The house, according to the order of the day, resolved itself into a committee of the whole house on the state of the union, and resumed the consideration of the resolution for establishing the treasury department.
We are now called upon, Mr. Speaker, to deliberate, whether we shall place this all important department, in the hands of a single individual, or in a board of commissioners. I presume the gentleman, who has brought forward this string of propositions, means, that this officer shall have power to examine into the state of the public debt and expences, to receive and disburse the revenue, to devise plans for its improvement and expansion, and in short, to superintend and direct the receipts and expenditure, and govern the finances of the United States; having under him officers to do the subordinate business of, registering and recording his transactions, and a comptroller to controul his operations with respect to the accounts and vouchers.
Before this committee proceed one step farther in this business, they ought seriously to consider the situation of this country, and what will be the consequence of appointing such an officer; consider how it will affect the public, in general, the revenue, and even the government itself. He is declared, in the list of duties assigned him in the paper read yesterday by the gentleman from New-York (Mr. Benson
) to have the power to form and digest the accounts, and to controul all the officers of the department. It is evident, that we put his integrity to the trial, by such an arrangement; if he is disposed to embezzle the public money, it will be out of the power of the executive itself, to check or controul him in his nefarious practices; the extension of his business to the collectors of at least fifty sea ports, (over whom, the naval officer can have no controul, with respect to the money received) will furnish abundant opportunities for peculation. In addition to the monies arising from the impost, he may have to do with large sums, derived from other quarters; from the sale of the vacant lands: the money of defaulters now due to the United States, and the revenue arising from taxes and excises. Admit these innumerable opportunities for defrauding the revenue, without check or controul, and it is next to impossible he should remain unsullied in his reputation, or innoxious with respect to misapplying his trust.
Other great opportunities may arise in case of an anticipation of the public revenue, or, if it is necessary to prevent the injury which a rapid depreciation of the securities occasion to public credit, he may be employed in purchasing them in order to advance the credit of the union; but what is to prevent the greatest imposition in this business? charging them to the public at their nominal value; it is not in the power of the government to check this species of speculation? what then is the situation of your officer? he must subject himself to suspicion: indeed it is as much as his reputation is worth to come into a place of this kind; he can hardly preserve his integrity, but his honor, credit and character, must inevitably be injured. He cannot prove himself innocent of the suspicion, because it is the negative side of the question, he can offer nothing more in his defence than a mere denial of the crime.
There is another point which ought to be well considered: This officer is to digest and form the accounts, he can consequently give the business such complexity, as to render it impossible to detect his impositions; but the inferior officers, who might discover the fraud, are to be appointed by the principal, will they not consequently be men after his own heart.
Taking these circumstances together, it must be very disagreeable to the person appointed, provided he is an honest upright man; it will be disagreeable also to the people of the union, who will always have reason to suspect, that a partiality is shewn to the collectors, and other officers, of the state to which he belonged: This has absolutely been the case, and was productive of very great dissatisfaction. I would be glad to know of the gentlemen, who are for vesting these powers in a single person, where they will find the man who is capable of performing the duties of a financier? for it is not the mere calling him a financier, and giving a large salary, that will enable him to perform his functions in such a manner as to give satisfaction. We had once a gentleman who filled such a department, and I believe the only one in the United States who had knowledge and abilities by any means competent to the business, but that gentleman is now employed in another branch of the government, and cannot be called to this trust. During the late war congress thinking it necessary to employ a financier, were led to enquire for a proper character to fill such an office; but not being able to discover such an one in this country, in whose abilities they had sufficient confidence, they wrote to Doctor Price1
a letter, to induce him to come to America, and accept of an appointment under them, for the superintendance of their finances. He wrote in answer, that he felt with gratitude the honor which they had done him by their application, and signified, that he was desirous of rendering every service in his power to aid the glorious cause in which America was embarked; but, from his advanced situation in life, and infirmities of body, was under the necessity of declining. This circumstance serves to shew how difficult it is to get a proper person for so arduous an undertaking. But it appears to me, that if we could fix upon a person equal to the office, involving him in forming accounts, and such trifling business, would divert his attention from the more important duties he is called upon to perform. The proper business of finance, I take it, ought to be to consider of the means to improve the revenue, and introducing oeconomy into the expenditures; to recommend general systems of finance, without having any thing to do with the actual administration of them, because, if he engages in the executive business, we shall be deprived of his talents in more important concerns. If it should be granted, that there is a person of abilities to be found, adequate to the duties of the office, I want to know where the advantage arises of appointing him alone in preference of a board? If you have commissioners, you have an opportunity of taking one from each grand