Nathan Sargent.

Public men and events from the commencement of Mr. Monroe's administration, in 1817, to the close of Mr. Filmore's administration, in 1853 (Volume 1) online

. (page 29 of 31)
Online LibraryNathan SargentPublic men and events from the commencement of Mr. Monroe's administration, in 1817, to the close of Mr. Filmore's administration, in 1853 (Volume 1) → online text (page 29 of 31)
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of some of the Seminole chiefs are still familiar as household
words to us. Among these were Osceola, a very superior man
and true hero, Billy Bowlegs, Wild Cat, Micanopy, and Alligator.




I have spoken of the mania of speculation and the inflated
condition of the currency following the removal of the public
deposits from the United States Bank to " the pet banks," as
the State banks selected for deposit were generally called.

Gold, which it had been predicted would "flow up the Mis-
sissippi River and glisten through the interstices of the long
silken purses of every substantial farmer," obstinately refused
to fulfill the prediction. Prices had become inflated, especially
of breadstuffs, meat, rents, and, indeed, all the necessaries of
life ; and this produced great discontent among mechanics
and the laboring classes generally, the formation of many
trades-unions, and frequent " strikes" for higher wages. Great
complaints were made of frauds, favoritism, speculations, and
monopolies in the purchase of public lands. Capitalists and
companies, who could command bank credit, went largely into
the purchase of public lands, interfering injuriously with actual
settlers, who had only money enough to purchase what they
wished to cultivate : these speculators buying large tracts and
holding them at high prices prevented settlement.

Shortly previous to the close of the first session of the
Twenty-fourth Congress, Mr. Benton submitted a resolution in
the Senate, declaring that nothing but gold and silver should
be received in payment for public lands ; which was rejected.
But what the Senate refused to do was done by the Executive
immediately after its adjournment, July ii, 1836, and upon the
suggestion and inspiration of " Old Bullion," as Mr. Benton
was called. He states that he was consulted and assisted in
drawing up the circular known as " the Specie Circular," which
was nominally issued by the Secretary of the Treasury, Mr.
Woodbury, but was prepared at the White House.

The " circular" set forth that, in consequence of complaints
which had been made of frauds, speculations, and monopolies in
the purchase of the public lands, and the aid which was said to
have been given to effect these objects by excessive bank credits,
and dangerous, if not partial, facilities given by the banks, etc.,
it was ordered that from and after thje 15th of August, then



next (the circular bore date July 1 1), nothing but gold and sil-
ver, and in proper cases Virginia land-scrip, should be received
in payment for public lands. An actual settler, or a bona fide
resident of the State in which the land-sales were made, was,
however, permitted to pay, as heretofore, in bank-bills.

This was a tremendous bomb thrown without warning into
the business transactions of the country. It broke the bubble
of inflation, which the government's own measures had created,
and produced a sudden collapse.

The banks at once took the alarm, held on with a tightening
grasp to the specie in their vaults, called in, as rapidly as they
could, their loans, and refused further accommodations. Every
man indebted to a bank was pressed for payment, and the
pressure became universal. Another "panic" had been brought
about by what was termed another " experiment" upon the
currency. A great revulsion took place, property was sacri-
ficed, and of course prices went rapidly down. The annual
sales of public land, which formerly amounted to from two to
four millions of dollars, under the late state of things had run
up to twenty-five millions of dollars, and a surplus of revenue
had accumulated in the deposit banks of some twenty-five or
thirty millions, which was shortly to be distributed to the States
under Mr. Clay's bill, now a law, commonly called the Distri-
bution act.

In discussing the subject of the Treasury circular in the
Senate, Mr. Ewing said he had, in a former speech, explained
the manner in which the public funds, under the present de-
posit system, were made to pay for the public lands, perform-
ing a circuit from the deposit banks to the speculator, from
him to the land-office, and from the land-office to the deposit
banks again, thus operating the exchange of the public lands
by millions of acres to large purchasers for mere credit.

One effect of this circular, he said, had been to banish gold
and silver. These are never seen at the West ; and a five-dollar
bill cannot be changed into specie in a ride of thirty miles.

