- Historic Sites
February 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 2
James Madison was the second President to use the veto, the first to employ the pocket veto, the first to veto a private bill, and the second of eleven Presidents not to be overridden. He cast 5 regular vetoes and 2 pocket vetoes. A total of 899 laws were enacted during his two administrations. His use of the veto followed Washington’s practice of measuring the constitutionality of the bills presented to him, a curious invasion of the Supreme Court’s recently asserted function of judicial review which characterized most early vetoes and which, for some reason, went unchallenged. Two of Madison’s regular vetoes were directed against private bills in 1811; one of these would have incorporated a church in Virginia (for tax purposes), and the other would have provided federal land for a Baptist church in Mississippi. Both of them, as Madison saw it, violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. Madison directed the first pocket veto against a change in the naturalization laws in November, 1812, shortly after Congress adjourned.
Andrew Jackson was only the fourth President to exercise the veto (5 regular and 7 pocket), but he substantially changed the grounds for its use. Although he, too, observed the earlier practice of measuring a bill’s conformity to the Constitution, he proudly boasted that most of the legislation he struck down was repugnant to him for personal and political reasons. Fully half of his vetoes were directed to internal improvements and four to fiscal and banking measures. Although he was never overridden, his vetoes contributed to strained relations between the White House and Congress and generated considerable political turmoil during his eight years in office.
Two of his vetoes have historic interest. The first, cast on May 27, 1830, was an open assault on Henry Clay’s “American System,” a program of federal aid based on regional needs designed to speed the development of the nation’s resources and to establish sectional harmony by, in effect, trading off high tariffs protecting eastern manufacturers for good roads and canals in the agricultural South and West. The Maysville Road Bill, introduced by Clay, was to be a crucial test of the whole concept. Jackson’s veto checked but did not completely stop the movement for national improvements and was hailed by supporters of States’ rights as a significant curb on burgeoning federal power. Jackson argued that the road had local—not general—value and thus lay outside the domain of Congress; if such projects were to have any basis in law, then an amendment to the Constitution was required. Although Jackson himself con- tinued to authorize funds for construction and spent an average $1.3 million annually in this area, his veto generally dampened congressional enthusiasm for projects not clearly national in scope.
Jackson’s second important veto was directed against the Bank of the United States on July 10, 1832. An extraordinarily complex problem involving States’-rights philosophy, a variety of regional questions, economic theories, and political aspirations, the “bank question” became the central issue in the Presidential campaign of 1832; historically it has become the most puzzling act in Jackson’s career and has led historians to a variety of interpretations about the nature of Jacksonian Democracy and of Jackson himself. Probably no other veto has been more thoroughly studied or had more immediate and long-range effects on the nation than this. (The only close competitors are Andrew Johnson’s vetoes during Reconstruction.) While the reasons for Jackson’s veto are clear enough in his message to Congress—he indicts monopoly and special privilege—their meaning and Jackson’s motives remain a source of endless debate.
The first congressional override of a veto came on March 3, 1845, after John Tyler exercised the last of his 6 regular vetoes. Earlier Tyler had ordered the Navy Department to let contracts for the building of two revenue cutters. As the contractors with the winning bids set to work procuring materials, but before actual construction of the vessels had begun, Congress passed a bill prohibiting the purchase of any additional cutters without its consent. As Tyler read the bill, the wording seemed to suggest that the contracts he had let were now void, and he took this to be a violation of the Constitution’s clause in protection of contract. Congress did not agree and overrode his veto by a vote of 41-1 in the Senate and 127-30 in the House. The ships were not built.
By the end of the Civil War, when Andrew Johnson assumed the Presidency, the White House and Congress had achieved a compatible relationship in regard to the veto power. There had been a total of 57 vetoes, exercised by ten of sixteen Presidents, and 6 overrides. In all some 11,000 laws had been enacted. Except for the national uproar that greeted Jackson’s vetoes of the Maysville Road Bill and the rechartering of the Bank, most vetoes had been quietly cast, easily sustained, and, outside of Congress, generally ignored.