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Chapter 27: in the Thirtieth Congress, 1847-48.

Mr. Davis had not long to wait for the most signal expressions of gratitude and homage which his State could offer him. Governor A. G. Brown, within less than two months after his return home, appointed him to fill the vacancy in the United States Senate occasioned by the death of Senator Jesse Speight. His appointment was unanimously ratified by the Legislature. Through all avenues of public opinion, in popular meetings, and by the press, the people of the State enthusiastically endorsed the Governor's choice. Thus early Mississippi put on record her trust in Mr. Davis. It was a trust which was to abide in him so long as he lived, and to be accorded most generously whenever he most needed it.

Pale and emaciated from the nervous pain consequent upon his wound, and supported by two crutches, Mr. Davis took his seat at the first session of the Thirtieth Congress.

Perhaps no legislative body was ever more suspiciously regardful of its own dignity or [362] more coldly punctilious in its discipline of new and untried members than the Senate of the United States fifty years ago. Yet its welcome to the young Senator from Mississippi was most cordial and unreserved. This was not strange. The gossip which flies constantly between the two halls of Congress had whispered of his brilliant career in the House while a member of the Twenty-ninth Congress. And something more than congressional gossip — the voice of an admiring people-had reached grave Senators; that “across the border” American valor had once more been made memorable, and that their new associate had been its inspirer.

The session opened on December 6, 1847. Mr. Sevier, of Arkansas, presented the credentials of Mr. Davis. Two other men were admitted into the senatorial arena. One of these was John P. Hale, of New Hampshire, the other was Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, a Democrat of the Western type, who seemed destined to rule the party and reach the highest status, but whose career was finally wrecked upon the rock of “squatter sovereignty.”

Mr. Davis was appointed on several important committees, which showed the confidence in him inspired by his military service. These were the Committees on Military [363] Affairs and on Pensions. He was also one of the Regents of the Smithsonian Institute, and took a conspicuous and influential part in the organization of it. He was a member of the Library Committee, and advocated with great earnestness Mons. Vattemare's international exchange of the literature of the world.1 Early in January a debate [364] arose which gave proof of Mr. Davis's intelligent grasp of all questions connected with Mexico and the war that was still waging. Cass, of Michigan, had reported from the Military Committee what was called at the time the “Ten regiment bill;” a bill inspired by the War Department. It provided for raising ten additional regiments of infantry to serve during the war. Mexico was defeated, but not yet humbled. Its armies had been dispersed; but there was nothing to prevent them, under a change of government, from reorganizing again at other and less accessible points. Its Government was a fugitive; but not a word looking to amity had come from it. The American forces on its territory were not sufficient to retain the advantages already secured, or to extend operations if such a course should become necessary. Here was a wholly unexpected termination to a war which, from the first battle, had seemed to indicate an early and easy triumph. Cass's bill was designed to cover this defect. It met with sharp opposition [365] from several Southern Senators, among whom Calhoun was the most prominent. He had vigorously opposed the war when the declaration of it had been made. He now deprecated the conquest of Mexico, which, he argued, would be the disastrous result of any attempt to strengthen the army of occupation. Crittenden objected on another ground. He thought that the additional force asked for should be composed of volunteers rather than of regulars. As the spectre of a conquered country and a suspended autonomy haunted Calhoun, so did the bugbear of a military Frankenstein appal Crittenden.

In answer to the fear of ultimate absorption, entertained by Calhoun and those who, with him, foresaw the “dismemberment of another Poland,” Mr. Davis stated that he could accept Calhoun's resolutions, “and still vote for the bill.” “But,” he asked, “is Mexico conquered? Is any part of it conquered? Conquest, as laid down by some writers, is of three kinds. Ruin is one of these kinds of conquest; but we have not ruined Mexico, and God forbid we ever should. The moral feeling of this country would never justify such a course. Another mode of conquest is to hold a country by controlling its Government. That is not suited to the genius of [366] our country. We send no proconsul abroad --no provincial army to direct the Government of the country. We recognize as the great basis of all institutions self-government. The other mode of conquest is by colonizing a country. We cannot do that. In neither of these modes, then, have we ever conquered Mexico.”

Referring to Crittenden's dread of the regular soldier, Mr. Davis skilfully drew the distinction between him and the volunteer.

“If this country were invaded I would turn to the great body of the militia — for I use the terms” volunteer “and” militia “as synonymous — for its defence. But when we carry on a foreign war, and especially when defensive operations merely are carried on, we have reached a point where regulars are the force which should be employed in the nice routine of the service in which the duties are not sufficiently important to justify that disruption of society . . . which would result from bringing out men of that high class which the honorable Senator from Kentucky has correctly said constitute the great body of the volunteers.”