The wealthy speculator from Boston, New York, Philadel-
phia, or elsewhere, finds this circular no obstacle in his way,
as he can easily make an arrangement with any number of



men, inhabitants of the State in which he wishes to purchase
lands, to purchase in their names, — in the name of each one
three hundred and twenty acres. He uses no specie, yet gets
all the land he wants ; while others, of less capital and less
genius, have to lug specie some hundreds of miles, which no
sooner performs its office by paying for land than it goes back
again to the East.

Mr. Ewing's resolutions to repeal the Treasury specie cir-
cular underwent discussion in both houses of Congress during
the last session of the Twenty-fourth Congress, occupying a
considerable portion of the time.

By the Whigs and the business-men of the countr)^ generally
it was considered a very mischievous measure, pregnant with
evil consequences to the country, and productive of no good.
That it produced the serious consequences I have mentioned,
and attributed to it by the speakers in Congress who advocated
its repeal, can hardly be questioned ; but a state of things per-
vaded the countrj^ which was a monstrous evil, — the super-
abundance of bank-paper, the great facility of obtaining it, the
entire absence of silver and gold, the mania of speculation, and
the enormously high prices of everything purchasable.

The object of the circular was to cure this evil ; to restore
the circulation of the countr}^ to its normal condition by driving
out the superabundant bank-paper and replacing it with specie.

The remedy, however, was, for a time, worse than the disease.
It undertook to cure this too suddenly, — all at once, — and the
effect was what we have seen. Prices were brought down with
a tremendous jar.

The bill repealing it passed in the House, 143 to 59; and in
the Senate, 41 to 5. It was quite probable, from this vote, that
had the President sent the bill back with his veto it would have
been passed, his reasons to the contrary notwithstanding. He
did not, therefore, return it, but put it in his pocket, and sent
his reasons for not signing it to the " Globe," where they
were published. The bill not having been sent to him ten
days before the close of the session, he could retain it till after
the close of the session without its becoming a law. This
was called the "Pocket Veto."




The " scene" I am about to describe was the precursor of
many others which occurred in subsequent years, each more
or less dramatic, but all exciting and disreputable.

On the 6th of February (1837), after sundry petitions had
been presented by different members for the abolition of slavery
and the slave-trade in the District of Columbia, — several by
Mr. Adams, — he presented a petition from nine women of
Fredericksburg, Virginia, praying Congress to put a stop to
the slave-trade in the District of Columbia. One of these
petitions, Mr. Adams said, seemed so strange to him that he
did not feel perfect security that it was genuine. He then said
he held in his hand a paper on which, before he presented it, he
desired to have the decision of the Speaker. It was a petition
from twenty-two persons declaring themselves to be slaves.
He wished to know whether the Speaker considered such a
petition as coming within the order of the House.

The Speaker said he could not tell until its contents were in
his possession.

Mr. Adams said if the paper were sent to the Clerk it would
be in possession of the House ; if sent to the Speaker, he
could see its contents. He wished to do nothing but in sub-
mission to the rules of the House. It had occurred to him
that the paper was not what it purported to be. He would
send it to the Chair.

Objection was made. The Speaker (Mr. Polk) said the cir-
cumstances of the case were so extraordinary that he would
take the sense of the House on the course to be pursued. He
then stated to the House the circumstances as above related,
and said he desired the sense of the House.

Mr. Haynes, of Georgia, was astonished that the gentleman
from Massachusetts should offer such a paper. If he were to
object to receiving it, it might be giving it more attention than
it deserved.

Several Southern members now expressed their astonishment
and indignation, in fitting terms, that any one should present a
petition which on its face appeared to come from slaves. After



much of this, Mr. Waddy Thompson, of South CaroHna, offered
a resolution declaring that the Hon. John Quincy Adams, by
attempting to introduce a petition purporting on its face to
be from slaves, had been guilty of a gross disrespect to this
House, and that he be instantly brought to the bar to receive
the severe censure of the Speaker.

