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Chapter 31: thirty-first Congress, 1849-50.

The first session of the Thirty-first Congress opened on Monday, December 3, 1849. In no preceding Senate had been seen more brilliant groups of statesmen from both South and North. Among the distinguished senators then, or soon subsequently to be, famous, were Davis, Calhoun, Clay, Webster, Benton, Corwin, Cass, Fillmore, Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas, Seward, Chase, Houston, Badger, of North Carolina; Butler, of South Carolina; Hamlin, Hunter, and Mason, of Virginia; Berrien, Mangum, and Pierre Soule.

It was to this Congress that Mr. Clay presented his famous compromise resolutions, which may be regarded as the beginning of the last period of the long controversy between the sections before the secession of the Southern States from the Union.

It was memorable by the threatening prominence given to the Anti-slavery agitation, which was now beginning to overshadow all other Federal issues. The growth of the [424] Anti-slavery movement in the free States had been rapid and alarming. Its leaders were becoming more and more aggressive and contemptuous of constitutional guarantees and legal obligations. By refusals to restore fugitives from labor, by the circulation of petitions of the most offensive character to the South, and their presentation in Congress, by resolutions and speeches denunciatory of the South, passed at great public meetings and conventions, the Northern people were being prepared to insist on domination, instead of that equality of constitutional rights which, it had been hoped, had been secured by the founders of the Union, and was solemnly guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.

The great domain added to the Union by the war with Mexico was absorbed by the North, although it was the valor and military skill of Southern soldiers, chiefly, that won the victory. Southern resistance to these aggressions was soon organized in the political movements of the day. Mississippi led the way. A public meeting at Jackson, urged a State Convention to consider the alarming situation of the South, now that the balance of political equality had been destroyed and fraternal amity had ceased to exist, and to suggest remedies for asserting and maintaining her rights under the Constitution. [425] It began to be seen and announced in the South, that the only effectual remedy left was, or would soon be, the withdrawal of the Southern States from the Union. Such declarations were denounced in the North as threats to overawe her. In the South, every Legislature, with a single exception, characterized the exclusion.of the domestic institution of the South from the common property of the whole country — the Territories of the United States--as an act in distinct violation of our constitutional rights; while every Northern State, with one single exception also, passed resolutions in favor of the Wilmot Proviso.

Clay,” says his ablest biographer, “was at heart in favor of the Wilmot Proviso.” His whole influence, at this great crisis, was exerted to allay the contest concerning constitutional rights, by compromises that settled nothing and satisfied nobody. The coming contention was for absolute equality of rights in the Territories — nothing less, nothing more. On that point, Mr. Davis and his associates of the States Rights school would not yield a hair's breadth; as, indeed, they could not do so without abandoning their rightful and constitutional equality with the North; while Mr. Clay declared, on the contrary, that “the South ought to yield the [426] point in dispute;” and, sad as it is to render such a verdict on the dead statesman, his was an entirely selfish and personal consideration of the question.

Between sectional prejudices so hostile, and between politics and leaders so antagonistic, it was soon evident that no peaceful reconciliation was probable, and that the day of compromises was over. This was speedily demonstrated in the Senate.

The first sign of the beginning of an irreconcilable conflict between the sections was seen on December 20th. A resolution was offered (ostensibly as a compliment to the famous Irish temperance orator), that Theobald Mathew be permitted to sit within the bar of the Senate during the period of his sojourn in Washington. This resolution was favored by Mr. Seward and other Northern senators, but it was opposed by the Southern members, on the ground that Father Mathew, in the language of Senator Clemens, had “been charged with denouncing one portion of the Confederacy as little better than a band of lawless pirates.”

Mr. Seward, in an insidious speech eulogizing Father Mathew's services as a temperance orator, ended by expressing the hope that the Senate would give evidence, by the unanimity with which they would pass the resolution, [427] whether “if slavery should be an error, or if it be a crime, if it be a sin, we deplore its existence among us, and deny the responsibility of its introduction here; and, therefore, we shall not withhold from virtue the meed which is its due, because it happens to be combined in the person of one who exhibits not more devotion to virtue than to the rights of man.”

