Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1

Document 23

House of Representatives, Relief to Savannah

28 Dec. 1796Annals 6:1712, 1717--26

Mr. W. Smith wished the House to resolve itself into a Committee of the Whole on the resolution, which he had the other day laid upon the table, proposing to afford some relief to the sufferers by the late fire at Savannah. For his part, he said, he could see no reasonable objection which could be made to so benevolent a proposition. A gentleman in the House had got a plan of the ruins of the city; it was, indeed, a most distressful scene. There had never occurred so calamitous an event of the kind in the United States, or which had so strong a claim upon the General Government for relief. He said they had granted assistance to the sufferers by fire at St. Domingo; and surely if it were justifiable to grant relief to foreigners in distress, it was at least equally so when the objects were our own citizens. If gentlemen had objections to the measure, he wished they would state them. The sum with which he should think of filling up the blank would not be such as to materially affect our finances.

. . . . .

[Mr. Macon:] The sufferings of the people of Savannah were doubtless very great; no one could help feeling for them. But he wished gentlemen to put their finger upon that part of the Constitution which gave that House power to afford them relief. Many other towns had suffered very considerably by fire. He believed he knew one that had suffered more than Savannah in proportion to its size: he alluded to Lexington in Virginia, as every house in the place was burnt. If the United States were to become underwriters to the whole Union, where must the line be drawn when their assistance might be claimed? Was it when three-fourths or four-fifths of a town was destroyed, or what other proportion? Insurance offices were the proper securities against fire. If the Government were to come forward in one instance, it must come forward in all, since every sufferer's claim stood upon the same footing. The sum which had been given to the sufferers at St. Domingo was to be charged to the French Republic, and that given to Count de Grasse's daughters was in consideration of their father's services. But New York had as great right to come forward and expect relief as Savannah. He felt for the sufferers in all these cases, but he felt as tenderly for the Constitution; he had examined it, and it did not authorize any such grant. He should, therefore, be very unwilling to act contrary to it.

Mr. Rutherford said, he felt a great deal of force on what gentlemen had said. There were two circumstances which were perfectly conclusive in his mind. He saw it our duty to grant relief from humanity and from policy. Savannah was a city of a minor, helpless State; it was a very young State, yet it was a part of the Union, and as such, was as much entitled to protection as any State under such a dire misfortune; and it became Congress to alleviate their great distress. They have lost much; they have, many of them, lost their all. To say we will not assist to relieve, when almost every State in the Union is putting their shoulders to support these people's burden, is wrong. The State of Pennsylvania has done itself immortal honor in the relief it has afforded, and shall we not help to support this part of the family in their distress? This State is a branch of the great family of the Union; it would be, in my idea, extremely inconsistent to neglect them. He hoped the motion would be adopted, and he hoped it would never be said that the General Government refused to provide help in such a poignant distress occurring in one of its principal towns.

Mr. Hartley said, that the gentleman from North Carolina [Mr. Macon] had voted against both of the bills which had been referred to. He knew no difference between the Constitution of the United States and that of Pennsylvania, yet a vote in their House had been carried unanimously. He thought the law for the relief of the sufferers of St. Domingo perfectly in point; for, notwithstanding what was said about negotiation, the distress of those people had consumed all the money before the six months were expired. If ever there was a case in which they could grant relief, this was one. The losses at New York and Charleston would bear no comparison with that of Savannah; they were rich and flourishing places, whilst Savannah was a small city of a new State, and the sufferers generally poor. He hoped, therefore, the resolution would be agreed to.

Mr. Moore said, the laws which had been adduced as precedents were not in point; for the one sum we were to have credit with the French Republic, and the other was in consideration of past services. The distress of the people of Savannah was not an object of legislation; every individual citizen could, if he pleased, show his individual humanity by subscribing to their relief; but it was not Constitutional for them to afford relief from the Treasury. If, however, the principle was adopted, it should be general. Every sufferer had an equal claim. Lexington, in Virginia, contained only one hundred houses, and all except two had been destroyed by fire. He should therefore move to add Lexington to Savannah in the resolution before them; though he would observe, as he did not approve of the principle, he should vote against them both.

