Henry Clay.

Speech of Henry Clay, of Kentucky, on certain resolutions offered to the Senate of the United States in December, 1837, by Mr. Calhoun, of South Carolina, involving principles of interpretation of the Constitution of the United States; online

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Online LibraryHenry ClaySpeech of Henry Clay, of Kentucky, on certain resolutions offered to the Senate of the United States in December, 1837, by Mr. Calhoun, of South Carolina, involving principles of interpretation of the Constitution of the United States; → online text (page 1 of 2)
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Delivered in the Senate U. S., January 9, 1838.






The question being on the adoption of tlie first of the two following
resolutions, in the series presented by Mr. Calhoun, to wit :

"Resolved, That the intermeddling of any State or States, or their citizens, to
abolish slavery in this District, or any of the Territories, on the ground, or un-
der the pretext, that it is immoral or sinful, or the passage of any act or meas-
ure of Congress, with that view, would be a direct and dangerous attack on the
institutions of all the slaveholding States.

"Resolved, That the union of these States rests on an equality of rights and ad-
vantages among its members ; and that whatever destroys that equality tends to
destroy the Union itself; and that it is the solemn duty of all, and more especial-
ly of this body, which represents the States in their corporate capacity, to resist
all attempts to discriminate between the States in extending the benefits of the
Government to the several portions of the Union ; and that to refuse to extend to
the southern and western States any advantage which would tend to strengthen
or render them more secure, or increase their limits or population by the annex-
ation of new territory or States, on the assumption, or under the pretext, that
the Institution of slavery, as it exists among them, is immoral or sinful, or other-
wise obnoxious, would be contrary to that equality of rights and advantages
which the constitution was intended to secure alike to all the members of the
Union, and would, in effect, disfranchise the slaveholding States, withholding
from them the advantages, while it subjected them to the burdens, of the Gov-

Mr. Clay, of Kentucky, rose to say a {evi words. He said that he
could vote for neither the fifth nor sixth resolution, in the shape
in which they were presented by the Senator from South Carolina.
Although he had risen to state his objections particularly to the fifth, now
that he was up, he would make some general observations on the whole
subject of the series of resolutions.

T have voted, (continued Mr. C.) without hesitation, for the first reso-
lutions offered by that Senator, after they were modified or amended,
not from any confidence which I have in their healing virtues. I have
voted for them as abstract propositions, and in the sense in which I un-

derstand then? , that is, iii the plain natural sense which their language-
imports. With respect to the point, so much insisted upon in this debate*
and which had produced great controversy in former times, whether the
constitution is to be regarded as the work of the people of the United
States collectively, or of the separate States composing the Confederacy^
i have always thought that more importance is attached to it than it de-
serves. Whether formed in the one mode or the other, the powers grant-
ed in the constitution, and its true interpretation, are exactly the same.
The real question in considering the instrument is, not how the constitu-
tion was made, but what is it, as it is? What arc the powers delegated
by it, the powers necessary and proper to carry into effect the delegated
powers, its prohibitions ? What, in short, is the sum of its whole pow-
ers? I have always understood, according to historical fact, that the
constitution was framed by a Convention, composed of delegates ap-
pointed by the Legislatures of the several States ; and that after it was
adopted, it was submitted to Conventions of Delegates, chosen by the
people of the several States, each acting separately by and for itself;
and, being ratified by the Conventions of a sufficient number, it became
♦he constitution of the United States, or, in its own language, of the peo-
ple of the United States.

