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Henry Clay's Remarks in House and Senate
by Henry Clay
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Henry Clay, "On the Seminole War," U.S. House of Representatives 19 January 1819.

Henry Clay, "On the Expunging Resolutions," U.S. Senate 16 January 1837



Part 1

Henry Clay, "On the Expunging Resolutions," U.S. Senate, 16 January 1837

Mr. President:

WHAT patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this Expunging resolution? What new honor or fresh laurels will it win for our common country? Is the power of the Senate so vast that it ought to be circumscribed, and that of the President so restricted that it ought to be extended? What power has the Senate? None, separately. It can only act jointly with the other House, or jointly with the Executive. And although the theory of the Constitution supposes, when consulted by him, it may freely give an affirmative or negative response, according to the practice, as it now exists, it has lost the faculty of pronouncing the negative monosyllable. When the Senate expresses its deliberate judgment, in the form of resolution, that resolution has no compulsory force, but appeals only to the dispassionate intelligence, the calm reason, and the sober judgment, of the community. The Senate has no army, no navy, no patronage, no lucrative offices, no glittering honors, to bestow. Around us there is no swarm of greedy expectants, rendering us homage, anticipating our wishes, and ready to execute our commands.

How is it with the President? Is he powerless? He is felt from one extremity to the other of this vast Republic. By means of principles which he has introduced, and innovations which he has made in our institutions, alas! but too much countenanced by Congress and a confiding people, he exercises, uncontrolled, the power of the State. In one hand he holds the purse, and in the other brandishes the sword of the country. Myriads of dependants and partisans, scattered over the land, are ever ready to sing hosannas to him, and to laud to the skies whatever he does. He has swept over the government, during the last eight years, like a tropical tornado. Every department exhibits traces of the ravages of the storm. Take as one example the Bank of the United States. No institution could have been more popular with the people, with Congress, and with State Legislatures. None ever better fulfilled the great purposes of its establishment. But it unfortunately incurred the displeasure of the President; he spoke, and the bank lies prostrate. And those who were loudest in its praise are now loudest in its condemnation. What object of his ambition is unsatisfied? When disabled from age any longer to hold the sceptre of power, he designates his successor, and transmits it to his favorite! What more does he want? Must we blot, deface, and mutilate the records of the country, to punish the presumptuousness of expressing an opinion contrary to his own? What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this Expunging resolution? Can you make that not to be which has been? Can you eradicate from memory and from history the fact that in March, 1834, a majority of the Senate of the United States passed the resolution which excites your enmity? Is it your vain and wicked object to arrogate to yourselves that power of annihilating the past which has been denied to Omnipotence itself? Do you intend to thrust your hands into our hearts, and to pluck out the deeply rooted convictions which are there? Or is it your design merely to stigmatize us? You cannot stigmatize us.

"Ne'er yet did base dishonor blur our name."

Standing securely upon our conscious rectitude, and bearing aloft the shield of the Constitution of our country, your puny efforts are impotent; and we defy all your power. Put the majority of 1834 in one scale, and that by which this Expunging resolution is to be carried in the other, and let truth and justice, in heaven above and on earth below, and liberty and patriotism, decide the preponderance.

What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by the Expunging resolution? Is it to appease the wrath and to heal the wounded pride of the Chief Magistrate? If he be really the hero that his friends represent him, he must despise all mean condescension, all grovelling sycophancy, all self-degradation and self-abasement. He would reject, with scorn and contempt, as unworthy of his fame, your black scratches and your baby lines in the fair records of his country. Black lines! Black lines! Sir, I hope the Secretary of the Senate will preserve the pen with which he may inscribe them, and present it to that Senator of the majority whom he may select, as a proud trophy, to be transmitted to his descendants. And hereafter, when we shall lose the forms of our free institutions, all that now remain to us, some future American monarch, in gratitude to those by whose means he has been enabled, upon the ruins of civil liberty, to erect a throne, and to commemorate especially this Expunging resolution, may institute a new order of knighthood, and confer on it the appropriate name of "the Knights of the Black Lines."