Mr. W. Smith wished gentlemen not to endeavor to defeat the proposition before them by an amendment. He did not think there could be a comparison made between the distress occasioned by a fire in a small town and one in a populous city. The destruction of Savannah was a great loss in a national view, as it would cause a considerable defalcation in the revenue, and probably any money they might advance for the relief of the citizens would be amply compensated, by enabling the city the sooner to resume its former importance in the commercial scale.

Mr. Venable did not see the difference between the two cases which was so distinguishable to the gentleman last up. Because Savannah was a commercial city, its distress, according to that gentleman, was indescribable, but when a like scene was exhibited in a small town, it was no longer an object which touched his feelings. His humanity went no where but where commerce was to be found. He asked whether the United States might not as well lose revenue in the first instance, as put money into the people's pockets to pay it with? Humanity was the same every where. A person who lost his all in a village, felt the misfortune as heavily as he who had a like loss in a city, and perhaps more so, since the citizen would have a better opportunity by means of commerce of retrieving his loss. He was against the general principle, as he believed, if acted upon, it would bring such claims upon the Treasury as it would not be able to answer.

Mr. Murray thought the gentleman from Virginia [Mr. Venable] carried his idea of relief too far. He had no idea that the House, or any Legislature, could undertake to make good individual misfortunes. He was of opinion that the lines which separated individual from national cases, were very observable; the one was happening every day, the other seldom occurred. When a large town is burnt down, and that town is an important Southern frontier town, it is surely a national calamity, and has a claim upon the humanity of the country. It was true, the claim was not of such a nature as to be brought into a Court of Justice, but it was a calamity in which the whole nation sympathized. It was not only a claim upon the humanity of the nation, but also upon its policy, as, by restoring it to its former situation, it would be able to bear its wonted part in contributing to the revenue of the country, and would continue to carry population, arts, and wealth to that distant part of the Union. In case of war, Savannah was a most important place. It was necessary the Union should have a town in that situation, and he could not consider any money which might now be advanced as given away, but as lent to that town, which might enable it, in a few years, to resume its former situation, whilst the withholding of it might prevent its ever rising from its present ruins.

Mr. Kitchell was opposed to the amendment and to the resolution itself. He had doubts if even they were to give the citizens 15,000 dollars, as was proposed by the gentleman from South Carolina, whether they should not, instead of service, be doing them an injury; because, if the General Government were only to give this sum, the State Legislatures would proportion their donations accordingly, and probably give much less than they would otherwise have done, if they had not had this example before them. He had doubts as to the constitutionality of the measure; he thought the Constitution did not authorize them to make such a use of public money; however he thought it might be a very flexible instrument; it would bend to every situation, and every situation to that. He thought, in this instance, if we grant money, while we attempt to serve, we shall eventually injure. As to what the gentleman from Virginia says of Lexington, Mr. K. thought it had been fully relieved; however he should vote against both propositions.

Mr. Page said, that he was sorry that his colleague had made this amendment, as he had done it with a view to defeat the original resolution. If humanity alone were to direct his vote upon this question, and if the amendment had been proposed more early and singly, he might have voted for it. But that not being the case, it, as well as motives of general policy, influenced him in favor of the original motion. He had reasons which could not apply to the amendment. He should vote against it. He was bound by order to confine himself to the single question before the committee. This is, Shall the amendment be received or not? He declared it as his opinion that the case of Lexington ought not to be connected with that of Savannah, which had been, as stated by the member from South Carolina, materially different. He was restrained by order from entering into the merits of the original resolution, but he thought that he had a right to hint at the motive of policy which would apply to the resolution, and not to the amendment. This was, that Savannah being an important place, it would be wise and politic to prevent its revival from being owing to any other aid than that of the General Government of the United States. It ought not to be under obligations to individuals, or single States, and much less to a foreign Power.

