Report of Legislative Proceedings regarding the Disposal of the Public Lands, 13 February 18491
Mr. LINCOLN said he had not risen for the purpose of making a speech, but only for the purpose of meeting some of the objections to the bill. If he understood those objections, the first was, that if the bill were to become a law, it would be used to lock large portions of the public lands from sale, without at last effecting the ostensible object of the bill—the construction of railroads in the new States; and secondly, that Congress would be forced to the abandonment of large portions of the public lands to the States for which they might be reserved, without their paying for them. This he understood to be the substance of the objections of the gentleman from Ohio to the passage of the bill.
If he could get the attention of the House for a few minutes, he would ask gentlemen to tell us what motive could induce any State Legislature, or individual, or company of individuals, of the new States to expend money in surveying roads which they might know they could not make?
(A Voice: They are not required to make the road.)
Mr. LINCOLN, (continuing.). That was not the case he was making. What motive would tempt any set of men to go into an expensive survey of a railroad, which they did not intend to make? What good would it do? Did men act without motive? Did business men commonly go into an expenditure of money, which could be of no account to them? He generally found that men who have money were disposed to hold on to it, unless they could see something to be made by its investment. He could not see what motive of advantage to the new States could be subserved by merely keeping the public lands out of market, and preventing their settlement. As far as he could see, the new States were wholly without any motive to do such a thing. This, then, he took to be a good answer to the first objection.
In relation to the fact assumed, that, after a while, the new States having got hold of the public lands to a certain extent, they would turn round and compel Congress to relinquish all claim to them, he had a word to say, by way of recurring to the history of the past. When was the time to come (he asked) when the States in which the public lands were situated would compose a majority of the representation in Congress, or anything like it? A majority of Representatives would very soon reside west of the mountains, he admitted; but would they all come from States in which the public lands were situated? They certainly would not; for, as these western States grew strong in Congress, the public lands passed away from them, and they got on the other side of the question: and the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Vinton) was an example attesting that fact.2
Mr. VINTON interrupted here to say, that he had stood upon this question just where he was now, for five-and-twenty years.
Mr. LINCOLN was not making an argument for the purpose of convicting the gentleman of any impropriety at all. He was speaking of a fact in history, of which his State was an example. He was referring to a plain principle in the nature of things. The State of Ohio had now grown to be a giant. She had a large delegation on that floor; but was she now in favor of granting lands to the new States, as she used to be? The New England States, New York, and the Old Thirteen, were all rather quiet upon the subject; and it was seen just now that a member from one of the new States was the first man to rise up in opposition. And so it would be with the history of this question for the future. There never would come a time when the people residing in the States embracing the public lands would have the entire control of this subject; and so it was a matter of certainty that Congress would never do more in this respect than what would be dictated by a just liberality. The apprehension, therefore, that the public lands were in danger of being wrested from the General Government by the strength of the delegation in Congress from the new States, was utterly futile. There never could be such a thing. If we take these lands (said he) it will not be without your consent. We can never outnumber you. The result is, that all fear of the new States turning against the right of Congress to the public domain must be effectually quelled, as those who are opposed to that interest must always hold a vast majority here, and they will never surrender the whole or any part of the public lands unless they themselves choose so to do. This was all he desired to say.3
1Abraham Lincoln made these remarks during debate over Senate Bill 415, which the Senate had passed earlier in the day. The House of Representatives considered the bill the same day, and on February 14 the Senate passed a motion to reconsider the vote by which the bill passed. The House sent the bill back to the Senate on February 15. The Senate took no further action on the bill.
U.S. House Journal. 1849. 30th Cong., 2nd sess., 438, 442, 446; U.S. Senate Journal. 1849. 30th Cong., 2nd sess., 211, 218; Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 2nd Sess., 533, 535 (1849).
2Samuel F. Vinton had two main objections to the bill. First, he predicted that the States would effectively become debtors to the government, and they might, in time, combine their numbers in Congress to pass laws relieving them of their debt. He also believed land speculators would combine to form large numbers of newly-created railroad companies, which would get possession of large proportions of the public lands, “to aid in the construction of roads not needed, and which would never be completed.”
Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 2nd Sess., 532 (1849).
3In December 1848, the House of Representatives had considered their own bill on this same topic, H.R. 693, which Jacob Collamer from the Committee on Public Lands introduced on December 28. The bill did not pass. S. B. 415 and H.R. 693 are identical until the end, where the Senate version contains the following language: “and nothing in this act contained shall be so construed as to grant to any State such right of preemption to any land heretofore set apart or reserved for schools, nor to any public land which may have been reserved by the United States for military or other public purposes, nor to any mineral lands, nor to any to which a right of pre-emption may previously have been acquired by any person or persons.”
U.S. House Journal. 1848. 30th Cong., 2nd sess., 158.
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Cong. Globe, 30th Cong., 2nd Sess., 533 (1849)