Thomas B. (Thomas Brackett) Reed.

Modern eloquence; (Volume 11) online

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ately the liberties of the people, would not be guarded, as
they are, with a vigilance that never sleeps, and an unre-
laxing constancy and courage.

If the consequences, most unfairly attributed to the
vote in the affirmative, were not chimerical, and worse, for
they are deceptive, I should think it a reproach to be found
even moderate in my zeal to assert the constitutional powers
of this assembly; and whenever they shall be in real danger,
the present occasion affords proof that there will be no want
of advocates and champions.

Indeed, so prompt are these feelings, and when once
roused, so difficult to pacify, that if we could prove the
alarm was groundless, the prejudice against the appropri-
ations may remain on the mind, and it may even pass for
an act of prudence and duty to negative a measure which
was lately believed by ourselves, and may hereafter be mis-
conceived by others, to encroach upon the powers of the
House. Principles that bear a remote affinity with usurpa-
tion on those powers will be rejected, not merely as errors,
but as wrongs. Our sensibilities will shrink from a post,
where it is possible they may be wounded, and be inflamed
by the slightest suspicion of an assault.

While these prepossessions remain, all argument is use-
less. It may be heard with the ceremony of attention, and
lavish its own resources, and the patience it wearies, to no
manner of purpose. The ears may be open, but the mind
will remain locked up, and every pass to the understanding

Unless, therefore, this jealous and repulsive fear for the
rights of the House can be allayed, I will not ask a hearing.

I cannot press this topic too far; I cannot address
myself with too much emphasis to the magnanimity and
candor of those who sit here, to suspect their own feelings,


and, while they do, to examine the grounds of their alarm.
I repeat it, we must conquer our persuasion, that this body
has an interest in one side of the question more than the
other, before we attempt to surmount our objections. On
most subjects, and solemn ones too, perhaps in the most
solemn of all, we form our creed more from inclination than

Let me expostulate with gentlemen to admit, if it be
only by way of supposition, and for a moment, that it is
barely possible they have yielded too suddenly to their
alarms for the powers of this House; that the addresses,
which have been made with such variety of forms, and with
so great dexterity in some of them, to all that is prejudice
and passion in the heart, are either the effects or the instru-
ments of artifice and deception, and then let them see the
subject once more in its singleness and simplicity.

It will be impossible, on taking a fair review of the sub-
ject, to justify the passionate appeals that have been made
to us to struggle for our liberties and rights, and the solemn
exhortations to reject the proposition, said to be concealed
in that on your table, to surrender them forever. In spite
of this mock solemnity, I demand, if the House will not
concur in the measure to execute the treaty, what other
course shall we take? How many ways of proceeding lie
open before us?

In the nature of things there are but three: we are
either to make the treaty, to observe it, or break it. It
would be absurd to say we will do neither. If I may repeat
a phrase already so much abused, we are under coercion to
do one of them, and we have no power, by the exercise of
our discretion, to prevent the consequences of a choice.

By refusing to act, we choose. The treaty will be
broken and fall to the ground. Where is the fitness, then,
of replying to those who urge upon the House the topics
of duty and policy, that they attempt to force the treaty
down, and to compel this assembly to renounce its dis-
cretion and to degrade itself to the rank of a blind and
passive instrument in the hands of the treaty-making
power? In case we reject the appropriation, we do not
secure any greater liberty of action, we gain no safer shelter
than before from the consequences of the decision. In-


deed, they are not to be evaded. It is neither just nor
manly to complain that the treaty-making power has pro-
duced this coercion to act. It is not the art or the despot-
ism of that power, it is the nature of things that compels.
Shall we, dreading to become the blind instruments of
power, yield ourselves the blinder dupes of mere sounds
of imposture? Yet that word, that empty word, coercion,
has given scope to an eloquence, that, one would imagine,
could not be tired, and did not choose to be quieted.

Let us examine still more in detail the alternatives that
are before us, and we shall scarcely fail to see, in still
stronger lights, the futility of our apprehensions for the
power and liberty of the House.

