James Madison Papers

Edward Coles to James Madison, 15 September 1834

Albemarle Sep: 15. 1834.

My dear Sir:

In returning my thanks, which I do most heartily, for your letter of the 29th ulto, I must be permitted to express my regret that it was not quite as full as I could have wished. Perhaps my apprehension of ill consequences from the late usurpations and abuses of power by the President, & the great confidence I have in the soundness & influence of your opinions, may have led me to expect too much from you in your present feeble state of health. I assure you it is now with much reluctance I again trouble you with further remarks on a subject in which you appear averse to take a very decided part, and nothing would induce me to do it, but my desire to make, and, to prevent misconceptions, to ask explanations.

That you should have pronounced "unwarrantable the removal of the deposites, & culpable the mode of effectuating it"; that it was "unconstitutional the denial of a Legislative power over the custody of the public money, as being an Executive prerogative"; that "the principle if avowed without the practice, or practised without the avowal," that offices & emoluments were the spoils of victory, to be bestowed as rewards for political service rendered in the election of the President, "could not fail to degrade any Administration"—were sentiments I expected from you: But I did not expect that you would have passed over in silence the manner in which the Veto power has been exercised by the President; nor his disregard of the concurrent power of the Senate in making appointments, & the doctrines which he has avowed in relation to the relative powers of the great Depts of the Govt, and particularly those of the President & Senate. Your silence on these subjects, to which I expressly called your attention, and others to which I refered as being contained in the Proclamation and Protest &c, may, & I fear will be considered as implying your concurrence, or at least your regarding them as trivial & unimportant. It is therefore that I could have wished, if you had not strength to go into an elaborate exposition, that you had noticed them so far as to have expressed in a few words your disapprobation.

I had supposed that any question or measure which was subversive of, or involved a fundamental principle of the Constitution, however it might at the time be made a question between the parties of the day, would be one in which you would feel yourself free to express an opinion. In short that you, as the only surviving Member of the Convention which made the Constitution, & justly considered its Father, would not only feel yourself at liberty, but that you were under an obligation to correct errors in opinion which were calculated to destroy, or impair, or injuriously change the primitive character of the Constitution. It was on this ground that I asked for your interposition, and not that the questions refered to you were not; or had not been made, what might be considered party questions of the day—Considering you removed from the vortex, and far above the motives & influences of the political parties, and their ambitions & selfish leaders & aspirants, I did, as you suppose, expect from you impartiality in your opinions with regard to them; and that the excuses to which the ardour & violence of party strife have given rise, would meet a suitable & salutary reproach from you. It was this expectation, together with my knowledge of your sound doctrines, & pure & influential character, that I expected benifit in correcting the errors and in allaying the excitement of the day.

I cannot permit this occasion to pass without assuring you that you do injustice to your Fellow-Citizens in supposing they are in "the habit now of invalidating opinions emanating from you, by a reference to your age & infirmities". This has not been done except by peevish & disappointed partizans, who incapable of controverting your reasoning, or resisting your arguments and the moral & political force of your character, resorted to this as their only expedient to undermine you, and to show that your opinions ought not to be entitled to the same high consideration & influence as formerly. Believe me my dear Sir no mans character was ever more revered by his Countrymen (Washingtons excepted) or whose opinions were ever held in higher estimation; or who ever more completely outlived his enemies--or rather those who were distrustful of him—for you never had enemies--and the fact, known to all it seems but yourself, should be known to you, and be cherished by you as the most sweet & consoling which can attend the close of a long & well spent life.