Mr. Hartley hoped the amendment would not prevail. If the loss of the people at Lexington had been greater than they could support, they would doubtless have applied to the Legislature of Virginia, but he had not heard of any such application having been made. He agreed with the gentleman last up, that the General Government ought to relieve distresses of this kind.

Mr. Murray inquired when the fire happened at Lexington?

Mr. Moore answered, about nine months ago. He thought it was the duty of the United States first to pay the claims which were made upon them by distressed soldiers and others for past services, who were denied justice because they had passed an act of limitation. If they were to act from generosity, he said that generosity ought to be extended universally. It was a new doctrine that because a sufferer by fire did not live in a commercial city he was not equally entitled to relief with the inhabitants of a city, and that though such persons were called upon to contribute to the losses of others, they could have no redress for their own. This seemed as if favorite spots were to be selected upon which special favor was to be shown. He was opposed to all such humanity.

Mr. Clairborne was against the amendment, but he hoped the resolution would be agreed to. He was sorry any gentleman should propose an amendment like this, purposely to defeat a motion which would tend to relieve such sufferers as those of Georgia must be. He was not certain whether he could vote upon Constitutional grounds or not. It was a sharp conflict between humanity to that suffering country and the Constitution. If any case could be admissible, he thought this could; it ought to be remembered, that that part of the Union has suffered much. Georgia was a slaughter-pen during the war, besides being continually harassed by the hostile Indians. He thought 15,000 dollars would not be ill-spent, as from motives of policy it would be of more advantage to the United States from the quick return the revenue would gain. Indeed, if Constitutional, he hoped the sum would be made more than proposed. These are your fellow-citizens who are suffering, and if not speedily relieved, the whole interest will be involved. If in order, he would vote that the Committee rise, to enable him and, perhaps, many others, to consult whether relief could be constitutionally granted? He said he felt a great propensity to do it.

The motion was put and negatived.

Mr. Harper hoped the amendment would be rejected, for the same reason that he hoped all amendments which were brought forward with the same view with which it was produced, viz: to defeat the original motion, might be rejected. He thought every proposition should stand or fall upon its own ground. He wished that of his colleague to do so. Mr. H. insisted upon the dissimilarity of the two cases, and that the distinction of great and small calamity was sufficient to distinguish the two cases. With respect to the constitutionality of affording the relief in question, that had already been determined by the several instances which had been quoted, which were also founded upon humanity. The present case might justly be included under the head of promoting the general welfare of the country. Gentlemen who doubted the constitutionality of the present proceeding, had done the same in the instances alluded to. But, since their doubts had been so frequently overruled, he hoped they should hear no more of them. With respect to the policy of the measure, Savannah, he said, was the only considerable port except Charleston, which the United States had in that quarter. It was situated at the mouth of a river which watered a space of country containing a thousand square miles. The average revenue of this city was $76,000. Was not this an object of importance? Was it not an object to foster, to relieve the distresses of such a place? Many great statesmen had employed themselves in founding cities, and should they not hold out a helping hand to one in distress? Peter the Great founded a city upon a morass, and Louis XIV. attempted to build one in the English channel. He trusted the American Government would have more wisdom than to see one of her's sink for want of a little timely assistance.

The question was put on the amendment and negatived--there being only 26 in favor of it.