Mr. Davis immediately rose and replied to this insincere and insidious effort to create further discord between the sections, under the pretext of honoring a distinguished foreign guest. He said:

I am glad to hear the Senator from New York (Mr. Seward) place this movement upon a distinct basis — to know that it is advocated because of the opinions in relation to domestic slavery which are ascribed to the individual named in the resolution.

For years past, we have seen our fraternity disturbed, our country torn by domestic contention; even now we see our Government seriously embarrassed by a discussion the seeds of which were sown by British emissaries, who assumed the false pretext of philanthropy to mask their unholy design to kindle the fires of civil war among the United States. There was a time, sir, when an American feeling pervaded and ruled in this [428] country; when every man worthy to be descended from the sires of our Revolution repulsed with loathing and scorn the foreign emissary who attempted to distract our nationality. Not even on questions of general policy and common interest would they permit the interference of others.

Has this passed away? Now, when it requires all the forbearance of brotherhood to allay excitement, to calm irritation, to prevent pent — up feeling from bursting into strife, are we not only to permit, but to welcome, the intrusion of the stranger into this most delicate domestic question, which has ever threatened the peace and safety of our Confederacy? Degenerate and unworthy of the sires from whom we derived our institutions and our Union, must that son be, who can thus court foreign interference, and grasp the hand in fellowship with which he expects to scatter over our land the seeds of a new and most mischievous species of domestic discord.

Sir, I have no wish to depreciate the labors, or to contest the merits, of him whose name is identified with the beneficent cause of temperance reformation. The good he has done to a portion of our race deserves the thanks of mankind. The heart pays a willing tribute to the benevolence of a labor like his; and, who has not rejoiced in the [429] happy influence his mission has exercised over his unfortunate countrymen? Could it devolve upon the Senate to decide either of these points, there would, I suppose, be little difference of opinion among us. But it would not thence follow that, as a department of this Government, we should give testimonial of our approbation and accordance. Still less can this be claimed for the reason urged by the Senator from New York.

Thus presented, the question is, whether the United States Senate-partly composed of those who represent a slave-holding constituency-shall vote an extraordinary compliment to one known as the ally of Daniel O'Connell in his attempt to incite the Irishmen--naturalized citizens of the United States--to unite as a body with the abolitionists in their nefarious designs against the peace, the property, and the constitutional rights of the Southern States. An act of such obtrusive interference in our domestic affairs; a declaration of opinions so offensive; an attempt so mischievous, requires something more than a temporary silence to justify the unprecedented compliment which is claimed at our hand.

If, as the Senator from Kentucky (Mr. Clay) intimates, those opinions in relation to African slavery as it exists in this country, [430] have undergone a change, why was not such change avowed when an opportunity was kindly offered, as has been stated by the Senator from Alabama. His refusal to do so, under the circumstances connected with it, could not fail to have an injurious effect upon what is recognized as the great object of his visit; and is, therefore, conclusive against the supposition of such a change having occurred. When opinions are gratuitously thrown upon the world, it is our right to note them, and, if mischievous, our duty to remember them. This is not to probe private sentiments, but to see that which is laid before us.

In the present case, exceptions have been taken not to the opinion of‘ Father Mathew’ on the subject of slavery, but to his conduct in attempting to instigate his countrymen, nationalized among us, to join in a crusade against institutions of their adopted country. Why, if he came purely as a missionary in the cause of temperance, should he have hesitated to disavow any purpose to interfere with the political relations of any portion of our citizens, or to assail any of the domestic institutions of our country? This was necessary, not to assure us against any supposed danger from this influence-our confidence in the allegiance of our citizens gave full security against that-but was necessary [431] to justify the attentions and courtesy which it was desired to offer. In default of such disavowals — under answers which are said to have been evasive, and with such advocacy as we have just heard-his attitude is that of one who comes covertly as a wolf in sheep's clothing; and I hold the Senator from New York to be the very best authority on that subject.