The series of resolutions under consideraliorv has been introduced by
the Senator from South Carolina, after he and other Senators from the
South had deprecated discussion on the delicate subject to which they
relate. They have occasioned much discussion, in which hitherto I have-
not participated. I hope that the tendency of the resolutions may be
to allay the excitement which unhappily prevails, in respect to the aboli-
tion of slavery ; but I confess, Mr. President, that, taken altogether, and
in connexion with other circumstances, and especially considering the
manner in which tlieir author has pressed them on the Senate, I fear that
they will have the opposite efiect ; and particularly at tfie North, that
they may increase and exasperate, instead of diminishing and assuaging
the existing irritation. I apprehend that they will only aerve to furnish
new texts for fresh commentary and further divisions. And I cannot
but regard the unnecessary combination of the subject of abolition with
that alien and the most exciting of all subjects at the present period, the
annexation of Texas to the United States, in the same series of resolu-
tions, as peculiarly unfortunate. I know that Texas is not specially
mentioned in the last resolution, but the counuy will understand the in-
tention and allusion of the resolution as distinctly as if it had been ex-
pressly designated. It cannot be forgotten that, immediately after the
tidings of the memorable battle of San Jacinto reached this city, the

Senator from South Carolina [Mr. Calhoun] expressed in the Senate
his opinion that the independence of Texas ought immediately to be rec"
ognised, and his wish that, before the adjournment of Congress, it should
be annexed to the United States. A resolution now lies upon the table
of the Senate, introduced by the other Senator from South Carolina,
[Mr. Prestox,] proposing a contingent annexation of it to the United
States. When these facts are borne in mind, will not all understand the
last resolution, although abstract in form, as intended to commit the Sen-
ate, in advance, to the annexation ? Our purpose, our anxious aim,
should be to compose the North, to arrest the progress of the spirit of ab-|
olition, and to give strength and confidence to the numerous friends of
the Union in that quarter. Is it, then, wise and discreet to blend these
two unhappy causes of agitation together? Had we not better keep
them separate and distinct, and act on the prudent maxim, that sufikient
for the day is the evil thereof?

The Senator from South Carolina has oftered his resolutions, he tells
us, to revive and rally the State rights [arty. But I cannot think that
the slaveholding States ought to consent to place their peculiar interests
in the exchisire safe-keeping of any one party, however correct some of
us may believe its principles to be. Are not the clear, undoubted, ac-
knowledged guarantees in the constitution of those interests far above
and superior to any security which can be derived from the pirticular
tenets of any party 1 Parties rise up and go down, but the constitu-
tion remains a perpetual and sure bulwark against all attacks upon the
rights of the slaveholding States, from whatever quarter they may pro-
ceed. No, sir, do not let us put our trust in any party exclusively ; let
us invoke the united guardianship of all — the Whigs, the Democratic
party, the Republican party, the Jackson Van Buren party, the Federal
party, the Union party, the Nullifiers, and the Locofocos — all, in pre-
serving the inviolability of the constitution, and protecting against every en-
croachment delicate and momentous interests, which cannot be seriously
touched without endangering the stability of our entire political fabric.

We want in the slaveholding States nothing done here to stimulate our
vigilance, or to unite us upon the subject of our present deliberations.
We may differ there in the degree of sensibility which we display ; but
we are all firmly and unanimously resolved to defend and maintain our
rights at all hazards. And, should the hour of trial ever come, those who
appear now the least agitated will not be behind those who are foremost
and loudest in proclaiming the existence of danger. The object of the
Senate should be to allay excitement, quiet the public mind, and check
the progress of the spirit of abolition at the North; and, above all.

strengthen the well-disposed, and to give no advantage to agitators. It
was with that view I have inquired of northern Senators, charged with
the presentation of abolition petitions, whether the spirit of abolitionism
was spreading ; and, if so, what was the cause 1 Their answer was, that
it was increasing; and that the cause was the impression which the abo-
litionists had been able to make on the northern mind, thai the constitu-
tional right of petition was denied them by the two Houses of Congress.
This statement is corroborated and confirmed by information which has
reached me through a variety of channels. Many who are not abolition-
ists are induced to join them, because they believe the right of petition
has been practically denied. On this subject allow me to read an extract
from a letter (the perusal of the whole letter is at the service of any Sen-
ator) which I have lately received, addressed to me by a highly intelli-
gent and patriotic gentleman in Rhode Island. [Here Mr. Clay read
the following extract :]

