Benjamin Gwinn Harris.

Speech of Benjamin G. Harris, esq., of St. Mary's County upon the reports of the Committee on secret societies, in the House of delegates of Maryland online

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Online LibraryBenjamin Gwinn HarrisSpeech of Benjamin G. Harris, esq., of St. Mary's County upon the reports of the Committee on secret societies, in the House of delegates of Maryland → online text (page 1 of 2)
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Mk. Speaker :

When a few evenings since the majority of the Committee on
Secret Societies, made their report^ and asked to be discharged
from the further consideration of the subject, 1 entered my objec-
tion, and stated, that that majority had not performed (he
duties imposed upon them by ihe resolutions under which they
received their appointment. I was unwilling, sir, that this
House should take any action at (he instance of that majority
which even by implicaiion could be looked upon as an approval of
the course which they had thought proper to pursue. They have
failed, sir, completely and, I may say^ willfully, in the performance
of their duties, and instead of our commendation;; they should re-
ceive our stern rebuke.

Wliat were those duties ? They were instructed to enquire and
report ^'whether any and what Secret Political Societies are known
to exist in this State" — "whether any and what society or portion
of the peop\e of this State, or any of the United Slates, have in-
U 06 need religious issues, inlo tlie field of political agitation.''^
Tiiey were also instructed "to ascertain as far as may be in their
power^ what are the character and import of the secrets which are
supposed to be held or maintained by such societies, if any such
should he found to exist, and to use their endeavours to obtain if
possible, a statemer^t or description of the principles, objects and

punjuscs of siM-ii socielies," and sir itJ older to furnish tliem with
ever facility to cuiry out fully the enquiry, lliey were vested with
(he extrrioniinary power of sending for persons and papers, and of
examining such persons upoa oaih. This Cominiitee, sir, miaht
well he called, as from its cieationit has been called, the Coiriniit-
lee of enquiry — the Investigating Committee — for their duties
clearly and distinctly defined in their commission, were to make
diligent seaich into /ac/5, and facts only. This Mouse surely did
not expect from tiiis CoiiimiUee, thus raised, a rehash of that po-
litical dish which nauseates every healthful and conservative stom-
ach ; they did nut expect a new edition of Know Nothing quib-
bles and evasions. They expected, sir, and required, a statement
of well authenticated fads in regard to the matter referred to this
ConuTiiittee, and yet sir not one fact, not oxxq paper, not one wit-
ness, have they produced, or liied to produce, uoiv.'ithslanding they
were ordered expressly to make a tremendous effort to do so, and
to overcome every thing but imposslbdilus in order to gratify the
strongly expressed desire of this Bonorable Body. They have to
my surprise, and no doubt to the surprise of this House,
not only been guilty of the sin of on>ission but of commis-
sion. Tiiey have presumptuously and daringly (and I here
charge them with it,) exerted the mere brute power, which
they had as a majority, entirely to smother all investigation. The
ininority of this Committee, anxious to perform their clearly
defined duties were prevented by the majority from taking
one step towards that end. The minority produced the names of
witnesses to be brought befoie the Committee v;l!0 would have
testified to the very facts which v/ere to be enquired into, and yet,
sir, the majority, fearful of the expense to the State attending
the smyimoning of those witnesses, and very probably more fear-
ful of the testimony they would give, denied the privilege. Under
ihis undoubted state of facts can any one here declare that this
majoiity have fulfilled t'leir duties, and should receive the appro-
bation of this House? Could any one here, sir, have anticipated
when this Committee was inaugurated, that such a report as this
would have been the only result? When the Honorable Chair-
man introduced these resolutions, with such a bragndocio air,
could any one have imagined that lliis grand proclamation — this
tremendous flourish of trumpets — would usher nothing upon the
stage, but General Tom Thumb. When the mountain thus
quaked and labored, senditig terror and consternation to the very
heart of man, must not all be surprised that the product is only— -
a mouse? Such must indeed be the feeling of th.-a House in
viewing tliis report, and the sudden transition would make us
laugh, if our disposition to do so were not restrained by our feel-
ings of resentment for the contemptuous disregard of the order of
this House, as displayed in the course of the majority of that
Committee. As a literary production, sir, I will not undertake to
criticise this report. If any merit of that kind can be found in it.,



let it be awarcled to the Honorable Cliairnmn. But, sir, iliis I
will say, that if in that respect (his production would be tin honor
to an Irving, or an Evcrelt, I would look upon ii as of inHniielv
less value to the chnracler of i(s author, and of (he tnnjoriiy of
(his House, (iinn would be the simplest siatement of vreli avouciied
facts showing (hat he and they were intiocent of liie charges made
against (hem by (he Governor in his annual message.

