VETO OF ACT TO PREVENT MILITARY INTERFERENCE AT ELECTIONS

 

May 12, 1879

Washington D.C.

 

TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:

 

After careful consideration of the bill entitled “An act to prohibit military interference at elections,” I return it to the House of Representatives, in which it originated, with the following objections to its approval:

 

In the communication sent to the House of Representatives on the 29th of last month, returning to the House without my approval the bill entitled “An act making appropriations for the support of the Army for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1880, and for other purposes,” I endeavored to show by quotations from the statutes of the United States now in force, and by a brief statement of facts in regard to recent elections in the several States, that no additional legislation was necessary to prevent interference with the elections by the military or naval forces of the United States.  The fact was presented in that communication that at the time of the passage of the act of June 18, 1878, in relation to the employment of the Army as a posse comitatus or otherwise, it was maintained by its friends that it would establish a vital and fundamental principle which would secure to the people protection against a standing army.  The fact was also referred to that, since the passage of this act, Congressional, State, and municipal elections have been held throughout the Union, and that in no instance has complaint been made of the presence of the United States soldiers at the polls.

 

Holding as I do the opinion that any military interference whatever at the polls is contrary to the spirit of our institutions, and would tend to destroy the freedom of elections, and sincerely desiring to concur with Congress in all of its measures, it is with very great regret that I am forced to the conclusion that the bill before me is not only unnecessary to prevent such interference, but is a dangerous departure from long-settled and important constitutional principles.

 

The true rule as to the employment of military force at the elections is not doubtful.  No intimidation or coercion should be allowed to control or influence citizens in the exercise of their right to vote, whether it appears in the shape of combinations of evil-disposed persons, or of armed bodies of the militia of a State, or of the military force of the United States.

 

The elections should be free from all forcible interference, and, as far as practicable, from all apprehension of such interference.  No soldiers, either of the Union or of the State militia, should be present at the polls to take the place or to perform the duties of the ordinary civil police force.  There has been and will be no violation of this rule under orders from me during this administration.  But there should be no denial of the right of the National Government to employ its military force on any day and at any place in case such employment is necessary to enforce the Constitution and laws of the United States. 

 

The bill before me is as follows:

 

“Be it enacted, &c., That it shall not be lawful to bring to or employ, at any place where a general or special election is being held in a State, any part of the Army or Navy of the United States, unless such force be necessary to repel the armed enemies of the United States, or to enforce section 4, article 4, of the Constitution of the United States, and the laws made in pursuance thereof, on application of the Legislature or Executive of the State where such force is to be used; and so much of all laws as is inconsistent herewith is hereby repealed.”

 

It will be observed that the bill exempts from the general prohibition against the employment of military force at the polls two specified cases.  These exceptions recognize and concede the soundness of the principle that military force may properly and constitutionally be used at the place of elections, when such use is necessary to enforce the Constitution and the laws.  But the excepted cases leave the prohibition so extensive and far-reaching that its adoption will seriously impair the efficiency of the Executive Department of the Government.

 

The first act expressly authorizing the use of military power to execute the laws was passed almost as early as the organization of the Government under the Constitution, and was approved by President Washington, May 2, 1792.  It is as follows:

 

“Sec. 2.  And be it further enacted, That whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or the execution thereof obstructed, in any State, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act, the same being notified to the President of the United states by an associate justice or the district judge, it shall be lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia of such State to suppress such combinations, and to cause the laws to be duly executed.  And if the militia of a State where such combinations may happen shall refuse or be insufficient to suppress the same, it shall be lawful for the President, if the Legislature of the United States be not in session, to call forth and employ such numbers of the militia of any other State or States most convenient thereto as may be necessary; and the use of militia, so to be called forth, may be continued, if necessary, until the expiration of thirty days after the commencement of the ensuing session.”   

 

In 1795 this provision was substantially reenacted in a law which repealed the act of 1792.  In 1807 the following act became the law by the approval of President Jefferson:

 

“That in all cases of insurrection or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States or of any individual State or Territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the prerequisites of the law in that respect.”

 

By this act it will be seen that the scope of the law of 1795 was extended so as to authorize the National Government to use not only the militia but the Army and Navy of the United States in “causing the laws to be duly executed.”

 

The important provision of the acts of 1792, 1795, and 1807, modified in its terms from time to time to adapt it to the existing emergency, remained in force until, by an act approved by President Lincoln July 29, 1861, it was reenacted substantially in the same language in which it is now found in the Revised Statutes, viz:

 

“Sec. 5298.  Whenever, by reason of unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages of persons, or rebellion against the authority of the Government of the United States, it shall be come impracticable, in the judgment of the President, to enforce, by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, the laws of the United States within any State or Territory, it shall be lawful for the President to call forth the militia of any or all the States, and to employ such parts of the land and naval forces of the United States as he may deem necessary to enforce the faithful execution of the laws of the United States, or to suppress such rebellion, in whatever State or Territory thereof the laws of the United States may be forcibly opposed, or the execution thereof forcibly obstructed.”

