« PreviousContinue »
Election of General Jackson. — Debate on Foot's Resolution. — Subject of the Resolution, and Objects of its Mover. — Mr. Hayne's First Speech. — Mr. Webster's original Participation in the Debate unpremeditated. — His First Speech. — Reply of Mr. Hayne with increased Asperity. — Mr. Webster's Great Speech. — Its Threefold Object. — Description of the Manner of Mr. Webster in the Delivery of this Speech, from Mr. March's "Reminiscences of Congress." — Reception of his Speech throughout the Country. — The Dinner at New York. — Chancellor Kent's Remarks. — Final Disposal of Foot's Resolution. — Report of Mr. Webster's Speech. — Mr. Healey's Painting.
In the interval between the two sessions of the Twentieth Congress, the Presidential election was decided. Mr. Adams and General Jackson were the opposing candidates; and the latter was chosen by a large popular majority. This result was brought about by the active cooperation with General Jackson's original supporters of the friends of Mr. Calhoun, and many of the friends of the other candidates of 1824. This cooperation implied the combination of the most discordant materials, which did not, however, prevent its members during the canvass from heaping the bitterest reproaches upon Mr. Adams's administration for receiving the support of Mr. Clay. That there was no cordiality among the component elements of the party by which General Jackson was elevated to the chair was soon quite apparent.
The first session of the Twenty-first Congress, that of 1829 30, is rendered memorable in the history of Mr. Webster, as well as in the parliamentary history of the country, by what has been called the debate on Foot's resolution, in which Mr. Webster delivered the speech which is usually regarded as his ablest, and which may probably with truth be pronounced the most celebrated speech ever delivered' in Congress. The great importance of this effort will no doubt be considered as a sufficient reason for relating somewhat in detail the circumstances under which it was made.
The debate arose in the following manner.
On the 29th of December, 1829, Mr. Foot, one of the Senators from Connecticut, moved the following resolution: —
"Resolved, That the Committee on Public Lands be instructed to inquire and report the quantity of public lands remaining unsold within each State and Territory, and whether it be expedient to limit for a certain period the sales of the public lands to such lands only as have heretofore been offered for sale, and are now subject to entry at the minimum price. And, also, whether the office of Surveyor-General, and some of the land offices, may not be abolished without detriment to the public interest."
There is no reason to believe that, in bringing forward this resolution, Mr. Foot acted in concert with any other member of the Senate. When it came np for consideration the next day, the mover stated that he had been induced to offer the resolution from having at the last session examined the report of the Commissioner of the Land Office, from which it appeared that the quantity of land remaining unsold at the minimum price of one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre exceeded seventy-two millions of acres; while it appeared from the commissioner's report at this session, that the annual demand was not likely to exceed a million of acres at present, although of course it might be expected somewhat to increase with the growth of the population.
This resolution, though one of inquiry only, was resisted. It was represented by Mr. Benton of Missouri as a resolution to inquire into the expediency of committing a great injury upon the new States of the West. Mr. Holmes of Maine supported the resolution, as one of inquiry into an important subject. Mr. Foot disclaimed every purpose unfriendly to the West, and at the close of the conversation (in which Mr. Webster took no part), it was agreed that the consideration of the resolution should be postponed to the llth of January, and made the special order of the day for that day. In this manner, it often happens that a resolution of inquiry on a business question of no urgent importance, intended to have no political bearing, and brought forward without concert with others by an individual, becomes by delay the theme of impassioned debates for weeks and months, to the serious obstruction of the real business of Congress. In the present case, it must be admitted that the loss of the public time thus occasioned was amply made up, by the importance of the speech which has given celebrity to the debate.
The consideration of Mr. Foot's resolution was not resumed till Wednesday, the 13th of January, when it was opposed by several Western gentlemen. It was next taken up on Monday, the 18th, when Mr. Benton of Missouri spoke at length against it. On Tuesday, the 19th, Mr. Holmes of Maine replied at no great length to Mr. Benton. Other members took some part in the debate, and then Mr. Hayne of South Carolina commenced a speech, which occupied the rest of the day. Mr. Hayne was one of the younger members of the Senate. He came forward in his native State in 1814, when hardly of age, with great eclat, filled in rapid succession responsible offices, and came to the Senate of the United States in 1823, with a reputation already brilliant, and rapidly increasing. He was active and diligent in business, fluent, graceful, and persuasive as a debater; of a sanguine and self-relying temper; shrinking from no antagonist, and disposed to take the part of a champion.
