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Thomas Hart Benton's Remarks to the Senate on the Expunging Resolution
by Thomas Hart Benton
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Thomas Hart Benton, "On the Expunging Resolution." U.S. Senate, January 12, 1837



Mr. President:

It is now three years since the resolve was adopted by the Senate, which it is my present motion to expunge from the journal. At the moment that this resolve was adopted, I gave notice of my intention to move to expunge it; and then expressed my confident belief that the motion would eventually prevail. That expression of confidence was not an ebullition of vanity, or a presumptuous calculation, intended to accelerate the event it affected to foretell. It was not a vain boast, or an idle assumption, but was the result of a deep conviction of the injustice done President Jackson, and a thorough reliance upon the justice of the American people. I felt that the President had been wronged; and my heart told me that this wrong would be redressed! The event proves that I was not mistaken. The question of expunging this resolution has been carried to the people, and their decision has been had upon it. They decide in favor of the expurgation; and their decision has been both made and manifested, and communicated to us in a great variety of ways. A great number of States have expressly instructed their Senators to vote for this expurgation. A very great majority of the States have elected Senators and Representatives to Congress, upon the express ground of favoring this expurgation. The Bank of the United States, which took the initiative in the accusation against the President, and furnished the material, and worked the machinery which was used against him, and which was then so powerful on this floor, has become more and more odious to the public mind, and musters now but a slender phalanx of friends in the two Houses of Congress. The late Presidential election furnishes additional evidence of public sentiment. The candidate who was the friend of President Jackson, the supporter of his administration, and the avowed advocate for the expurgation, has received a large majority of the suffrages of the whole Union, and that after an express declaration of his sentiments on this precise point. The evidence of the public will, exhibited in all these forms, is too manifest to be mistaken, too explicit to require illustration, and too imperative to be disregarded. Omitting details and specific enumeration of proofs, I refer to our own files for the instructions to expunge—to the complexion of the two Houses for the temper of the people—to the denationalized condition of the Bank of the United States for the fate of the imperious accuser—and to the issue of the Presidential election for the answer of the Union.

All these are pregnant proofs of the public will, and the last pre-eminently so: because, both the question of the expurgation, and the form of the process, were directly put in issue upon it....

Assuming, then, that we have ascertained the will of the people on this great question, the inquiry presents itself, how far the expression of that will ought to be conclusive of our action here. I hold that it ought to be binding and obligatory upon us; and that, not only upon the principles of representative government, which require obedience to the known will of the people, but also in conformity to the principles upon which the proceeding against President Jackson was conducted when the sentence against him was adopted. Then everything was done with especial reference to the will of the people. Their impulsion was assumed to be the sole motive to action; and to them the ultimate verdict was expressly referred. The whole machinery of alarm and pressure—every engine of political and moneyed power—was put in motion, and worked for many months, to excite the people against the President; and to stir up meetings, memorials, petitions, travelling committees, and distress deputations against him; and each symptom of popular discontent was hailed as an evidence of public will, and quoted here as proof that the people demanded the condemnation of the President. Not only legislative assemblies, and memorials from large assemblies, were then produced here as evidence of public opinion, but the petitions of boys under age, the remonstrances of a few signers, and the results of the most inconsiderable elections were ostentatiously paraded and magnified, as the evidence of the sovereign will of our constituents. Thus, sir, the public voice was everything, while that voice, partially obtained through political and pecuniary machinations, was adverse to the President. Then the popular will was the shrine at which all worshipped. Now, when that will is regularly, soberly, repeatedly, and almost universally expressed through the ballot-boxes, at the various elections, and turns out to be in favor of the President, certainly no one can disregard it, nor otherwise look at it than as the solemn verdict of the competent and ultimate tribunal upon an issue fairly made up, fully argued, and duly submitted for decision. As such verdict, I receive it. As the deliberate verdict of the sovereign people, I bow to it. I am content. I do not mean to reopen the case nor to recommence the argument. I leave that work to others, if any others choose to perform it. For myself, I am content; and, dispensing with further argument, I shall call for judgment, and ask to have execution done, upon that unhappy journal, which the verdict of millions of freemen finds guilty of bearing on its face an untrue, illegal, and unconstitutional sentence of condemnation against the approved President of the Republic.

