay for the breaking up of the present arrangement. He was willing to incur that damage; some other gentlemen were not; they were further away from the position which his friend from Virginia took. He was willing to yield something, but could not consent to go the whole length with the gentleman.
In relation to what the damage would be, it would of course depend upon what was shown to this House and to the Senate to be fair and reasonable. It was a general principle of law that this Government could not be sued upon any contract. It was a principle of the common law that no judgment can go against the State, and it had been confirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in repeated instances. Now, how was this company to get anything for their damages? Why, simply by coming here and laying their case before Congress.
Mr. L. concluded by remarking that this was all he wished to say. If there was any portion of his hour left, he would only ask that it should be passed to his credit for some future occasion.7
1Abraham Lincoln made these remarks amid ongoing debate In the U.S. House of Representatives over a proposed joint resolution authorizing the postmaster general to renew a contract with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and Steamboat Company for the transportation of mail between Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia.
2On December 17, 1847, John M. Botts introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives a joint resolution authorizing the postmaster general to renew a contract with the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and Steamboat Company for the transportation of mail between Washington, DC and Richmond, Virginia. The House referred the resolution to the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads, of which Lincoln was a member. On December 30, William L. Goggin of the committee reported back the resolution with a substitute which directed the postmaster general to renew the contract with the company and to pay “the highest price now paid by the Post Office Department for transporting the mail once per day on any other railroad and steamboat route in the United States, and no more.”
Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st Sess., 39, 82-83, 105, 130-31 (1848); U.S. House Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 1st sess., 60, 102, 171.
3The “great measure” was Goggin’s substitute resolution; “what had fallen” was Bott’s joint resolution.
4The House Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads was comprised of Whigs Goggin, Joseph M. Root, Daniel B. St. John, Elisha Embree, and Lincoln; and Democrats Charles Brown, John S. Phelps, George W. Jones, and David S. Kaufman.
U.S. House Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 1st sess., 60.
5On December 6, 1847, Postmaster General Cave Johnson presented a report to the U.S. House of Representatives. In it, Johnson stated that the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad and Steamboat Company contracted to transport the southern mail for the maximum allowable under the law, $237.50 per mile, from January 1, 1839 to June 30, 1843. In 1843 the contract was re-negotiated, with President John Tyler allowing the company $260 per mile until July 1, 1847. At that point, the company was again offered $237.50 per mile, which they countered by requesting an increase. The company then requested the amount set under President Tyler, to which the postmaster general replied that he could not contract at that amount, being higher than the amount allowed by the law. Johnson then stated, “Nor would I have done so, if the law had permitted me to pay higher; because, in my judgment, the sum demanded was greatly beyond a just and fair compensation for the service; and because every other first-class road performing single daily service, which had been let to contract since the act of 1845, had accepted the rate offered this company, and were performing the service for it; and I could see no reason why this company should be paid more than others.”
Report of the Postmaster General, 6 December 1847, Cong. Globe Appendix, 30th Cong., 1st Sess., 26-30 (1848).
6Lincoln mentioned three pieces of legislation that governed the price to be paid to railroad and steamboat contractors for transporting the mail. The first, passed in 1838, authorized the postmaster general to use railroads to transport mail, “provided he can have it done upon reasonable terms, and not paying therefor in any instance more than twenty-five per centum over and above what similar transportation would cost in post coaches.” The second law, passed in 1839, prohibited the postmaster general from paying over $300 per mile for transportation of the mail. The third law, passed in 1845, restricted the postmaster general from paying “a higher rate of compensation than is now allowed by law” for first-class railroad transportation of the mail.
“An Act to Establish Certain Post Routes and to Discontinue Others,” 7 July 1838, Statutes at Large of the United States 5 (1856):283; “An Act Further to Regulate the Transportation of the Mail upon Railroads,” 25 January 1839, Statutes at Large of the United States 5 (1856):314; “An Act to Reduce the Rates of Postage, to Limit the Use and Correct the Abuse of the Franking Privilege, and for the Prevention of Frauds on the Revenues of the Post Office Department,” 3 March 1845, Statutes at Large of the United States 5 (1856):738.
7Debate in the House on the substitute continued on January 7, when the House, as the Committee of the Whole, reported back the substitute with amendments. On January 10, the House refused to table the substitute by a vote of 69 yeas to 125 nays, with Lincoln voting nay. By a vote of 101 yeas to 91 nays, with Lincoln voting nay, the House agreed to an amendment that nothing in the substitute should be construed as requiring an increase in the expenditure of the Post Office Department. The House subsequently refused to read the resolution a third time.
U.S. House Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 1st sess., 208, 209-10, 212-13.
Printed Document, 3 page(s), Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 1st Sess., 107-9 (1848).