But why should I detain the Senate, or needlessly waste my breath in fruitless exertions? The decree has gone forth. It is one of urgency, too. The deed is to be done—that foul deed which, like the blood, staining the hands of the guilty Macbeth, all ocean's waters will never wash out. Proceed, then, to the noble work which lies before you, and, like other skilful executioners, do it quickly. And when you have perpetrated it, go home to the people, and tell them what glorious honors you have achieved for our common country. Tell them that you have extinguished one of the brightest and purest lights that ever burned at the altar of civil liberty. Tell them that you have silenced one of the noblest batteries that ever thundered in defence of the Constitution, and bravely spiked the cannon. Tell them that, henceforward, no matter what daring or outrageous act any president may perform, you have forever hermetically sealed the mouth of the Senate. Tell them that he may fearlessly assume what powers he pleases, snatch from its lawful custody the public purse, command a military detachment to enter the halls of the Capitol, overawe Congress, trample down the Constitution, and raze every bulwark of freedom; but that the Senate must stand mute, in silent submission, and not dare to raise its opposing voice. Tell them that it must wait until a House of Representatives, humbled and subdued like itself, and a majority of it composed of the partisans of the President, shall prefer articles of impeachment. Tell them, finally, that you have restored the glorious doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance. And, if the people do not pour out their indignation and imprecations, I have yet to learn the character of American freemen.



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Part 2

Henry Clay, "On the Seminole War," U.S. House of Representatives, 19 January 1819.

IF MY recollection does not deceive me, Bonaparte had passed the Rhine and the Alps, had conquered Italy, the Netherlands, Holland, Hanover, Lubec, and Hamburg, and extended his empire as far as Altona, on the side of Denmark. A few days' march would have carried him through Holstein, over the two Belts, through Funen, and into the island of Zealand. What, then, was the conduct of England? It was my lot to fall into conversation with an intelligent Englishman on this subject. "We knew (said he) that we were fighting for our existence. It was absolutely necessary that we should preserve the command of the seas. If the fleet of Denmark fell into the enemy's hands, combined with his other fleets, that command might be rendered doubtful. Denmark had only a nominal independence. She was, in truth, subject to his sway. We said to her, Give us your fleet; it will otherwise be taken possession of by your secret and our open enemy. We will preserve it and restore it to you whenever the danger shall be over. Denmark refused. Copenhagen was bombarded, and gallantly defended, but the fleet was seized." Everywhere the conduct of England was censured; and the name even of the negotiator who was employed by her, who was subsequently the minister near this government, was scarcely ever pronounced here without coupling with it an epithet indicating his participation in the disgraceful transaction. And yet we are going to sanction acts of violence, committed by ourselves, which but too much resemble it! What an important difference, too, between the relative condition of England and of this country! She, perhaps, was struggling for her existence. She was combating, single-handed, the most enormous military power that the world has ever known. With whom were we contending? With a few half-starved, half-clothed, wretched Indians and fugitive slaves. And while carrying on this inglorious war, inglorious as regards the laurels or renown won in it, we violate neutral rights, which the government had solemnly pledged itself to respect, upon the principle of convenience, or upon the light presumption that, by possibility, a post might be taken by this miserable combination of Indians and slaves....

I will not trespass much longer upon the time of the committee; but I trust I shall be indulged with some few reflections upon the danger of permitting the conduct on which it has been my painful duty to animadvert, to pass without the solemn expression of the disapprobation of this House. Recall to your recollection the free nations which have gone before us. Where are they now?

"Gone glimmering through the dream of things that were, A schoolboy's tale, the wonder of an hour."

And how have they lost their liberties? If we could transport ourselves back to the ages when Greece and Rome flourished in their greatest prosperity, and, mingling in the throng, should ask a Grecian if he did not fear that some daring military chieftain, covered with glory, some Philip or Alexander, would one day overthrow the liberties of his country, the confident and indignant Grecian would exclaim, No! no! we have nothing to fear from our heroes; our liberties will be eternal. If a Roman citizen had been asked if he did not fear that the conqueror of Gaul might establish a throne upon the ruins of public liberty, he would have instantly repelled the unjust insinuation. Yet Greece fell; Caesar passed the Rubicon, and the patriotic arm even of Brutus could not preserve the liberties of his devoted country! The celebrated Madame de Stael, in her last and perhaps her best work, has said, that in the very year, almost the very month, when the president of the Directory declared that monarchy would never more show its frightful head in France, Bonaparte, with his grenadiers, entered the palace of St. Cloud, and, dispersing with the bayonet the deputies of the people deliberating on the affairs of the State, laid the foundation of that vast fabric of despotism which overshadowed all Europe. I hope not to be misunderstood; I am far from intimating that General Jackson cherishes any designs inimical to the liberties of the country. I believe his intentions to be pure and patriotic. I thank God that he would not, but I thank him still more that he could not if he would, overturn the liberties of the Republic. But precedents, if bad, are fraught with the most dangerous consequences. Man has been described, by some of those who have treated of his nature, as a bundle of habits. The definition is much truer when applied to governments. Precedents are their habits. There is one important difference between the formation of habits by an individual and by governments. He contracts only after frequent repetition. A single instance fixes the habit and determines the direction of governments. Against the alarming doctrine of unlimited discretion in our military commanders when applied even to prisoners of war, I must enter my protest. It begins upon them; it will end on us. I hope our happy form of government is to be perpetual. But, if it is to be preserved, it must be by the practice of virtue, by justice, by moderation, by magnanimity, by greatness of soul, by keeping a watchful and steady eye on the Executive; and, above all, by holding to a strict accountability the military branch of the public force.

