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Corwin, Thomas 1794-1865

Statesman; born in Bourbon county, Ky., July 29, 1794; reared to manhood on a farm, attending a common school in winter; began the study of law in 1815; admitted to the bar in 1818; became a member of the Ohio legislature in 1822, and was elected to Congress in 1830. He remained in the

Thomas Corwin.

House until elected governor of Ohio in 1840. In 1845 he was chosen United States Senator, and was called to the cabinet of President Fillmore in 1850, as Secretary of the Treasury. He was again elected to Congress in 1859. In 1861 President Lincoln sent him as minister to Mexico. Mr. Corwin was an eloquent, [394] witty, and effective speaker. He died in Washington, D. C., Dec. 18, 1865.

The War with Mexico.

The action of Congress upon the subject of the Mexican War, in the winter of 1846-47, gave rise to a question in which an important principle was involved. Is it the duty of the legislature to provide the means of prosecuting a war made unconstitutionally? Disconnected from the declaration that war existed by the act of Mexico, bills to furnish money had received an almost unanimous vote. The Whig members, generally, while protesting that the war not only was unjust, but had been made by the executive without constitutional authority, yet voted for the means to help the executive carry his purposes into effect, justifying their votes on the general principle that, in what manner, or for what purpose soever, a war is begun, it is the duty of Congress to furnish the aid to prosecute it, and hold its projector and author responsible. The question here arose, Can the legislature, while it furnishes the aid, avoid the responsibility?

Senator Corwin who stood almost alone in the Senate on this question, vindicated his position in a speech of acknowledged ability. He said:

“While the American President can command the army, thank God I can command the purse. While the President, under the penalty of death, can command your officers to proceed, I can tell them to come back for supplies,” as he may. He shall have no funds from me in the prosecution of such a war. That I conceive to be the duty of a Senator. I am not mistaken in that. If it is my duty to grant whatever the President demands, for what am I here? Have I no will upon the subject? Is it not placed at my discretion, understanding, and judgment? Have an American Senate and House of Representatives nothing to do but to obey the bidding of the President, as the mercenary army he commands is compelled to obey under penalty of death? No! your Senate and House of Representatives were never elected for such purpose as that. They have been modelled on the good old plan of English liberty, and are intended to represent the English House of Commons, who curbed the proud power of the King in olden time, by withholding supplies if they did not approve the war. . . . While Charles could command the army, he might control the Parliament; and because he would not give up that command, our Puritan ancestors laid his head upon the block. How did it fare with others?

“It was on this very proposition of controlling the executive power of England by withholding the money supplies that the House of Orange came in; and by their accession to the throne commenced a new epoch in the history of England, distinguishing it from the old reign of the Tudors and Plantagenets and those who preceded it. Then it was that Parliament specified the purpose of appropriation; and since 1688, is has been impossible for a king of England to involve the people of England in a war, which your President, under your republican institution, and with your republican Constitution, has yet managed to do. Here you stand powerless. He commands this army, and you must not withhold their supplies. He involves your country in wasteful and exterminating war against a nation with whom we have no cause of complaint; but Congress may say nothing!”

In a letter to a friend he subsequently wrote: “I differed from all the leading Whigs of the Senate, and saw plainly that they all were, to some extent, bound to turn, if they could, the current of public opinion against me. They all agreed with me that the war was unjust on our part; that, if properly begun (which none of them admitted), we had already sufficiently chastised Mexico, and that the further prosecution of it was wanton waste of both blood and treasure; yet they would not undertake to stop it. They said the President alone was responsible. I thought we who aided him, or furnished him means, must be in the judgment of reason and conscience, equally responsible, equally guilty with him.”