Mr. Thompson said he felt infinite pain in being forced by
an imperious sense of duty to present this resolution. He
spoke of the age of Mr. Adams, and of the stations he had
filled ; but when age is used to throw poisoned arrows it
ceases to be sacred. The act of the gentleman from Massa-
chusetts was an insult to a large portion of the members of the
House. " Does the gentleman know that there are laws in the
slave States, and here, for the punishment of those who excite
insurrection ? I can tell him there are such things as grand
juries; and we may yet see an incendiary brought to condign
punishment." Mr. Thompson proceeded in this strain, amid
great manifestation of feeling in the House, for some time,

Mr. Haynes moved to amend Mr. Thompson's resolution by
striking out all after the word Resolved, and inserting —

"That John Quincy Adams, etc., has rendered himself justly
liable to the severest censure of this House, and is censured
accordingly, for having attempted to present to the House the
petition of slaves."

The House was now in a high state of commotion ; Southern
members were like a disturbed hive of bees, — restless, excited,
angry, denunciatory.

Mr. Granger, of New York, addressed the House, endeavor-
ing to calm its passions and soothe the irritation of the South,
but with little effect. He concluded by expressing his regret
at the occurrence of the morning, and his opinion that the
gentleman from Massachusetts, so far from rendering the right
of petition more sacred, had done what was calculated to render
it a mere bauble to be played with. This did not mollify the

Mr. Lewis, of Alabama, then offered the following resolution,
which Mr. Thompson accepted as a modification of his :



"Resolved, That John Quincy Adams, by his attempt to in-
troduce into this House a petition from slaves for the abolition
of slavery in the District of Columbia, committed an outrage on
the rights and feelings of a large portion of the people of this
Union, a flagrant contempt on the dignity of this House, and,
by extending to slaves the privilege only belonging to freemen,
directly invites the slave population to insurrection ; and that
the said member be forthwith called to the bar of the House
to be censured by the Speaker."

Further vehement debate, or rather declamation, followed.

Mr. Adams now said he had remained mute amid the
charges of crimes and misdemeanors that had been brought
against him, and he supposed that if brought to the bar of
the House he should be struck mute by the previous question
before he had an opportunity to say a word in his own defense.
He had not presented the petition, but merely asked of the
Speaker whether he considered the paper he described, and
which he held in his hand, included within the general order
of the House that all petitions, memorials, resolutions, and
papers relating to or upon the subject of slavery should be laid
on the table. He intended to take the decision of the Speaker
before he went one step towards presenting, or offering to pre-
sent, that petition. He said, in reference to the resolution of
Mr. Lewis, that it stated what was not the fact, namely, that it
was for the abolition of slavery, — when, in truth, it was for his
oivn expulsion / He should not present the petition until the
decision of the House was announced.

Mr. Adams further said it was well known to all the mem-
bers that from the day he entered the House to this time he
had invariably declared his opinion .adverse to the abolition of
slavery in the District of Columbia. But he had maintained
the right of petition. There is no absolute monarch on earth
who is not compelled by the constitution of his country to
receive the petitions of his people. The Sultan of Constanti-
nople cannot walk the streets and refuse to receive petitions
from the meanest and vilest in the land. Objections had been
made to the petition of the nine women on the ground that
they were prostitutes. In reply to this, he asked. Does our law



require that before presenting a petition you shall look into
it and see whether it comes from the virtuous, the great, the
mighty ?

He said he was still waiting the decision of the Speaker. If
the House thought proper to receive the petition, he should pre-
sent it.

Further acrimonious declamation followed, and additional
resolutions, modifying those before the House, were submitted
and discussed, the House being in an uproar until the close
of the day. On the meeting of the House on the 7th, the
unfinished business came up. Mr. Drumgoole, of Virginia,
offered a resolution in substance declaring that by what he had
done (reciting it) Mr. Adams ''had given color to an idea'' that
slaves have the right of petition, etc., and that the said John
Quincy Adams receive the censure of the House. More violent
speeches were then made by sundry members.