Following his argument, Mr. Davis touched upon a question which, later, was to receive, on both sides of the great sectional line, a bloody solution. [367]

“The gentleman inquires,” he said, “why it is that we prefer regulars? I will answer: We prefer regulars, first, because they are cheaper; secondly, because they can be maintained in better discipline. They will maintain a better state of police. They will be healthier, and therefore more effective, in proportion to their numbers, for mere garrison duties. As long as you keep the highbred gentlemen for the battle, they will bear any privation, submit to every restraint, and discharge to the utmost every duty. But do you expect that those men, who have broken all the endearing ties of home in order to fight their country's battles, will sacrifice themselves to the mere duties of the sentinel?”

Mr. Webster, in opposing the bill, had called the war “odious.” This epithet was indignantly questioned by Mr. Davis.

“Odious for what?” he asked. “On account of the skill and gallantry with which it has been conducted? Or is it because of the humanity, the morality, the magnanimous clemency which have marked its execution? . . . . Where is the odium? What portion of our population is infected with it? From what cause does it arise? . . . Where, sir, are the evidences of evil brought upon us by this “odious” war? Where can you point [368] to any inroad upon our prosperity, public or private, industrial, commercial, or financial, which can be, in any degree, attributed to the prosecution of this war? All that is yet to be shown, and I confidently await the issue.”

In a discussion with John Bell, of Tennessee, Mr. Davis defined his idea of a military occupation. He declared himself only in favor of such an occupation as would “prevent the general Government of Mexico, against which the war had been directed, from re-establishing its power and again concentrating the scattered fragments of its army to renew active hostilities against us.”

In the course of the debate on this bill, which had drawn in a majority of the Senate, the fitness of Mr. Davis for the chairmanship of the Committee on Military Affairs was made clear. His election to the position, during the session of the Thirty-first Congress, was nearly unanimous--thirty — two votes having been given for him, to five for all others.

The proposed increase of the army, however, was never made on the lines of the Cass bill. Before Congress could perfect the necessary legislation events had moved toward pacification. The flitting Government had become rooted long enough at Queretaro to [369] propose and consider terms of peace. On July 6th President Polk laid before Congress copies of a treaty of peace between the United States and the Mexican republic, the ratifications of which had been exchanged at that city on the 30th of May previous.

On April 14th a bill to provide for the repair and improvement of the dam at the head of Cumberland Island brought up, incidentally, the policy of internal improvements. Calhoun spoke in favor of the bill. Although holding to the doctrine of strict construction, he had not the slightest doubt of the right and duty of the Government to repair the dam. He regarded it as “the channel of one of the great navigable rivers, which belongs to no particular State, but which serves as a highway in which many States are interested.”

“The States,” he argued, were prohibited from entering into such a work. If the Government could not do it, it was plain that neither Kentucky nor Indiana could make the improvement. He held that it was “as clearly the right of the general Government to repair the dam, under the provision in the Constitution which gives the power to regulate commerce among the States, as it is to repair light-houses or to replace buoys that have been destroyed.” [370]

At the outset Mr. Davis spoke in general terms. He took care to put on record his opinion that “the whole system of internal improvement by the Federal Government was an assumption of power not conferred by the Constitution.” In the specific case, however, he approved of the appropriation on the sole ground that it was to repair a dam which the Federal Government had constructed in the Ohio River.

This seemed to bring him side by side with Calhoun. But here he took issue with the great champion of State sovereignty. “If I were compelled,” he asserted, “to rely on the power ‘to regulate commerce’ as a justification for this appropriation, my adherence to the doctrine of literal interpretation of the terms of the Constitution would compel me to vote against this bill, intimately connected as it is with the interests of the great valley of which I represent a part. To regulate is to make rules, not to provide means .... The power to prescribe the rules for commerce among the States was surrendered to the General Government; the States were thenceforward deprived of the power to impose restrictions or levy duties upon the commerce of each other.”

He could not agree with the theory that the practice of erecting light-houses and buoys in [371] the harbors on the sea-coast was an argument for the existence of the power to improve the channels of interior commerce. “With great deference,” he said, “to the acknowledged ability of the Senator, I differ entirely from his conclusion, and deny the analogy upon which he insists. The erection of lighthouses upon our maritime coast, and the placing of buoys to mark the entrance into our harbors, are mainly referable to the power to maintain a navy and provide for the common defence; though I will admit that the construction of light-houses and buoys may also be drawn from the power to regulate commerce, and for like reasons as apply to the construction of docks, ways, and warehouses.”

