DECEMBER 1, 1885


Dear Mr. Carlisle: As public opinion point to you as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, I desire to submit a suggestion as to one of the public objects for which an appropriation ought to be prompt and liberal.
In considering the state and management of the public revenues, the subject involves the questions whether we shall extinguish the she surplus by reducing the revenue, or whether we shall apply the surplus to payments on the public debt, or whether we shall seize the occasion to provide for our sea-coast defences, which have been long neglected. I am of the opinion that the latter is a paramount necessity with ought to proceed the reduction of the revenue, and ought also to precede an excessive rapidity in the payment of the public debt.
The property exposed to destruction in the twelve seaports – Portland, Portsmouth, Boston, Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Galveston, and San Francisco – cannot be less in value than five thousand million of dollars. To this must be added a vast amount of property dependent for its use on these seaports. Nor does this statement afford a true measure of the damage which might be caused to the property and business of the country by a failure to protect these seaports from hostile naval attacks.
They are the centres, not only of foreign commerce, but of most of the internal trade and exchanges of domestic productions. To this state of things the machinery of transportation of the whole country has become adapted. The interruption of the currents of traffic by the occupation of one or more of our principal seaports by a foreign enemy, or the destruction of them by bombardment, or holding over them the menace of destruction for the purpose of exacting contribution or ransom, would inflict upon the property and business of the country and injury which can neither be foreseen nor measured. The elaborate and costly fortifications which were constructed with the greatest engineering skill, are now practically useless. They are not capable of resisting the attacks of modern artillery.
A still greater defect exists in our coast defences. The range of the best modern artillery has become so extended that our present fortifications, designed to protect the harbor of New York, where two thirds of the import trade and more than one-half of the export trade of the whole United States is carried on, and are too near the great populations of New York city and Jersey City, and Brooklyn to be of any value as protection.
To provide effectual defences would be the work of years. It would take much time to construct permanent fortifications. A small provision of the best modern guns would take several years. Neither of these works can be extemporized in presence of emergent danger. A million of soldiers, with the best equipments, on the heights surrounding the harbor of New York, in our present state of preparation, or rather in our total want of preparation, would be powerless to resist a small squadron of war steamers. This state of things is discreditable to our foresight and to our prudence. The best guarantee against aggression, the best assurance that our diplomacy will be successful and pacific, and that our rights and honor will be respected by other nations, is in their knowledge that we are in a situation to vindicate our reputation and interests. While we may afford to be deficient in the means of offence, we can not afford to be defenceless. The notoriety if the fact that we have neglected the ordinary precautions of defence invites want to consideration in our diplomacy, injustice, arrogance, and insult at the hand of nations. It is now more than sixty years since we announced to the world that we should resist any attempts, from whatever quarter they might come, to make any new colonizations on any part of the American continent; that while we should respect the status quo we should protect the people of different nations inhabiting this continent from every attempt to subject them to the dominion of any European power, or to interfere with their undisturbed exercise if the rights of self-government. This announcement was formally made by President Monroe, after consultation with Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson. It was formulated by John Quincy Adams. Our government has firmly adhered to the Monroe Doctrine, and even so late as 1865 it warned Napoleon III our of Mexico. It is impossible to foresee, in the recent scramble of the European powers for acquisition of colonies, how soon an occasion may arise for our putting in practice the Monroe Doctrine. It is clear that there ought to be some relation between our assertion of that doctrine and our preparation to maintain it. It is not intended to recommend any attempt to rival the great European powers in the creation of a powerful navy. The changes which have rapidly occurred by the diminution of relative resisting power of the defensive armor of ironclads, and by the increased efficiency of modern artillery, which on a whole has gained in the competition, suggest we should not at present enter largely into the creation of armored vessels. In the questions that beset this subject until they have reached a solution, we can content ourselves with adding but sparingly to our navy. But what we do add should be the very best that science and experience can indicate.  This prudential view is reinforced by the consideration that the annual charge of maintaining war vessel bears an important proportion to the original cost of construction.
In constructing permanent fortifications, and in providing an ample supply of the best modern artillery, the annual cost of maintenance is inconsiderable. Nearly the whole expenditure is in the original outlay for construction. If we do not make the expenditure necessary to provide for our sea-coast defences when we have a surplus, and have no need to levy new taxes, we certainly will not make those expenditures when we have no longer a surplus in the treasury. To leave our vast interests defenceless in order to reduce the cost of whiskey to its consumers would be solecism. The present time is peculiarly favorable for providing for this great national necessity too long neglected. Not only does the surplus in the treasury supply ample means to meet this great public want without laying new burdens upon the people, but the work can now be done at a much lower cost that has ever before been possible. The defensive works would consist almost entirely of steel and iron. These materials can now be had at unprecedentedly low price. A vast supply of machinery and of labor called into existence by a great vicissitude in the steel and iron industries offers itself to our service. We should have the satisfaction of knowing that while we were availing ourselves of the supplies which would ordinarily be unattainable, we were setting in motion important industries and giving employment to labor in a period of depression. With encouragement by the guarantee of work, or perhaps by the government itself furnishing the plant, the inventive genius of our people would be applied to the creation of new means and improved machinery, and establishments would spring into existence capable of supplying all of the national wants, and rendering us completely independent of all other countries in respect to the means of national defence. I endeavor to impress these ideas upon Mr. Randall the last time I had the pleasure of seeing him.
With my highest regards to Mrs. Carlisle and yourself,
I remain,
Very truly yours,
S.J. Tilden
Honorable John G Carlisle