To the Honorable, the House of Delegates:
I return the bill "imposing taxes on real and personal property to meet the necessary expenses of the government, for public free school purposes, and to pay the interest on the public debt," without my approval.
I do this most reluctantly, not only because I do not like to disagree with the legislature, having a high estimate of its ability and patriotism, but because I wish the question of the state debt to be finally settled.
Having this wish, I cannot see any settlement in this bill. It is only remitting the vexed and vexing matter from the legislature to the courts. Instead of bringing peace, it is challenging war between the state and the creditors, and keeping alive in bitterness a thing
— page 426 —which has already, by its agitation, cost more than its whole sum to the material interests and welfare of the commonwealth.
It may be said, that by this very act I am doing what I so much dread. Even in the narrow light of consequences, to one filling my place, I cannot see that I would be shirking responsibility, and passing to others a question which duty tells me I am bound to decide for myself.
Besides, I believe it safer and better, when a question has grown into such size and bitterness as this, that, if possible, it should be settled in that arena where it properly belongs. It is very unhappy that it should ever have got into the field of politics, and severed the people of the state into parties. It is really a business matter, not likely to be closed by the wrangle of the hustings.
Such certainly would be the result should this bill become a law. I do not think its friends look for, some do not wish any other, believing that it is injected with grave principles that ought to be tested by judicial enquiry. But I cannot think that this will avail for good, or hasten a settlement, after it has been made a subject of political strife. Evil almost always fpollows when questions are taken from that arena and sent to the courts, with all the acrimony begotten by fierce discussion. The questions are not put at rest, but the courts and their decrees are dragged together down, and their high authority belittled.
I do not for a moment say that judges are infallible; they are men, and liable to err. But I do mean to say that their strength and purity are the firmest bulwarks of freedom and peace in a republic like ours.
Whilst these are my views with regard to the tribunal in which this matter ought to be concluded, springing solely from the evils of its discussion elsewhere, there are other reasons for my action based upon higher ground.
I have no doubt that every member of your honorable body who voted for this bill, was fully satisfied both of its policy and constitutionality; otherwise, I am sure it would not have been passed. You had studied the subject in all its bearings, and believed that the condition of your state, and of the debt, justified the law. You did this under the oath you had taken to uphold the constitutions which bound your acts. Having done so, your duty is fulfilled and your conscience clear.
It must have the approval of the governor before it becomes a law. I am equally sure you will accord to him the same sense of duty and responsibility, inasmuch as he has taken the same oath, and has the same right of decision as yourselves.
I do not mean to enter into any lengthy argument with regard to the credit of the state, and the binding obligation upon its people to pay its just debts. I would insult the gentlemen of the assembly by even hinting that there is one among them who, by denying this, is so unworthy of filling so high a place. I have never heard
— page 427 —any of them say in public or private that such was his opinion, and who would not regard a blow at the honor of the commonwealth as worse than a private injury. I feel quite certain that such a man could have no standing in your midst, but would be spurned, as he would, if having means, he refused to pay his honest dues.
With this statement, and with it knowing that I cannot be misunderstood, I feel the freer to discuss the bill.
When I read its clauses by themselves, I can come to but one conclusion: that they are both unjust and unconstitutional. Apart from anything beyond their simple terms, no question presented but the constitution and the laws, no one will deny that they are a violation of both, as interpreted by our highest courts. I will not take up your time in going over arguments now so trite, that not only yourselves, but almost every man in the state, though unlettered, knows them by rote. The effort is here made to deny the tax-paying power of the coupons. This has been pronounced unconstitutional and void. Why then keep it in the field of controversy? Why tempt again the inevitable? I can see no use in thus arraying one department of the government against another, arousing controversy and keeping alive feelings that can end only in bad blood and trouble. Even the warmest friends of the bill will not deny that this issue will arise upon the clauses, and that such is mostly likely to be the result.
Some may say, however, they believe these decisions wrong, and liable to reversal. What of that? Has the legislature met to spend its precious time and money to make up points to be mooted by the courts, whilst Virginia and all her dearest interests are in the throes of deepest agony? Why not regard the opinions of the highest courts, composed of pure and able men, as entitled to at least equal consideration with their own, acting within the bounds of as strong and scared obligations? These opinions have been rendered several times by courts of competent authority. Can we afford to wait till they are tried again? Why should the legislature wish to have its power tested in any case which it can settle for itself?
But I am glad to say that few, if any, desire such delay or such discussion. They insist that this bill is framed to meet the requirements of these decisions. I wish I could agree with them. I fear their expectations, should the bill become a law, will not be realized. I have never read an instrument more bristling with legal points.
What saves it? Its friends rely upon the preamble, in which it is alleged that the preservation of the state government is the first necessity: the constitutional obligation to support the system of free schools, the second: and the payment of the present rate of interest on the amount claimed as the principal of the public debt, the third: the taxes for the first two must be paid in money; the last may be paid in coupons. The state has contracted that all may be paid in coupons—and as already said, the highest courts have ruled that this contract is binding. The preamble attempts to avoid this ruling, by alleging that the first is necessary to uphold
— page 428 —the state's existence: the second is made sacred by the provisions of the fundamental law, and by it put as of higher obligation, and that they both, together with the interest on the public debt, must be paid out of the taxes at the rate of fifty cents on the one hundred dollars assessed value of property, real and personal, which is as much as can be imposed without ruinous results.