The con(emplible alieclaiion ihat Ihey were not aware that (he
Governor, in his animadversions on secret socieCcs in his niessace,
aiiuded to the Know party would set badly even upon a
simpering school girl. It is diplomacy without ingenuity. It is
hypocrisy wiiliout coiiceahr.ent. I assert, sir, Vv'iihout the fear of
successful contradiction, tiial every member of (hat Commliiee,
and every member of this Mouse, knew as well as (he Governor
did, (0 what party lie alluded, if so, then tlic Honorable Chair-
man, v.'hen he introduced his unfortunate i-esolulions, knew well,
as did (he oilier members of (he Commiitee, what issues they had
joined and what evidence v;as required (o prove (hose issues. If
upon (his (rial, (heir opponents, the sniisority, had failed to pro-
duce evidence to s'now (hat (heir pai!y was a ^'■secret political
society,^^ (ben lliey would have been relieved from (hat charge.
Had (lie minority failed to show that (hat party had introduced
religious issues into the field of political acritatioji, then (hat
charge would have been justly dismissed, and if (hat minority
had firriher failed to shov/ that that party held or maintained
secrets, objects and purposes violixhwe of oiir Constitution and that
of the United Stales, tuerj, sir, the majority and iheir party here
and elsewhere would have been relieved of the charoe of beino-
secret conspirators against their country, and been held fesponsible
only for their oper^ and avowed principles — a responsibility suffi-
ciently awful for any whose consciences are not seared as with a
red hot iron. This course of (rial, so obviously (h.e cori-ect one
for the ascertainment of truth was i-ather unpalatable to the ma-
jority of this Commiitee. Tiiey chose rather to rely upon (he
meie assertion of their and your innocence— an assertion worth less
than nothing to you and them, if by your vote adopiing this report,
you shall avoid (he investigation which you yourselves have in-
augurated, thus strengthening suspicion of guilt, instead of fur-
nishing proof of innocence. Tiie question then, sir, which (his
House lias to consider, is, whe(her by adopting this majority re-
port arid sanctioning their proceedings, (hey will allow themselves
to be involved in a suspicion wiiich such action would justify?
It is to be hoped (hat (his Honorable Body v/ill have more self-
respect and a higher regard for public opinion than to do so.

I3u(,sir, let us now enquii-e, what were the reasons for (he
course which the majority of (he Committee have thourrht proper
10 pursue in i-egard to this investigation ? These are gUmmering-
/y alluded to in the report presented by the Chairman',' but in ord'er
to see them more distinctly, let us go to (heir committee room,

(foiUjn;>(ely not n (laik-lniUeitied cavern) and find them out there.
My lionorable friend from Charles county, (Mr. Merrick) lias given
«hem, in the niinoiity report, an unenviable chance for notoriety
as well as preservation.