This admission, or rather the form of it, did not quite satisfy Calhoun. He considered it as “untenable and dangerous, as it would enable Congress to give any extension it pleased to the power.”

Mr. Davis hastened to define his position. He believed that it was originally the practice to limit appropriation for a harbor to the amount of port and tonnage duties collected at it. “I wish the rule,” he exclaimed, “was now in force. No admission has been made by me which can be fairly construed as recognizing the right to expend means drawn from the national treasury upon harbors which [372] have no taxable commerce, and which, therefore, supply no funds to the Government. Last of all, can anything advanced by me be tortured into an admission of the right to go abroad from the place for which the regulation is made, to create commerce upon which the regulation shall operate?”

This debate had been peculiar. It had, in a minor way, covered much ground. It had opened with an uncompromising blast from Bagly, of Alabama, against the entire system of internal improvements by the general Government, “whenever and wherever it is intended to be applied.” After this, curiously enough — with one single exception — the discussion was participated in by men of the same mind. That exception was Crittenden, of Kentucky, who had insisted on the old Whig idea of centralized power. He was in favor of the largest latitude to be given to Government aid for improvements of this class. On the other hand, the difference between Calhoun and Davis was technical, not radical. Upon the broad question they were in accord. Upon the specific cause only they had separated. At the final vote the bill was passed by an overwhelming majority-31 to 8. In that small minority strange comrades were found. With Bagly, strict constructionist, went Hale, unrelenting sectionalist. [373]

It may be added, here, that in his subsequent career in the Senate Mr. Davis never departed from the line of policy indicated in the Cumberland debate. For him, in one sense, the Constitution was always like the Bible. Deductions from its provisions, or arguments on them, if based only on partial examination thereof, might be modified. But if both in spirit and letter it had, after conscientious study, once become thoroughly grasped, neither arguments nor deductions could admit of change. In the discussion of all constitutional questions Mr. Davis's faith in the federative compact was absolute. He always regarded it — as he always spoke of it — as “the supreme law of the land.”

On April 20, 1848, a firebrand was hurled into the Senate. This came from the hand of Hale, of New Hampshire, in the shape of a bill introduced by him, “relating to riots and unlawful assemblies in the District of Columbia.”

The bill was clearly disingenuous. Its avowed motive had been an assemblage of several armed citizens of the District, and an attack by them upon the building occupied by the National Era, an organ of the abolition party, published in Washington. It said nothing as to the exciting causes which had led to the gathering it was framed to punish. [374] It wholly ignored a bold attempt which had stirred the Capitol only a few days before the kidnapping in the schooner Pearl, by a band of non-residents stealing into the city, of seventy odd negroes, belonging, under the guarantees of the Constitution, to citizens of the District. It spoke as loud as a trumpet upon the protection to be given to one kind of property — that in a newspaper-but was as dumb as a mute upon that to be accorded to another kind of property — that in slaves. Hale could not but be aware that the mere reading of such a bill would be met with a storm of indignant protest. He had not long to wait for the outburst. A rattling fusillade was at once poured into the bill. Calhoun himself gave the word of command. He charged that its introduction was “a masked attack upon the great institution of the South, upon which not only its prosperity but its very existence depends.” He had hoped that younger members who had come into the body, who represented portions of the country at least as much interested as that from which he came, might have taken the lead in the defence of that institution. In this there was a certain note of pathos. It looked as though the veteran sentinel had grown weary of his lonely watch-tower.

Mr. Davis was the first to respond. He [375] made it clear that his entrance, under the circumstances, into the debate was due to this, and to this only. “I have only to say,” he exclaimed, “that it is from no want of accordance in feeling with the honorable Senator, but from deference to him who has so long and so nobly stood foremost in defence of the institutions of the South, that I remained silent. It was rather that I wish to follow him, than that I did not feel the indignation which he has so well expressed.”

Mr. Davis followed this personal tribute to the great leader with an unequivocal declaration of his own position.