If, as some have suggested, the thing called a treaty is
incomplete, if it has no binding force or obligation, the first
question is, Will this House complete the instrument, and,
by concurring, impart to it that force which it wants?

The doctrine has been avowed that the treaty, though
formally ratified by the executive power of both nations,
though published as a law for our own by the President's
proclamation, is still a mere proposition submitted to this
assembly, no way distinguishable in point of authority or
obligation from a motion for leave to bring in a bill, or any
other original act of ordinary legislation. This doctrine,
so novel in our country, yet so dear to many, precisely for
the reason that in the contention for power, victory is
always dear, is obviously repugnant to the very terms as
well as the fair interpretation of our own resolutions [Mr.
Blount's]. We declare that the treaty-making power is
exclusively vested in the President and Senate, and not in
this House. Need I say that we fly in the face of that reso-
lution when we pretend that the acts of that power are not
valid until we have concurred in them? It would be non-
sense, or worse, to use the language of the most glaring
contradiction, and to claim a share in a power which we at
the same time disclaim as exclusively vested in other

What can be more strange than to say that the com-
pacts of the President and Senate with foreign nations are
treaties, without our agency, and yet those compacts want
all power and obligation until they are sanctioned by our


concurrence? It is not my design in this place, if at all, to
go into the discussion of this part of the subject. I will,
at least for the present, take it for granted that this mon-
strous opinion stands in little need of remark, and if it
does, lies almost out of the reach of refutation.

But, say those who hide the absurdity under the cover
of ambiguous phrases, have we no discretion? and if we
have, are we not to make use of it in judging of the expe-
diency or inexpediency of the treaty? Our resolution
claims that privilege, and we cannot surrender it without
equal inconsistency and breach of duty.

If there be any inconsistency in the case, it lies, not in
making the appropriations for the treaty, but in the reso-
lution itself [Mr. Blount's]. Let us examine it more
nearly. A treaty is a bargain between nations, binding in
good faith; and what makes a bargain? The assent of the
contracting parties. We allow that the treaty power is not
in this House; this House has no share in contracting, and
is not a party: of consequence, the President and Senate
alone may make a treaty that is binding in good faith. We
claim, however, say the gentlemen, a right to judge of the
expediency of treaties; that is the constitutional province
of our discretion. Be it so. What follows? Treaties,
when adjudged by us to be inexpedient, fall to the ground,
and the public faith is not hurt. This, incredible and ex-
travagant as it may seem, is asserted. The amount of it,
in plainer language, is this the President and Senate are
to make national bargains, and this House has nothing to
do in making them. But bad bargains do not bind this
House, and, of inevitable consequence, do not bind the
nation. When a national bargain, called a treaty, is made,
its binding force does not depend upon the making, but
upon our opinion that it is good. As our opinion on the
matter can be known and declared only by ourselves, when
sitting in our legislative capacity, the treaty, though ratified,
and, as we choose to term it, made, is hung up in suspense,
till our sense is ascertained. We condemn the bargain,
and it falls, though, as we say, our faith does not. We ap-
prove a bargain as expedient, and it stands firm, and binds
the nation. Yet, even in this latter case, its force is plainly
not derived from the ratification by the treaty-making


power, but from our approbation. Who will trace these
inferences, and pretend that we have no share, according to
the argument, in the treaty-making power? These opin-
ions, nevertheless, have been advocated with infinite zeal
and perseverance. Is it possible that any man can be hardy
enough to avow them and their ridiculous consequences?

Let me hasten to suppose the treaty is considered as
already made, and then the alternative is fairly presented
to the mind, whether we will observe the treaty or break
it. This, in fact, is the naked question.

If we choose to observe it with good faith, our course
is obvious. Whatever is stipulated to be done by the
nation must be complied with. Our agency, if it should
be requisite, cannot be properly refused. And I do not
see why it is not as obligatory a rule of conduct for the
legislative as for the courts of law.