division of the United States, namely, the eastern, the middle, and southern districts: If this person is a member of the board, is it not evident you will have every advantage from his abilities in such a situation, as you would if he was placed in office without controul? If he was possessed of such genius, he could employ it more usefully as a commissioner of the board of treasury, than when left to perform all the drudgery of the executive part; because while his fine imagination was busied in reducing a chaos to a beautiful system, his colleagues might perform those parts which required less elevation of thought, by dividing the burthen, the business would be done with more regularity and facility. Surely no advantage to the public would arise from giving him the sole management of the business, but much inconvenience might; beside it must unavoidably, as I said before, subject him to suspicions unfavorable to his reputation. This has absolutely been realized, it is not a mere chimera, a matter of speculation. We have had a board of treasury, and we have had a financier; have not express charges, as well as vague rumours, been brought against him at the bar of the public, they may be unfounded it is true, but it shews that a man cannot serve in such a station without exciting popular clamour. It is very well known, I dare say, to many gentlemen in this house, that the noise and commotion was such as obliged congress once more to alter their treasury department, and place it under the management of a board of commissioners. We have seen speculations excited from this quarter against the government itself, and painful insinuations of design by his appointment to the senate. I mention these circumstances to exhibit to your view the inconveniencies to which an officer is subjected by constituting an office of this nature. If the gentleman I have alluded to had been a member of a board of treasury, he would not have been subjected to the charges which were brought against him. In such a situation he could have rendered the services his great abilities enabled him to do, without exposing his character to be tore to pieces by malevolence or detraction.
We are to pay some attention to the prejudices and wishes of our constituents, especially when their sentiments have been strongly declared for or against this or that mode of administration. We find such an officer unprecedented in the several states; and I believe it would not be agreeable to have a single officer, and his assistants, collecting the money, or controuling the revenue arising in those states yet you make it one of his powers, that money shall not be drawn without a warrant from the financier. Here is no person of this kind mentioned in the constitution, not even the president, nor vice president and senate, have a controul over the treasury; yet we put all this power into the hands of one great man, who is to be the head of the department. It appears to me, that, by so doing, we shall establish an office giving one person a greater influence than the president of the United States has, and more than is proper for any person to have in a republican government.
Perhaps it may be objected that we should study oeconomy; if we employ three persons to conduct this business, we shall have to pay them more than would be required for a salary for an individual. But this I take to be a very light consideration, compared with securing the public treasury. A single officer to have the command of three or four millions of money, possesses a power very unsafe in a republic; but, I apprehend, we may employ three commissioners for the same sum as we shall be obliged to pay for one financier— if we have great officers we must allow large salaries.
I am desirous of supporting the president; but the senate requires to be supported also in their constitutional rights: To this body belongs the confidence of the states, while the president rests his support upon them he will be secure; they, with this house, can give him proper information of what is for the public interest, and by pursuing their advice he will continue to himself that good opinion which is justly entertained of him. If we are to establish a number of such grand officers as these, the consequences appear to me pretty plain: These officers bearing the title of minister at war, minister of state, minister for the finances, minister of foreign affairs, and how many more ministers I cannot say, will be made necessary to the president; if by this establishment we make them more respectable than the other branches of the government, the president will be induced to place more confidence in them than in the senate, the people will also be led to consider them as more consequential persons. But all high officers of this kind must have confidence placed in them, they will in fact be the chancellors, the ministers of the nation, it will lead to the establishment of a system of favoritism, and the principal magistrate will be governed by these men. An oligarchy will be confirmed upon the ruin of the democracy; a government the most hateful will descend to our posterity, and all our exertions in the glorious cause of freedom will be rendered frustrate, we shall go on till we reduce the powers of the president and senate to nothing but a name. This surely, sir, does not comport with the conduct of the house; we have been very tenacious of giving a title to the president, lest it should be implied we desired to encrease his power, we would call him by no other appellation than merely president of the United States. I confess I was not such a stickler about titles as all this, because I did not consider the liberties of the people could be hurt by such means; but I am not clear that the constitution authorizes us to bestow titles, it is not among the enumerated powers of congress; but if the constitution did authorize it— A call to order was made by some of the members, and Mr. Gerry was desired to confine himself to the point, the subject of titles was not before the house.— Mr. Gerry proceeded, and said, the senate were constitutionally the highest officers of government, except the president and vice-president; that the house was about to supercede them, and place over their heads a set of ministers, who were to hold the reins of governments, and all this to answer no good purpose whatever, because the same services could be obtained from subordinate officers.
