President Polk Vetoes the River-and-Harbor Bill -- Lake Ports Suffer -- Indignation Throughout the West -- Convention at Chicago called to Express Disapproval -- Its Large Attendance -- Delegates from Nineteen States -- Distinguished Delegates -- Resolutions Adopted -- Address of John C. Spencer -- Horace Greeley's Report -- Thurlow Weed's Description -- Editor Debow's Review -- Beneficial Results after Thirteen Years -- Present Broad Policy of Improvements.
PRESIDENT POLK, on the 3d day of August, 1846, vetoed the River-and-Harbor Bill, which, among other items, appropriated about a half million dollars for the improvement of numerous harbors and rivers lying within the region of the Great Lakes.
In his message to Congress he set forth his reasons for his disapproval, as follows: "Some of the objects of the appropriation, contained in this Bill, are local in their character, and lie within the limits of a single State; and though in the language of the Bill they are called harbors, they are not connected with foreign commerce, nor are they places of refuge or of shelter for our navy or commercial marine on the ocean or lake shores. It would seem the dictate of wisdom under such circumstances to husband our means and not waste them on comparatively unimportant objects."
The proposed appropriations included the following:
Indignation Throughout the West. -- This action by the chief executive created a profound sensation throughout the United States, especially in the region of the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi Valley, which had also suffered by the veto. Public disapproval was strongly expressed. It culminated in the River and Harbor Convention, held at Chicago, July 5, 1847. The St. Louis Republican, early in September, in commenting upon the public feeling in the West, urged that the men in office should be convinced by the moral force of the popular will "that this government was framed for the benefit of the people," and suggested, as the most effective means of obtaining and embodying the opinions of the great mass of people, that a convention be held at some convenient point. The Chicago and other papers quickly approved the suggestion. A preliminary meeting was held at Rathbun's Hotel, New York, Monday evening, September 28, 1846, at which William Duane Wilson, of Milwaukee, presided. Resolutions were adopted, approving the recommendation of the Western press for a convention, and proposing Chicago as the most suitable point. Committees were appointed to carry out the objects of the meeting. Subsequently citizens' meetings were held at Chicago, Buffalo, and many other cities, at which vigorous resolutions were adopted. Everything promised a great and successful convention.
The Convention Opened. -- It opened at Chicago, July 5, 1847. There were present, besides many others, 2,315 enrolled delegates representing the following 19 States: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
Of this great mass of delegates only 86 represented Chicago. A demonstration in the form of an immense parade was presented by Chicago, which at that time claimed a population of only 16,000. In its description of the event, the Chicago Evening Journal said: " At an early hour the streets were thronged with strangers, the gray-haired and the young, the matron and the maid, the hope and promise of a coming day, and the veteran of his three score and ten; flags were flying from every steamer and sail-vessel in port, blasts of martial music swelled ever and anon upon the air, and the deep notes of artillery boomed over the prairie and the lake. Joyous faces were everywhere, and heaven itself smiled upon the scene. At nine o'clock the roar of cannon and the roll of drums announced the hour for the formation of the procession. The Fort, Water, Lake and Washington streets were alive with the military, the fire-companies and the civic procession. Column after column and line after line, away they moved to the rendezvous; banner after banner, band after band, host after host. It was a glorious, almost a sublime, spectacle; worthy the times ere Babel left the world. Five thousand men -- five thousand freemen in solid column moving on, not to carnage, but to the expression of a great truth, the pleading of a great necessity, the arguing of a great cause. "Never was the birthday of our National independence more befittingly celebrated than on this day -- to give freedom and tone to the pulse of commerce -- to cheer the mariner on his airy shrouds -- to brighten the homes and the hopes of thousands. Is there, can there be a nobler cause under which freemen can rally in behalf, of the State? That vessel with sails all set and signals flying to the breeze, drawn by eight horses and manned throughout by sailors, bore a banner eloquent of the object of this convention. It was a sea roughened by storms, that lifted the waves to the very heaven in the distance; but hard by was a harbor where ' the winds and the waves lay together asleep,' and a lighthouse lifting its star of joy and hope upon the rocky cliffs. Over all was inscribed the significant words, 'What we want.' Ah! It Was a display, such as the West has never before beheld; but we value it not for the badges, and banners, and pageantry -- not for its array of military or its blasts of music, but for the community of interest and of feeling that it indicated, thus gathering from every quarter of a Republic, wide as the New World and comprehended by two oceans."