 

This ancient and fundamental law has been in force from the foundation of the Government.  It is now proposed to abrogate it on certain days and at certain places.  In my judgment no fact has been produced which tends to show that it ought to be repealed or suspended for a single hour at any place in any of the States or territories of the Union.  All the teachings of experience in the course of our history are in favor of sustaining its efficiency unimpaired.  On every occasion when the supremacy of the Constitution has been resisted, and the perpetuity of our institutions imperiled, the principle of this statute, enacted by the fathers, has enabled the Government of the Union to maintain its authority and to preserve the integrity of the Nation.

 

At the most critical periods of our history, my predecessors in the Executive office have relied on this great principle.  It was on this principle that President Washington suppressed the whiskey rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794.  In 1806, on the same principle, President Jefferson broke up the Burr conspiracy by issuing “orders for the employment of such force, either of the regulars or of the militia, and by such proceedings of the civil authorities, ***as might enable them to suppress effectually the further progress of the enterprise.”  And it was under the same authority that President Jackson crushed nullification in South Carolina, and that President Lincoln issued his call for troops to save the Union in 1861.  On numerous other occasions of less significance, under probably every administration, and certainly under the present, this power has been usefully exerted to enforce the laws, without objection by any party in the country, and almost without attracting public attention.

 

The great elementary constitutional principle which was the foundation of the original statute of 1792, and which has been its essence in the various forms it has assumed since its first adoption, is, that the Government of the United States possesses under the Constitution, in full measure, the power of self-protection by its own agencies, altogether independent of State authority, and, if need be, against the hostility of State governments.  It should remain embodied in our statutes, unimpaired, as it has been from the very origin of the Government.  It should be regarded as hardly less valuable or less sacred than a provision of the Constitution itself.

 

There are many other important statutes containing provisions that are liable to be suspended or annulled at the times and places of holding elections, if the bill before me should become a law.  I do not undertake to furnish a list of them.  Many of them—perhaps the most of them—have been set forth in the debates on this measure.  They relate to extradition, to crimes against the election laws, to quarantine regulations, to neutrality, to Indian reservations, to the civil rights of citizens, and to other subjects.  In regard to them all, it may be safely said, that the meaning and effect of this bill is to take from the General Government an important part of its power to enforce the laws.

 

Another grave objection to the bill is its discrimination in favor of the State and against the National authority.  The presence or employment of the Army or Navy of the United States is lawful under the terms of this bill at the place where an election is being held in a State to uphold the authority of a State government then and there in need of such military intervention, but unlawful to uphold the authority of the Government of the United States then and there in need of such military intervention.  Under this bill the presence and employment of the Army or Navy of the United States would be lawful, and might be necessary to maintain the conduct of a State election against the same local violence that would overthrow it, but would be unlawful to maintain the conduct of a National election against the same local violence that would overthrow it.  This discrimination has never been attempted in any previous legislation by Congress, and is no more compatible with sound principles of the Constitution or the necessary maxims and methods of our system of government on occasions of elections than at other times.  In the early legislation of 1792 and of 1795, by which the militia of the States was the only military power resorted to for the execution of the constitutional powers in support of State or National authority, both functions of the Government were put upon the same footing.  By the act of 1807 the employment of the Army and Navy was authorized for the performance of both constitutional duties in the same terms.

 

In all later statutes on the same subject-matter the same measure of authority to the Government has been accorded for the performance of both these duties.  No precedent has been found in any previous legislation, and no sufficient reason has been given for the discrimination in favor of the State and against the National authority which this bill contains.

 

Under the sweeping terms of the bill, the National Government is effectually shut out from the exercise of the right, and from the discharge of the imperative duty to use its whole Executive power whenever and wherever required for the enforcement of its laws at the places and times where and when its elections are held.  The employment of its organized armed forces for any such purpose would be an offence against the law unless called for by, and therefore upon permission of, the authorities of the State in which the occasion arises.  What is this but the substitution of the discretion of the Government of the United States as to the performance of its own duties?  In my judgment, this is an abandonment of its obligations by the National Government—a subordination of National authority, and an intrusion of State supervision over National duties, which amounts, in spirit and tendency, to State supremacy.

 

Though I believe that the existing statutes are abundantly adequate to completely prevent military interference with the elections in the sense in which the phrase is used in the title of this bill and is employed by the people of this country, I shall find no difficulty in concurring in any additional legislation limited to that object which does not interfere with the indispensable exercise of the powers of the Government under the Constitution and laws.

 

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