Mr. Baldwin said, he had doubted whether to make any observations on this motion; not that he was insensible to the calamitous situation which had been the cause of it, but from an apprehension that it might be thought he was too strongly affected by it. Though it might be disagreeable to one to give his judgment and urge his opinions, when his own relation to the question was different from that of others, yet some of the reflections might not be useless to those who were to determine it. He was sure it was not a want of disposition to relieve the unhappy sufferers that had or would draw forth an observation on this occasion, but merely doubts as to the powers of the Federal Government in money matters. The use of a written Constitution, and of that provision in it which declared that no money should be drawn from the Treasury but under appropriations made by law, was very manifest from the caution which it gave in the expenditure of public money and in laying burdens on the people; yet he believed it impossible to obtain absolute directions from it in every case. The objection is, that Congress is empowered to raise money only to pay the debts and to provide for the common defence, and the other purposes, exactly as specified in the 8th section. The objection has often been made, but many laws have passed not exactly specified in that section. He mentioned the private acts before alluded to, the law for establishing light-houses, to aid navigation in the improvement of harbors, beacons, buoys, and public piers, establishing trading-houses with the Indians, and some others, to show that though the Constitution was very useful in giving general directions, yet it was not capable of being administered under so rigorous and mechanical a construction as had been sometimes contended for. He begged leave to ask and to urge the question, whether there was no possible accumulation of calamity and distress that might be brought upon some part of the country which would justify the Federal Government in granting some relief? No doubt the usual pressure of private misfortune is relieved by the poor-laws and other acts of the State Governments; but, suppose a State belonging to this Union, the greater part, or, perhaps, the whole, was situated on an island, and that at once, by some of the great causes which we know operate in Nature, by tremendous convulsions and earthquakes, it was to be thrown into such a situation as some parts of the world have been, not only the whole property of the wretched survivors destroyed, but their place no longer habitable, would the Federal Government think they had no powers even to grant them some of their new land as a place of refuge? He was sensible that he had put a case so strong that the bare mention almost seemed improper, and that the mind of no gentleman could follow him to that extent. He only wished to establish the principle that there were possible instances in which it would be the duty of the Federal Government to interpose relief. Whether the present calamity was so great and the distress so pressing, that proper relief was scarcely to be expected from the State where it happened, was a question which he must leave to their determination. He was sure they could not want for inducements from the nature of the scene, or from their own dispositions. He could not wish to heighten the coloring in which it stood before them.

Mr. Rutherford again rose in support of the motion. Is it not clear, he said, that it is the duty of the people at large to come forward at this time and hold up the helping hand to those poor distressed people? He presumed the rising dignity of this great Confederation demanded mutual assistance in distress. If the people are left to recover of themselves from this terrible dilemma, the nation will suffer. It is the duty and the interest of this rising nation to help the people of Georgia; it is a part of this great family, and demands assistance from every member. This idea should be conclusive. But for gentlemen to say the law is to have its full operation at this time, is saying nothing at all; it is pouring cold water upon their distresses; it is as though you were to say to a man that is drowning, stay awhile and we will come and assist you. This would be poor comfort. Policy, humanity, and justice, should prompt the House to the noble action. If one part of a system is injured the whole suffers by it. All the generous feelings of the human heart call aloud for help, and I hope we shall grant it.

Mr. Nicholas said, he meant to have given a silent vote upon this subject, and have left other gentlemen to follow their own inclinations in the business; but an attempt had been made to ridicule the opinion which he and others held of the sacredness of the Constitution. In reference to what had fallen from the gentleman from Georgia, he said he had never heard it said that no individual instance could occur which might be an exception to a Constitutional rule. He had never heard that our laws should be so general as to admit of no latitude, or that money should never be expended but for payment of debts or for defence.

Mr. N. said, he was not satisfied with the distinction made on this occasion, viz: that if a few inhabitants of a small town experienced loss by fire they were not entitled to consideration; but, if the same calamity happened in a large city, it had a claim upon them for relief. He wished to know whether they were about to do what ought not to be left undone? There was no case in which they were at liberty to act or not. If they were bound to afford relief then, were they not equally bound at any future period to afford relief in similar cases? If the thing was right and proper, relief ought to be commensurate with the distress, otherwise they did not do their duty. If it was otherwise, the thing was arbitrary and a whim. If he voted for relieving this case he should feel bound to relieve every future distress by fire. When an amendment was lately under consideration, it was said to be improper, because the evil was of less magnitude than the present. It was not so; it was an explanation of the subject. The gentleman from South Carolina said he had not heard of that fire. That gentleman lived near Savannah, and other considerations besides those of humanity might influence his conduct on the present occasion. Gentlemen had said they stood in the same situation as individual States. That opinion, he said, had gone too far. The General Government had no power but what was given to it, but the State Governments had all power for the good of their several States. If the general welfare was to be extended (as it had been insinuated it ought) to objects of charity, it was undefined indeed. Charity was not a proper subject for them to legislate upon; and, if this resolution were to pass, all the power of which they were possessed would not be adequate to raise funds to answer the demands which would be brought against the Treasury.

