Report of Speech to Northwestern River and Harbor Convention, 6 July 18471
Mr. Lincoln, member of Congress from Illinois, being called upon, addressed the Convention in substance, as follows:
Gentlemen: I had supposed that it was not proper for me, residing in Illinois, to occupy the time of the Convention in making a speech. I will, however, avail myself of the few minutes allowed me until the return of the committee on resolutions, as no one else, perhaps, is desirous to do so.
I desire, for the sake of harmony, to make a few remarks—not of division and discord, but of harmony. We meet here to promote and advance the cause of internal improvement. Parties have differed on that subject, but we meet here to break down that difference—to unite, like a band of brothers, for the welfare of the common country. In harmony and good feeling; let us transact the business for which we have assembled, and let no firebrands be cast amongst us to produce discord and dissensions, but let us meet each other in the spirit of conciliation and good feeling. The gentleman from New York made such a speech as he believed to be right. He expressed the sentiments he believed to be correct, and however much others may differ from him in those views, he has a right to be heard, and should not be interrupted.2
If it was the object of this Convention to get up a grand hurrah, a few of its members are [pursuing?] the proper course to effect that object. But such was not the purpose of this Convention. In the course of debate, it is impossible to speak without alluding, in some manner, to constitutional questions. In all speeches, on every occasion, there are remarks to the point and collateral remarks. Let us avoid collateral remarks in this Convention, as far as possible. Democrats do not wish to do any thing in this Convention that will conflict with their past course, and if questions should come up which they do not approve, they should be permitted to protest against them. I hope there will be no more interruption—no hisses—no jibes. I pledge myself that the delegates from Illinois will keep quiet.
The argument of the gentleman from New York upon the constitutionality of the power to make appropriations, should be examined. I do not feel that I can do it—time will not permit—but some one more able, more competent to do the subject justice, will reply. All agree that something in the way of internal improvement must be done. The difficulty is to discriminate, when to begin and where to stop. There is great danger in going too far. Members of Congress will be influenced by sectional interests and sectional feelings. I have not taken the pains to write out my opinions upon the construction to be put upon the [constitution?]. Any construction, that there is something to be done for the general good and no power to do it, would be wrong. I do not go for sectional improvements, though all are more or less sectional. Is there any way to make improvements, except some persons are benefitted more than others? No improvement can be made that will benefit all alike. A pertinent question was asked the gentleman from New York, to which he did not reply: Who is to decide the differences of opinion on constitutional questions? What tribunal? How shall we make it out? The gentleman from Pennsylvania, the Hon. Andrew Stewart, says Congress must decide.3 If Congress has not the power, who has? Is it not, at least, for Congress to remedy the objection, and settle this great question? If there is any other tribunal, where is it to be found? My friend from Pennsylvania, Mr. Benton and myself, are much alike on that subject.4
I come, now, to the subject of abstractions. The gentleman from New York, (Mr. David Dudley Field.) made a slight mistake, when he said that the Revolutionary war was caused by abstractions. They denied Parliament the right to tax them without representation. This is not a parallel case, but totally different. The abstractions of the present day are not the abstractions of the Revolution.
I have the highest respect for the gentleman from New York. In his speech, he made a beautiful appeal in behalf of the Constitution. He implores us, by all considerations, to foster and protect it. He loves the Constitution. I hope I may love it as well as he does, but in a different way. He looks upon it as a net work, through which may be sifted the seeds of discord and dissension. I look upon it as a complete protection to the Union. He loves it in his way[?] I, in mine. There are many here who entertain the same views which I do, who will, I doubt not, sustain me, and with these remarks I beg leave to close.
1In 1846, President James K. Polk vetoed an omnibus appropriations act passed by Congress to fund river and harbor projects in the Great Lakes region. In response, mostly northern and western Whigs, who were in favor of federally-funded internal improvements, organized a large convention held in Chicago from July 5 to 7, 1847. Abraham Lincoln was one of the delegates to the convention, which drew ten thousand attendees from nineteen states.
Robin L. Einhorn, Property Rules: Political Economy in Chicago, 1833-1872 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 61, 63, 68, 71; Robert Fergus, comp., Chicago River-and-Harbor Convention (Chicago: Fergus Printing, 1882), 23-25, 47, 59; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 1:248.
2David Dudley Field made a speech to the convention during the morning session on July 6. The New York Democrat objected to federal funding of local internal improvements on constitutional grounds.
Robert Fergus, comp., Chicago River-and-Harbor Convention, 80-81; James Shaw, “A Neglected Episode in the Life of Abraham Lincoln,” Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society (1922), 56.
3Andrew Stewart had spoken in favor of internal improvements just prior to Field’s speech.
Robert Fergus, comp., Chicago River-and-Harbor Convention, 80-81.
4Thomas Hart Benton, a long-time Democratic Senator from Missouri, was one of several leaders who wrote letters to be read at the convention. Benton expressed support for federal funding of projects of “general and national importance” but not for projects of “local or sectional objects.” He asserted that Congress alone had the power to determine whether internal improvement projects were “national” or “sectional.”
Robert Fergus, comp., Chicago River-and-Harbor Convention, 69-72.
Copy of Printed Document, 1 page(s), Daily Missouri Republican (St. Louis), 12 July 1847, 2:2.