Distinguished Delegates. -- Escorted by this procession, the delegates proceeded to the court house square, where the convention, which lasted three days, was held. James L. Barton, of Buffalo, was temporary chairman, and Edward Bates, of Missouri, permanent chairman. Among the delegates were many distinguished statesmen. Abraham Lincoln was there as a delegate from Sangamon county, Illinois. Among others were Governor Bebb and Thomas Corwin, of Ohio, Schuyler Colfax, of Indiana, Horace Greeley and Thurlow Weed, of New York, a half dozen governors, congressmen by the score, almost every public-spirited man on the Great Lakes, regardless of party affiliations. Letters were read from Senator Thomas H. Benton, of Missouri, from Daniel Webster, from Henry Clay, from Martin Van Buren, from Thomas Cass and others, regretting their absence.
Resolutions Adopted. -- Resolutions were adopted, submitting the propositions, which the convention believed should actuate the government, and among others the following:
That the general government, by extending its jurisdiction over lakes and navigable rivers, subjecting them to the same laws which prevail on the ocean, and on its bays and ports, not only for purposes of revenue, but to give security to life and property, by the regulation of steamboats, has precluded itself from denying that jurisdiction for any other legitimate regulation of commerce. If it has power to control and restrain, it must have the same power to protect, assist, and facilitate; and if it denies the jurisdiction in the one mode of action, it should renounce it in the other. That, in consequence of the peculiar dangers of the navigation of the lakes, arising from the want of harbors for shelter, and of the western rivers from snags and other obstructions, there are no parts of the United States more emphatically demanding the prompt and continued care of the government to diminish those dangers, and to protect the life and property exposed to them; and that any one who can regard provisions for those purposes as sectional or local, and not national, must be wanting in information of the extent of the commerce carried on upon the lakes and rivers, and of the amount of teeming population occupied or interested in that navigation. That, having regard to the relative population or to the extent of commerce, the appropriations heretofore made for the interior rivers and lakes, and the streams connecting them with the ocean, have not been in a just and fair proportion to those made for the benefit of the Atlantic coast; and that the time has arrived when this injustice should be corrected, in the only mode in which it can be done, by the united, determined, and persevering efforts of those whose rights have been overlooked. That, independent of this right to protection of "commerce among the States," the right of "common defence," guaranteed by the Constitution, entitles those citizens inhabiting the country bordering upon the interior lakes and rivers to such safe and convenient harbors as may afford shelter to a navy, whenever it shall be rendered necessary by hostilities with our neighbors; and that the constructions of such harbors can not safely be delayed to the time which will demand their immediate use.
Address of John C. Spencer. -- One of the notable addresses of the convention was made by John C. Spencer, of New York. It was delivered immediately after the reading of the report of the committee on resolutions. Quotations from the speech are as follows:
The propositions submitted by the committee state that there are peculiar dangers in the navigation of the lakes from the want of harbors, and of many of our rivers from snags and other obstructions. To such an audience, and at such a place as this, it would be a mere waste of time to dwell on these dangers. But as these remarks may reach others not so well informed, allow me to make some brief quotations from a report of the brave, gallant, and lamented Captain Williams, who fell so nobly at the taking of Monterey, made by him in 1842, to the chief of the Topographical Bureau: "Chicago," he says, " is the only harbor on that lake (Michigan), the shores of which comprise a development of coast of about nine hundred miles. Milwaukee affords no shelter for vessels during a storm, and even in calm weather it is difficult of access. At the mouth of Kalamazoo river, a large ship (the Milwaukee) was driven from its moorings, where it was taking in a cargo of wheat, and wrecked in the vicinity, with the loss of nine of her crew. Thus, from the time a vessel leaves Chicago, she has no place of shelter till she reaches the northern outlet of the lake at the straits of Mackinac, or by taking refuge under the lee of the islands at the northern part of the lake. After passing the straits of Mackinac, proceeding eastward, we enter Lake Huron, which extends two hundred and twenty miles in a southwesterly direction, yet upon the whole coast there is not a single harbor construction effected." We all know the difficulties of the flats in the St. Clair river, which so seriously impede navigation, and which can be so easily made navigable. From the head of Lake Erie to Buffalo, a distance of three hundred and thirty miles, there is but one place of security for vessels during a gale, and that is at Erie, where they may lie under the lee of the islands. All here know that vessels, during storms, have been driven back to this place for the whole distance from Buffalo, in consequence of the hazards of entering the nominal harbors on this lake.
