James Madison. By: Chester Harding.

Following the War of 1812, President James Madison was proudly touting the status of America. It had mobilized its navy to protect trade in the Mediterranean Sea, it had reestablished commercial relations with Britain, and it had pacified the Native Americans. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 80.

With the war over, President Madison argued that reductions to the military were necessary, however, the creation of a pension system also was a priority, as it would “inspire a martial zeal for the public service.” Id. at 80-81 quoting Marvin Meyers, ed., The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison (Hanover, N.H., 1981), 279-306.

Also resulting from the post-War of 1812 period was President Madison’s belief that a national bank should be reconstituted and a second Bank of the United States should be formed, modeled after the first one created by Alexander Hamilton. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 81.

Another part of President Madison’s proposals was “establishing throughout our country the roads and canals which can best be executed under the national authority.” Id. quoting Marvin Meyers, ed., The Mind of the Founder: Sources of the Political Thought of James Madison (Hanover, N.H., 1981), 279-306.

In 1816-17, the Fourteenth Congress proposed a “bonus bill,” seeking to invest federal funds derived from dividends received from the Bank of the United States into the building of roads and canals. John Calhoun, then a Representative from South Carolina, said, “We are under the most imperious obligations to counteract every tendency to disunion. Let us, then, bind the republic together with a perfect system of roads and canals. Let us conquer space.” Annals of Congress, 14th Cong., 2nd sess., 854.

While some in the South and Northeast were reluctant to support the Bonus Bill, many saw that it would be a commercial benefit to Americans. The bill passed 86 to 84 in the House of Representatives and 20 to 15 in the Senate, before it arrived on President Madison’s desk. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 88.

President Madison vetoed the Bonus Bill, believing it to be unconstitutional under both the interstate commerce clause and the general welfare clause of the Constitution. Id. He stated that there was no justification for federal spending on roads and canals. The supporters of the Bonus Bill, who had facilitated its passage through Congress and heard President Madison’s words about wanting to build a network of roads and canals could hardly believe the President. See id. However, President Madison wished for there to be a constitutional amendment, expressly permitting federal aid to fund internal improvements, just as President Thomas Jefferson had called for in 1805. Id.

Needless to say, that constitutional amendment never came to fruition, and perhaps that is good news for modern Americans. President Madison’s veto squandered an opportunity to bring the union closer together and also affected the country’s ability to accelerate its economic development. See id. It also avoided setting a precedent that the Constitution was to be so strictly interpreted that where there was not a clear prescription of authorization, amendment was necessary. This would have led to the Constitution becoming an obsolete, bogged down document shortly after its adoption.

Fortunately, President Madison’s overly cautious mentality toward the development of the infrastructure of the country and the application of the Constitution would not stick for future generations. Future presidents could make up for these mistakes, and they could do so with the benefit of President Madison having set the precedent that presidents could set the legislative agenda for government and shape the country as a whole.

2 thoughts on “The Defeat of the Bonus Bill

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