In short, a board of treasury would conduct the business of finance, with greater security and satisfaction, than a single officer. He had a very good opinion of the gentleman, who formerly administered the finances of the United States, and doubted if another of equal qualities could be found; but it was impossible for any person, to give satisfaction in such a station, jealousy would unavoidably be entertained, beside no inconvenience resulted from the present arrangement of that department, therefore there could be no good reason to induce a change. If the house was truly republican and consistent, they would not admit officers, with or without title to possess such amazing powers, as would eventually end in the ruin of the government. Under these impressions, he moved to amend the resolution, so as to read, "there shall be established a treasury department, at the head of which, there shall be three commissioners, to be denominated the board of treasury."
Mr. Wadsworth .
My official duty, has led me often to attend at the treasury of the United States, and from my experience, I venture to pronounce, that a board of treasury is the worst of of all institutions; they have doubled our national debt. I do not mean by this observation to censure any man who has been in that office, I presume they were honest men, and did as well as could be done under such a system. But I do not remember a single instance, in any one board, that I found them to have a system, that would give even tolerable satisfaction; there appeared a want of confidence in the members of them all: they seemed to have no fixed principles to guide them, nor responsibility for their conduct.
I had also transactions at the treasury, whilst it was managed by a superintendant of finance, (as to what fell from the gentleman last up, tho' without intention, I dare say, to affect or prejudice the character of that officer, may possibly have such an effect, I think it necessary to state my sentiments, which are formed from my own experience, as well as report.) I had great transactions with him, and must say, that there did appear to be system in his management, and responsibility in his negotiations; I found I dare risk my fortune and character, because there was unity in the officer, and some body in whom I could confide. The nature of the office, is better calculated to give satisfaction than the other. I will not pretend to enumerate the savings he made, by introducing oeconomy throughout the whole departments under congress, because I do not know them all, but they were very considerable. The administration of the finance was clear to the meanest capacity; receipts and expenditures were stated simply, they were published to the world. The heads of the treasury department, the board of commissioners, I do not believe have closed their accounts to this very day. I do not say, it is for want of ability, will, or honesty, that this event has not taken place; I conceive it to be owing to their want of system, in conducting their business. I wish the committee had before them, the transactions of the board, for one single month, they would find what I have remarked, to be too well founded; instead of system and responsibility, they would find nothing but confusion and disorder, without a possibility of checking their accounts. I know I am heard by one gentleman, who is acquainted with these truths by experience.*
*It is presumable he alluded to Mr. Gerry, formerly a commissioner of the board of treasury.
I admit the truth of one of the gentleman's observations, he says, the officer must risk his reputation. Yes, sir, an officer who is highly responsible, must always risk his character, but a patriot spirit will submit to this to save his country. I know the clamour was raised, as he has said, against the financier, and I know clamour may be excited by envy, as well as by prudence or justice. Clamour has been set up against the office of president, under the present constitution; it is difficult to reconcile the suspicious mind, to a grant of power, lest it be employed against them; so many men have betrayed their trust, that they can have confidence in none but themselves. But notwithstanding all that has been said, with respect to the outcry and disturbance, on account of the finances being directed by a superintendant, I will venture to assert, that it has not been greater than that which was raised against boards; but be that as it may, the public business was better conducted, and the general interest better served; our armies were supplied with certainty and moved with celerity, which was an important object, at that period of the war.
I do not know that I have it in my power to justify all the transactions which took place under that administration; but those which came within my knowledge, seemed to be directed with great precision to their object namely, providing for the public defence and promoting the welfare of the union: they bespoke their conductor to be master of the science he was engaged in. The whole accounts of these transactions have been long delivered to congress, and the reason why they are not decided upon, is because their board of treasury has been without power or system to determine on them. I do not wish to hurt the feelings of the gentlemen in that office. I have a high respect for them all, and think any one of them would be equal to the task individually which all three together cannot perform.