Captain Williams remarks that there is greater danger in navigating the lakes than the ocean, because "upon the lakes there is at all times a dangerous proximity of coast, upon which vessels are liable to be thrown in a long-continued gale, while on the ocean there is room to drift until the storm be over." The only remedy is obviously harbors with spacious entrances. Not having accurate information of the details, I can only allude in general terms to the immense losses of vessels and property, and the destruction of human life, which annually occur, particularly during the latter part of the season of navigation. I have heard it estimated that the value of property thus lost, in five years, would improve all the harbors on the lakes to the necessary extent. This is, in itself, sufficiently afflicting; but what shall we say of that neglect which consigns to watery graves the gallant sailors whose exposure to accidents is always so great and imminent? I will not trust myself to speak on this point, for fear that I may forget the decorum due the occasion. But I commend it to the consideration of all who have human sympathies. The amount of the trade carried on upon the lakes west of Buffalo has been the subject of some inquiry by Colonel Abert, the distinguished and very able chief of the Topographical Corps, in pursuance of a suggestion which I made to him when we were officially connected. In his last report on the subject, made November 1, 1845, he estimates from returns made to him, that the import and export trade of the various ports on the lakes was one hundred million dollars. This estimate does not include Lake Ontario nor Lake Champlain.
The President of the United States, in his message of December, 1846, states the value of all the exports of the United States at $102,141,893. It is by such comparisons only that we can form an idea of the vast amount of this portion of our internal commerce. Is it not an interest demanding, in tones which can not be disregarded, the equal and just protection of the government? A report of Colonel Abert, made to Congress in December last, of all the appropriations made since 1806 for roads and the improvement of harbors and rivers, shows an aggregate of $17,199,000, of which $2,861,964 were for the harbors of the lakes and the improvement of the rivers at the northwest -- about one-sixth of the whole. It is needless to speak of the gross inequality of this apportionment of common funds to those who know the vast and teeming population which is occupied or interested in the navigation of the Western lakes and rivers.
Horace Greeley's Report. -- Horace Gree-ley reported the convention for the New York Tribune. He thus begins his interesting letters under date of July 5: "Chicago has been filling up with delegates to the People's Convention for the last ten or fifteen days, but it was not until Saturday that the pressure became burdensome. When we arrived on the Oregon, at sunrise, yesterday morning, there was scarcely a spare inch of room in any public house save in a few bedrooms long since bespoken. But the citizens had already thrown open their dwellings, welcoming strangers in thousands to their cordial and bounteous hospitality; the steamboats as they came in, proffered their spacious accommodations and generous fare to their passengers during their stay; and though four or five boats full freighted came in yesterday, and two more, with a thousand or fifteen hundred each, came in this morning, I believe there are none left in doubt as to their chance of shelter to-night at this present writing. At all events the people of Chicago have earned a noble reputation for hospitality and public spirit. The citizens had provided a spacious and beautiful tent, about 100 feet square, pitched in an open square near the center of the city, radiating from a tall pole in the centre, and well provided with seats. It holds about 4,000 persons comfortably. The rest of the gathering were constrained to look in over the heads of those seated."
Mr. Greeley makes this mention of a then obscure congressman from Illinois: "In the afternoon, Hon. Abraham Lincoln, a tall specimen of an Illinoisan, just elected to Congress from the only Whig district in the State, was called out, and spoke briefly and happily in reply to Mr. Field. As he closed, the committee came in, and through its chairman, Hon. J. C. Wright, reported a series of fifteen resolutions, which were read by Charles King, of New Jersey, and advocated in a most able and interesting speech by Hon. John C. Spencer, of New York -- a constitutional argument, evincing deep research and great power."
