He first reminds us of the 1815 address to Congress by Madison, where he praises state and private internal improvements and suggests that "the general government is the more urged to similar undertakings, requiring a national jurisdiction, and national means, by the prospect of thus systematically completing so inestimable a work," confident that "any defect of constitutional authority which may be encountered, can be supplied in a mode which the Constitution itself has providently pointed out."
Madison's position on federal support for improvements of course quickly soured, so that by 1817 he delivered an altogether different message to Congress:
"I am not unaware of the great importance of roads and canals, and the improved navigation of water-courses; and that a power in the national legislature to provide for them might be exercised with signal advantage to the general prosperity. But seeing that such a power is not expressly given by the constitution; and believing that it cannot be deduced from any part of it without an inadmissible latitude of construction, and a reliance on insufficient precedents; believing also that the permanent success of the constitution depends on a definite partition of powers between the general and the State government, and that no adequate land-marks would be left by the constructive extension of the powers of Congress, as proposed in the bill, I have no option but to withhold my signature from it; and to cherishing the hope that its beneficial objects may be attained by a resort for the necessary powers, to the same wisdom and virtue in the nation which established the constitution in its actual form, and providently marked out, in the instrument itself, a safe and practicable mode of improving it, as experience might suggest."Madison even brushed aside the relatively minor concerns that Jefferson had proposed to Gallatin about a decade earlier, that the states should grand permission for federal involvement in their own infrastructure projects. Madison, in 1817, was of the opinion that:
"If a general power to construct roads and canals, and to improve the navigation of water-courses, with the train of powers incident thereto, be not possessed by Congress, the assent of the States in the mode provided in the bill cannot confer the power. The only cases in which the consent and cession of particular States can extend the power of Congress, are those specified and provided for in the constitution."This transition is well known and well understood. It would be as foolish to pretend that Madison always harbored his 1817 opposition to federal support for internal improvement as it would be to suggest that he never did. Of course we here at Facts and Other Stubborn Things were not the first to notice the discrepancy. Andrew Jackson did as well. Andrew Jackson had the advantage of being a contemporary of Mr. Madison, and he used this opportunity to ask his vice President, Martin van Buren, to write to Madison in 1830, asking him to clarify the position he staked out in 1817. He of course begins with the requisite deference, expressing the president's "regret that he has misconceived your intentions in regard to the veto of the Bill for internal improvements in 1817". Madison begins his response by discussing the general problem of guaranteeing that provisions for the general welfare remain genuinely "general," and then gets into internal improvements specifically. He writes to van Buren:
"In defraying the expence of internal improvements, strict justice would require that a part only and not the whole should be borne by the nation. Take for examples, the Harbours of N. York and New Orleans. However important in a commercial view they may be to the other portions of the Union, the States to which they belong, must derive a peculiar as well as a common advantage from improvements made in them, and could afford therefore to combine with grants from the common Treasury, proportional contributions from their own. On this principle it is, that the practice has prevailed in the States, (as it has done with Congress) of dividing the expence of certain improvements, between the funds of the State, and the contributions of those locally interested in them. [emphasis mine]"Madison's thoughts are full of the logic of externalities, as I had pointed out with the Dorfman piece on internal improvements earlier. However, Madison's constitutional concerns remain:
So how to reconcile his constitutional concerns with the "justice" he sees in a portion of internal improvements being paid for by the federal government? Madison offers a surprisingly modern solution, anticipating federal highway funding:
"I have, as you know, never considered the powers claimed for Congress over Roads & Canals, as within the grants of the Constitution. But such improvements being justly ranked among the greatest advantages and best evidences of good Govt., & having moreover, with us, the peculiar recommendation of binding the several parts of the Union more firmly together, I have always thought the power ought to be possessed by the Common Govt., which commands the least unpopular & most productive sources of revenue, and can alone select improvements with an eye to the national good. The States are restricted in their pecuniary resources, and Roads & Canals most important in a national view, might not be important to the State or States possessing the domain & the soil; or might even be deemed disadvantageous, and, on the most favourable supposition might require a concert of means & regulations among several States not easily effected, nor unlikely to be altogether omitted
These considerations have pleaded with me in favor of the policy of vesting in Congress an authority over internal improvements. I am sensible, at the same time, of the magnitude of the trust, as well as of the difficulty of executing it properly, & the greater difficulty of executing it satisfactorily."
"On the supposition of a due establishment of the power in Congress, one of the modes of using it might be, to apportion a reasonable share of the disposable revenue of the U. States among the States to be applied by them to cases of State concern; with a reserved discretion in Congress to effectuate improvements of general concern, which the States might not be able or not disposed to provide for."
This proposal mirrors the initial point about the best way to guarantee that the general welfare is truly general. Madison, acknowledging some risks to the strategy, had suggested simply distributing the money among the states. This whole response to van Buren to me still sounds more like the Madison of 1817 than the Madison of 1811 or 1815, but there is at least some sort of effort to take a step back from his 1817 position. How did vice president van Buren respond? Well, his only veto as president was of a bill to appropriate money to help distribute copies of James Madison's papers. I'll allow readers to interpret that as they choose.