« PreviousContinue »
Why should there be nothing but grant, and trust, and confidence, on our side, and nothing but discretion and power on his?
Sir, if there be any philosophy in history; if human blood still runs in human veins; if man still conforms to the identity of his nature, the institutions which secure constitutional liberty can never stand long against this excessive personal confidence, against this devotion to men-in utter disregard both of principle and experience, which seems to me to be strongly characteristic of our times. This vote came to us, sir, from the popular branch of the Legislature; and that such a vote should come from such a branch of the Legislature, was amongst the circumstances which excited in me the greatest surprise and the deepest concern. Certainly, sir, certainly I was not, on that account, the more inclined to concur. It was no argument with me that others seemed to be rushing, with such heedless, headlong trust, such impetuosity of confidence, into the arms of Executive power. I held back the stronger, and would hold back the longer. I see, or I think I see, it is either a true vision of the future, revealed by the history of the past, or, if it be an illusion, it is an illusion which appears to me in all the brightness and sunlight of broad noon, that it is in this career of personal confidence, along this beaten track of man-worship, marked, every furlong, by the fragments of other free Governments, that our own system is making progress to its close. A personal popularity, honorably earned, at first by military achievements, and sustained now by party, by patronage, and by enthusiasm which looks for no ill, because it means no ill itself, seems to render men willing to gratify power, even before its demands are made, and to surfeit Executive discretion, even in anticipation of its own appetite. Sir, if, on the 3d of March last, it had been the purpose of both Houses of Congress to create a military dictator, what formula had been better suited to their purpose than this vote of the House? It is true, we might have given more money, if we had had it to give. We might have emptied the Treasury; but as to the form of the gift, we could not have bettered it. Rome had no better models. When we give our money for any military purpose whatever, what remains to be done? If we leave it with one man to decide, not only whether the military means of the country shall be used at all, but how they shall be used, and to what extent they shall be employed, what remains either for Congress or the People but to sit still, and see how this dictatorial power will be exercised? On the 3d of March, sir, I had not forgotten-it was impossible that I should have forgotten the recommendation in the message, at the opening of that session, that power should be vested in the President to issue letters of marque and reprisal against France, at his discretion, in the recess of Congress. Happily this power was not granted; but suppose it had been, what would then have been
the true condition of this Government?
Why, sir, this condition is very shortly described. The whole war power would have been in the hands of the President; for no man can doubt a moment that reprisals would bring on immediate war; and the Treasury, to the amount of this vote, in addition to all ordinary appropriations, would have been at his absolute disposal also. And all this in a time of peace. I beseech all true lovers of constitutional liberty, to contemplate this state of things, and tell me whether such be a true republican administration of this Government. Whether particular consequences had ensued or not, is such an accumulation of power in the hands of the Executive according to the spirit of our system? Is it either wise or safe? Has it any warrant in the practice of former times? Or are gentlemen ready to establish the practice, as an example for the benefit of those who are to come after us?
But, sir, if the power to make reprisals, and this money from the Treasury, had both been granted, is there not great reason to believe that we should have been now up to our ears in a hot war? I think there is great reason to believe this. It will be said, I know, that if we had armed the President with this power of war, and supplied him with this grant of money, France would have taken this for such a proof of spirit on our part, that she would have paid the indemnity without further delay. This is the old story, and the old plea. Every one who desires more power than the Constitution or the Laws give him, always says, that if he had more power, he could do more good. Power is always claimed for the good of the People; and dictators are always made, when made at all, for the good of the People. For my part, sir, I was content, and am content, to show France that we are prepared to maintain our just rights, against her, by the exertion of our power, when need be, according to the forms of our own Constitution; that, if we make war, we will make it constitutionally; and that we will trust all our interests, both in peace and war, to what the intelligence and the strength of the country may do for them, without breaking down or endangering the fabric of the free institutions.