The distinguished journalist concluded his letter of the third and last day in this fashion: "Thus has met, deliberated, harmonized, acted, and separated, one of the most important and interesting conventions ever held in this or any country. It was truly characterized as a Congress of Freemen, destitute of pay and mileage, but in all else inferior to no deliberative body which has assembled within twenty years. Can we doubt that its results will be most beneficent and enduring?"
Thurlow Weed's Description. -- Another noted newspaper writer in attendance was Thurlow Weed, editor of the Albany Evening Journal. Elsewhere in this volume liberal quotation is made from his description of the trip on the lakes to and from Chicago. A few brief extracts from his report of the convention are here added: "Let me here say that the firemen's display in this infant city to-day excited universal admiration. I never saw anything got up in better taste. The companies were in neat uniforms. Their machines were very tastefully decorated. There was also a miniature ship, manned and full-rigged, drawn by 12 horses, in the procession. While moving, the crew on board the Convention made, shortened and took in sail repeatedly. This is undoubtedly the largest deliberative body that ever assembled. In looking around the sea of faces turned toward the chair, I recognize, from various parts of the Union, men of distinguished talents. Among the most prominent are Senator Corwin and Governor Bebb, Ex-Governor Morrow, of Ohio, Andrew Stewart, Joseph R. Ingersoll, of Pennsylvania, Thomas Butler King, of Georgia. This convention was composed of enlightened, discriminating men. Its action was deliberate, but emphatic, and can not fail to be effective. I venture to predict that no more Harbor-and-River Bills will be vetoed or 'stolen.' The convention adjourned with more harmony, if possible, than it commenced. Never have we witnessed such a harmonious meeting, from beginning to end. Its proceedings have been worthy any people and any cause. And the interest of the public was continued throughout all the sittings. Up to the last hour the crowd was a dense one, and every delegate stayed to the end. This convention must rank as one of the most respectable, and we hope it will prove one of the most useful, ever assembled on the continent. This is a strong expression, we know. But we ask those who may be inclined to doubt it, to first hear before they judge."
Editor De Bow's Review. -- Everywhere throughout the country the convention was ardently discussed. The power vested in the United States Government was still a mooted and vexatious question. The issue was largely argumentative, but the practical side had already appealed strongly to the common sense of the people. A good example of this public discussion was an article appearing in 1848 in De. Bow's magazine, a commercial monthly published at New Orleans. It is valuable as an index of advanced public opinion a half century ago, in matters relating to improvements on the Great Lakes, and is therefore liberally reproduced herewith:
"The proceedings of the great convention at Chicago last summer of Friends to River and Harbor Improvements by the Federal Government have been fully spread before the country, and all who chose to become acquainted with them will have done so ere this article is printed. The grounds of agreement and of difference among those who attended the convention, though not very clearly defined in the proceedings there had, are tolerably obvious to the practical observer. On the one hand, the bare assemblage of the convention -- especially when we consider how numerously it was attended, from what distances and what men -- affirms the duty of the Federal Government to do something in the premises, and the inference can hardly be deemed a forced or far-fetched one, if we say that it affirms farther, the duty of doing something more than has hitherto been done.
"For, assuredly, the citizen who believes that our rulers have done and are doing all that is fairly incumbent on them with regard to Rivers and Harbors, will have slender temptation to spend time and money in attending a convention at a point remote from his residence to consider the subject of River and Harbor Improvements and memorialize Congress concerning them. For it is not, surely, to be presumed that honorable gentlemen would attend such a gathering with the sole purpose of embarass-ing its deliberations and distracting its councils.
"The fact, then, that some five to eight thousand citizens, including many of the most eminent and the most worthy, many from localities more than a thousand miles distant, convened at Chicago on the 5th of July, 1847, to deliberate and act on the subject already stated, is in itself of decided significance, and the conclusions of a body so constituted can hardly fail to exert a palpable influence on the public sentiment and legislation of the country.