" I have been so much gratified with your remarks in relation to the cause of
the increase of the abolitionists in the North, that 1 thought it might do soitie
good, and at least relieve my own mind, if I stated to you what we think on the
subject here. There is no doubt but that the abolitionists are recruiting hefe,
by the artful mode in which they turn to their account the spirit or sensitiveness
manifested by the southern members on the subject of slavery ; and they are en-
couraged, also, to greater efforts, because they think they see in all this a proof
that the work of agitation is thus begun in the South, and that the leaven will
work until the whole lump is leavened. If the petitions for the abolition of
slavery in the District of Columbia had been duly received and considered as
other petitions would have been, 1 have no doubt this agitating subject, if not
put entirely at rest, at least would not now have been so connected with tlie sa-
cred right of petition as to enable it to produce the effect it now does amongst us.

" At our last election f<ir members of Congress, letters were sent from the
secretary of the anti-slavery society to each of the candidates, requiring of them
a communication of their sentiments on the right of Congress to abolish slavery
111 the District of Columbia, and the right o( petition to Congress on this subject,
liach candidate answered (except one) in such a way as that he might have con-
sistently received the votes of the abolitionists. If the simple question had been
upon the expediency of abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, these
pentlemen would probably have all answered in the negative. You see, there-
fore, how this question is brought to bear on the people, and through them on
the members of Congress ^ and we, who feel opposed to the whole of this anti-
slavery machinery, find ourselves deprived of the power of doing any thing ef-
fectively by the impohtic zeal of southern gentlemen. To them, therefore, I
would appeal, (unless, in truth, they are desirous of abandoning the Union,) that
they would so let their moderation be known unto all men, that the fanatics of
the North (as they choose to call them) may be put in the wrong before the
whole people, so that their own friends here may have some ground to stand

" 1 look forward with great apprehension to the time when the North and the
South shall he wianwiously divided with that zeal which may urge each to action
on the subject of shivery. The Union will not only then be dissolved, but the
people on both sides so exasperated, that a furious fanatical anti-slavery and pro-
slavery war will be inevitable. Men enough will be found to seek to ride upon
the whirlwind and direct the storm in the North as well as the South, and the
Union and the spirit of republicanism will expire together amidst the throes
and convulsions which will cover our now beautiful land with desolation. Does
the chivalry of the South desire to point its lance at the breasts of the northern
fanatics ? When was chivalry a match for fanaticism ! Let the crusades — let the
success of Cromwell answer. When men already begin to court death in the
cause of anti-slavery, as giving them the crown of martyrdom, (I allude to Love-
joy, and we understand that another has already offered himself to share the
same fate,) what may we not expect when patriotism shall arm in such a cause,
and it shall become identified not merely with the liberty of the African, but
our own liberty and prosperity ! And is it not well to look around us before we
urge each other to this dread precipice ' If there is nothing due to those men
at the North who are lighting up this flame, is there nothing due to those who
are endeavoring or are desirous to extinguish it ? Is there nothing due to our
common country — to the civilized world — that this light among the nations
shonld not be extinguished, and extinguislied in blood '' Mr. Calhoun is reported
as having spoken 'with contempt of the idea of arguing this question with the abo-
iitio7iists by means of a report from a committee.' I ask him not so to argue with
them ; but I ask liim so to argue with those who are not already with these men,
as to prevent their enlisting under their sable binners. But if there are any men
at the South who think as some of our northern men thought in former days, that
our country is ' too big for union,' and ' that federalism is founded in mistake,' (the
sentiments of Fisher Ames, published by his friends,) to them t have nothing to
say, and of them I have nothing to hope, but that they will add fuel to the flames
until their own people may be ready to trample upon that constitution under
which we have so long prospered as a people, and which, if administered in it»
true spirit, will ensure domestic tranquillity, promote the general welfare, and (in
the language of its preamble) • secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and
our posterity.'