On Feb. 11, 1847, he delivered a speech concerning the territory which it was proposed to wrest from Mexico, of which the following is an abstract:

What is the territory, Mr. President, which you propose to wrest from Mexico? It is consecrated to the heart of the [395] Mexican by many a well-fought battle with his old Castilian master. His Bunker Hills, and Saratogas, and Yorktowns are there. The Mexican can say, “There I bled for liberty! and shall I surrender that consecrated home of my affections to the Anglo-Saxon invaders? What do they want with it? They have Texas already. They have possessed themselves of the territory between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. What else do they want? To what shall I point my children as memorials of that independence which I bequeath to them, when those battle-fields shall have passed from my possession?”

Sir, had one come and demanded Bunker Hill of the people of Massachusetts, had England's lion ever showed himself there, is there a man over thirteen and under ninety who would not have been ready to meet him—is there a river on this continent that would not have run red with blood—is there a field but would have been piled high, with the unburied bones of slaughtered Americans before these consecrated battle-fields of liberty should have been wrested from us? But this same American goes into a sister republic, and says to poor, weak Mexico, “Give up your territory—you are unworthy to possess it —I have got one-half already—all I ask you is to give up the other!” England might as well, in the circumstances I have described, have come and demanded of us, “Give up the Atlantic slope—give up this trifling territory from the Alleghany Mountains to the sea; it is only from Maine to St. Mary's—only about onethird your republic, and the least interesting portion of it.” What would be the response? They would say, “We must give this up to John Bull. Why?” “He wants room.” The Senator from Michigan says he must have this. Why, my worthy Christian brother, on what principle of justice? “I want room!”

Sir, look at this pretence of want of room. With 20,000,000 people you have about 1,000,000,000 acres of land, inviting settlement by every conceivable argument-bringing them down to a quarter of a dollar an acre, and allowing every man to squat where he pleases. But the Senator from Michigan says we will be 200,000,000 in a few years, and we want room. If I were a Mexican, I would tell you, “Have you not room in your own country to bury your dead men? If you come into mine we will greet you with bloody hands, and welcome you to hospitable graves.”

“Why,” says the chairman of this committee of foreign relations, “it is the most reasonable thing in the world! We ought to have the Bay of San Francisco.” Why? Because it is the best harbor on the Pacific! It has been my fortune, Mr. President, to have practised a good deal in criminal courts in the course of my life, but I never yet heard a thief, arraigned for stealing a horse, plead that it was the best horse that he could find in the country! We want California. What for? “Why,” says the Senator from Michigan, “we will have it;” and the Senator from South Carolina, with a very mistaken view, I think, of policy, says, “You can't keep our people from going there.” I don't desire to prevent them. Let them go and seek their happiness in whatever country or clime it pleases them.

All I ask of them is, not to require this government to protect them with that banner consecrated to war waged for principles—eternal, enduring truth. Sir, it is not meet that our flag should throw its protecting folds over expeditions for lucre or for land. But you still say you want room for your people. This has been the plea of every robber-chief from Nimrod to the present hour. I dare say, when Tamerlane descended from his throne, built of 70,000 human skulls, and marched his ferocious battalions to further slaughter, I dare say he said, “I want room.” Bajazet was another gentleman of kindred taste and wants with us Anglo-Saxons—he “wanted room.” Alexander, too, the mighty “MacEDONIANdonian madman,” when he wandered with his Greeks to the plains of India, and fought a bloody battle on the very ground where recently England and the Sikhs engaged in strife for “room,” was, no doubt, in quest of some California there. Many a Monterey had he to storm to get “room.” Sir, he made quite as much of that sort of history as you ever will. Mr. President, do you remember the last chapter in that history? It is soon read. Oh! [396] I wish we could but understand its moral. Ammon's son (so was Alexander named), after all his victories, died drunk in Babylon! The vast empire he conquered to get room became the prey of the generals he had trained; it was disparted, torn to pieces, and so ended. Sir, there is a very significant appendix; it is this: the descendants of the Greeks— of Alexander's Greeks—are now governed by the descendants of Attila! Mr. President, while we are fighting for room, let us ponder deeply this appendix. I was somewhat amazed, the other day, to hear the Senator from Michigan declare that Europe had quite forgotten us till these battles waked them up. I suppose the Senator feels grateful to the President for “waking up” Europe. Does the President, who is, I hope, read in civic as well as military lore, remember the saying of one who had pondered upon history long—long, too, upon man, his nature and true destiny? Montesquieu did not think highly of this way of “waking up.” “Happy,” says he, “is the nation whose annals are tiresome.”

