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Opinion of the Court.
be built up in their behalf (which the government might subsequently recognize) founded upon the belief that the act was valid, and upon the action of the officers of the government under it, because it was, or subsequently might be pronounced to be, unconstitutional?
We are of the opinion that the parties, situated as were the plaintiffs in these actions, acquired claims upon the government of an equitable, moral or honorary nature. Could Congress legally recognize and pay them although the act of 1890 as to its bounty provisions might be unconstitutional? It is true that in general an unconstitutional act of Congress is the same as if there were no act. That is regarding it in its purely legal aspect. Being in violation of the Constitu tion, that instrument must govern, and no one can base any legal claim as arising out of such an act. That is a very different principle, however, from that which we think governs in this case. The persons for whose benefit the appropriation contained in the act of 1895 was made are not, in the view we take, asserting the existence of a legal and valid debt against the United States which is at the same time based upon an unconstitutional act of Congress. No such inconsist ent and illogical position is taken. They are asserting that by reason of the occurrences which took place before the appropriation, among which was the passage of the act of 1890, they were so placed before Congress, as to authorize that body to recognize the equities of the situation, and to pay their claims which, while they were not of a legal character, were nevertheless of so meritorious and equitable a nature as to authorize the nation through its Congress to appropriate money to pay them.
It is also true that it does not appear from the terms of the act of appropriation that the parties for whose benefit it is made had commenced the business of sugar manufacturing or enlarged their previous manufacture of sugar by reason of the bounties provided under the act of 1890. That was not necessary. There was enough in the circumstances which are before this court and which have been already in part detailed to make it a question for the decision of Congress,
Opinion of the Court.
whether upon the whole the persons so situated were equitably entitled to its consideration and to the appropriation asked for. If Congress possessed the power in any event to recognize equities of such a nature, we think it had enough in the case before it to uphold a favorable decision thereof. It is unnecessary to hold here that Congress has power to appropriate the public money in the treasury to any purpose whatever which it may choose to say is in payment of a debt or for purposes of the general welfare. A decision of that question may be postponed until it arises.
There was enough in the case as presented to Congress upon which to base the assertion that there was a moral and honorable claim upon the public treasury which that body had the constitutional right to recognize and pay.
Under the provisions of the Constitution, (article 1, section 8,) Congress has power to lay and collect taxes, etc., "to pay the debts" of the United States. Having power to raise money for that purpose, it of course follows that it has power when the money is raised to appropriate it to the same object. What are the debts of the United States within the meaning of this constitutional provision? It is conceded and indeed it cannot be questioned that the debts are not limited to those which are evidenced by some written obligation or to those which are otherwise of a strictly legal character. The term "debts" includes those debts or claims which rest upon a merely equitable or honorary obligation, and which would not be recoverable in a court of law if existing against an individual. The nation, speaking broadly, owes a "debt" to an individual when his claim grows out of general principles of right and justice; when, in other words, it is based upon considerations of a moral or merely honorary nature, such as are binding on the conscience or the honor of an individual, although the debt could obtain no recognition in a court of law. The power of Congress extends at least as far as the recognition and payment of claims against the government which are thus founded. To no other branch of the government than Congress could any application be successfully made on the part of the owners of such claims or debts
Opinion of the Court.
for the payment thereof. Their recognition depends solely upon Congress, and whether it will recognize claims thus founded inust be left to the discretion of that body. Payments to individuals, not of right or of a merely legal claim, but payments in the nature of a gratuity, yet having some feature of moral obligation to support them, have been made by the government by virtue of acts of Congress, appropriating the public money, ever since its foundation. Some of the acts were based upon considerations of pure charity. A long list of acts directing payments of the above general character is appended to the brief of one of the counsel for the defendants in error. The acts are referred to not for the purpose of asserting their validity in all cases, but as evidence of what has been the practice of Congress since the adoption of the Constitution. See, also, among other cases in this court, Emerson v. Hall, 13 Pet. 409; United States v. Price, 116 U. S. 43; Williams v. Heard, 140 U. S. 529. The last cited case arose under an act of Congress in relation to the Alabama claims.