•' On this subject may we be advised by the wisdom of Washington in his fare-
well address, and may • these counsels of an old and affectionate friend' (to use
his own words) 'control the current of the passions, and prevent our nation from
running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.' May they
• moderate the fury of party spirit, and guard against the impostures of pretend-
ed patriolism.*

"1 have taken the liberty of writing you, currentt cala/no, this long letter ; my
object is my best apology. We are bound together by a common interest; and,
whilst so much is doing to ahenate us from each other, shall no voice be heard
preaching peate, union, and concord "'

I could not ofler you, sir, any argument so good as that which is so
feelingly and eloquently enforced in the extract which I have just read.


It is well known to the Senate that 1 have constantly entertained the
opinion that the best way to check the spirit of abolition was to receive,
respectfully, and refer these petitions to the proper committee. That
would be the Committee for the District of Columbia ; one now, and
which probably has been, ever since the commencement of the Govern-
ment, so constituted as to comprise a majority of members from the
slaveholding States. If they were thus referred, silently referred, as has
been the practice during a great part of the period of the existence of the
Government, there would be no agitation fomented here, no ground for
asserting that the sacred right of petition had been violated.

The people may attempt to exercise that right in three different
descriptions of cases : 1st. In instances where Congress manifestly does
not possess the constitutional power to grant the relief prayed for. In
these, the petition may be rejected instantly, without reference and with-
out debate, and no just cause of complaint would exist. 2d. In cases
where the constitutional power, the exercise of which is invoked, is con-
troverted, doubtful, or uncertain. In these, a reference of the petition
may be necessary to examine into the existence of the power, as well as
into the expediency of exercising it. Of this controverted nature is the
legislative power of Congress in this District. No one would contend
that a petition to establish a Bank of the United States should be
instantly rejected, without debate and without reference, upon the
sole ground that a large portion of the Senate should think it unconstitu-
tional. Other examples of contested powers may be easily conceived.
And, 3dly. In cases where the power is incontestably possessed by Con-
gress to grant the redress prayed for. In the last two descriptions of
cases, I think that Congress is bound attentively to receive the petitions,
and respectfully to dispose of them. A Government which, like ours, is
the Government of the people, should be parentally administered, so as
not only to do right, but, as far as possible, to give general satisfaction.

It has been argued that, when a petition is once put in the possession
of the Senate, the right of petition has been practically enjoyed ; and
that the Senate may reject it instantly, refer it, lay it upon the table, or
dispose of it as may be thought proper. Undoubtedly this is true ; but
in the great business of human life, public and private, the manner in
which it is transacted is often as important, sometimes more important,
than what is done or refused. And a wise Government should be par-
ticularly careful not to wound or inflame popular sensibility on subjects
respecting which large masses choose to exercise the constitutional right
of petition. The course which the Senate has pursued, in regard to these
abolition petitions, for about two years past, is this : a Senator states


from his place that he is charged with the presentation of one of them,
and moves that it be received. Another Senator thereupon rises, and
moves that the motion to receive the petition be laid upon the table ;
and the Senate accordingly orders the motion to receive the petition to
be laid upon the table ; and thus the petition is not received in a parlia-
mentary sense. The Senate does not decide the question of its reception.

This coarse I have always thought unfortunate. It is unsatisfactory.
The petitioners feel that they have been neglected, and they allege that
the right of petition has been denied. But it has been contended that
these petitioners are mad and reckless fanatics, and it has been indig-
nantly asked whether they merit respectful treatment. Mr. President,
my observation and experience in life have taught me, that when we
are addressed or assailed, our conduct should not be regulated by the
harsh, vituperative, or fanatical language, or the condition, whatever it
may be, of those who approach us, b«t by the standard of our own re-
spectability, standing, and character in life. And, in regard to these
petitions, the question should not be so much what do the petitioners
deserve, as what is due from the calm, elevated, dignified, august char-
acter of the Senate of the United States? These petitioners, misguided
as they are, and highly mischievous as I believe the tendency of their
proceedings to be, are a part of the people of the United States, and our
constituents. Shall we allow ourselves to be rash, to be moved by anger,
or transported by rage, because fanatics, as they are called, or thought-
less men and women, present petitions to accomplish an object which,
if seriously entertained, would justly excite profound alarm?