The Senator from Michigan has a different view of this. He thinks that a nation is not distinguished until it is distinguished in war; he fears that the slumbering faculties of Europe have not been able to ascertain that there are 20,000,000 Anglo-Saxons here, making railroads and canals, and speeding all the arts of peace to the utmost accomplishment of the most refined civilization. They do not know it! And what is the wonderful expedient which the democratic method of making history would adopt in order to make us known? Storming cities, desolating peaceful, happy homes, shooting men—ay, sir, such is war—and shooting women, too!

Sir, I have read, in some account of your battle of Monterey, of a lovely Mexican girl, who, with the benevolence of an angel in her bosom, and the robust courage of a hero in her heart, was busily engaged during the bloody conflict, amid the crash of falling houses, the groans of the dying, and the wild shriek of battle, in carrying water to slake the burning thirst of the wounded of either host. While bending over a wounded American soldier, a cannon ball struck her and blew her to atoms. Sir, I do not charge my brave, generous-hearted countrymen who fought that fight with this. No, no! We who send them—we who know that scenes like this, which might send tears of sorrow “down Pluto's iron cheek,” are the invariable, inevitable attendants on war— we are accountable for this. And this— this is the way we are to be made known to Europe. This—this is to be the undying renown of free, republican America! “She has stormed a city—killed many of its inhabitants of both sexes— she has room!” So it will read. Sir, if this were our only history, then may God of his mercy grant that its volume may speedily come to a close.

Why is it, sir, that we of the United States, a people of yesterday compared with the older nations of the world, should be waging war for territory—for “room” ? Look at your country, extending from the Alleghany Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, capable itself of sustaining in comfort a larger population than will be in the whole Union for 100 years to come. Over this vast expanse of territory your population is now so sparse that I believe we provided, at the last session, a regiment of mounted men to guard the mail from the frontier of Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia; and yet you persist in the ridiculous assertion, “I want room.” One would imagine, from the frequent reiteration of the complaint, that you had a bursting, teeming population, whose energy was paralyzed, whose enterprise was crushed, for want of space. Why should we be so weak or wicked as to offer this idle apology for ravaging a neighboring republic? It will impose on no one at home or abroad.

Do we not know, Mr. President, that it is a law never to be repealed, that falsehood shall be short-lived? Was it not ordained of old that truth only shall abide forever? Whatever we may say to-day, or whatever we may write in our books, the stern tribunal of history will review it all, detect falsehood, and bring us to judgment before that posterity which shall bless or curse us, as we may act Now, wisely or otherwise. We may hide in the grave (which awaits us all) in vain; we may hope there, like the foolish bird that hides its head in the sand, in the vain [397] belief that its body is not seen, yet even there this preposterous excuse of want of “room” shall be laid bare, and the quickcoming future will decide that it was a hypocritical pretence, under which we sought to conceal the avarice which prompted us to covet and to seize by force that which was not ours.

Mr. President, this uneasy desire to augment our territory has depraved the moral sense and blunted the otherwise keen sagacity of our people. What has been the fate of all nations who have acted upon the idea that they must advance? Our young orators cherish this notion with a fervid but fatally mistaken zeal. They call it by the mysterious name of “destiny.” “Our destiny,” they say, is “onward,” and hence they argue, with ready sophistry, the propriety of seizing upon any territory and any people that may lie in the way of our “fated” advance. Recently these progressives have grown classical; some assiduous student of antiquities has helped them to a patron saint. They have wandered back into the desolated Pantheon, and there, among the Polytheistic relics of that “pale mother of dead empires,” they have found a god whom these Romans, centuries gone by, baptized “Terminus.”

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