I cannot concieve what claims you allude to as having been "made by the Senate in opposition to the principles & practice of every Administration, and varying the relations between the great Departments of the Govt." One who did not know you, & who had marked the progress of the late all absorbing questions between the President and the Senate, might suppose you alluded to them, and that you deny with the President the right of the Senate to pass the Resolution it lately did declaratory of its opinion of the conduct of the President in relation to the public deposites. Whatever inference others may draw, I cannot believe that you entertain such opinions until I receive the declaration from yourself. I recollect but two Resolutions or acts of the Senate (of course you allude to acts of that body and not to acts or words of individual Members when you speak of claims made by the Senate) the one above alluded to, & the other declaring their determination not to confirm any one to an office within a State in which the individual nominated did not reside. In this I thought the Senate transcended its powers; but to my mind the Senate had a clear right to pass the Resolution censuring the President’s conduct. My opinion is that each of the great Depts of the Govt has not only the right but it is its duty to guard against encroachments on its constitutional powers, by Resolution, Protest, Remonstrance, or in some way make known the question, explain the encroachment, & declare its opinion to the people. You see from this that I do not object to the Presidents Protest as such, but I do most strenuously to many of its doctrines, and to its whole tone and spirit.

You ask "how in justice or in truth could you join in the charge against the President of claiming a power over the public money, including a right to apply it to whatever purpose he pleased, even to his own?" I must say in reply I cannot conceive how you can refrain from charging him, & reprobating him too, for his claim, & to the grounds on which he urges it, to a power over the public money--that is to its custody--but I have never heard him charged with claiming "a right to apply it to whatever purpose he pleased, even to his own." He is charged with having taken it illegally; at an improper time; in a manner disrespectful to Congress; & in violation of a contract made by law—for the purpose of injuring the Bank of the U. S., which had displeased him, and benefiting certain pet Banks & individuals who would be more obedient to his wishes & more friendly to his views & those of his party. The amount thus illegally taken into his custody, is said to be equal to one quarters revenue—that is 5 or 6.000.000 of dollars. This sum he has been charged with claiming the right, not of applying to whatever purpose he pleased, but of depositing wheresoever, & loaning to whomsoever, & on whatever terms he pleased; and that he has actually let his friends have it without remuneration, when the interest on it is worth between 3 & 400.000$ annually. In addition to this he has taken it out of a safe depository provided by Congress, where a valuable consideration had been paid for it, and placed it in others which are not safe, where nothing is given for its use, but passive obedience to the President, and where all losses to the Govt, & it is known there will be many, will be nothing more or less than gifts from him to his most needy & bankrupt friends and partizans. To this extent he uses the public money to add to his power & patronage, & to reward his friends—and so far applys it to his own purposes.

If the Custody of the public money belong to the President, as he contends it does by the Constitution, & of right appertains to him as an Executive prerogative, and he can place it where & in whose hands he pleases, & on what terms he pleases; give the use of it for nothing, & be not accountable for losses—Why may he not deposite from time to time in the hands of Office holders the amount of their salaries, and what then becomes of the appropriating power, which you lay some stress upon there being no appearance of his having claimed or denied to the Legislature. This important specified power over the public money, given by the Constitution to the immediate Representatives of the people in the Legislature, dwindles into a mere power to audit & settle the accounts of the Presidents Officers—yes the Presidents Officers, for so they are all considered & designated by him, and not as formerly the Officers of the Constitution & Laws, of the people or the Govt. If these doctrines are acquiesced in, it will not surprise me if the President should claim as another of his prerogatives, the power of finally settling his Officers accounts—that is of superseding formally, as he has already done in effect, the appropriating power. Rely upon it, my dear Sir, the doctrines of 1798-99, which you so ably exposed & arrested, are not to be compared in their fatal effects & tendencies to these Executive prerogatives, drawn as they are from such foreign & monarchical authorities.

I wish I could think with you that the heretical doctrines of the President would "expire with his natural or his official life, if not previously to either". That they ought is most certain, & that they will I am confident if you & other patriarchs & good & orthodox politicians will expose and reprobate them as you ought. But the danger is that what was at first sustained by the popularity & patronage of the President, and the spirit of party, will after a while be considered the principles of the party, and the people becoming reconciled by time will cease to view them as the unnatural monsters of republicanism. And that the present incumbent, or his successors, if elected by the party who now support the President, will feel bound to maintain & to act on his doctrines, & in this way they will be prolonged if not perpetuated. I am glad however to find you think his popularity rapidly sinking under the unpopularity of his doctrines. I hope you may prove correct.