The mode of disposing of these petitions which the Senate has lately
pursued has certainly not produced the tranquillizing effect so anxiously
desired. It has, on the contrary, aggravated, and I fear will continue to
aggravate, the disease. The abolitionists have not diminished, but in-
creased, and increased, as the most satisfactory information assures us,
because they have been able to persuade many that the right of petition
is invaded and has been denied. And many who are not abolitionists
now unite with them merely to assert and maintain the right of petition.
It is to be seriously apprehended that co-operation for one purpose may
ultimately lead to co-operation for other purposes, not within the original
contemplation of the parties. If the Senate, by persisting in its recent
course, enable the abolitionists to derive succor from new allies ; and if
we should also unhappily place in their hands an additional instrument,
by unnecessarily coupling the annexation of Texas with the subject of
abolition in the same series of resolutions, then, indeed, there will be
too much reason to apprehend that the North, at no distant day, will be
united as one man.


It appears to mo, sir, that uliat becomes us is to keep the abolitionists
separate and distinct from all other classes, standing out in bold and
prominent relief; and the subject of abolition separate and distinct froro
the right of petition, from Texas, and from all other subjects. Let them
stand alone, unmixed with the rest of the community, without the general
sympathy, and exposed to the overwhelming force of the united opinion
of all who desire the peace, the harmony, and the union of this Confed-
eracy. I would receive, respectfully receive, their petitions, refer them,
and occasionally present calm, dispassionate, and argumentative reports
against thtm. This is the manner in which petitions for abolition were
received in the first Congress, upon the recommendation of Mr. Madison ;
and that in wliich they were ever afterwards received, until the practice
was changed about two years ago. What is there in the mere fact of
the reception of a petition to create alarm 1 Or in its subsequent ref-
erence, especially to a committee known to be hostile to its object?

But it is said that these fanatics are beyond the reach of any argument;
and it is triumphantly asked. Will you condescend to argue with such
deluded persons? Yes! I say, yes. To preserve these admirable in-
stitutions of ours and this glorious Union from the possibility of all
danger, I would argue with any one, with lunatics themselves, in their
lucid intervals, and argue again and again. It is not, however, to recall
alone the abolitionists to a sense of peace and duty, that these appeals to
the reason, the judgment, and the patriotism of the country should be
sent forth from these halls. They would address themselves, with pow-
erful eflect, to all that, vastly the largest, portion of the northern com-
munity who are uninfected by abolitionism. When has Congress
unsuccessfully appealed to the intelligence, the patriotism, and the valor
of the American people? In such a cause we should never tire nor

Mr. President, 1 have no apprehension, not the smallest, for the safety
of the Union, from any state of things which now exists. I will not
answer for consequences which may ensue from harsh and opprobrious
language, and from indiscretion and rashness on the part of individual*
or of Cengress, here or elsewhere. We allow ourselves to speak too
frequently, and with too much levity, of a separation of this Union. It
is a terrible word, to which our ears should not be familiarized. I desire
to see in continued safety and prosperity this Union, and no other union.
I go for this Union as it is, one and indivisible, without diminution. I
will neither voluntarily leave it, nor be driven out of it by force. Here,
in my place, I shall contend for all the rights of the State which has sent
me here. 1 shall contend for them with undoubting confidence, and in


all the security which the Union confers, under all the high sanction
which the guarantees of the constitution afford, and with the perfect con-
viction that they are safer in the Union than they would be out of the
Union. I am opposed to all separate confederacies and to all sectional


Online LibraryHenry ClaySpeech of Henry Clay, of Kentucky, on certain resolutions offered to the Senate of the United States in December, 1837, by Mr. Calhoun, of South Carolina, involving principles of interpretation of the Constitution of the United States; → online text (page 1 of 2)