Mr. President, in opposing this resolution, I wish it to be distinctly understood that I yield all that has been claimed for the success of ‘Father Mathew’ to the cause of temperance in Ireland; and certainly abate nothing of respect and sympathy because of his clerical character and the land of his nativity. If either one or the other had led me into error, it would have been that of compliance, not resistance. Irishmen, not allied with O'Connell and abolitionism, take, in my sympathies, the next place to our brethren; but the mere name of‘ Irish Patriot’ is not sufficient to be the controlling influence. My first duty, my nearest ties are at home, and I will say of the horde of abolitionists, foreign and domestic, that, if I had the power to exclude them all from this Chamber, I would not hesitate a moment to do it. 1


I refer to this minor incident of Mr. Davis's record because it has been misrepresented and misconstrued as an evidence of intolerance, and as a want of respect for a distinguished representative of the Irish people, with whose cause, on the contrary, Mr. Davis always sympathized warmly. He thought temperance should be the outcome of individual will and conviction of the duty to be “temperate in all things,” and would not be the better practised because of statutes which would destroy personal and community independence, and erect a system of espionage over private family matters.

On January 7th, the subject of slavery was again introduced into debate by the presentation of resolutions from the General Assembly of Vermont. In the course of the debate that followed, Mr. Davis replied to Mr. Hale, of New Hampshire. I quote a single extract only from his speech:

Mr. President: I always enter into the discussion of the slavery question with feelings of reluctance; and only because I am forced to it by those who, having nothing to do with it, nevertheless indecently interfere in our domestic affairs here, have I done so.

Sir, it is a melancholy fact that, morning after morning, when we come here to enter into the business of the Senate, our feelings [433] are harrowed up by the introduction of this exciting and profitless subject, and we are compelled to listen to insults heaped upon our institutions. Sir, there is no man who comes here to represent his constituency for high and useful purposes, and who feels upon himself the obligation of his oath to maintain the Constitution of the United States, who would thus act, from day to day, for the purpose of disturbing the useful legislation of the country, for no other purpose than to insert another brand into the flame which every reflecting, sober man now sees threatens to consume the fabric of our government.

We, of the South, stand now, as we have always stood, upon the defensive. We raised not the question; but, when raised, it is our duty to defend ourselves. For one, sir, my purposes are to keep down this species of excitement both here and at home. I know the temper of those whom I represent, and they require no promptings to resist aggression or insult. I know their determination. It is well and deeply taken, and will be shown when the crisis comes. They make no threats against anyone, and least of all against the Union for which they have made such heavy and such continued sacrifices. They know their rights while they feel their wrongs; and they will maintain the one, resent the other, if need be, [434] and preserve our Constitutional Union; but the Union without the Constitution they hold to be a curse. With the Constitution, they will never abandon it. We, sir, are parties to the Union only under the Constitution, and there is no power known in the world that could dictate to my little State a Union in which her rights were continually disregarded and trampled upon by an unrestrained majority. The present generation, sir, all maintain the character their fathers bore. They well know how to sustain the institutions which they inherited, even by civil war, if that be provoked. They will march up to the issue and meet it face to face.

This is our position. You have not respected it. I know yours and cannot respect it, and, knowing it, I carte to this session of Congress with melancholy forebodings-with apprehensions that this might be the last of our Government. I still trusted, however, in the intelligence and patriotism of the masses, for I have long since said that I could put no faith in politicians. I feel that they have raised a storm which they cannot control. They have invoked a spirit which they cannot allay and dare not confront. And yet, I believe that the descendants of the Franklins, the Hancocks, and the Adamses, if they saw our institutions about to be destroyed by a mean [435] and captious exercise of the power of demagogues to press to a fatal extremity aggressions upon our rights by the North, would rise up in their strength and would enforce the justice and obligations of the Constitution. This is no indication of any confidence which I put in their representatives; with them I am ready to meet this issue face to face; and if the representatives of that people see proper to sow the seeds of dissension and to influence the passions and prejudices of one section, while they drive the other by every possible provocation to the point of civil war, then all I have to say is that the representatives of the South, true to their constituency, are prepared to meet the issue here and now. If this is to be the hotbed of civil war; if, from this as a centre, the evil is to radiate throughout our country, here let the first battle be fought. If gentlemen came here constantly to press upon us, strip us of our rights, to move the people of one section of the nation to hostility against the other, I hope that those who have brought the country to this crisis will meet the first test.

