All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1962

No Special Favors

This is an excerpt from President Van Buren’s special message to Congress of September 4, 1837. He had called a special session of Con­gress in consequence of the Panic of that year and the subsequent business depression. He was urged to enter upon government regulation and control in view of the “emergency.” His reply speaks eloquently for itself. Excerpt taken from James D. Richardson, Messages and Papers of the Presidents (New York, 1897), IV, 1561-62.

Those who look to the action of this Government for specific aid to the citizen to relieve embarrass­ments arising from losses by re­vulsions in commerce and credit lose sight of the ends for which it was created and the powers with which it is clothed. It was estab­lished to give security to us all in our lawful and honorable pur­suits, under the lasting safeguard of republican institutions. It was not intended to confer special fa­vors on individuals or on any classes of them, to create systems of agriculture, manufactures, or trade, or to engage in them either separately or in connection with individual citizens or organized associations. If its operations were to be directed for the benefit of any one class, equivalent favors must in justice be extended to the rest, and the attempt to bestow such favors with an equal hand, or even to select those who should most deserve them, would never be successful.

All communities are apt to look to government for too much. Even in our own country, where its powers and duties are so strictly limited, we are prone to do so, especially at periods of sudden em­barrassment and distress. But this ought not to be. The framers of our excellent Constitution and the people who approved it with calm and sagacious deliberation acted at the time on a sounder principle. They wisely judged that the less government interferes with pri­vate pursuits the better for the general prosperity. It is not its legitimate object to make men rich or to repair by direct grants of money or legislation in favor of particular pursuits or losses not incurred in the public service. This would be substantially to use the property of some for the bene­fit of others. But its real duty—that duty the performance of which makes a good government the most precious of human bless­ings—is to enact and enforce a system of general laws commen­surate with, but not exceeding, the objects of its establishment, and to leave every citizen and every interest to reap under its benign protection the rewards of virtue, industry, and prudence.

I can not doubt that on this as on all similar occasions the Fed­eral Government will find its agency most conducive to the se­curity and happiness of the peo­ple when limited to the exercise of its conceded powers. In never as­suming, even for a well-meant ob­ject, such powers as were not de­signed to be conferred upon it, we shall in reality do most for the general welfare. To avoid every unnecessary interference with the pursuits of the citizen will result in more benefit than to adopt measures which could only assist limited interests, and are eagerly, but perhaps naturally, sought for under the pressure of temporary circumstances. If, therefore, I re­frain from suggesting to Con­gress any specific plan for regu­lating the exchanges of the coun­try, relieving mercantile embar­rassments, or interfering with the ordinary operations of foreign or domestic commerce, it is from a conviction that such measures are not within the constitutional prov­ince of the General Government, and that their adoption would not promote the real and permanent welfare of those they might be de­signed to aid.