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Franklin Pierce's Veto Is Challenged - Social Welfare History Project

Senator William Seward Responds To Franklin Pierce’s Veto

        Senator William Seward’ Speech to the U.S. Senate June 19, 1854

Introduction: A Whig and later a Republican from New York, William Seward was one of the most powerful statesmen of the 1850s. Under Abraham Lincoln, with whom he vied for the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination, he was Secretary of State. In 1854, as a Senator from New York, he was a supporter of the Dix bill. Here he provided his rationale for opposing the veto message given by President Pierce. The effort to override the veto failed.

An Abridged Text


SPEECH OF HON. WM. H. SEWARD, OF NEW YORK, IN THE SENATE, June 19, 1854, On the President’s Message, vetoing the Bill granting Lands to the several states for the relief of the Indigent Insane.

Mr. SEWARD said: Congress has passed a bill by which ten millions of acres of the public domain are granted to the several States, with unquestioned equality, on condition that they shall accept the same, and sell the lands at not less than one dollar per acre, and safely invest the gross proceeds, and forever apply the interest thereon to the maintenance of their indigent insane inhabitants. This bill is a contribution to the States, made from a peculiar national resource, at a time when the Treasury is overflowing. It is made at the suggestion, and it is not stating the case too strongly to say, through the unaided, unpaid, and purely disinterested influence of an American woman, -Miss Dix,- who, while all other members of society have been seeking how to advance their own fortunes and happiness, or the prosperity and greatness of their country, has consecrated her life to the relief of the most pitiable form in which the Divine Ruler afflicts our common humanity. [View Annotation  – 1 »]

The purpose of the bill has commended it to our warmest and most active sympathies. Not a voice has censured it, in either House or Congress. [View Annotation – 2 »] It is the one only purpose of legislation, sufficiently great to arrest attention, that has met with universal approbation throughout the country, during the present session. It seems as if some sad fatality attends our public action, when this measure is singled out from among all others, to be baffled and defeated by an Executive veto. Such, however, is the fact. The bill has been returned by the President with objections which it is now our constitutional duty to consider.

I shall confine myself to the consideration of these objections alone, and shall not look backward to questions raised in previous discussions here, nor dwell upon any that have been raised since the veto message was received, which are not contained in that document. Five years of congressional discussion have exhausted the subject, so far as all objections, except those of the President, are concerned.

In considering the President’s message, we are struck with the fact that it is desultory, [View Annotation  – 3 »] illogical, and confused. While commending the purpose of the bill, the President denies the expediency of the measure, and denies also the power of Congress to adopt it. It is impossible, however, to separate the argument directed against the expediency of the measure from the argument directed against the power. So the argument against the expediency rests chiefly on an assumption that the measure is a usurpation of power, while the argument against the power reposes chiefly on the inexpediency of its exercise. [View Annotation – 4 »]

This criticism is important, because the confusion I have described impairs the force of the argument, and because, moreover, Congress may well confide in their own conclusions as to the expediency of a measure, while they are bound to pay extraordinary respect to Executive suggestions impugning its constitutionality. I do not stop to demonstrate the correctness of this criticism. Every Senator who has discussed the message, on either side, has betrayed I think, an embarrassment resulting from it.

In the second place, the message seems to me, I do not say disingenuous, but singularly unfair and unjust in the statement of the question. [View Annotation – 5 »]

The bill confines itself to a single purpose, viz: that of aiding the States in enabling them to maintain one peculiar class of destitute persons, by an appropriation of equal and just parts of the public domain, leaving all other objects and all other sources of public wealth out of view, and abstaining altogether from interference with the States in the performance of even that one duty.

But the President is not content to state the question thus. He approaches it by an induction. He says:

“It cannot be questioned that if Congress have power to make provision for the indigent insane without the limits of this District, it has the same power to provide for the indigent who are not insane, and thus to transfer to the Federal Government the charge of all the poor in all the States.”

After amplification of this proposition, without argument, the President arrives at the statement of the question before him, and announces it in these words:

“The question presented, therefore, clearly is upon the constitutionality and propriety of the Federal Government assuming to enter into a novel and vast field of legislation, namely, that of providing for the care and support of all those among the people of the United States who by any form of calamity became fit objects of public philanthropy.”

You need not only place this statement of the case by the side of the President’s own statement of the provisions of the bill, to enable you to see that it is flagrantly erroneous and unjust. But I will illustrate it directly. Congress does, in unquestioned conformity with the Constitution, exercise some powers in the States which are concurrent with similar powers enjoyed by the States themselves. [View Annotation – 6 »] Thus Congress establishes here and there, throughout the States, hospitals for sick and disabled seamen. Is that equivalent to assuming the support and care of all the poor, on land as well as sea, belonging to the States? Congress establishes light-houses and constructs harbors of refuge within the States, and provides regulation for the construction and management of steamboats and ships on navigable waters within the States. Is that equivalent to usurpation of the entire control over commerce and navigation within the States? Congress distributes seeds and treatises on agriculture. Is that equivalent to usurpation of jurisdiction over agriculture throughout the States? Congress discriminates by bounties, drawbacks, and duties, so as to favor agriculture, the fisheries, and manufactures. Is that equivalent to assumption of supreme and exclusive power over all those great national interests? Congress prescribes regulations of the militia, and furnishes to the States arms, ammunition, and ordnance, for the equipment and exercise of the militia. Is that equivalent to usurpation of the entire support, control, and direction of the armed police of the States?

I call your attention, next, sir, to the fact that this message presents unfairly the relative structures and characters of the Federal Union and of the States. The President says:

“Are we not too prone to target that the Federal Union is the creature of the States, and not they of the Federal Union?”

And again he says that

“The independent and sovereign States united themselves for certain specified objects and purposes, and for those only.”

Thereby implying that the States are still entirely sovereign, while the Federal Government is a mere Confederation, and not equally sovereign within its sphere. [View Annotation – 7 »] Now, no one ever thought that the States were creatures of the Federal Union; but it is equally true, in my judgment, that the Federal Union is not the creature of the States. Both are States connected with and yet independent of each other. Each of them was established directly by the people — the several State governments by the people of the States, respectively, and the Federal Union by the people of all the States. Each is shorn of some attributes of sovereignty, and each is supreme within its sphere.


1.     That Dix’s advocacy efforts seemed so selfless lent her greater moral authority. Note the way Seward refers to mental illness as “pitiable” and something with which God “afflicts” humanity. This view of disability as an affliction to be pitied was the most common understanding of disability in the nineteenth century.

2.     The goal of aiding people with mental disabilities met with universal sympathy. Even Franklin Pierce expressed support for the goals of the Dix bill. At issue were the means of achieving more humane care, not the humane care itself.

3.     Moving or jumping from one thing to another; disconnected.

4.     Seward is highlighting the confusion between Pierce’s support for the bill’s goals but animosity to the bill’s means of achieving those goals.

5.     Seward accuses the President of being both confused and misleading in his veto message.

6.     Concurrent powers refers to the idea that the Constitution created a system in which some functions of government are the responsibility of both the state and the federal governments. Seward argues that care for the indigent is such a function. That the federal government helps the states do something does not mean that the federal government assumes total control over those areas of governmental action.

7.     Seward, a Whig, was more likely to give federal government more power at the expense of the states than would Pierce, a Democrat. The position taken by Pierce that states had complete sovereignty was the argument used by Southern secessionists on the eve of the Civil War.

Source: The Congressional Globe, Library of Congress, Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/detail.html?id=1247&annotations=10&paragraphs=1-19


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