Motion on Taxation of Louisiana and Speech in Support of the Motion

John Quincy Adams

January 10, 1804

A motion was made by Mr. Adams, that the following resolutions be adopted, to wit:

Resolved, That the people of the United States, have never, in any manner delegated to this Senate, the power of giving its legislative concurrence to any act for imposing taxes upon the inhabitants of Louisiana, without their consent.

Resolved, That by concurring in any act of legislation for imposing taxes upon the inhabitants of Louisiana without their consent, this Senate would assume a power, unwarranted by the constitution and dangerous to the liberties of the people of the United States.

Resolved, That the power of originating bills for raising revenue, being exclusively vested in the House of Representatives, these resolutions be carried to them by the Secretary of the Senate: that whenever they think proper they may adopt such measures as to their wisdom may appear necessary and expedient for raising and collecting a revenue from Louisiana.

Speech in Support of the Motion

When the resolution to appoint a committee for the purpose of preparing a form or forms of government for Louisiana was first before the Senate, I objected against it as premature. I did not think it possible that during the present session of Congress we should obtain the knowledge or information absolutely necessary to proceed advisedly in a career of such vast importance. It was my opinion that our first and most urgent care should be to obtain for Congress the powers indispensable for the performance of our own engagements, and that we should have ample leisure for the exertion of our power over the country we have newly acquired. To perform what we had promised was in my view of things the task of most immediate pressure before us, while we could not wield with too prudent and wary hand the rod of empire and dominion which we had assumed over a foreign people. On both these cardinal points of policy I had the misfortune to find myself in a very small minority. The principles adopted by the majority of the Senate were in both instances the reverse of those with which I concurred. It was said that my anxiety for the fulfilment of our national engagements was overweaning and premature. That it was better policy to follow the example which the union had exhibited under the old confederacy and break the treaty without scruple, until the power with whom we made it should call us to account for the breach. But on the other hand the ardor for legislating amply compensated for the coolness of punctuality, and, even before we knew whether peaceable possession of the country had been obtained, it was judged not too early to prepare forms of government for a people whose language we do not understand, whose manners opinions and prejudices are totally variant from our own, and of whom we know nothing more than could be collected from a couple of small pamphlets, compiled indeed with laudable industry and care from the little information our Executive government had been able in the course of three or four months to obtain, but sent to us with an express caution not to rely upon them as official.

In both these decisions of the Senate it was my duty to acquiesce. The Committee to prepare a form or forms of Government for Louisiana was appointed and their report is now the subject of consideration.

My first objection against this bill is derived from the principle upon which I opposed the appointment of the Committee. If ever there was an occasion upon which a legislative assembly ought to adopt as the basis of their measures the old and wholesome adage festina lente, it must surely be when they are about to undertake the task which the acquisition of Louisiana has imposed upon us. In order to impress our minds with the full conviction of this truth, let us seriously contemplate the extent and nature of that task. It is nothing less than to accomplish a total revolution, not only of government and laws, but of the principles upon which they are founded; over a people consisting of an hundred thousand souls; over a people of whom we may yet be said to know nothing, as they with still less exception know nothing of us; over a people whose subjection to our authority has been established without their previous consent, and whose liberty, property and religion, we are bound by solemn obligation to protect.

In order to effect this revolution without violence and oppression, it must be done by slow, gradual and well considered measures; and it is of primary importance to lay the foundations upon proper principles. The first step we should take, therefore, seems to be, that of legitimating our authority of acquiring the right to make laws for that people at all. By the treaty with France we have acquired all the rights of sovereignty over the inhabitants of Louisiana which France could impart; but as, to use the language of our declaration of independence, the just powers of a government can be derived only from the consent of the governed, the French Republic could not give us the right to make laws for the people of Louisiana, without their acquiescence in the transfer. I never considered this as an objection against the ratification of the treaty, because I did not deem it indispensable that this consent of the ceded people should precede the conclusion of the compact. That would indeed have been the most natural and most eligible course of proceeding, had it been practicable, and such was the opinion of our own executive before the negotiation of the treaty. But theoretic principles of government can never be carried into practice to their full extent. They must be modified and accommodated to the situations and circumstances of human events and human concerns. But between those allowances necessary to reconcile the rigor of principle with the resistance of practice, and the total sacrifice of all principle, there is a wide difference. If in the Louisiana negotiation our government had insisted on obtaining the consent of the people before the conclusion of the treaty, in all probability the treaty itself never could have been concluded. A momentary departure from the inflexible rigor of theory was, therefore, perfectly justifiable, and in concluding the treaty we acquired a power over the territory and over the inhabitants which requires, so far as relates to the latter, one thing more to make it a just and lawful power. I mean their own consent. For although the necessity of the case might excuse us for not having obtained this consent beforehand, it could not absolve us from the obligation to acquire it afterwards. And as nothing but necessity can justify even a momentary departure from those principles which we hold as the most sacred laws of nature and of nations, so nothing can justify extending the departure beyond the bounds of the necessity. From the instant when that ceases the principle returns in all its force, and every further violation of it is error and crime.

If any gentleman can controvert the principle that by the laws of nature, of nations and of God, no people has the right to make laws for another people without their consent unless it be by right of conquest, I shall be glad to hear him; and if he can furnish to my unbiassed reason an apology for lending my hand to make a single law for the people of Louisiana without their consent, expressed or implied, I will not only vote for any proper law that may be proposed, but confess myself under deep obligation to the gentleman who shall solve my scruples. As to the right of conquest it must be out of the question. We can have no right of conquest over a people who have never injured us. The law of conquest is a law of slavery, and the people of Louisiana whose liberty we are solemnly bound to protect are not slaves.

In support of this principle I have already quoted the highest possible authority for an American citizen; I mean, the Declaration of Independence. Is that not sufficient? What says the Constitution under which we act? “We the people, &c. for ourselves and our posterity – for the United States of America.” Not for the people of Louisiana nor for any other people. The people of the United States knew they had no right to exercise or to delegate the powers of legislation over another nation, and they expressly limited the operations of the Constitution to the United States of America, to themselves and their posterity.

The objections which I have urged hitherto against the passage of this bill have been either to particular details, or to points of expediency and considerations of justice and equity. Powerful as those are to my mind they are, however, of an order inferior to that which I now feel it my duty to make. I cannot prevail upon myself to vote for a law with a clear and undoubting conviction of my own mind that Congress have not the shadow of a right to pass it. Such is my conviction with regard to the act upon which we are now to decide. I long indulged the hope that the discussion of this question would have been avoided, that no alteration in the laws, and more especially no attempt to tax the people of Louisiana, would have been made, until in some shape or other their formal assent to our authority and acquiescence to our jurisdiction should have been obtained. I have been disappointed and we are now called upon at one and the same time to make a Constitution of government for a people who have never recognized our supremacy over them, and to tax for our own benefit a people of strangers, without admitting them to representation and without asking their consent. The act upon which we are now to vote is an act to tax and very heavily to tax the people of Louisiana without their consent. This I apprehend Congress have no right to do.

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