As to its being unpopular to have a secretary of the treasury, I shall only set my opinion against his; I think it the most popular step we can take; it seems to be a prevailing sentiment among all conditions of men, that we ought to have the highest degree of responsibility in every department of government. As to his being called a minister or a great man I have little to fear; the people of America will not be scared by men who stile themselves most sacred, most omnipotent, and surely the gentleman does not suppose our secretary of the treasury, will be the greatest man on the face of the earth? if we fear no other, I trust we shall not dread him. As to giving him a large salary, it is hardly possible it would be so much as three commissioners of the treasury would expect; for my part, I see no obligation we are under of giving him a large salary; we shall I trust give him a decent one. As to the name of the officer, I shall give that up wholly to the gentleman: he may christen him as he pleases: I will never differ about words when I contend for substance.
I beg leave to repeat once more, that under boards of treasury, there never was a possibility of the public knowing their situation; there is no possibility of getting on with the public accounts and closing them; there has not been the transactions of more than one of the great departments then completely settled, owing to a radical defect in their constitution; they cannot proceed with that unity and decision necessary to insure justice. As to what the gentlemen said, with respect to the difficulty of getting a proper officer to fill the department, I will just observe, that I do not believe it impossible, and am therefore prepared to attempt it.
Mr. Gerry asked, what he had said that induced the gentleman ( Mr. Wadsworth), to believe it tended to prejudice the reputation of the late financier?
Replied, that (Mr. Gerry) had mentioned a clamor raised against him, and that it had not subsided, because his accounts were unsettled, he had therefore endeavoured to shew the cause to which these circumstances were owing.
Stated, that if such powers were given to a financier, he would be obnoxious and the people suspicious; this suspicion would injure his reputation, because it would be out of his power to prove them groundless. I mentioned a fact said to prove this position, the fact is notorious; but I did not mention it with a view to prejudice the gentleman, because I believe the insinuations charged against him in the public papers are without good grounds.
Had understood the gentleman as he explained himself, but nevertheless the expressions were so loose as to leave the suspicion room to maintain its ground; he had recapitulated facts also with an intention to do justice to a character that had been, he apprehended, unjustly and wantonly aspersed.
Stated, that in the year 1781, from the very great derangement of public affairs, congress were induced to place the treasury department under the superintendence of an individual. It is true, after the conclusion of the war, in the latter end of 1783, or beginning of 1784, congress again changed their system, and placed the department in the hands of their commissioners, to be taken as the gentleman has said, one from the eastern, one from the middle, and one from the southern district, which regulation I think induced above twenty applications. Some gentlemen on this floor will doubtless recollect an observation that was made at that time, that if this trust had been to be reposed in one responsible individual, not perhaps more than three of the candidates would have had confidence to come forward as applicants for the office.
For his part he conceived, that it required the same abilities in every individual of the commissioners, as was necessary if a single person was placed at the head of the department. If men competent to the undertaking are so difficult to be found, you will encrease the embarrassment of the president threefold by making the arrangement the gentleman contends for. The principle upon which the gentleman advocates the appointment of a board of treasury, would apply in favor of a change in the constitution, and we ought to have three presidents of the United States instead of one, because their business might be done with more regularity and facility; but he did not think the argument to be well founded.
If it was the duty of the house, to use oeconomy in their establishments, one officer would certainly require less salary than three; however, he believed, the arguments of the gentleman were premature. He should not find fault with the duties of the officer, before they were proposed to the consideration of the committee.
The motion under consideration proposed nothing more, than a secretary should be placed at the head of the department it said nothing of the duties which he was to perform. When the bill came forward, no doubt, proper checks woud be provided to prevent this officer from abusing his trust.