Mr. Giles said, if the present resolution passed it would make them answerable for all future losses by fire. The small sum of $15,000 was not of any consequence when compared with the establishment of a principle of that House acting upon generosity. He believed that neither the money nor humanity, but the establishment of the principle, was the thing aimed at. The unanimity with which a resolution had passed the Pennsylvania Legislature, was a proof that they believed they had the power to pass such a law. It was said the General Government possessed the authority. The gentleman from Georgia had said that "affairs of men" made it necessary to depart from the strict Constitutional power. For his part, he did not think they ought to attend to what "the affairs of men" or what generosity and humanity required, but what the Constitution and their duty required.

The authority of that House, he said, was specified, beyond which they ought not to go. This was a principle not within the Constitution, but opposed to it.

There had, he said, been several cases introduced. That of the sufferers of St. Domingo was not a case in point. They looked for a reimbursement of the money. He believed it had been repaid. And when the daughters of the Count de Grasse had $4,000 given them, it was thought to be necessary to introduce their father's services as a consideration. His feelings, he said, were not less alive to the calls of humanity than those of other gentlemen; but, by granting the money required, they should go beyond their powers, and do more real injury than good.

Mr. W. Smith said, that gentlemen had spoken of a sum in contemplation; but the question was not on the sum to be granted; that would be for future consideration, and if gentlemen wished to make it commensurate with the object, they could do so. The present question was, whether any relief should be granted? He wished gentlemen would say whether no case of calamity could exist in which the United States ought to grant relief? He believed every one admitted such a case might occur. The question was, whether this was the case? He trusted it was, since it was an unexampled calamity.

The precedents which had been adduced appeared to be no more strongly warranted than this. First, with respect to the relief granted the sufferers at St. Domingo. In order to make the thing more palatable, it was said that sum should be charged to the French Republic. It was provisional, and the fact was they had not admitted it, and the United States paid it. In reference to the relief granted to the daughters of Count de Grasse: it was said to be for services. Did the daughters perform any services? No, but the father did. But did the Constitution of the United States acknowledge any hereditary claim of this sort? He believed not. This was a mere pretence. It was an act of generosity. Another case occurred to him, which had not been mentioned, viz: the recompense allowed to persons who suffered from the Western insurrection. Was this authorized by the Constitution any more than the present? He believed not.

Gentlemen had said, that the Legislature of Pennsylvania had a right to grant relief. Mr. S. asked, what right they had to grant relief to the people of Georgia more than the Representatives of the United States? These are their own citizens, the people whom they represent, and as such ought to feel for and alleviate their distresses.

A gentleman from Virginia [Mr. Moore] had said we should not grant the relief to those people because we have not paid our debts. Is this a reason? Will a man say he cannot give to the unfortunate because he is in debt? Were that the case perhaps people of the greatest opulence would be as entitled to excuse as any other. Men in great business are seldom out of debt; but they may with safety be generous and charitable. The claims of those soldiers and other petitioners referred to by that gentleman, ought not to be considered as a debt. No claim, he said, which was justly due, was refused payment. A certain time was set at which all claims were to be brought in, and would have been discharged. Such as were not, except in very particular cases, were rejected. This was a necessary measure, and generally approved of. Then surely those claims which were barred by this act of limitation could not be considered a debt.