Mr. President, it is the misfortune of the Senate to have differed with the President on many great questions during the last four or five years. I have regretted this state of things deeply, both on personal and on public account; but it has been unavoidable. It is no pleasant employment, it is no holiday business, to maintain opposition against power and against majorities, and to contend for stern and sturdy principle, against personal popularity, against a rushing and overwhelming confidence, that, by wave upon wave, and cataract after cataract, seems to be bearing away and destroying whatsoever would withstand it. How much longer we may be able to support this opposition in any degree, or whether we can
possibly hold out till the public intelligence and the public patriotism shall be awakened to a due sense of the public danger, it is not for me to foretell. I shall not despair to the last, if, in the mean time, we be true to our own principles. If there be a steadfast adherence to these principles, both here and elsewhere, if, one and all, they continue the rule of our conduct in the Senate, and the rallying point of those who think with us and support us out of the Senate, I am content to hope on, and to struggle on. While it remains a contest for the preservation of the Constitution, for the security of public liberty, for the ascendency of principles over men, I am willing to bear my part of it. If we can maintain the Constitution, if we can preserve this security for liberty, if we can thus give to true principle its just superionty over party, over persons, over names, our labors will be richly rewarded. If we fail in all this, they are already among the living, who will write the history of this Government, from its commencement to its close.
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, MARCH 16, 1836, ON PRESENTING SUNDRY ABOLITION PETITIONS.
MR. WEBSTER addressed the Senate as follows:
AGREEABLY to notice, I offer sundry petitions on the subject of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The first purports to be signed by two thousand four hundred and twentyfive of the female inhabitants of Boston.
This petition is in the usual printed form. It is respectful to Congress, and contains no reproaches on any body. It asks for the consideration of Congress, both with respect to the existence of slavery in the District, and with respect to the slave trade in the District.
The second is a petition, signed by Joseph Filson, and about a hundred others, citizens of Boston, some of whom are known to me, and are highly respectable persons. The petition is to the same effect, and in the same form.
The third petition appears to be signed by a large number of persons, inhabitants of Wayne county, in Michigan. I am not acquainted with them. It is a printed petition, different in form from the preceding, drawn more at length, and going farther into the subject. But I perceive nothing in it disrespectful to the Senate, or reproachful to others.
The fourth petition is like the two first, in substance and in form. It is signed by four hundred and thirty-three citizens of Boston. Among these signors, Sir, I recognize the names of many persons well known to me to be gentlenen of great worth and respectability. There are clergymen, lawyers, merchants, literary men, manufacturers, and indeed persons from all classes of society.
I ask, Sir, that these petitions may be received, and move that they be referred to the Committee for the District of Columbia. This motion itself, Sir, sufficiently shows in what manner I think this subject ought to be treated in the Senate.
The petitioners ask Congress to consider the propriety and expediency of two things-first, of making provision for the extinction of slavery in the District; second, of abolishing or restraining the trade in slaves within the District. Similar petitions have already
been received. Those gentlemen who think Congress have no power over any part of the subject, if they are clear and settled in that opinion, were perfectly justifiable in voting not to receive them. Any petition, which, in our opinion, asks us to do that which is plainly against the Constitution, we might very justly reject. As, if persons should petition us to pass a law abridging the freedom of the press, or respecting an establishment of religion, such petition would very properly be denied any reception at all.
In doubtful cases, we should incline to receive and consider; because doubtful cases ought not to be decided without consideration. But I cannot regard this case as a doubtful one. I think the constitutional power of Congress over the subject is clear, and, therefore, that we were bound to receive the petitions. And a large majority of the Senate are also of opinion that the petitions ought to be received.
I have often, Mr. President, expressed the opinion that, over slavery, as it exists in the States, this Government has no control whatever. It is entirely and exclusively a State concern. while it is thus clear that Congress has no direct power over the subject, it is our duty to take care that the authority of this Government is not brought to bear upon it by any indirect interference whatever. It must be left to the States, to the course of things, and to those causes over which this Government has no control. All this, in my opinion, is in the clear line of our duty.
On the other hand, believing that Congress has constitutional power over slavery, and the trade in slaves, within the District, I think petitions on those subjects, respectfully presented, ought to be respectfully treated, and respectfully considered. The respectful mode, the proper mode, is the ordinary mode. We have a committee on the affairs of the District. For very obvious reasons, and without any reference to this question, this committee is ordinarily composed principally of Southern gentlemen. For many years a member from Virginia or Maryland has, I believe, been at the head of the committee. The committee, therefore, is the appropriate one, and there can be possibly no objection to it, on account of the manner in which it is constituted.
Now, I believe, Sir, that the unanimous opinion of the North is, that Congress has no authority over slavery in the States; and perhaps equally unanimously, that over slavery in the District it has such rightful authority.
Then, Sir, the question is a question of the fitness, propriety, justice, and expediency of considering these two subjects, or either of them, according to the prayer of these petitions.
It is well known to us and the country, that Congress has hitherto entertained inquiries on both these points. On the 9th of January, 1809, the House of Representatives resolved, by very