Mr. Robertson, of Virginia, was the only Southern man, and
Mr. Graves, of Kentucky, the only Southwestern man, who in
any manner exculpated Mr. Adams. Mr. Robertson said the
gentleman had cleared himself of any supposed contempt by
disclaiming any intentional disrespect. But it may be said that
he is not censured for asking the question of the Speaker,
which he did, but because that question gives color to the idea
that slaves may petition, etc. Absurd and offensive as such an
idea is, he had yet to learn that members of Congress may be
proceeded against criminally for intimating or uttering opinions
here which a majority may consider heretical.

Mr. Graves thought that the adoption of a resolution of cen-
sure on the venerable gentleman from Massachusetts, taken in
connection with the severe censure which Southern gentlemen,
in this debate, have cast on those deluded citizens of the North
who have sent their petitions to us, would be the most unwise
step that could be taken by that body. No community could
be driven, and no denunciations would convince them that they
were in error.

Mr. Lincoln, of Massachusetts, at length, stirred by the
torrent of invective that was so freely cast upon his colleague
and the North, rose in defense of both, — the first Northern



man, except Mr. Granger, who had participated in the general
melee. He said that such was the reverence due to the age of
his colleague, such the respect paid to his character and the
remembrance of his public services, so high the confidence in
his integrity and the purity of his motives, so beloved and
honored was he at home, and so known to fame abroad, that,
whatever the action of the House upon these resolutions, there
are those, and they are not a few, here and elsewhere, who will
deeply sympathize with him in the trial to which he is now
informally subjected. He declared that he planted himself by
his side on the principles for which he was contending, though
he needed not his aid, being abundantly able to defend and
sustain himself

Mr. Thompson, of South Carolina, again came into the field,
full of zeal for the South and of acrimony towards the North.
He declared that slaves had no right to petition. They were
property, not persons ; they had no political rights, and therefore
Congress has no power in regard to them, and no right to
receive their petitions.

Replying to Mr. Lincoln, he said, " The gentleman has given
us another eulogy upon these amiable fiends, — these most re-
spectable assasshis [the petitioners of the North]. As a class,
they are fools or knaves ; and there is no escape from the

Mr. Thompson went on in a long speech in a similar strain
of acrimonious vilification of the North, but especially of Mas-
sachusetts, raking the history of the past to find acts which
cast odium upon her people, from the time the Pilgrims landed
at Plymouth down to the present day.

It was his avowed intention to wound ; he declared in the
outset that he should not bate his blows. Nor did he.

But there were sons of the North, and of Massachusetts,
present, who could deal blows too, — who could strike as hard
and hit as tender points as Mr. Waddy Thompson, as he soon
found to his cost. Her champion now appeared.

Mr. Cushing, of Massachusetts, said the sentiments uttered
by his colleague, Mr. Lincoln, did honor to his head and heart.
They met his cordial concurrence : to no resolution of censure,



based on the matters now before them, to no rebuke, express
or implied, to no action of the House that shall touch his col-
league (Mr. Adams) with so much as the uttermost edge of the
shadow of indignity, would he give his assent.

Referring to the speech of Mr. Thompson, he said that, having
gained the floor, he should feel that he was a recreant craven if
he could permit any personal consideration to repress the feel-
ings which had been excited by the stormy progress of this
question, and the menace, defiance, and crimination which had
been thrown at the people of the North.

Like his colleague (Mr. Lincoln), he, too, could say he was
from the frigid North. But we from the North could pour
forth declamation as little to the purpose as others do, if it
comported with our notions of good taste or good sense. They
might be less irritable than those with whom they were asso-
ciated ; but they were accustomed to think that in questions
like the present, involving the first principles of civil liberty and
the dearest rights of mankind, passionate invective, rash menace,
and random exclamation are poor substitutes for reason and
argument. He had been keenly sensible to the wrongs heaped
upon the North in this debate, and he meant to vindicate the
rights of his constituents and the fame of his forefathers. He
did not wonder at the sensitiveness of Southern members in
regard to the general question of slavery. It was indeed a
great and grave question, and should be treated with calm
gravity. He asked in all sincerity if they supposed that angry
attacks on the freedom of opinion, of speech, of the press, of
petition, of debate, are likely to check the spread in the United
States of that disapprobation of slavery which is but another
form of the love of liberty. Gentlemen who pursue the course
proposed towards his colleague, and who suffer their feelings
to hurry them into transports of violence here, greatly misjudge
in the measures they adopt if they would allay the fever of

But it is not necessary to give an abstract of the whole of this
caustic speech, in which Mr. Gushing, after defending Massa-
chusetts from the charges brought against her, carried the war
into the domains of her assailants, bringing crimination for


crimination, charge for charge, and obloquy for obloquy,
showing that the North could give as well as receive blows.