I cannot lose this opportunity to remark that the coer-
cion, so much dreaded and declaimed against, appears at
length to be no more than the authority of principles, the
despotism of duty. Gentlemen complain we are forced to
act in this way, we are forced to swallow the treaty. It is
very true, unless we claim the liberty of abuse, the right to
act as we ought not. There is but one right way open for
us, the laws of morality and good faith have fenced up
every other. What sort of liberty is that which we pre-
sume to exercise against the authority of those laws? It
is for tyrants to complain that principles are restraints, and
that they have no liberty so long as their despotism has
limits. These principles will be unfolded by examining the
remaining question, Shall we break the treaty?

The treaty is bad, fatally bad, is the cry. It sacrifices
the interest, the honor, the independence of the United
States, and the faith of our engagements to France. If we
listen to the clamor of party intemperance, the evils are of
a number not to be counted, and of a nature not to be
borne, even in idea. The language of passion and exagger-
ation may silence that of sober reason in other places ; it has
not done it here. The question here is, whether the treaty
be really so very fatal as to oblige the nation to break its
faith. I admit that such a treaty ought not to be executed.
I admit that self-preservation is the first law of society, as


well as of individuals. It would, perhaps, be deemed an
abuse of terms to call that a treaty which violates such a
principle. I waive also, for the present, any inquiry what
departments shall represent the nation, and annul the stipu-
lations of a treaty. I content myself with pursuing the
inquiry, whether the nature of this compact be such as to
justify our refusal to carry it into effect. A treaty is the
promise of a nation. Now, promises do not always bind
him that makes them.

But I lay down two rules which ought to guide us in
this case. The treaty must appear to be bad, not merely
in the petty details, but in its character, principle, and
mass. And in the next place, this ought to be ascertained
by the decided and general concurrence of the enlightened
public. I confess there seems to me something very like
ridicule thrown over the debate by the discussion of the
articles in detail.

The undecided point is, Shall we break our faith? And
while our country and enlightened Europe await the issue
with more than curiosity, we are employed to gather piece-
meal, and article by article, from the instrument, a justi-
fication for the deed by trivial calculations of commercial
profit and loss. This is little worthy of the subject, of this
body, or of the nation. If the treaty is bad, it will appear
to be so in its mass. Evil to a fatal extreme, if that be its
tendency, requires no proof; it brings it. Extremes speak
for themselves and make their own law. What if the direct
voyage of American ships to Jamaica with horses or lumber
might net one or two per cent, more than the present
trade to Surinam ; would the proof of the fact avail any-
thing in so grave a question as the violation of the public
engagements ?

It is in vain to allege that our faith, plighted to France,
is violated by this new treaty. Our prior treaties are ex-
pressly saved from the operation of the British treaty.
And what do those mean who say that our honor was for-
feited by treating at all, and especially by such a treaty?
Justice, the laws and practise of nations, a just regard for
peace as a duty to mankind,. and the known wish of our
citizens, as well as that self-respect which required it of
the nation to act with dignity and moderation all these


forbade an appeal to arms before we had tried the effect of
negotiation. The honor of the United States was saved,
not forfeited, by treating. The treaty itself, by its stipula-
tions for the posts, for indemnity, and for a due observa-
tion of our neutral rights, has justly raised the character
of the nation. Never did the name of America appear in
Europe with more luster than upon the event of ratifying
this instrument. The fact is of a nature to overcome all

But the independence of the country we are colonists
again. This is the cry of the very men who tell us that
France will resent our exercise of the rights of an independ-
ent nation to adjust our wrongs with an aggressor, without
giving her the opportunity to say, Those wrongs shall sub-
sist and shall not be adjusted. This is an admirable speci-
men of the spirit of independence. The treaty with Great
Britain, it cannot be denied, is unfavorable to this strange
sort of independence.