Thought that there were very few gentlemen, who had much to do with public business, but had turned their attention to this question. He had employed his reflection upon the subject for some time, and his sentiments were against the establishment of a board of treasury. He was persuaded there was not so much responsibility in boards as there were in individuals, nor is there such good ground for the exercise of the talents of financier in that way. Boards were generally more destitute of energy, than were an individual placed at the head of a department. The observations of the gentleman from Massachusetts were of great weight, so far as they inferred the necessity of proper checks in the department having care of the public money; if they had system, energy, and responsibility he should be in favor of them, but his experience had convinced him of the contrary. He was not an advocate for an unlimited authority in this officer, he hoped to see proper checks provided; comptroller, auditors, register, and treasurer; he would not suffer the secretary to touch a farthing of the public money beyond his salary. The settling of the accounts should be in the auditors and comptroller, the registering them to be in another officer, and the cash in the hands of one unconnected with either: He was satisfied that in this way the treasury might be safe, and great improvements made in the business of revenue.
Had intended to have given his sentiments on this subject; but he was anticipated in some things by the gentleman last up. He wished, in all cases of an executive nature, that the committee should consider the powers that were to be exercised, and where that power was too great to be trusted to an individual, proper care should be taken so to regulate and check the exercise, as would give indubitable security for the perfect preservation of the public interest, and to prevent that suspicion which men of integrity were ever desirous of avoiding. This was his intention in the present case. If the committee agreed to his proposition, he intended to introduce principles of caution, which he supposed would give satisfaction on that point. So far as was practicable he would have the various business of this important branch of the government divided and modified, as to lull at least the jealousy expressed by the gentleman from Massachusetts; indeed he supposed, with the assistance of the committee, it might be formed so as to give satisfaction. He had no doubt but the offices might be so constituted as to restrain and check each other; and unless an unbounded combination took place, which he could by no means suppose was likely to be the case, that the public would be safe and secure under the administration. He would favor the arrangement mentioned by the worthy gentleman from South-Carolina [Georgia] (Mr. Baldwin), and after that was separated from the secretary's duties, he believed the officer would find sufficient business to employ his time and talents in rendering essential services to his country. This arrangement he considered would answer most of the objections which had been urged.
If a board is established the independent officers of comptroller and auditor are unknown, you then give the aggregate of these powers to the board, the members of which are equal; therefore you give more power to each individual, than is proposed to be trusted in the secretary, and if apprehensions are to be entertained of a combination, they apply as forcibly in the case of two or three commissioners combining, as they do in the case of the secretary, comptroller, and other officers. If gentlemen permitted these sentiments to have their full weight, and considered the advantages arising from energy, system, and responsibility, which were all in favor of his motion, he had no doubt of their according with him on the question.
Mr. Gerry .
If an individual has a controul over the treasury department, if no money can be received or expended but by him, or on his warrant, he did not see any check which could be provided to prevent a misapplication of such powers, nor any means by which a man could demonstrate he had preserved his integrity; he thought these things were better guarded under a board, and therefore prefered one. Gentlemen, to be sure, had asserted there was no responsibility in a board; he denied the fact. A board of three commissioners are surely as responsible for their measures as an individual for his; each person of them is responsible for the act of the board, or if one of them should deny his acquiescence to the matter in question, the charge may be determined by having recourse to the journal of their transactions, because whenever an order or resolution takes place, they enter their names for or against the measure in their books. These circumstances shew they are responsible; and undoubtedly there is more security in having three persons consulted, than confiding all to the uncontrolled caprice of a single individual. He did not see the necessity of an officer to improve the revenue, that he took to be the peculiar business of the federal legislature. He could answer the gentleman (Mr. Benson
) who applied the principles he urged in favor of a board against the constitution. It might with equal justice be said, that gentlemen, who contended for a secretary of the treasury, desired to have a single legislator; one man to make all laws, the revenue laws particularly, because among many there is less responsibility, system, and energy; consequently a numerous representation in this house is an odious institution.
Considered the question to be, whether the department should be under the direction of one or more officers. He was against boards; because he was convinced by experience, that they were liable to all the objections which gentlemen had stated. He wished the committee had it in their power to turn to the transactions of this department since the revolution, to examine the expenditures under former boards of treasury, and under the superintendant of finance, it would so confound them, that he was sure no gentleman would offer another argument in favor of boards. He was not acquainted with the management under the present board, he had not been in the habit of doing business with them; but between the administration of the former and the superintendant of finance, there was an intolerable comparison. He was far from being astonished at the jealousy and suspicion entertained of that valuable officer; he rather wondered that the clamour was not more loud and tremendous; he could not repeat all the causes there were for accusations against him, but surely they were not inconsiderable: He remembered one hundred and forty six supernumerary officers were brushed off in one day, who had long been sucking the vital blood and spirit of the nation: Was it to be wondered at if this swarm should raise a buzz about him. The reform which daily took place made him no inconsiderable number of enemies. The expenditures under the board of treasury had been enormous; they were curtailed in the quartermasters, commissaries of provision and military stores, in the hospital, and every great department established by congress; so that beside those who were offended by a removal, every one who was affected by this oeconomy, or parsimony, if they will call it so, were incensed against him. It was impossible to gain friends among those people by a practice of this kind. He would state a circumstance which might give the committee some small idea of what the savings under the superintendant were. The expenditure of hay at a certain post was 140 tons, such was the estimate laid before him; yet twelve tons carried the post through the year, and the supply was abundant, and the post was as fully and usefully occupied as it had ever been before.