Mr. President: It is no part of the business of a Southern representative here to deliver panegyrics upon the attachment of his constituents to the Union. We have proved our love of the Union and our devotion to it [436] too often and too long to require such declarations. Let those who feel that it may be doubted make their declarations of fidelity to the Union; we have nothing of the kind to do. If the State of Vermont chooses to send to the Senate of the United States insulting resolutions relating to her sister States, let the senators and representatives of that State do their duty in relation to them; and, as I say nothing against a Sovereign State, I will only say to those senators, that I regret that Vermont has not now such constitutional scruples as actuated her in the War of 1812, and that she does not keep her resolutions within her own limits in the war of aggression, as she attempted to keep her troops during that War.

Mr. Davis was eminently conservative as well of the rights of the States under the Constitution as of the limitations of the powers of Congress. He adhered to the letter and the spirit of both, and guarded the treasury with the same jealous care that he exercised over the interests of his State. A notable instance of this consistency is evinced in the speech I quote.

On January 24th, in the debate on a resolution, directing the Library Committee to negotiate for the purchase of the Mss. of Washington's Farewell Address, Mr. Davis said: [437]

The value of the Farewell Address is two-fold: first, for the opinions contained in it, and, next, the authority from which they are derived. I am of the opinion that no benefit can result to the country or to the people generally by the owning of these sheets of Mss. No one, scarcely, will be allowed to read it, for it will have to be locked up securely, where it cannot be touched; because, if handled, it would be soon worn out. It will, therefore, merely gratify the feelings to which the Senator from Kentucky (Mr. Clay) has so eloquently alluded, and to which undoubtedly every heart will respond — that feeling which endears everything pertaining to the beloved and venerated dead. Man is a being possessing feelings, sensations, and sympathies; and allow me to say too, sir, that, although we may derive great pleasure from tracing the narratives of the glory of our ancestors, and the deeds of the men of celebrity in our own country, yet some physical memorial of them, some tangible, palpable object always addresses itself to our hearts and to our feelings.

But are we, the representatives of the people, in making appropriations from the treasury, to be governed by feeling, and to draw money out of the public treasury to gratify our sentiments? Certainly not. We [438] should regard no such feelings, but should act as practical men. We should become as nearly as possible an ‘abstraction,’ to use the expression of the gentleman from Kentucky; as far as may be, divest ourselves of all feeling in legislation.

If we are to indulge the desire to possess all objects associated with the ‘Father of his Country,’ we shall have to purchase the walking-canes he used, the medals, and other personal articles identified with him by possession. His residence, the battle-fields he illustrated, the routes of his marches through the old Thirteen States, over which he shed unfading glory; all, all are closely associated with his memory. Shall they be purchased, too, and held as the property of the Government? But what is there so sacred in the Mss. of this Address? It is known to have been the production of Washington and one, at least, of his Cabinet — not the emanation of his mind alone. I feel no such respect as has been here expressed for it, and I cannot perceive how this Ms. is to effect such happy results. Anyone can have a printed copy, and read it, who desires. There is nothing to be gained by the purchase of this Ms., any more than there would be in the purchase of a walking-stick which Washington used. I may be pardoned for a want of veneration for [439] relics, or for symbols of the faith of the faithful; nay, more, for saying that a devotion to men which extends to the inanimate objects connected with them is an extreme unworthy of our people. We are utilitarians, and it is not in keeping with that character to be led away by sentiment. The rough sketch of this Address, connected with the work of others, and showing what was his own, would be far more valuable to me than this, the form to which it was modified and extended.

Mr. Davis took his own course, allying himself of necessity with no party-yielding to no mere sentimental view of duty, or allegiance. He conscientiously examined the Constitution of the Union as the conservator, guarantee, and limitation of his rights, and honorably abided by its authority.