But, while declining to reopen the argument of this question, and refusing to tread over again the ground already traversed, there is another and a different task to perform; one which the approaching termination of President Jackson's administration makes peculiarly proper at this time, and which it is my privilege, and perhaps my duty, to execute, as being the suitable conclusion to the arduous contest in which we have been so long engaged. I allude to the general tenor of his administration, and to its effect, for good or for evil, upon the condition of his country. This is the proper time for such a view to be taken. The political existence of this great man now draws to a close. In little more than forty days he ceases to be an object of political hope to any, and should cease to be an object of political hate, or envy, to all. Whatever of motive the servile and time-serving might have found in his exalted station for raising the altar of adulation, and burning the incense of praise before him, that motive can no longer exist. The dispenser of the patronage of an empire, the chief of this great confederacy of States, is soon to be a private individual, stripped of all power to reward, or to punish. His own thoughts, as he has shown us in the concluding paragraph of that message which is to be the last of its kind that we shall ever receive from him, are directed to that beloved retirement from which he was drawn by the voice of millions of freemen, and to which he now looks for that interval of repose which age and infirmities require. Under these circumstances, he ceases to be a subject for the ebullition of the passions, and passes into a character for the contemplation of history. Historically, then, shall I view him; and limiting this view to his civil administration, I demand, where is there a Chief Magistrate of whom so much evil has been predicted, and from whom so much good has come? Never has any man entered upon the Chief Magistracy of a country under such appalling predictions of ruin and woe! never has any one been so pursued with direful prognostications! never has any one been so beset and impeded by a powerful combination of political and moneyed confederates! never has any one in any country where the administration of justice has risen above the knife or the bowstring, been so lawlessly and shamelessly tried and condemned by rivals and enemies, without hearing, without defence, without the forms of law and justice! History has been ransacked to find examples of tyrants sufficiently odious to illustrate him by comparison. Language has been tortured to find epithets sufficiently strong to paint him in description. Imagination has been exhausted in her efforts to deck him with revolting and inhuman attributes. Tyrant, despot, usurper; destroyer of the liberties of his country; rash, ignorant, imbecile; endangering the public peace with all foreign nations; destroying domestic prosperity at home; ruining all industry, all commerce, all manufactures; annihilating confidence between man and man; delivering up the streets of populous cities to grass and weeds, and the wharves of commercial towns to the encumbrance of decaying vessels; depriving labor of all reward; depriving industry of all employment; destroying the currency; plunging an innocent and happy people from the summit of felicity to the depths of misery, want, and despair. Such is the faint outline, followed up by actual condemnation, of the appalling denunciations daily uttered against this one MAN, from the moment he became an object of political competition, down to the concluding moment of his political existence.

The sacred voice of inspiration has told us that there is a time for all things. There certainly has been a time for every evil that human nature admits of to be vaticinated of President Jackson's administration; equally certain the time has now come for all rational and well-disposed people to compare the predictions with the facts, and to ask themselves if these calamitous prognostications have been verified by events? Have we peace, or war, with foreign nations? Certainly, we have peace with all the world! peace with all its benign, and felicitous, and beneficent influences! Are we respected, or despised abroad? Certainly the American name never was more honored throughout the four quarters of the globe than in this very moment. Do we hear of indignity or outrage in any quarter? of merchants robbed in foreign ports? of vessels searched on the high seas? of American citizens impressed into foreign service? of the national flag insulted anywhere? On the contrary, we see former wrongs repaired; no new ones inflicted. France pays twenty-five millions of francs for spoliations committed thirty years ago; Naples pays two millions one hundred thousand ducats for wrongs of the same date; Denmark pays six hundred and fifty thousand rix-dollars for wrongs done a quarter of a century ago; Spain engages to pay twelve millions of reals vellon for injuries of fifteen years' date; and Portugal, the last in the list of former aggressors, admits her liability and only waits the adjustment of details to close her account by adequate indemnity. So far from war, insult, contempt, and spoliation from abroad, this denounced administration has been the season of peace and goodwill and the auspicious era of universal reparation. So far from suffering injury at the hands of foreign powers, our merchants have received indemnities for all former injuries. It has been the day of accounting, of settlement, and of retribution. The total list of arrearages, extending through four successive previous administrations, has been closed and settled up. The wrongs done to commerce for thirty years back, and under so many different Presidents, and indemnities withheld from all, have been repaired and paid over under the beneficent and glorious administration of President Jackson. But one single instance of outrage has occurred, and that at the extremities of the world, and by a piratical horde, amenable to no law but the law of force. The Malays of Sumatra committed a robbery and massacre upon an American vessel. Wretches! they did not then know that JACKSON was President of the United States! and that no distance, no time, no idle ceremonial of treating with robbers and assassins, was to hold back the arm of justice. Commodore Downes went out. His cannon and his bayonets struck the outlaws in their den. They paid in terror and blood for the outrage which was committed; and the great lesson was taught to these distant pirates—to our antipodes themselves—that not even the entire diameter of this globe could protect them, and that the name of American citizen, like that of Roman citizen in the great days of the Republic and of the empire, was to be the inviolable passport of all that wore it throughout the whole extent of the habitable world....