"These conclusions are clearly and forcibly set forth in the resolutions of the convention, mainly drawn by the Hon. John C. Spencer, but agreed on first by an able committee of two persons from each State and Territory represented -- about thirty in all -- selected in nearly equal numbers from the two great political parties, and whose unanimous report was affirmed with nearly equal unanimity by the convention. The resolutions, so drawn and passed, embody an argument in support of the constitutionality and justice of a comprehensive and vigorous prosecution of river and harbor improvement which has rarely been excelled if ever equaled.
"On the other hand, it cannot be denied, and need not be disguised, that differences of opinion with regard to the proper extent and limitations of national river and harbor improvement were developed at this convention; and these differences we now propose to consider.
"On the side of a liberal and comprehensive appropriation of the public moneys to the improvement of rivers and harbors, there appears to be no disagreement, no hesitation. The resolutions of the convention state the views taken on that side more clearly and forcibly than we could express them in so few words. Briefly, however, it is maintained on that side, that the Federal Government ought to prosecute the improvement, for purposes of commerce, of the harbors which line our coasts (whether seaward or inland), and the more important rivers within our national limits, so fast as the state of its finances will permit, and so far as the common interest and general welfare of the whole people shall seem to demand. But to this end it is not deemed essential that each particular river or harbor improvement shall be essential to the well-being of the entire people, any more than that each ship-of-war constructed and maintained, or soldier employed and paid by the government, shall have been engaged in the defense of the whole country.
"In the narrowest view, it may be said that the safe and easy navigation, even of the Mississippi, is of no moment to the people of Vermont; while there is a larger and truer aspect, wherein whatever increases production, diffuses wealth and facilitates intercourse in any section of the Union, is desirable and beneficent to every portion of it. But admit that the rendering navigable, so far as may be, of a single river like the Illinois, or making accessible and safe the single harbor of Chicago, may not be of obvious interest to the whole country; still, the simultaneous improvement of all such rivers and harbors, so far as a provident statesmanship and wise economy would justify, may be the clear dictate of National policy and public good. This regarded, each single improvement appears but a link in a golden chain of benefits and blessings, admirably calculated to bind together, indissolubly, the States composing this vast Republic.
"On the other side, the agreement on any general principle -- much less on any clear line of policy -- is not obvious, as a brief glance at the indications afforded at Chicago will show. For example -- Colonel Benton, by letter, denounces vehemently the proneness to importune Congress to aid in the furtherance of ' local or sectional objects,' yet strongly affirms the constitutionality and propriety of a national canal, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi; and, of course, of other works of like character and importance.
"Governor Wright, by letter, has like fears of the diversion of the national funds to objects purely local, but is favorable to harbor improvements at those points ' where the convenience and safety of lake commerce ' demand them. River improvements afford to his mind a subject of far greater difficulty; yet he has no doubt at all that appropriations for some river improvements are constitutional, while others are not. The line of distinction he indicates, without positively affirming it, is this: ' Where commerce upon a river already exists, and is regularly carried on in spite of the obstructions sought to be removed,' there improvements may be deemed constitutional; in other cases, not. But finally, Mr. Wright concedes that 'this is not a sufficient dividing line for practical legislation,' but he favors us with no other.