This argument, Mr. S. said, would not do: because a man owed a little money, or another chose to say he did, he was not to be charitable. He thought the House fully authorized to grant relief in this case.

In examining different cases, Mr. S. said, he found that of the widow of Major Forsyth, and also that of the orphan children of Major Trueman. Gentlemen would perhaps say that these were cases where the husband and ancestor had rendered services to the United States; and he had no doubt that the ancestors of those sufferers at Savannah, and perhaps the sufferers themselves, had rendered services to the United States. If gentlemen pleased, therefore, the words, "in consideration of services performed," &c. might be inserted.

It has been said, that if the proposed donation was made by Congress, it would lessen the claim of the sufferers upon individual States. He thought differently. He thought it would show that Congress believed their case a hard one, and deserving of attention. But another thing: it was not probable that any of the Legislatures would be in session for some time, except one or two. How, then, were the sufferers to be relieved? The few thousand dollars they had yet got would be a mere bagatelle towards their immense loss. He hoped, therefore, the resolutions would be agreed to.

Mr. Coit said he should vote against this resolution, though he felt as much for the distresses of the people of Savannah as any gentleman in that House. Nor would his objections be on Constitutional grounds. He thought where there were calls of generosity and humanity on the National Treasury sufficiently strong, he should vote for paying attention to them. The present, he said, was a call of humanity from the people of Savannah; the call was loud, and ought to be satisfied by somebody. The question was, whether it was made with propriety to them? He thought not; and that to agree to the resolution would be laying a dangerous precedent. He conceived the instances which had been adduced as precedents for the present case were not in point. The application was from foreigners to the feelings of this Government, which he thought had been attended to with propriety. But, he said, there was an obvious distinction between the two cases. There was no probability that a foreigner would be listened to by a State Legislature. This was a reason which did not apply to this case. Major Forsyth and Major Trueman had died in the service of the United States; their families, therefore, seemed to have a just claim for protection. The Western insurrection was a very different thing: the grant was in consequence of exertions in favor of Government.

Mr. C. said it appeared to him, from a variety of reasons, that this subject would be best left in the hands of the individual States. The greatest difficulty attending this Government was, the providing of money to support its necessary expenses. Considering this, therefore, as a precedent likely to draw great sums from the Treasury, he wished to avoid giving it place.

Mr. W. Smith said that this sum could not be a serious inconvenience to the Treasury, as gentlemen knew there must be additional revenue provided. Indeed, it might be an advantage to the Treasury, as it might put the people of Savannah in a state of paying revenue, which otherwise would not be the case.

Mr. Claiborne said, the more he heard, the more he found himself in favor of the resolution. By the discussion it had undergone, he was inclined to think it was, perhaps, reconcilable with the Constitution; perhaps it was, he said, for he was not certain. The annual revenue, he said, of that place, was seventy thousand dollars to the United States, besides the great consideration of it as a frontier town. He had compared the advantages and disadvantages with respect to its relief in his own mind, and thought it would be highly consistent with policy to grant relief. It was a place which had been in great distress, and had great struggles with enemies in times past. Can it be possible to suppose that we have not power to assist in erecting that place again, and putting it upon a footing to do good to the United States by a return of her revenue? Certainly not. Would the Committee be willing that Savannah should be erased from the revenue? Are they willing to let it rest, and lose it? This is impossible. Then, surely, it becomes policy to give aid towards its re-erection. Unless the people do receive some aid, it will be a long time before seventy thousand dollars will be again produced from the revenue of that place.

For what purpose was it, Mr. C. asked, that money was spent to erect trading-houses in the back countries? He answered, for the general welfare; for the support of trade, and the increase of the revenue. So will a small sum given towards the relief of this suffering town. If there could be reason to grant money to the widows of Major Forsyth and Major Trueman, there surely must be as much to do this.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 2, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1, Document 23
The University of Chicago Press

Annals of Congress. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States. "History of Congress." 42 vols. Washington, D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1834--56.

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