Few men of any reputation for sense, among those who
say the treaty is bad, will put that reputation so much at
hazard as to pretend that it is so extremely bad as to war-
rant and require a violation of the public faith. The proper
ground of the controversy, therefore, is really unoccupied
by the opposers of the treaty; as the very hinge of the
debate is on the point, not of its being good or otherwise,
but whether it is intolerably and fatally pernicious. If
loose and ignorant declaimers have anywhere asserted the
latter idea, it is too extravagant, and too solidly refuted,
to be repeated here. Instead of any attempt to expose it
still further, I will say, and I appeal with confidence to the
candor of many opposers of the treaty to acknowledge that
if it had been permitted to go into operation silently, like
our other treaties, so little alteration of any sort would be
made by it in the great mass of our commercial and agricul-
tural concerns, that it would not be generally discovered by
its effects to be in force, during the term for which it was
contracted. I place considerable reliance on the weight
men of candor will give to this remark, because I believe it
to be true, and little short of undeniable. When the panic
dread of the treaty shall cease, as it certainly must, it will
be seen through another medium. Those who shall make


search into the articles for the cause of their alarms, will be
so far from finding stipulations that will operate fatally,
they will discover few of them that will have any lasting
operation at all. Those which relate to the disputes be-
tween the two countries will spend their force on the sub-
jects in dispute, and extinguish them. The commercial
articles are more of a nature to confirm the existing state
of things than to change it. The treaty alarm was purely
an address to the imagination and prejudices of the citizens,
and not on that account the less formidable. Objections
that proceed upon error, in fact or calculation, may be
traced and exposed ; but such as are drawn from the imag-
ination or addressed to it, elude definition, and return to
domineer over the mind, after having been banished from
it by truth.

I will not so far abuse the momentary strength that is
lent to me by the zeal of the occasion as to enlarge upon
the commercial operation of the treaty. I proceed to the
second proposition, which I have stated as indispensably
requisite to a refusal of the performance of a treaty will
the state of public opinion justify the deed?

No government, not even a despotism, will break its
faith without some pretext, and it must be plausible, it
must be such as will carry the public opinion along with it.
Reasons of policy, if not of morality, dissuade even Turkey
and Algiers from breaches of treaty in mere wantonness of
perfidy, in open contempt of the reproaches of their sub-
jects. Surely, a popular government will not proceed more
arbitrarily, as it is more free; nor with less shame or scruple
in proportion as it has better morals. It will not proceed
against the faith of treaties at all, unless the strong and
decided sense of the nation shall pronounce, not simply
that the treaty is not advantageous, but that it ought to be
broken and annulled. Such a plain manifestation of the
sense of the citizens is indispensably requisite; first, because
if the popular apprehensions be not an infallible criterion of
the disadvantages of the instrument, their acquiescence in
the operation of it is an irrefragable proof that the extreme
case does not exist, which alone could justify our setting
it aside.

In the next place, this approving opinion of the citizens


is requisite, as the best preventive of the ill consequences
of a measure always so delicate, and often so hazardous.
Individuals would, in that case at least, attempt to repel
the opprobrium that would be thrown upon Congress by
those who will charge it with perfidy. They would give
weight to the testimony of facts, and the authority of prin-
ciples, on which the government would rest its vindication.
And if war should ensue upon the violation, our citizens
would not be divided from their government, nor the ardor
of their courage be chilled by the consciousness of injustice,
and the sense of humiliation, that sense which makes those
despicable who know they are despised.

I add a third reason, and with me it has a force that no
words of mine can augment, that a government, wantonly
refusing to fulfil its engagements is the corrupter of its
citizens. Will the laws continue to prevail in the hearts of
the people, when the respect that gives them efficacy is
withdrawn from the legislators? How shall we punish vice
while we practise it? We have not force, and vain will be
our reliance, when we have forfeited the resources of opin-
ion. To weaken government and to corrupt morals are
effects of a breach of faith not to be prevented ; and from
effects they become causes, producing, with augmented
activity, more disorder and more corruption ; order will be
disturbed and the life of the public liberty shortened.