The progress "which the anarchical principle of nullification now makes, in contrast with the scouting reception given to it but a short time ago," is to be attributed to the alarming doctrines, & to the usurpations & abuses of power by the President. His conduct, sustained as it has been by his friends, has had the effect to create alarm with many, & change their opinions & feelings towards the Fedl Govt—heretofore considered as their shield of protection, but now assuming in his hands the appearance of a weapon of destruction to their rights & liberties. Others have lost sight of Nullification, which they consider harmless from its absurdity, and have in some degree forgiven its authors in consequence of their late good conduct in resisting the anti-republican claim of Executive prerogatives set up by the President. Past prejudices have been partly merged in present fears, and the errors of the Nullifiers, with respect to the relative rights and duties of the States and of the Union, have been somewhat palliated by the correct views they have recently taken of the rights & powers of the Executive & the other co-ordinate Departments of the Fedl Govt.

With due deference to your better judgement, I cannot agree with you in giving the consideration and authoritative character, which it seems you do, to Editorial explanations of the Presidents Proclamation—especially when a meaning is given to his language different from its fair interpretation. I think it disrespectful both to the President and to the people, to suppose he & his Secretary could not make themselves understood, or that his fellow-citizens had not the capacity to comprehend; or if there had been obscurity in the language of the Proclamation, or it had been misconceived, th[at] the President should not deign to explain so important a matter directly himself or by his Secretary, & place the explanation along side of the original paper; but have it done informally by a partizan Editor in the ephemeral columns of a newspaper. It ought not to be presumed that the future reader of the Proclamation will look for its meaning in the newspapers of the day; and if he did he would find the explanations of the "Globe" not reprinted in the newspapers published in those parts of the Country where the Proclamation was popular, and only in such parts where it was not. The effect of the "Globes" version has been to give to the President two Proclamations—one authenticated by the great seal of State, which is popular in the North & West—the other authenticated by the great party "Globe," which is popular in the South. In this way the President contrives to retain & add to his popularity in all parts of the Country.

You say you have not seen any avowal by the President, and suspect that few if any of his friends would openly avow the principle, that offices & emoluments were the spoils of victory, & to be considered as the means in the hands of the President to reward his friends & punish his opponents. I do not know that the President has used the language in any formal document which has been made public; but that these are his opinions, and this his language, which he is in the habit of expressing without reserve, is what I have heard from so many persons, who have had opportunities of knowing, that I cannot doubt it; and it seems to me that no one can doubt, who will read the newspapers of his party, and listen to the language of his friends. The phrase, that "offices were the spoils of victory", was "openly" used in debate on the floor of the Senate, & declared to be the true creed of the party, by a distinguished Member of it, who has since been honored for his zeal services and principles by the Chief Magistracy of New York. And as a proof that it is the principle acted on, I would ask where is the solitary individual who has been appointed to any office of distinction, who was not a supporter of the President. No matter how he may be stained with the most objectionable hues of the worst school of politics in the land, or tainted his public or private character, if he aided in electing & in supporting the President, it effaces all; and he will be prefered to the purest, ablest, & best of those who may have prefered another for the office of President, and whose only demerit is the preference for that other. I wish, what I am in the habit of daily seeing & hearing, would permit me to believe with you, that such conduct would "degrade any Administration"; and that "the odium itself would be an antidote to the poison of the example, and a security against the permanent danger apprehended from it."

I beg your pardon for troubling you with reading so long a letter. I assure you I have endeavoured to make it as short as I could.

The prevalence of the Cholera in the Western Country still detains me, and will prevent me I fear for some weeks to come from setting out for Illinois.

My Wife unites with me in tendering affectionate regards to you & Mrs Madison, and good wishes for the health & happiness of you both.

Edward Coles

RC (ICHi); copy (NjP : Edward Coles Papers).

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