I shall not stop to enquire whether the first position be true or not, by the simple assertion of the legislature, and open to no further enquiry. It certainly contains a law-suit. Nobody will deny, in the abstract, that unless the state can live, it cannot do anything that belongs to life. That is a truism.
But the second proposition, that the legislature is bound to support the free school system at the expense of the state creditors, either by the necessity of her life or the command of her organic law, I beg leave most respectfully to deny.
Education is a great blessing when of the proper sort, and properly gained. There is no one who longs for it more than I. There is no one who sees in it more of everything that goes to form the free citizen—the "consummate flower" of a nation's growth. But a state has no more right to educate its youths than an individual his children, at the expense of creditors. The taint of the source will cling to the education, and instead of nurturing noble men, there will grow up in our midst those who will feel through life, how dark a shadow even their education casts upon the state's history.
Our fathers did not need free schools to make them what they were. Happy this generation could it rival them in those virtues that go to make up the glory of a commonwealth! They would not have tolerated them on the soil of Virginia had they to be established by the denial of their honest debts.
The friends of free schools make a woful blunder if they think by such means as this bill proposes, to build them up or spread their usefulness. They are striking them, as well as the state's fair fame, a most fatal blow.
Public free schools are not a necessity. The world, for hundreds of years, grew in wealth, culture, and refinement, without them. They are a luxury, adding when skilfully conducted, it may be, to the beauty and power of a state, but to be paid for, like any other luxury, by the people who wish their benefits.
I cannot, therefore, believe that the framers of the organic law meant anything else when they provided for their creation and support. They did not mean that we should deny the payment of our debt, and that, with the money drawn from such a source we should educate the children of the land. Whatever were their views of the benefits of an education, they did not think they ought to be bought at such a price. They believed, as you and I believe, that even the life of the state, like that of the individual, saved by loss of honor, is not worth much. Education, blessing as it is, won in such a way, contains a germ which will be sure to bloom into a
— page 429 —curse; and believing this, they in the same instrument most fully acknowledged the debt, and in several clauses provided for its payment.
That debt was due when free schools were scarcely, if at all, thought of as a system in the state—justly and honestly due for full consideration. Since the war, and before the constitution was adopted, it was four times acknowledged, and, directly or indirectly, promises made to pay it with interest, and the charge of its repudiation most indignantly spurned by an almost, if not quite unanimous, vote of a legislature composed of men of the old regime—among the ablest, best, and truest who ever grew upon Virginia soil. And whatever may be said of those who framed the constitution, it will not be denied that it was adopted by the people of the state. I will not now cast a stigma upon those men by saying that they were guilty deliberately of a pious fraud by planting the seeds of repudiation in the organic law, the fruits of which they proposed thereafter to gather.
Whatever value may be put upon the school system—however much we may hope from its future growth—the constitution does not put it on any higher ground than the debt then owed. It could not, without absolute stultification. Its framers, and the people who adopted it, saw no virtue in the education of their posterity, of the means of getting which they would ever be ashamed. They looked upon the debt as of too high a dignity thus to be treated, because it was an obligation then in being, and recognized as having both a legal and moral force. And in that very instrument, which the bill calls the fundamental law and of such binding power, they acknowledge or provide for the payment of the then and now existing debt in six separate clauses. That the whole of an instrument must be taken together to arrive at the intention, is a canon of construction we learn in the horn-books. To save the makers and endorsers, I think that they ought to have the benefit of that canon.
But the friends of the bill say that the amount of tax is specified within certain limits which shall be laid for the support of free schools, and which is binding on the legislature. So much the worse for their argument. For the constitution does not limit the amount which shall be laid for the payment of the debt, and which is, at least, none the less obligatory.
I cannot, therefore, see how the preamble saves the bill, either upon the ground of necessity for the preservation of the state's sovereignty and existence, or the obligation of the organic law. It is a flat denial of the latter, in its refusal to carry out its provisions for the payment of the debt.
Nor can I see how the fifth clause brings any relief. In my view, I am not aware of any power in the legislature to take away, or force the creditors "to compromise their legal rights;" and if it had, would it be any solace, after having used it, to say it was not meant? Nor is it any more a solace, after having in the very act taken away those rights, to tell them it is only done "with a pur-
— page 430 —pose to secure an adjustment of their debt." Is there any better time than now to carry out that purpose?
The bill does not help to that end. I am sorry to say, I see no peace in it. It is a proclamation of war against those to whom we are in debt. It is an array of the will of the legislature against the rights of the creditors. Under the constitution of the state we have sworn to support, there is a tribunal to decide that issue. Beyond the state there is another constitution, to obey which, as the supreme law, our oaths equally bind us. Under its provisions there is also a tribunal to which there is appeal. These both have spoken. Why seek them again, even though sure of effecting a reversal, when we can try to "secure an adjustment" which will bring peace, without loss of time or credit?
Is it beneath the dignity of the state to look upon it as a plain business matter? The creation of the debt was so! Why not its payment or adjustment? It is not by indirect and doubtful ways that things that are good and great are done. I am very sure you do not mean such ways, though the world might think you did, and that by some subtle alchemy you intended to dissolve that golden chain, which, however and wherever we may go, must always bound and bind both state and men.
Fred W. M. Holliday