We are fighting a great moral battle for the benefit not only of our country, but of all mankind. The eyes of the whole world are in fixed attention upon us. One, and the larger portion of it, is gazing with contempt, with jealousy, and with envy; the other portion, with hope, with confidence, and with affection. Everywhere the black cloud of legitimacy is suspended over the world, save only one bright spot, which breaks out from the political hemisphere of the West, to enlighten and animate and gladden the human heart. Obscure that by the downfall of liberty here, and all mankind are enshrouded in a pall of universal darkness. To you, Mr. Chairman, belongs the high privilege of transmitting, unimpaired, to posterity the fair character and liberty of our country. Do you expect to execute this high trust by trampling, or suffering to be trampled down, law, justice, the Constitution, and the rights of the people? by exhibiting examples of inhumanity and cruelty and ambition? When the minions of despotism heard, in Europe, of the seizure of Pensacola, how did they chuckle, and chide the admirers of our institutions, tauntingly pointing to the demonstration of a spirit of injustice and aggrandizement made by our country, in the midst of an amicable negotiation! Behold, said they, the conduct of those who are constantly reproaching kings! You saw how those admirers were astounded and hung their heads. You saw, too, when that illustrious man, who presides over us, adopted his pacific, moderate, and just course, how they once more lifted up their heads with exultation and delight beaming in their countenances. And you saw how those minions themselves were finally compelled to unite in the general praises bestowed upon our government. Beware how you forfeit this exalted character. Beware how you give a fatal sanction, in this infant period of our Republic, scarcely yet twoscore years old, to military insubordination. Remember that Greece had her Alexander, Rome her Caesar, England her Cromwell, France her Bonaparte, and that if we would escape the rock on which they split we must avoid their errors.

How different has been the treatment of General Jackson and that modest, but heroic young man, a native of one of the smallest States in the Union, who achieved for his country, on Lake Erie, one of the most glorious victories of the late war. In a moment of passion he forgot himself and offered an act of violence which was repented of as soon as perpetrated. He was tried, and suffered the judgment to be pronounced by his peers. Public justice was thought not even then to be satisfied. The press and Congress took up the subject. My honorable friend from Virginia, Mr. Johnson, the faithful and consistent sentinel of the law and of the Constitution, disapproved in that instance, as he does in this, and moved an inquiry. The public mind remained agitated and unappeased until the recent atonement, so honorably made by the gallant commodore. And is there to be a distinction between the officers of the two branches of the public service? Are former services, however eminent, to preclude even inquiry into recent misconduct? Is there to be no limit, no prudential bounds to the national gratitude? I am not disposed to censure the President for not ordering a court of inquiry, or a general court-martial. Perhaps, impelled by a sense of gratitude, he determined, by anticipation, to extend to the general that pardon which he had the undoubted right to grant after sentence. Let us not shrink from our duty. Let us assert our constitutional powers, and vindicate the instrument from military violation.

I hope gentlemen will deliberately survey the awful isthmus on which we stand. They may bear down all opposition; they may even vote the general the public thanks; they may carry him triumphantly through this House. But, if they do, in my humble judgment, it will be a triumph of the principle of insubordination, a triumph of the military over the civil authority, a triumph over the powers of this House, a triumph over the Constitution of the land. And I pray most devoutly to Heaven that it may not prove, in its ultimate effects and consequences, a triumph over the liberties of the people.

THE END

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