"Mr. David Dudley Field, of New York, in a speech before the convention, controverted what is termed the ' general welfare' or ' lax construction' doctrine with regard to internal improvement, and has, since his return, written out and published his remarks, being moved thereto, it appears, by a pressing note from the editor. Having listened to that speech when delivered, we regret our inability to identify the uttered remarks with the printed essay, and the more that the speech seems to have suffered in cogency without gaining in perspicuity in the transfer from Chicago to New York, and from living breath to inert metal. Mr. Field flatly contradicts Colonel Benton with regard to the power of the Federal Government to construct canals; he favors us with long and painstaking disquisitions on the nature and true character of our government, with very liberal citations from the ' resolutions of '98,' and many ponderous documents unheard of at Chicago; but when we have read them all we are nearly as much in the dark, as to the kind of a Harbor-and-River Bill that Mr. Field would vote for, as if he had not spoken at the convention. We hear quite enough of the ' difference between one who construes the constitution strictly, and another who construes it loosely,' 'enlarging the incidental powers of Congress,' etc., etc., but little or nothing that is tangible on the material point. The burden of his speech is this same offensive and supercilious assumption, ' We who think as I do are the faithful upholders of the constitution, which you who differ from us would heedlessly and selfishly override and destroy,' but what projected improvements are constitutional, and what are not, in Mr. Field's opinion, it were a task indeed together from his deliberately written version of his Chicago speech. * * *
"Let us, in closing, urge upon those on whom, in the approaching Congress, may devolve the duty of framing a River and Harbor bill, to discharge that duty patiently, liberally, justly, and with a single eye to the common good. Let them take care that no item that cannot bear its own weight, however trifling in amount, is allowed to creep in for the sake of securing a vote, or silencing an adversary. Let a bill be framed of which every item ought to pass, and we have strong hopes that it will pass. It is a deplorable truth, that appropriations for useless or pernicious ends -- to construct cumbrous fortresses and needless ships of war -- to pay and feed cormorant armies in times of profound peace, or rob an Indian tribe of lands which it needs, and we do not -- will pass in. a day, with hardly an opponent and never a constitutional scruple; but whenever a dollar is asked for any purpose of positive and enduring beneficence -- to promote directly the well being of our own people, rather than threaten or carry destruction to others -- there arises all manner of caviling, hair-splitting, scruple-devising, as if the mere purpose of the measure were (prima facie] evidence of intent to subvert the Constitution. In the apprehension of a formidable class of political philosophers, fidelity to the Constitution involves a vigorous adherence to every ledge and sand-bar which presented an abstract to navigation in 1787, and the fate of our institutions is bound up in the preservation of our overslaughs and rapids in rivers otherwise navigable. ' Snags, sawyers and the Constitution forever!' is virtually the war-cry of that school of expounders, who never scruple to stigmatize all who differ from them as ready to overthrow every bulwark of our freedom in their reckless pursuit of personal or local aggrandizement. Ought this style of argumentation to pass unrebuked ? Can it suffice to overbear the dictates of National progress and commercial necessity? "
After Thirteen Years. -- An article appeared in "Harper's Magazine," in 1860, urging the improvements of the Great Lakes. The writer reviewed the difficulties encountered in securing from Congress appropriations for the benefit of lake commerce. He said: "The early advocates in Congress of these lake improvements had to encounter a very violent opposition from various quarters. First, the obstructionists of the Virginia school -- men who would cavil for the ninth part of a hair -- affirmed in general terms, that this Government was established with the view of regulating our external affairs, leaving all internal matters to be regulated by the States; and, then descending to particulars, declared, that, while Congress had the power to make improvements on salt water, it could do nothing on fresh; furthermore, they argued, that, to give the power of spending money, the water must ebb and flow, and that the improvement must be below a port of entry, and not above. Another refinement of the Richmond sophists was this: -- If a river be already navigable, Congress has the power to improve it, because it can 'regulate' commerce; but if a sand-bar at its mouth prevents vessels from passing in or out, Congress cannot interfere, because that would be 'creating' and not 'regulating.'
"In July, 1847, a convention, composed of delegates from eighteen States, met in Chicago, to concert measures for obtaining from the Government the necessary improvements for Western rivers and harbors. This body sent an able memorial to Congress, and the result has been that larger appropriations have since been made. Still, however, much remains to be done and it appears by the last report of Colonel Graham, that his estimates for necessary work on lake harbors and roadsteads amount to nearly three millions of dollars, to which half a million should be added for the improvement of St. Clair Flats, making an aggregate of three and a half millions of dollars, which is much needed at this time for the safe navigation of the lakes."
Present Broad Policy of Improvements. -- A broad national policy is now pursued in the development of traffic upon the inland waterways of the country. And from the standpoint of the magnificent results that have accrued to the nation, the heroic struggles of a half century ago to establish and develop that judicious and enlightened statesmanship can now be regarded only with gratitude and pride. The convention of 1847 must rank as a masterful event in the progress of national achievements.
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Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.