He wished gentlemen to examine, whether the other arguments did not preponderate in favor of a single administration: he thought, for his part, that there was certainly more responsibility and system likely to be acquired in this way than in the other. He saw no weight in the objections stated by the gentleman respecting the collusion between the secretary and the collectors; but if there was any weight in them, he imagined they applied with equal force against boards; the commissioners were men equally fallible and exposed as the secretary, comptroller, and auditors.
The gentleman had asked, where a proper character for a financier, was to be found? America had seen one man equal to the task, but he would not undertake to say, that gentleman was the only one, fit for the business; if talents of this kind, were hard to be found, he was for establishing the department in this way, in order to bring up men to a knowledge of this science. He had no idea of sending to a foreign nation for a person; it would be dishonourable to the United States. But he could not believe any foreigner adequate to the business; the utility of this officer consists in his knowledge of the manners, habits, customs, wealth, pursuits, the temper, genius, and disposition of the people; this cannot be acquired, but by a long residence and actual observation. A foreigner has not this advantage, and therefore must be unfit to direct the finances of America.
Thought the decision of the house, would depend upon the propriety of the powers which were annexed to the office, and the checks and restraints,to which the whole of the department was subjected; hence he thought they were taking the business up at the wrong end. He joined gentlemen in thinking the management of the public money, was a matter of the most serious consideration, in which every citizen, was more or less concerned. If a man was to be placed at the head of this department, without check or controul, he would be a dangerous officer; but if his powers could be effectually restrained, from doing the public an injury, he thought he might be rendered serviceable. Under these impressions, he had essayed, to define the powers proper to be given, if they met the approbation of the committee, he was ready to vote in favor of the clause, adding thereto a board of commissioners.
Joined the gentleman last up, he thought the powers ought first to be determined, because after the committee had consented to have such an officer, gentlemen might insist upon such powers as would render him improper; in which case, gentlemen will have committed themselves, and cannot decently retract.
Thought there was an unnatural combination, intimated by the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Bland) he could by no means think of uniting a financier and board of treasury. He was sorry to hear, the anecdote mentioned by the gentleman from Massachusetts; is it to be supposed, that we have no character in America, fit for a place at the head of our treasury? Are we to send to England for Doctor Price? Much as he valued and respected that character, he should be sorry to see him preside, in one of the great departments of government. He felt the humiliation so sensibly, that he should never again, boast of the genius or abilities of his country. But he believed that event took place, for want of information; because experience had convinced the world, that America possessed a man, proportionate to the arduous undertaking. He did not doubt, but on enquiry, many more might be found adequate to the business.
Did not look upon it derogatory to the dignity of the United States, to look abroad, for men of merit, to perform their services. During the late war they had employed useful officers in the army, who taught tactics to the troops. Finance, was a system, requiring time and attention in its acquirement. The kingdoms of Europe, were not above seeking out and employing, men of abilities in this way, altho' they were unqualified by law, to hold any office. Did the king of France, refuse the service of a Necker,2
because he was a protestant, and his father an alien. He wasequally tenacious of the honor of his country men, as the gentleman from Delaware, but he thought it no disparagement to them, to say, they were not well acquainted with the most abstruse science in the world, which they never had any reason to study.
The question on the amendment proposed by Mr. Gerry, was taken and lost, after which the resolution respecting the treasury and war department as proposed by Mr. Madison, were both agreed to.
Then proposed the establishment of the domestic department upon the same principles, but on motion of Mr. Boudinot, the committee rose and reported the resolutions agreed to.