Throughout this memorable session antislavery petitions were adopted by the leaders of the movement in the North to force the discussions of the slavery question into Congress. Early in February, a motion was made by Senator Hale, of New Hampshire, to receive a petition from inhabitants of Delaware and Pennsylvania, praying for the immediate and peaceful dissolution of the Union. Up to this date it had been the uniform practice to lay on the table without debate all resolutions relating to the slavery agitation. [440] But on this occasion a spirited debate followed Senator Hale's motion. Mr. Davis took part. He said:

I rise merely to make a few remarks on the right of petition . . . It is offensive to recommend legislation for the dissolution of the Union; offensive to the Senate and to the whole country. If this Union is ever to be dissolved, it must be by the action of the States and the people. Whatever power Congress holds, it holds under the Constitution, and that power is but a part of the Union. Congress has no power to legislate upon that which will be the destruction of the whole foundations upon which their authority rests. I recollect, a good many years ago, that the Senator from Massachusetts who addressed the Senate this morning (John Davis), very pointedly described the right of petition as a very humble right — as the mere right to beg. This is my own view. The right peacefully to assemble, I hold, as the right which it was intended to grant to the people; that was the only right which had ever been denied in our colonial condition; the right of petition had never been denied by Parliament. It was intended only to secure to the people, I say, the right peacefully to assemble whenever they chose to do so, with intent to petition for a redress of grievances. [441]

But, sir, the right of petition, though but a poor right, the mere right to beg, may yet be carried to such an extent that we are bound to abate it as a nuisance. If the avenues to the Capitol were obstructed so that members would find themselves unable to reach the halls of legislation because hordes of beggars presented themselves in the way, calling for relief, it would be a nuisance that would require to be abated, and Congress in self-defence would be compelled to remove them.

But such a collection of beggars would not be half so great an evil as the petitions presented here on the subject of slavery. They disturb the peace of the country; they impede and pervert legislation by the excitement they create; do more to prevent rational investigation and proper action in this body than any, if not all, other causes. Good, if ever designed, has never resulted, and it would be difficult to suppose that good is expected ever to flow from them. Why, then, should we be bound to receive such petitions to the detriment of the public business; or, rather, why are they presented? I am not of those who believe we should be turned from the path of duty by out-of-door clamor, or that the evil can be removed by partial concession. To receive, is to give cause for [442] further demands, and our direct and safe course is rejection.

Yes, sir, their reception would serve only to embarrass Congress, to disturb the tranquillity of the country, and to peril the Union of the States. By every obligation, therefore, that rests upon us under the Constitution, upon every great principle upon which the Constitution is founded, we are bound to abate this as a great and growing evil.

Mr. Davis's alert activity in the performance of the duties of his place is shown by the facts that, nearly a page of the index of the “Congressional Globe” is devoted to references to his participations in debates, and that the reports show that he discussed every phase of the Oregon, the slave, and the territorial questions, public lands and railroads, military affairs, appointments, proposed expenditures and appropriations, relief bills, post-offices and post-roads, and every important theme of senatorial discussion. He came home exhausted, and then from dusk until nearly daybreak corrected the reporter's notes, met his colleagues, and arranged the programme for measures to be introduced or combated, and his cheerfulness under all this turmoil and labor was uninterrupted. His health, never since his wound in Mexico very robust, suffered much from the effort to perform [443] his social duties, and he, therefore, relinquished the attempt and did not mingle at all with society, except when our friends were invited to visit us. It was a period of his life that he remembered with just pride, and after a generation had passed he thus wrote of this Congress:

The first session of the Thirty — first Congress (1849-50) was a memorable one. The recent acquisition from Mexico of New Mexico and California, required legislation from Congress. In the Senate, the bills reported by the Committee on Territories were referred to a select committee of which Mr. Clay was chairman. From this counsellor emanated the bills which, taken together, are known as the ‘Compromise Measures of 1850.’

With some others, I advocated the division of the newly acquired territory by the extension to the Pacific Ocean of the Missouri Compromise line of 30° 30.‘ This was not because of any inherent merit or fitness in that line, but because it had been accepted by the country as a settlement of the sectional question which, thirty years before, had threatened a rupture of the Union, and it had acquired in the public mind a prescriptive respect which it seemed unwise to disregard. A majority, however, decided otherwise, [444] and the line of political conciliation was then obliterated as far as it lay in the power of Congress to do. This result was effected almost exclusively by the representatives of the North.