Mr. Webster, up to this time, had not participated in the debate, which had in fact been rather a pointless affair, and was dragging its slow length through the Senate, no one knew exactly to what purpose. It had as yet assumed no character in which it invited or required his attention. He was much engaged at the time in the Supreme Court of the United States. The important case of John Jacob Astor and the State of New York, in which he was of counsel, was to come on for argument on the 20th of January; and on that day the argument of the case was in fact commenced.* Leaving the court-room when the court adjourned on Tuesday, the 19th, Mr. Webster came into the Senate in season to hear the greater part of Mr. Hayne's speech; and it was suggested to him by several friends, and among others by Mr. Bell of New Hampshire, Mr. Chambers of Maryland, and his colleague, Mr. Silsbee, that an immediate answer to Mr. Hayne was due from him. The line of discussion pursued by the Senator from South Carolina was such as to require, if not to provoke, an immediate answer from the North. Mr. Webster accordingly rose when Mr. Hayne took his seat, but gave way to a motion for adjournment from Mr. Benton. These circumstances will sufficiently show how entirely without premeditation, and with what preoccupation by other trains of thought, Mr. Webster was led into this great intellectual conflict.
He appeared in the Senate the next morning, Wednesday,
•This case is known as that of Carver's Lessees against John Jacob Astor, and is reported in 4 Peters, 1. A*
January 20th, and Mr. Foot's resolution, being called up, was modified, on the suggestion of Messrs. Sprague of Maine and Woodbury of New Hampshire, by adding the following clause:—
"Or whether it be expedient to adopt measures to hasten the sales and extend more rapidly the surveys of the public lands."
Mr. Webster immediately proceeded with the debate. No elaborate preparation, of course, could have been made by him, as the speech of Mr. Hayne, to which his reply was mainly directed, was delivered the day before. He vindicated the government, under its successive administrations, from the general charge of having managed the public lands in a spirit of hostility to the Western States. He particularly defended New England against the accusation of hostility to the West. A passage in this part of his speech, contrasting Ohio as she was in 1794 with the Ohio of 1830, will compare advantageously with any thing in these volumes. In speaking of the settlement of the West, Mr. Webster introduced with just commendation the honored name of Nathan Dane, as the author of the Ordinance of 1787, for the organization and government of the territory northwest of the Ohio. He maintained that every measure of legislation beneficial to the West had been carried in Congress by the aid of New England votes, and he closed by an allusion to his own course as uniformly friendly to that part of the Union. Mr. Benton followed Mr. Webster, and commenced a speech in reply.
The next day, Thursday, the 21st, the subject again came up, and it was now evident that the debate had put on a new character. Its real interest and importance were felt to be commencing. Mr. Chambers expressed the hope that the Senate would consent to postpone the further consideration of the resolution till the next Monday, as Mr. Webster, who had engaged in the discussion and wished to be present when it should be resumed, had pressing engagements out of the house, and could not conveniently give his attendance in the Senate before Monday.* Mr. Hayne said "he saw the gentleman from Massachusetts in his seat, and presumed he could make an arrangement which would enable him to be present here, during the
* Mr. Chambers referred to the case in court just mentioned, in which Mr. Webster was engaged, and in which the argument had already begun.
discussion to-day. He was unwilling that this subject should be postponed before he had an opportunity of replying to some of the observations which had fallen from that gentleman yesterday. He would not deny that some things had fallen from him which rankled * here (touching his breast), from which he would desire at once to relieve himself. The gentleman had discharged his fire in the presence of the Senate. He hoped he would now afford him an opportunity of returning the shot."
The manner in which this was said was not such as to soften the harshness of the sentiment. It will be difficult, in reverting to Mr. Webster's speech, to find either in its substance or spirit any adequate grounds for the feeling manifested by Mr. Hayne. Nor would it probably be easy in the history of Congress to find another case in which a similar act of accommodation in the way of postponing a subject has been refused, at least on such a ground. Mr. Webster, in reply to Mr. Hayne's remark, that he wished without delay to return his shot, said, "Let the discussion proceed; I am ready now to receive the gentleman's fire."
Mr. Benton then addressed the Senate for about an hour, in conclusion of the speech which he had commenced the day before. At the close of Mr. Benton's argument, Mr. Bell of New Hampshire moved that the further consideration of the subject should be postponed till Monday, but the motion was negatived. Mr. Hayne then took the floor, and spoke for about an hour in reply to Mr. Webster's remarks of the preceding day. Before he had concluded his argument, the Senate adjourned till Monday. On that day, January the 25th, he spoke for two hours and a half, and completed his speech. Mr. Webster immediately rose to reply, but the day was far advanced, and he yielded to a motion for adjournment.
The second speech of Mr. Hayne, to which Mr. Webster was now called upon to reply, was still more strongly characterized than the first with severity, not to say bitterness, towards the Eastern States. The tone toward Mr. Webster personally was not courteous. It bordered on the offensive. It was difficult not to find in both of the speeches of the Senator from South Carolina the indication of a preconceived purpose to hold up
* Mr. Hayne subsequently disclaimed having used this word.