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SPANISH AND COLONIAL LAND TITLES.
PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE TO CONGRESS.
* To the Senate and House of Representatives of the U. S. [ *3 ]
Washington, February 11, 1829. By the act of Congress of the 23d of May last, " supplementary to the several acts providing for the settlement and confirmation of private land claims in Florida,” provision was made for the final adjudication of such claims by the judges of the Superior Courts of the districts wherein the lands claimed respectively lie, and by appeal from them to the Supreme Court of the United States; and the attorneys of the United States, in the several districts, were charged with the duty, in every case where the decision should be against the United States, by the judge of the Superior Court of the district, to make out and transmit to the attorney-general of the United States a statement containing the facts of the case, and the points of law on which the same was decided ; and it was made the duty of the attorney-general, in most of those cases, to direct an appeal to be made to the Supreme Court of the United States, and to appear for the United States, and prosecute such appeal. By the same act, the President of the United States was authorized to appoint a law agent to superintend the interests of the United States in the premises, and to employ assistant counsel, if in his opinion the public interest should require the same. In the process of carrying into execution this law, it was the opinion of the attorney-general of the United States that a translated complete collection of all the Spanish and French ordinances, &c., affecting the land titles in Florida
, and the other territories heretofore belonging to France and Spain, would be indispensable to a just decision of those claims
* The side folios refer to the original paging of the works reprinted.
by the Supreme Court. At his suggestion, the task of preparing this compilation was undertaken by Joseph M. White, of Florida, who was employed as assistant counsel on behalf of the United States. The collection has accordingly been made, and is deposited, in manuscript, at the department of state, subject to such order as Congress may see fit to take concerning it. The letter from Mr. White to the Secretary of State, with a descriptive list of the documents collected and thus deposited, is herewith transmitted to Congress.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS.
[ +4 ]
* No. 1.
WASHINGTON, February 4, 1829.
Sir: I have the honour to submit for your examination a collection of laws, ordinances, and local regulations, adopted from time to time by the government of Spain, touching the disposition of public lands in her colonies, compiled under the direction of the President of the United States.
In presenting the result of my labours, I beg leave to offer a short sketch of their origin and progress, that a better knowledge of the importance and difficulty of the subject may bespeak for the errors of my work, the indulgence they will require.
By the cessions of Louisiana and Florida, the United States succeeded to the territorial rights and obligations of Spain in these provinces. In acquiring the public domain, the duty of protecting the rights of individuals devolved on them. To dispose of one, it was necessary to ascertain the other. The inhabitants of the ceded countries were secured in their lawful possessions by express treaty stipulations, the fulfilment of which were imperiously demanded both by national interest and national honour.
Various attempts were made by the legislature of the Union to provide for the separation of private from public property, to restore confidence, and to quiet men in their possessions. To a certain extent, they have been attended with the happiest effects. The labours of commissioners charged with the duty of investigating the landed titles derived from the former government, and the subsequent legislation of Congress in confirming a vast mass of claims which had been favourably reported upon, did much towards redeeming the plighted faith of the nation, and promoting the prosperity of the ceded territories, while they enhanced the value of the public lands, and increased the revenue derived from them.
It is not to be disguised, however, that much yet remains to be done in compliance with the terms and spirit of the cession, and for the security of the interests of the United States.
It has been computed that the unadjusted land claims in Louis
iana, Alabama, Missouri, Arkansas, and Florida, yet cover ten or twelve millions of acres. Their validity depends upon principles of Spanish law, local usages and the construction of treaties, which sooner or later, must be investigated and determined before the judicial tribunals of the country.