The claims presented on the part of the United States against Great Britain, arising out of the depredations committed by the Confederate vessel Alabama and other designated Confederate vessels, which had sailed from British ports, upon the commerce and navy of the United States during the war of the rebellion, were by the treaty of Washington, concluded May 8, 1871, between the United States and Great Britain, submitted to a tribunal of arbitration called to meet at Geneva, in Switzerland. Certain indirect claims or war risks, as they were sometimes called, were included by this government in its claims against Great Britain and were presented to the tribunal above named. Great Britain objected to the submission of those claims on the ground that their consideration was not included in the purview of the treaty. This matter was the subject of some difference of opinion among the representatives of the respective governments, and they were not able to agree upon the subject, when the arbitrators, without expressing any opinion upon the point of difference as to the interpretation of the treaty, stated that these indirect or war
Opinion of the Court.
claims did not constitute upon principles of international law applicable to such cases a foundation for an award of compensation or computation of damages between nations, and should, upon such principles, be wholly excluded from all consideration of the tribunal in making its award, even if there were no disagreement between the two governments as to the competency of the tribunal to decide them. This declaration was accepted by the President, and those claims were not insisted upon before the tribunal and were not taken into consideration in making the award. Thus it is seen that there were no legal claims of the holders of those war risks upon the government for the payment to them of any sum whatever. The award made by the tribunal, which was paid to the United States by Great Britain, was held to have been made to the United States as a nation, United States v. Weld, 127 U. S. 51, and the fund itself came into the treasury as any public moneys of the country.
By the act of June 5, 1882, c. 195, 22 Stat. 98, the Court of Commissioners of Alabama Claims was reëstablished, and the duty was imposed upon it to receive and examine claims which might be presented, putting them into classes, the second of which was "for the payment of premiums for war risks, whether paid to corporations, agents or individuals, for the sailing of any Confederate cruiser." The Heards were owners of claims for war risks, and Congress finally appropriated money to pay a portion of them. Congress thus recognized as proper to be paid a class of claims which had not been taken into consideration by the Geneva tribunal, but which had been decided by that tribunal to have no basis in international law. It is a case, therefore, of the recognition by Congress of what it regarded as an equitable claim on the part of the owners of these war risks to be paid some portion of their claims, and the validity of the appropriation was never questioned.
Among the latest examples of payments that are not of right or of any legal claim, but which are in the nature of a gratuity depending upon equitable considerations, are the cases just decided by this court of Blagge v. Balch, Brooks v.
Opinion of the Court.
Codman, and Foote v. Women's Board of Missions, reported as one case in 162 U. S. 439. The claims in those cases are what have been known as the French spoliation claims, being based upon depredations of French cruisers upon our commerce prior to July, 1801. An appropriation for their payment was made by Congress in 1891 upon the conditions and to the class of persons named in the act. Questions arose as to the proper interpretation of the act and as to the character of the payments provided for therein. This court held the payments were purposely brought by Congress within the category of payments that are not of right, but which are in the nature of a gratuity and as an act of grace, though founded upon a prior moral or honorable obligation to pay to some one who might be said in some way to represent the original sufferers. No question of the power of Congress to make such appropriation was raised by any one.
The power to provide for claims upon the State founded in equity and justice has also been recognized as existing in the state governments. For example, in Guilford v. Chenango County, 13 N. Y. 143, it was held by the New York Court of Appeals that the legislature was not confined in its appropriation of public moneys to sums to be raised by taxation in favor of individuals to cases in which legal demands existed against the State, but that it could recognize claims founded in equity and justice in the largest sense of these terms or in gratitude or in charity..
Of course, the difference between the powers of the state legislatures and that of the Congress of the United States is not lost sight of, but it is believed that in relation to the power to recognize and to pay obligations resting only upon moral considerations or upon the general principles of right and justice, the Federal Congress stands upon a level with the state legislature.
In truth, the general proposition that Congress can direct the payment of debts which have only a strong moral and honorable obligation for their support is not, as we understand it, denied by the learned counsel for the United States; but it is claimed that in these cases no foundation whatever is laid