The iitst reason given was contained in a resolution ofTered in
that room, and declares in effect that the Governor in his i-epli/ to
the Committee clearlij indicates the Anierican Party of the Plat-
form of 1855, as the object of the animadversions in his message.
This, sir, that Committee knew well before the Governor addressed
his special communication to them ; aye sir, they knew it before
their Chairman drafted the resolutions iniroduced into this House,
one of which so unblushingly asked this communication from His
Excellency. This cotUemptible subterfuge I have before alluded
to, and given it the character it deserves. Another resolution
adopted in that room by the majority of the Committee decrees in
substance that the enquiry into the secrets, principles, objects and
purposes of this Know Nothing Parly — the very enquivy they were
ordered to inake — "is an insult to the intelligence of a large majority
of the people of Maryland through iheir representatives." And
nnolher resolution decrees (for it will be observed they are all decrees)
that it is unnecessary to have any persons or papers before them, be-
cause forsooth the puriti/ of the principles, objects and purposes
of their party are sufficiently vouched for by the fact of that party's
being represented by a majority on this floor. These decrees
adopted in a committee room of the Maryland Legislature and not
in the daik council of the order, are clearly, and I may say impu-
dently in conflict with the resolutions of this House under which
the Committee received their appointment. They positively and
in defiance of this Honorable Bt)dy refuse to carry out the instruc-
tions they have received. We surely sir will not allow the ma-
jority of one of our ov.7n Committees to compromise our charac-
ter and dignity, and then sanction the degradation by an approval
of its course? No sir. This House intended, what they said. They
intended an enquiry and investigation into the matter set forth in
their resolutions, although they themselves were implicated. They
had joined issue with the Governor of Maryland, and the tribunal
they had selected for the trial, was public opinion, and the record-
ing clerk of the court was to hold the pen of History. The fact
of your being here as the represenlativesof a majority of (he people
with the attestation of your ^7J»Mn7?/" which such a fact affords,
and even the fact of conscious innocence if it existed, were to be
thrown aside in this trial. You yourselves demanded a (rial upon
the facts which should be thorough, and convincing to the whole
world, now and forever. This House intended that, or it, veri/
solemnly intended nothing. Such, sir, was their intention, or they
have enacted a farce which would disgrace even Harlequin him-
self. They knew well that an appeal to public opinion cannot be
met by the mere brute force of a majority voting this thing up or
that thing down. They were well aware before they instituted


this enquiry that they had the power (o siiile all investigation, but
they also knew that such a course woultl create a suspicion of
guilt rather than furnish proof of innocence. They knew, and now
know, that they can enter a 7iolle prosequi to this prosecution, but
they also know, that the bloodiest pirate that sweeps the ocean
would do the same thing if he couid, when brought before the bar
of public justice to answer for his crimes — but he would be pirate
still. History shows too plainly that such acquittals will not an-
swer as pleas in bar, with public opinion. The earl Bolhwell
came forward for trial on the charge of murdering Darnley.
Bothwell had a thousand men at arms within call. He was dis-
charged, no one daring to appear as his accuser. But his name
has come down through the pages of impartial history stained with
murder and treason. A later case occurs to my mind. Aaron
Burr was upon trial, actually acquitted of the charge of treason
against his country. He lived a freeman from his trial to his grave;
public opinion drew distinctions which the law cannot draw, and
the fair fame he had previously won in the service of his country,
withered before the blight, and his name has been branded with
everlasting infamy. The intelligence of this House knew these
things when they ordered this investigation, and it was ordered that
public opinion should be satisfied upon the questions at issue.
They intended not to avail themselvesof the paltry pretexts andeva-
sions suggested by the majority of the Committee in order to escape
this investigation. They will not surely thank this Commit-
tee for attempting to place them in the inconsistent position of pro-
posing this enquiry and of then retiring'from the contest. It will
surely meet your indignant frown that your Committee should as-
sume that you can first act like the blustering bully, and will then
TQUr&Wke {\-\Q skulking coioard. What, sir, will this Honorable
Body declare as the majority of this Committee have, that this en-
quiry instituted by theniselves would be an insult to the majority
of the people of this State ? Will they thus shield themselves?
Whence, sir, did this proposition for enquiry come ? It v.-as bro-jo-ht
foiv/ard by the distinguished leader of the majority of this Hou°se,
being also chairman of this Committee. Sui'ely, that Honorable'
gentleman in offering it, did not intend to insult his dear constitu-
ents; and surely too the majority of this House knew whether or
not it would be aa insuk to the majority of the people to have such
an enquiry. And, sir, this lecture upon propriety and decorum
comes with an ill grace indeed from this Committee. But the
cruelty of imposing upon the Honorabiegentleman, (Mr Kennedy)
who inaugurated this enquiry, the task of declaring its insultin^^
character ts unparalleled in our political history. Shame! Shame''
that the fond parent should be forced to acknowlege his bantlin


Online LibraryBenjamin Gwinn HarrisSpeech of Benjamin G. Harris, esq., of St. Mary's County upon the reports of the Committee on secret societies, in the House of delegates of Maryland → online text (page 1 of 2)