From President Jackson, the country has first learned the true theory and practical intent of the Constitution, in giving to the Executive a qualified negative on the legislative power of Congress. Far from being an odious, dangerous, or kingly prerogative, this power, as vested in the President, is nothing but a qualified copy of the famous veto power vested in the tribunes of the people among the Romans, and intended to suspend the passage of a law until the people themselves should have time to consider it. The qualified veto of the President destroys nothing; it only delays the passage of a law, and refers it to the people for their consideration and decision. It is the reference of a law, not to a committee of the House, or of the whole House, but to the committee of the whole Union. It is a recommitment of the bill to the people, for them to examine and consider; and if, upon this examination, they are content to pass it, it will pass at the next session. The delay of a few months is the only effect of a veto, in a case where the people shall ultimately approve a law; where they do not approve it, the interposition of the veto is the barrier which saves them the adoption of a law, the repeal of which might afterward be almost impossible. The qualified negative is, therefore, a beneficent power, intended as General Hamilton expressly declares in the "Federalist," to protect, first, the executive department from the encroachments of the legislative department; and, secondly, to preserve the people from hasty, dangerous or criminal legislation on the part of their representatives. This is the design and intention of the veto power; and the fear expressed by General Hamilton was, that Presidents, so far from exercising it too often, would not exercise it as often as the safety of the people required; that they might lack the moral courage to stake themselves in opposition to a favorite measure of the majority of the two Houses of Congress; and thus deprive the people, in many instances, of their right to pass upon a bill before it becomes a final law. The cases in which President Jackson has exercised the veto power have shown the soundness of these observations. No ordinary President would have staked himself against the Bank of the United States and the two Houses of Congress in 1832. It required President Jackson to confront that power—to stem that torrent—to stay the progress of that charter, and to refer it to the people for their decision. His moral courage was equal to the crisis. He arrested the charter until it could be got to the people, and they have arrested it forever. Had he not done so, the charter would have become law, and its repeal almost impossible. The people of the whole Union would now have been in the condition of the people of Pennsylvania, bestrode by the monster, in daily conflict with him, and maintaining a doubtful contest for supremacy between the government of a State and the directory of a moneyed corporation....

Sir, I think it right, in approaching the termination of this great question, to present this faint and rapid sketch of the brilliant, beneficent, and glorious administration of President Jackson. It is not for me to attempt to do it justice; it is not for ordinary men to attempt its history. His military life, resplendent with dazzling events, will demand the pen of a nervous writer; his civil administration, replete with scenes which have called into action so many and such various passions of the human heart, and which has given to native sagacity so many victories over practiced politicians, will require the profound, luminous, and philosophical conceptions of a Livy, a Plutarch, or a Sallust. This history is not to be written in our day. The contemporaries of such events are not the hands to describe them. Time must first do its office—must silence the passions, remove the actors, develop consequences, and canonize all that is sacred to honor, patriotism, and glory. In after ages the historic genius of our America shall produce the writers which the subject demands—men far removed from the contests of this day, who will know how to estimate this great epoch, and how to acquire an immortality for their own names by painting, with a master's hand, the immortal events of the patriot President's life.

And now, sir, I finish the task which, three years ago, I imposed on myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents, I put this ball in motion. The people have taken it up, and rolled it forward, and I am no longer anything but a unit in the vast mass which now propels it. In the name of that mass I speak. I demand the execution of the edict of the people; I demand the expurgation of that sentence which the voice of a few Senators, and the power of their confederate, the Bank of the United States, has caused to be placed on the journal of the Senate; and which the voice of millions of freemen has ordered to be expunged from it.

THE END

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