And who, I would inquire, is hardy enough to pretend
that the public voice demands the violation of the treaty?
The evidence of the sense of the great mass of the nation
is often equivocal; but when was it ever manifested with
more energy and precision than at the present moment?
The voice of the people is raised against the measure of
refusing the appropriations. If gentlemen should urge,
nevertheless, that all this sound of alarm is a counterfeit
expression of the sense of the public, I will proceed to
other proofs. If the treaty is ruinous to our commerce,
what has blinded the eyes of the merchants and traders?
Surely they are not enemies to trade, or ignorant of their
own interests. Their sense is not so liable to be mistaken
as that of a nation, and they are almost unanimous. The
articles stipulating the redress of our injuries by captures
on the sea are said to be delusive. By whom is this said?


The very men whose fortunes are staked upon the com-
petency of that redress say no such thing. They wait
with anxious fear lest you should annul that compact on
which all their hopes are rested.

Thus we offer proof, little short of absolute demonstra-
tion, that the voice of our country is raised not to sanction
but to deprecate the non-performance of our engagements.
It is not the nation, it is one, and but one branch of the
government that proposes to reject them. With this aspect
of things, to reject is an act of desperation.

I shall be asked why a treaty so good in some articles,
and so harmless in others, has met with such unrelenting
opposition; and how the clamors against it, from New
Hampshire to Georgia, can be accounted for? The appre-
hensions so extensively diffused, on its first publication,
will be vouched as proof that the treaty is bad, and that
the people hold it in abhorrence.

I am not embarrassed to find the answer to this insinu-
ation. Certainly a foresight of its pernicious operation
could not have created all the fears that were felt or affected.
The alarm spread faster than the publication of the treaty.
There were more critics than readers. Besides, as the sub-
ject was examined, those fears have subsided.

The movements of passion are quicker than those of the
understanding. We are to search for the causes of first im-
pressions, not in the articles of this obnoxious and misrep-
resented instrument, but in the state of the public feeling.

The fervor of the Revolutionary War had not entirely
cooled, nor its controversies ceased, before the sensibilities
of our citizens were quickened with a tenfold vivacity, by
a new and extraordinary subject of irritation. One of the
two great nations of Europe underwent a change which has
attracted all our wonder, and interested all our sympathies.
Whatever they did, the zeal of many went with them, and
often went to excess. These impressions met with much to
inflame and nothing to restrain them. In our newspapers,
in our feasts, and some of our elections, enthusiasm was
admitted a merit, a test of patriotism, and that made it
contagious. In the opinion of party, we could not love or
hate enough. I dare say, in spite of all the obloquy it may
provoke, we were extravagant in both. It is my right to


avow that passions so impetuous, enthusiasm so wild, could
not subsist without disturbing the sober exercise of reason,
without putting at risk the peace and precious interests of
our country. They were hazarded. I will not exhaust the
little breath I have left, to say how much, nor by whom,
or by what means they were rescued from the sacrifice.
Shall I be called upon to offer my proofs? They are here,
they are everywhere. No one has forgotten the proceed-
ings of 1794. No one has forgotten the captures of our
vessels, and the imminent danger of war. The nation
thirsted not merely for reparation, but vengeance. Suffer-
ing such wrongs, and agitated by such resentments, was it
in the power of any words of compact, or could any parch-
ment with its seals prevail at once to tranquilize the people?
It was impossible. Treaties in England are seldom popu-
lar, and least of all when the stipulations of amity succeed
to the bitterness of hatred. Even the best treaty, though
nothing be refused, will choke resentment, but not satisfy
it. Every treaty is as sure to disappoint extravagant ex-
pectations as to disarm extravagant passions. Of the latter,
hatred is one that takes no bribes. They who are animated
by the spirit of revenge will not be quieted by the possi-
bility of profit.

Why do they complain that the West Indies are not laid
open? Why do they lament that any restriction is stipu-
lated on the commerce of the East Indies? Why do they
pretend that if they reject this, and insist upon more, more
will be accomplished? Let us be explicit more would not
satisfy. If all was granted, would not a treaty of amity
with Great Britain still be obnoxious? Have we not this
instant heard it urged against our envoy that he was not

Online LibraryThomas B. (Thomas Brackett) ReedModern eloquence; (Volume 11) → online text (page 7 of 43)