Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

this was that all creditors were subjected to a corresponding loss. The debts then due became solvable with six per cent. less gold than was required to pay them before. The result was thus precisely what it is contended the legal-tender acts worked. But was it ever imagined this was taking private property without compensation or without due process of law ? Was the idea ever advanced that the new regulation of gold coin was against the spirit of the fifth amendment ? Ănd has any one in good faith avowed his belief that even a law debasing the current coin, by increasing the alloy, would be taking private property? It might be impolitic and unjust, but could its constitutionality be doubted ? Other statutes have, from time to time, reduced the quantity of silver in silver coin without any question of their constitutionality. It is said, however, now, that the act of 1834 only brought the legal value of gold coin more nearly into correspondence with its actual value in the market, or its relative value to silver. But we do not perceive that this varies the case or diminishes its force as an illustration, The creditor who had a thousand dollars due him on the 31st day of July, 1834, (the day before the act took effect) was entitled to a thousand dollars of coined gold of the weight and fineness of the then existing coinage. The day after he was entitled only to a sum six per cent. less in weight and in market value, or to a smaller number of silver dollars. Yet he would have been a bold man who had asserted that, because of this, the obligation of the contract was impaired, or that private property was taken without compensation or without due process of law. No such assertion, so far as we know, was ever made. Admit it was a hardship, but it is not every hardship that is unjust, much less that is unconstitutional; and certainly it would be an anomaly for us to hold an act of Congress invalid merely because we might think its provisions harsh and unjust.

We are not aware of anything else which has been advanced in support of the proposition that the legal-tender acts were forbidden by either the letter or the spirit of the Constitution. If, therefore, they were, what we have endeavored to show, appropriate means for legitimate ends, they were not transgressive of the authority vested in Congress.

Here we might stop; but we will notice briefly an argument presented in support of the position that the unit of money value must possess intrinsic value.

The argument is derived from assimilating the constitutional provision respecting a standard of weights and measures to that confering the power to coin money and regulate its value. It is said there can be no uniform standard of weights without weight, or of measure without length or space, and we are asked how any thing can be made an uniform standard of value which has itself no value? This is a question foreign to the subject before us. The legal-tender acts do not attempt to make paper å standard of value. We do not rest their validity upon the assertion that their emission is coinage, or any regulation of the value of money ; nor do we assert that Congress may make anything which has no value money. What we do assert is, that Congress has power to enact that the government's promises to pay money shall be, for the time being, equivalent in value

It is a repre

to the representative of value determined by the coinage acts, or to multiples thereof. It is hardly correct to speak of a standard of value. The Constitution does not speak of it. It contemplates a standard for that which has gravity or extension ; but value is an ideal thing. The coinage acts fix its unit as a dollar; but the gold or silver thing we call a dollar is, in no sense, a standard of a dollar. sentative of it. There might never have been a piece of money of the denomination of a dollar. There never was a pound sterling coined until 1815, if we except a few coins struck in the reign of Henry VIII., almost immediately debased, yet it has been the unit of British currency for many generations. It is, then, a mistake to regard the legal-tender acts as either fixing a standard of value or regulating money values, or making that money which has no intrinsic value.

But, without extending our remarks further, it will be seen that we hold the acts of Congress constitutional as applied to contracts made either before or after their passage. In so holding we overrule so much of what was decided in HEPBURN vs. GRISWOLD, (8 Wallace, 603,) as ruled the acts unwarranted by the Constitution so far as they apply to contracts made before their enactment. That case was decided by a divided court, and by a court having a less number of judges than the law then in existence provided this court shall have. These cases have been heard before a full court, and they have received our most careful consideration. The questions involved are constitutional questions of the most vital importance to the government and to the public at large. We have been in the habit of treating cases involving a consideration of constitutional power differently from those which concern merely private right.—(BRISCOE vs. BANK OF KENTUCKY, 8 Peters, 118.) We are not accustomed to hear them in the absence of a full court, if it can be avoided. Even in cases involving only private rights, if convinced we had made a mistake, we would hear another argument and correct our error.

And it is no unprecedented thing in courts of last resort, both in this country and in England, to overrule decisions previously made. We agree this should not be done inconsiderately, but in a case of such far-reaching consequences as the present, thoroughly convinced as we are that Congress has not transgressed its powers, we regard it as our duty so to decide and to affirm both these judgments.

The other questions raised in the case of William B. Knox against Phæbe Lee and Hugh Lee were substantially decided in TEXAS vs WHITE (7 Wallace, 700).

The judgment in each case is affirmed.

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY.

Before the Supreme Court of the United States,

December Term, 1870.

The cases of WILLIAM B. Knox, Plaintiff in Error, vs. PHEBE G. LEE and Hugh LEE, her husband. In Error to the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of TEXAS, and

THOMAS H. PARKER, Plaintiff in Error, vs. GEORGE DAVIS. In error to the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Mas

SACHUSETTS.

I concur in the opinion just read, and should feel that it was out of place to add anything further on the subject were it not for its great importance. On a constitutional question involving the powers of the government it is proper that every aspect of it, and every consid

on bearing upon it, should be presented, and that no member of the court should hesitate to express his views. I do not propose, however, to go into the subject at large, but only to make such additional observations as appear to me proper for consideration, at the risk of some inadvertent repetition.

The Constitution of the United States established a government, and not a league, compact, or partnership. It was constituted by the people. It is called a government. In the eighth section of article I. it is declared that Congress shall have power to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers, and all other powers vested by this Constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or office thereof. As a government it was invested with all the attributes of sovereignty. It is expressly declared in article VI. that the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.

