Thursday, November 20, 2008

James Madison and the French refugees

"In 1792 President James Madison vetoed a Congressional Appropriation to assist refugees. He said 'I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that Article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.'" (Quote taken from this website.)

Well what's wrong with a few errant details here and there, eh? The web page I've linked gets three details askew. The first is obvious if you have a cursory knowledge of the founding generation: Madison was NOT the president in 1792; he wouldn't hold that office for another seventeen years. So obviously, Madison wasn't doing any vetoing in the seventeenth century.

The second little mistake is that the debate concerned took place in 1794, not 1792. Madison was, at the time, a member of Congress.

Finally, the third error--and okay, I'm nitpicking--is that the quote is presented as Madison speaking in the first person, when it is actually a third person report. In its original form, as I'll show you in a minute, it's not "I, James Madison say this," but rather "He, James Madison, said this."

This Madison quotation shows up pretty regularly, and while the first error, attributing the remarks to President Madison, rather than to Congressman Madison, is uncommon, the wrong date and the first person implication appears elsewhere, such as in this recent Larry Elder column. If at this point you question my accuracy, see for yourself; here is the relevant page from the Annals of Congress, with "January 1794" in the upper left hand corner and Madison's words towards the lower right corner. Walter Williams also recently told the Madison tale; he didn't assert that Madison was president, nor did he give a date, accurate or otherwise, for the quote (thank God for small favors), so Professor Williams is only liable for the slight miscue of putting it in the first person.

But alas, all these guys, extolling the virtue of what Madison said, omit the most significant point: in spite of his assertions, Madison, in the very same speech quoted above, nevertheless found a way Congress could get around the Constitutional objections and appropriate money for the refugees anyway. The refugees were French citizens who landed at Baltimore in 1793, fleeing the unrest on Hispaniola, known then as St. Domingo, see Currie, The Constitution in Congress: The Federalist Period: 1789-1801, 1997, p. 188.

Noting the nationality of the refugees, Madison according to the Annals of Congress, declared:

"It has been said that we owed the French every sentiment of gratitude. It was true; but it was likewise true that we owed them something else than sentiments, for we were indebted to them for a very large sum of money. One of the instalments (sic) of that debt would be due in a short time, and perhaps it might be safest for Congress to advance the sums now wanted for the french refugees, in part of that debt, and leave it to the French ministry whether they would accept such a payment or not."

And that's what Congress did (Currie, p. 189). So yes, Madison said what Elder and Williams ascribe to him, but he followed up his objection that the Constitution did not grant "a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents" by finding a Constitutional way of doing just that. Madison simply cited the power of Congress "to pay the debts... of the United States" as a means of helping out the refugees (Article I, Section 8).

Thus, I think the impact of the Madison observation, so lauded by Williams and Elder, is somewhat blunted by the actual facts of what ultimately happened.

1 comment:

hubert rainfield said...

So Brett, this is an experiment, and I hope you will allow me the first say I find your proposal of the Oprah Winfrey, Senatorial appointment, very interesting, and well thought out, and also, that I think it could create a new dynamic of... maybe, making the U.S. Senate _a place that attracted successful_in life patrons of America...not all_ the old dodgers, who have slept and drunk their way to the in point_ the press conference for the Senate group_studying the WMD/Iraq question...chaired by the venerable Bob Graham(Fla.)_ He couldn't name the men he had been working with. It was downright embarassing
(YouTube)..Of course it is the Christmas party season for the Washington'glitterati'.

That makes it...actually quite a good time for Detroit to have it's begging bowl_ out. No matter what they say_It is all lies. There is no plan.

Three things...I just got my blogger blog back, when I got automatically found it.

So two, you don't know me, but, I read for a bit, and I like, what you are doing. I work with developmentally-
disabled adults, so I don't have a scholastic tool in my tool box, but I like blogging. I've been social blogging,elsewhere.

And finally, your point reminds me of the famous speech by
Congressman Davey Crockett, as to the Congress voting funds
to replace the house of a local woman, whose house had burned to the ground. It was probably, a special visitors the one they just opened_
600 & some million dollars, later.

So, what is my point.
This is an experiment, as a comment. I will bookmark your endeavors, and possibly check back, but as to this one particular evening...Thank you, again, and have a wonderfully merry Christmas Holiday.

Also get this, I voted for all the Bushes, not the Clintons, Jesse Jackson, and I just voted for Barack. I am all in.

We are playing
Proof Or Dare
Bottoms up!

Your friend,
Hubert Rainfield