However objectionable it may have been, in 1820, to adopt that political line as expressing a geographical definition of different sectional interests, and, however it may be condemned as the assumption by Congress of a function not delegated to it, it is to be remembered that the act had received such recognition and quasi-ratification by the people of the States as to give it a value which it did not rightfully possess. Pacification had been the fruit borne by the tree, and it should not have been recklessly hewn down and cast into the fire. The frequent assertion then made was that all discrimination was unjust, and that the popular will should be left untrammelled in the formation of new States. This theory was good enough in itself, and, as an abstract proposition, could not be gainsaid; but its practical application has but poorly sustained the expectations of its advocates. Retrospectively reviewed, under the mellowing light of time, and with the calm consideration we can usually give to the irremediable past, the Compromise Legislation of 1850 bears the impress of that sectional spirit so widely at [445] variance with the general purposes of the Union, and so destructive of the harmony and mutual benefit which the Constitution was intended to secure.

The refusal to divide the territory acquired from Mexico by an extension of the line of the Missouri Compromise to the Pacific, was a consequence of the purpose to admit California as a State of the Union before it had acquired the requisite population, and while it was under the control of the military organization sent from New York during the war with Mexico, and disbanded in California upon the restoration of peace. The inconsistency of the argument against the extension of the line was exhibited in the division of the territory of Texas, by that parallel, and payment to the State of money to secure her consent to the partition of her domain. In the case of Texas, the North had everything to gain and nothing to lose by the application of the practice of geographical compromise on an arbitrary line. In the case of California, the conditions were reversed; the South might have been the gainer and the North the loser, by a recognition of the same rule.

The compensation which, it has been alleged, the South received, was a more effective law for the rendition of fugitives from [446] service or labor. But it is to be remarked that the law provided for the execution by the General Government of obligations which had been imposed by the Federal compact upon the several States of the Union. The benefit to be derived from a fulfilment of that law, would be small in comparison with the evil to result from the plausible pretext that the States had been relieved from a duty which they had assumed in the adoption of the compact of Union. Whatever tended to lead the people of any of the States to feel that they could be relieved of their constitutional obligations by transferring them to the General Government, or that they might thus or otherwise evade or resist them, could not fail to be like the tares which the enemy sowed amid the wheat.

It was reasonably argued that, as the Legislatures of fourteen of the States had enacted what was termed “personal liberty bills,” which forbade the co-operation of State officials in the rendition of fugitives from service or labor, it became necessary that the General Government should provide the requisite machinery for the execution of the law. The result proved what might have been anticipated — that those communities which had repudiated their constitutional obligations, which had nullified a previous [447] law of Congress for the execution of a provision of the Constitution, and had murdered men who came peacefully to recover their property, would evade or obstruct, so as to render practically worthless, any law that could be enacted for that purpose.

Mr. Davis records an interesting incident of his own life at this time:

While the Compromise Measures of 1850 were pending, and the excitement concerning them was at its highest, I, one day, overtook Mr. Clay, of Kentucky, and Mr. Berrien, of Georgia, in the Capitol grounds. They were in earnest conversation. It was on March 7th--the day on which Mr. Webster had delivered his great speech. Mr. Clay, addressing me in the friendly manner which he had always employed since I was a schoolboy in Lexington, asked me what I thought of the speech. I liked it better than he did. He then suggested that I should ‘join the Compromise men,’ saying that it was a measure that would probably give peace to the country for thirty years--the period that had elapsed since the adoption of the Compromise of 1820. Then, turning to Mr. Berrien, he said: ‘You and I will be under ground before that time, but our young friend here may have trouble to meet.’ I, somewhat impatiently, declared my [448] unwillingness to transfer to posterity a trial which they would be relatively less able to meet than we were, and passed on my way.

President Buchanan made a plea of a somewhat similar kind when he said: “I hope, gentlemen, you will postpone any overt action until my term of office has ended.” As the faculties decay, the aged deprecate a strife with which they feel they have not the force to contend.

1 The next day after this speech he made a friendly call upon Father Mathew to express his respect for his temperance crusade.

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