In Arkansas and Missouri, a reference of these claims to the courts for adjudication was authorized some time since by Congress. In the former it is understood considerable progress has been made in determining the validity of titles presented; in the latter, a small number only have been definitively acted on. The same question has been differently decided by the courts of the state and of the territory; and, in the former, the applicants for confirmation have withdrawn their petitions, to await the final decision of of the Supreme Court upon a leading question, decided adversely to their interests in the inferior tribunal. No act has as yet been passed for the final adjustment of private land claims in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The magnitude of the grants, the variety of conflicting interests, the number of settlers, and intricacy of the whole subject, have hitherto induced Congress to forbear extending to Louisiana the provisions of the Missouri act, and rendered abortive all attempts on the part of that state to procure the termination of these long protracted controversies. In the mean time, the individual claimants have repeatedly * applied [ *5 to the federal legislature, by. petition, for a confirmation of their titles. The impossibility of thus settling numerous and perplexed questions of private right depending upon foreign law, seems now to be generally admitted ; and the refusal of Congress to invest the judicial tribunals with authority to determine them, if it be not a denial or delay of justice, is at least a measure of doubtful policy. Though the claimants can institute no process against the United States, the moment they part with their title to individuals, a suit may be commenced against the purchaser. In order to avoid the inconveniences arising from a sale under such circumstances, government declines bringing the lands into market, and the result is often alike prejudicial to both parties.
By the 8th article of the treaty of cession, which transferred the Floridas from Spain to the United States, the latter obliged themselves to confirm the inhabitants in their possessions. The necessity of fulfilling this obligation, the annulment of the large grants of Alagon, Punon Rostro, and Vargas, and the confirmation of the smaller concessions, by repeated acts of legislation, prepared the way for the law of the last session, by which the claimants to lands in Florida were authorized to bring their titles at once to the test of judicial scrutiny. The magnitude of the controversy excited the vigilance of Congress, and while provision was made for the speedy termination of these claims upon principles the most just and liberal, the interests of the United States were most watchfully guarded.
The President was authorized to engage assistant counsel ; and, during the last summer, I had the honour to receive a letter,
written by his direction, proposing to engage my professional services.
Subsequently, on my return from Quebec, I received, in New York, another communication, enclosing the copy of a letter from the attorney general, containing the following suggestion :
" I beg leave to suggest that it will be very important to have a complete collection of all the Spanish and French ordinances, &c., affecting the land titles in Florida, and the other territories and states formerly belonging to the crown of Spain and France at different times. Such a collection will be indispensable to a just decision of these claims by the Supreme Court. If Col. White could be induced to compile such a collection, with an accurate index, it would be of inestimable value in the controversies, and the expense of printing a full edition would be well bestowed by the government. Such a work seems to me to be imperiously called for by all the courts, and all the counsel, who will have to act on this interesting subject, and the value of the subject at stake, as well as the activity with which these claims will be urged against the United States, require that no time should be lost in making the collection. Such a work would be of infinitely more value than the assistance of any counsel that could be commanded in the argument of the causes."
It was not without the most unfeigned diffidence I entered on the execution of the task thus proposed to me. My reluctance arose from a knowledge of the difficulties of the subject; the magnitude of the interests involved; the nature and policy of the Spanish government; the obscurity of the laws of Spain ; and the want of access to books and documents illustrative of this portion of Spanish jurisprudence. This reluctance was increased rather than diminished, by an experience of several years, acquired in the office of the United States commissioner for the adjudication of land claims under the Florida treaty. In common with every jurist and [ *6 ] * statesman, whose duties have led him to an examination of such topics, I had felt, at every point, the want of authentic information; but to feel this deficiency was much easier than to supply it. Though repeatedly acknowledged by committees of Congress, by judges, commissioners, and other officers of government, nothing had yet been done toward collecting the scattered materials of a compilation like the present, from a thousand different sources, accessible only to the most patient industry. I was encouraged to the undertaking only in consequence of having, while in the office referred to, preserved copious notes of all the general laws and local ordinances, read or quoted, and procured copies of various official letters, decrees, proclamations, and other important public documents.
To have withheld these sources of knowledge from the public, would scarcely have been just to the government or the claimants : to have entrusted their revision and arrangement to other hands than my own, would have endangered their correctness and impaired