With Mr. Cushing's speech ended the second day spent on
this business. The next, the 8th, was devoted to counting the
votes for President and Vice-President.

On the 9th the subject was resumed, and another day spent
in clamorous, violent declamation, in altering, modifying, and
taking the votes on the resolutions before the House, and in
listening to Mr. Adams in his own defense. The House would
now have laid the mistake on the table, having become tired
of it, if not disgusted with it ; but Mr. Adams objected, and de-
sired to be heard. Of this defense it is hardly necessary, at this
day, to speak ; yet a few words. Mr. Adams stated that it had
not yet been decided whether he might present the petition
or not ; which was the real question before the House. He
spoke of the various resolutions which came pouring down
upon him, and the speeches which fell so thickly, — calling him
infamous, and other hard names. From one quarter of the
House he heard the cries, " Expel him ! expel him !" All re-
rninded him of the expression of Dame Quickly, "Oh, day and
night, but these are bitter words !" He referred to Mr. Drum-
goole's resolution charging him with " giving coloj' to an idea,"
for which it was proposed to censure him ! He commented with
bitter and scathing force upon the menace of Mr. Thompson
that there were such things as grand juries, etc. He wished
to know if there were others who held that a member of Con-
gress was amenable to a grand jury for what he might say or
do in that hall ! And he wished the people to know who
uttered such a sentiment. If a member of the Legislature of
South Carolina is made amenable not only to the Legislature,
but to grand and petit juries, he thanked God he was not a
citizen of that State.

His remarks created great agitation.

He said he could not make his defense in any system or
order, such was the variety and disorder of charges against
him. When he took up one idea, before he could give color to
the idea it had already changed its form and color. If he were
to plead guilty, what is the offense ? He was unable to shape



his defense, not knowing of what he had been guilty. But he
begged to say that he should deem it to be the heaviest calamity
which had ever befallen him in the course of a life checkered
with many vicissitudes, if a vote of censure from that House
should pass upon his name. He had been foremost in defending
its honor and dignity on more than one occasion. Were these
instances of contempt ? And now was he to be brought to the
bar for a contempt of the House for doing that which was done
in the most respectful manner? — for asking a question of the
Speaker ? consulting him first on the admissibility of a petition ?

In conclusion : If the House had suffered the petition to be
laid on the table, with the multitude of petitions there buried in
oblivion, no one would have heard of it more. He appealed to
the House and to the nation that he was not answerable for
this loss of time.

The House then voted on the resolutions before it :

First, "That any member who shall hereafter present. any
petition from the slaves of this Union ought to be considered as
regardless of the feelings of the House, the rights of the South-
ern States, and unfriendly to the Union." Yeas 92, nays 105.

Second, " That the Hon. John Quincy Adams having sol-
emnly disclaimed all design of doing anything disrespectful to
the House in the inquiry made of the Speaker, etc., therefore
all further proceedings in regard to his conduct do now cease."
Yeas 21, nays 137, — Mr. Adams's friends voting in the nega-
tive, with a view to give him an opportunity to be heard, of
which he availed himself It is not necessary to give even a
synopsis of his defense or remarks: we may be sure he did
not spare his assailants.

Subsequently, resolutions were offered, discussed, and vari-
ously altered, which finally passed. The first resolution was
preceded by a preamble declaring that, Mr. Adams having
solemnly disclaimed all design of doing anything disrespectful
to the House in the inquiry made of the Speaker, etc., therefore —

"i. Resolved, That this House cannot receive said petition

Online LibraryNathan SargentPublic men and events from the commencement of Mr. Monroe's administration, in 1817, to the close of Mr. Filmore's administration, in 1853 (Volume 1) → online text (page 29 of 31)