The doctrine so long contended for, that the federal Union was a mere compact of states, and that the states, if they chose, might annul or disregard the acts of the national legislature, or might secede from the Union at their pleasure, and that the general government had no power to coerce them into submission to the Constitution, should be regarded as definitely and forever overthrown. This has been finally effected by the national power, as it had often been before, by overwhelming argument.

The United States is not only a government, but it is a national government, and the only government in this country that has the character of nationality. It is invested with power over all the foreign relations of the country, war, peace, and negotiations and intercourse with other nations; all which is forbidden to the state governments. It has jurisdiction over all those general subjects of legislation and sovereignty which affect the interests of the whole people equally and alike, and which require uniformity of regulations and laws, such as the coinage, weights and measures, bankruptcies, the postal system, patent and copyright laws, the public lands, and inter-state commerce; all which subjects are expressly or impliedly prohibited to the State governments. It has power to suppress insurrections, as well as to repel invasions, and to organize, arm, discipline, and call into service the militia of the whole country. The President is charged with the duty and invested with the power to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. The judiciary has jurisdiction to decide controversies between the States, and between their respective citizens, as well as questions of national concern; and the government is clothed with power to guarantee to every state a republican form of government, and to protect each of them against invasion and domestic violence. For the purpose of carrying into effect and executing these and the other powers conferred, and of providing for the common defence and general welfare, Congress is further invested with the taxing power in all its forms, except that of laying duties on exports, with the power to borrow money on the national credit, to punish crimes against the laws of the United States and of nations, to constitute courts, and to make all laws necessary aud proper for carrying into execution the various powers vested in the government or any department or officer thereof.

Such being the character of the general government, it seems to be a self-evident proposition that it is invested with all those inherent and implied powers, which at the time of adopting the Constitution, were generally considered to belong to every government as such, and as being essential to the exercise of its functions. If this

propos sition be not true, it certainly is true that the government of the United States has express authority, in the clause last quoted, to make all such laws (usually regarded as inherent and implied) as may be necessary and proper for carrying on the government as constituted, and vindicating its authority and existence.

Another proposition equally clear is, that at the time the Constitution was adopted, it was, and had for a long time been, the practice of most, if not all, civilized governments, to employ the public credit as a means of anticipating the national revenues for the

purpose enabling them to exercise their governmental functions, and to meet the various exigencies to which all nations are subject; and that the mode of employing the public credit was various in different countries, and at different periods : sometimes by the agency of a national bank; sometimes by the issue of exchequer bills, or bills of credit; and sometimes by pledges of the public domain. In this country, the habit had prevailed from the commencement of the eighteenth century, of issuing bills of credit; and the revolution of independence had just been achieved, in great degree, by the means of similar bills

of

issued by the Continental Congress. These bills were generally made a legal tender for the payment of all debts public and private, until, by the influence of English merchauts at home, Parliament prohibited the issue of bills with that quality. This prohibition was first exercised in 1751, against the New England colonies; and subsequently, in 1763, against all the colonies. It was one of the causes of discontent which finally culminated in the revolution. Dr. FRANKLIN endeavored to obtain a repeal of the prohibitory acts, but only succeeded in obtaining from Parliament, in 1773, an act authorizing the colonies to make their bills receivable for taxes and debts due to the colony that issued them.

At the breaking out of the war, the Continental Congress commenced the issue of bills of credit, and the war. was carried on without other resources for three or four years. It may be said with truth, that we owe our national independence to the use of this fiscal agency. Dr. FRANKLIN, in a letter to a friend, dated from Paris in April, 1779, after deploring the depreciation which the Continental Currency had undergone, said : “ The only consolation under the evil is, that the public debt is proportionally diminished by the depreciation; and this by a kind of imperceptible tax, every one having paid a part of it in the fall of value that took place between the receiving and paying such sums as passed through his hands.” He adds : “This effect of paper currency is not understood this side of the water. And, indeed, the whole is a mystery even to the politicians, how we have been able to continue a war four years without money, and how we could pay with paper, that had no previously fixed fund appropriated specially to redeem it

. This currency, as we manage it, is a wonderful machine. It performs its office when we issue it ; it pays and clothes troops, and provides victuals and ammunition.”— (Franklin's Works, vol. 8, p. 329.) In a subsequent letter, of 9th October, 1780, he says: “They (the Congress] issued an immense quantity of paper bills, to pay, clothe, arm, and feed their troops, and fit out ships; and with this paper, without taxes for the first three years, they fought and battled one of the most powerful nations of Europe.”-(Works, vol. 8, p. 507.) The Continental bills were not made legal-tenders at first, but in January, 1777, the Congress passed resolutions declaring that they ought to pass current in all payments, and be deemed in value equal to the same nominal sums in Spanish dollars; and that any one refusing so to receive them ought to be deemed an enemy to the liberties of the United States; and recommending to the legislatures of the several states to pass laws to that effect.-Journals of Cong., vol. 3, p. 19, 20; Pitkin's Hist., vol. 2,

p. 155.)

MASSACHUSETTS and other colonies, on the breaking out of the war, disregarded the prohibition of Parliament, and again conferred upon their bills the quality of legal tender.—(Bancroft's Hist., vol. 7, 7 p. 324.)

These precedents are cited without reference to the policy or impolicy of the several measures in the particular cases; that is always a question for the legislative discretion. They establish the historical

« AnteriorContinuar »