“The time has come,” he exclaimed, “when Congress should interpose the legislation necessary for the punishment of those men who come within our jurisdiction, acting, in fact and in morals, as incendiaries; coming here within the legislative limits of Congress to steal a portion of that property which is recognized as such by the Constitution of the United States, and therefore entitled to our protection. Is this District to be made the field of Abolition struggles? Is this chamber to be the hot-bed in which plants of sedition are to be nursed? Why is it that in this body, once looked to as the conservative branch of the Government, once looked to as so dignified that it stood above the power of [376] faction, we find the subject of this contest, so insulting to the South, so irritating always when it is agitated, introduced on such an occasion? Is this,” he asked, “debatable ground?” “No!” was his own emphatic answer. It revealed his certainty of conviction that the Constitution had made the ground undebatable. It showed, moreover, his prevision as to the ultimate consequences of such legislation. “It is ground,” he declared, “upon which the people of this Union may shed blood; and that is the final result. If it be pressed any further, and if this Senate is to be made the theatre of that contest, let it come — the sooner the better. We who represent the Southern States are not here to be insulted on account of institutions which we inherit. And if civil discord is to be thrown from this chamber upon the land; if the fire is to be kindled herewith which is to burn the temple of our Union; if this is to be made the centre from which civil war is to radiate, here let the conflict begin. I am ready, for one, to meet any incendiary who, dead to every feeling of patriotism, attempts to introduce it.”

These were strong words from one who, like Mr. Davis, was always more inclined to discountenance than to urge disunion as a remedy for the dissensions within the Union. [377] But there was a reason for his warmth. The occasion was sinister in the extreme. Recent events in the city had thrown a wave of anxiety as far as the doors of the Senate chamber. Southern Senators had heard those events hotly canvassed in hotels and on the streets. They had taken their seats that morning vaguely troubled. A storm was raging outside; above all things it ought, for the peace of the country, to be kept from the Senate. Then came Hale's bill. Submitted and read early in the day, it more than startled them; it alarmed them. The debate which followed was most exciting and much too personal. Among those from the South, besides Calhoun and Mr. Davis, who participated, were Butler, of South Carolina; Foote, of Mississippi; Mangum, of North Carolina; and Westcott, of Florida. Douglas, of Illinois, sided, rather cynically, with Hale. Cameron, of Pennsylvania, could not see what had induced the Senator from New Hampshire to introduce such a measure at that moment; Hannegan, of Indiana, denounced it, and Davis, of Massachusetts, supported it. The excitement was extraordinary the more so that it was evidenced that all the speakers, save one, sincerely regretted it. A living coal seemed to have leaped upon the floor from the fires of the Missouri Compromise, [378] even then building. Hale throughout the discussion was cool, because it was a mere matter of calculation with him. It had mattered little to him what would be the fate of his bill. What he had most desired was, by means of it, to drag to the surface the question of slavery in the District of Columbia. In this object he succeeded. Through one long day of bitter words the Senate discussed the subject. At the next meeting it took action, and refused to consider the bill.

1 Mons. Alexander Vattemare was the original Herr Alexandre who, from 1826 to 1830 astonished the Old World by his feats of magic or juggling. He conceived the idea in early youth of establishing an universal literary exchange between the authors of the world through their respective governments. The medals, the engravings, and paintings of every country were to be part of the scheme-everything made by man was to be exchanged, so as to disseminate science and the arts by practical knowledge of their achievements. He was a numismatist, a connoisseur of engravings, of paintings, and a very clever artist in black and white. His skill in juggling was without parallel.

He was said to have learned this last art in order to gain admission to the presence of the princes and potentates of the earth who could assist him in his scheme. He said, as America was a free country, dominated by the union of all races, he would juggle no more hut try his scheme on its merits. He brought a wonderful collection of autographs and sketches, from crowned heads, authors, statesmen, and inventors; also a magnificent series of medals, which he presented to the United States, and which were unfortunately burned when the Congressional library was lost by fire.

Mr. Davis was invited by ex-President J. Q. Adams, who had known Vattemare when he was abroad, to meet him at dinner. After dinner Mr. Adams asked him to perform a little feat to show his magic powers. Vattemare declined, while Mr. Adams brushed a fly out of his ear. The fly became more troublesome and would not be driven away. At last Mr. Adams bowed his thanks for the magician's compliance. He had sent the fly. In 1849 he did not look over thirty-five, yet he was past maturity in 1830, when he paid Sir Walter Scott a visit and accompanied him and Miss Edgeworth on their tour of the Scottish lakes. During this visit Vattemare obtained, as he and Sir Walter stood waiting for the stage to pass on which Mr. Vattemare was to leave Abbotsford, a piece of poetry, written on the gate-post by the poet, in which Sir Walter spoke in the character of sheriff of the county reading the riot act to all the characters the wizard had personated before him. Fac-similes of the album were published and are now much valued in Paris.

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