Early American Corruptionists


Among other books, I've recently plowed through Alan Greenspan's The Age of Turbulence (I'll have more comments on that one in the near future), volume one of D.W. Meinig's The Shaping of America (an outstanding overview of the early American experience from the perspective of historical geography), and Frederick Merk's History of the Westward Movement. Merk lays special emphasis on land speculation, which was rife with skullduggery. Consider what happened in Georgia (p. 115):

In Georgia, as already noted, the greatest speculation and the greatest legislative scandal in American land history took place. Practically all the state's western land in what is now Alabama and Mississippi -- about 35 million acres, much of it exceptionally rich -- was in 1795 sold by the legislature to four land-speculating companies for the sum of $500,000. Every member of the legislature except one had been bribed to make the sale. When the corruption became known, the next legislature passed a measure revoking the sale, accompanied by a public burning of the contract of sale. But in 1810 the revocation fell foul of the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice John Marshall, who had a strongly developed sense of the rights of private property and who was a land speculator on a big scale, led the Court in ruling in the case of Fletcher v. Peck that Georgia could not revoke a sale once made, since the land had already passed out of the hands of the corruptionists and into the hands of innocent third parties. The decision was a peculiar one in two respects. In the first place there were few, if any, genuine innocent third parties. The whole nation knew of the scandalous process by which the land had been bought. In the second place the case was not a bona fide lawsuit. It was trumped up to obtain a decision of the Supreme Court. It should have been thrown out of court on that ground alone. Ultimately the United States government, to which Georgia had yielded the lands in 1802, had to buy off the alleged innocent third parties. The amount paid them to quiet their rights, under an act of 1814, was close to $5 million.

Merk relates many such stories, which make one doubt the ethics of early American politicians. So much for the pure Revolutionary generation, from which height American morals have ever since descended. Indeed, very few early American politicians seem to have cared for the Constitution whatsoever (and I mean the full Constitution, including the Ninth and Tenth Amendments). An early test was proposed support by the U.S. government for railroads, canals, and the like (p. 219):

A constitutional uncertainty beclouded the issue of federal aid to internal improvements. No express power was given Congress by the framers of the Constitution on that subject. The matter was little discussed as long as the national debt remained to be paid. Occasionally Congress voted aid for road building with a minimum of debate. In the Jefferson administration it authorized, in admitting Ohio to statehood, the setting aside of 5 percent of the proceeds of the sale of public land in that state for the construction of a road that would connect the Potomac and Ohio rivers. As already mentioned, construction began in 1811 and by 1818 the road had reached Wheeling. In 1825 additional construction to Zanesville, Ohio, was approved and thereafter further authorization through Ohio to Indiana and into Illinois. After reaching Vandalia, Illinois, in 1852, the road was extended without federal aid to St. Louis. Grants of land for canal construction were given by the federal government to states of the Northwest, one to Indiana in 1827 to aid in constructing the Wabash and Erie Canal and, on the same day, another to Illinois for the Illinois and Michigan Canal.

The successors of Jefferson remained skeptical as to the power of Congress in the matter of federal aid to internal improvements. Madison, who had been a member of the constitutional convention, believed no power had been conferred on Congress to give such aid. One of his last official acts was to veto, on constitutional grounds, a congressional measure which would have provided funds for the construction of roads, canals, and improvements on watercourses.

Monroe held like views. In his first annual message to Congress he confessed he faced a dilemma. He recognized that great advantages would flow from easy intercourse between the states, which roads and canals would afford. "Never did a country of such vast extent offer equal inducements to improvements of this kind, nor ever were such consequences of such magnitude involved in them." The consequences he shrank from were violations of the Constitution. To the disappointment of those favoring federal aid to internal improvements, he denied that the Constitution conferred an express power of that kind, and recommended an amendment to the Constitution conferring such a power. The recommendation was not favorably received....

And lest you think that, say, the uproar over the Iraq war is anything special, consider the following story (p. 365) about the Mexican-American War (change Whigs and Democrats of 1845 to Democrats and Republicans of 2005 and it all sounds eerily familiar)...

After the excitement of the war's opening the political parties settled down to fixed positions. Whigs, North and South, were highly critical of the war. Administration Democrats upheld the war. In both parties, however, there were variations of criticism and of support.

Conservative northern Whigs emphasized the fraud and aggressiveness of the war. They wished to avoid the added charge, made by the radicals, that the primary aim of the Administration was the extension of slavery. Such an accusation offended southern Whigs, who, though opposed to the war, were slaveholders and were sensitive about attacks on slavery. Moreover, conservative northern Whigs were not wholly persuaded that slavery extension was the primary aim of the Administration.

And so on. Corruptionism indeed.

Peter Saint-Andre > Journal