Sunday, December 09, 2007

"Black Lines! Black Lines!"

In 1833, while Congress was in recess, President Andrew Jackson determined to remove from the Second Bank of the United States the funds of the federal government on deposit with that institution. President Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury had indicated that he was unwilling to carry out the instruction. In something of a precursor to the Watergate “Saturday Night Massacre,” Jackson appointed a new Treasury Secretary, who also declined to remove the funds. Jackson then removed him and appointed Roger Taney (the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) as Secretary. Taney directed that the funds be removed and deposited with various state banks, which came to be known as “pet banks.”

When Congress reconvened in December 1833, Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced in the Senate a resolution censuring President Jackson for his allegedly unconstitutional actions. The resolution passed on March 28, 1834.

Thereafter, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri spearheaded Democratic efforts to have the resolution expunged. For two years, these efforts were unsuccessful. But when the Senate convened in December 1836, the Democrats had acquired the majority they needed.

Things came to a head in January 1837. Senator Benton’s resolution provided that the 1834 resolution would be physically deleted from the Senate Journal. On the evening of January 16, 1837, with passage imminent, Henry Clay rose to oppose the resolution, although he knew the effort was futile. Even Clay’s arch enemy Senator Benton later expressed his praise for the speech that Clay delivered.

By all accounts, the cold transcripts of Clay’s speeches do not begin to convey the mesmerizing power of his oratory. Like a great actor, Clay marshaled every physical and vocal resource at his command to convey his message. He was a passionate advocate whose enthusiasm and ardor swept away audiences. He was naturally graceful and used every part of his body to emphasize and illustrate his points. Above all, the tone and cadence of his voice were extraordinary. Without raising his voice, it “filled the room as the organ fills a great cathedral, and the ladies stood spell-bound as the rolling cadences rolled about the vast apartment.” “[H]is voice was music itself, and yet penetrating and far-reaching, enchanting the listener; his words flowed rapidly, without sing-song or mannerism, in a clear and steady stream.” The total effect was very much greater than the sum of the parts, and utterly overwhelming.

Nonetheless, the cold record is all we have. All I can ask you to do, while you read Clay’s speech, is to try to see and hear Clay summoning all of his powers there on the floor of the Senate one hundred seventy years ago, while he delivers his denunciation, knowing it is in vain.

As with other speeches, try reading it aloud. I have added additional paragraph breaks to aid your oratorical efforts.

How is it with the President? Is he powerless? He is felt from one extremity to the other of this vast republic. By means of principles which he has introduced and innovations which he has made in our institutions, alas! but too much countenanced by Congress and a confiding people, he exercises uncontrolled the power of the State. In one hand he holds the purse, and in the other brandishes the sword of the country. Myriads of dependents and partisans, scattered over the land, are ever ready to sing hosannas to him, and to laud to the skies whatever he does. He has swept over the Government, during the last eight years, like a tropical tornado. Every department exhibits traces of the ravages of the storm. . . .

What object of his ambition is unsatisfied? When disabled by age any longer to hold the scepter of power, he designates his successor, and transmits it to his favorite!

What more does he want? Must we blot, deface, and mutilate the records of the country, to punish the presumptuousness of expressing an opinion contrary to his own?

What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this expunging resolution? Can you make that not to be which has been? Can you eradicate from memory and from history the fact that in March, 1834, a majority of the Senate of the United States passed the resolution which excites your enmity? Is it your vain and wicked object to arrogate to yourselves that power of annihilating the past which has been denied to Omnipotence itself? . . .

What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this expunging resolution? Is it to appease the wrath and to heal the wounded pride of the Chief Magistrate? If he be really the hero that his friends represent him, he must despise all mean condescension, all groveling sycophancy, all self-degradation and self-abasement. He would reject, with scorn and contempt, as unworthy of his fame, your black scratches and your baby lines in the fair records of his country.

Black lines! Black lines! Sir, I hope the Secretary of the Senate will preserve the pen with which he may inscribe them, and present it to that Senator of the majority whom he may select, as a proud trophy, to be transmitted to his descendants. And hereafter, when we shall lose the forms of our free institutions, all that now remain to us, some future American monarch, in gratitude to those by whose means he has been enabled, upon the ruins of civil liberty, to erect a throne, and to commemorate especially this expunging resolution, may institute a new order of knighthood, and confer on it the appropriate name of the Knight of the Black Lines.

But why should I detain the Senate, or needlessly waste my breath in fruitless exertions. The decree has gone forth. It is one of urgency, too. The deed is to be done – that foul deed which, like the blood-stained hands of the guilty Macbeth, all ocean’s waters will never wash out.

Proceed, then, to the noble work which lies before you, and, like other skilful executioners, do it quickly. And when you have perpetrated it, go home to the people, and tell them what glorious honors you have achieved for our common country.

Tell them that you have extinguished one of the brightest and purest lights that ever burnt at the altar of civil liberty.

Tell them that you have silenced one of the noblest batteries that ever thundered in defense of the constitution, and bravely spiked the cannon.

Tell them that, henceforward, no matter what daring or outrageous act any President may perform, you have hermetically sealed the mouth of the Senate.

Tell them that he may fearlessly assume what powers he pleases, snatch from its lawful custody the public purse, command a military detachment to enter the halls of the Capitol, overawe Congress, trample down the constitution, and raze every bulwark of freedom; but that the Senate must stand mute, in silent submission, and not dare to raise its opposing voice. That it must wait until a House of Representatives, humbled and subdued like itself, and a majority of it composed of the partisans of the President, shall prefer articles of impeachment.

Tell them, finally, that you have restored the glorious doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance.

And, if the people do not pour out their indignation and imprecations, I have yet to learn the character of American freemen.

Merrill Peterson relates the aftermath:
Near midnight the vote was taken, twenty-four for, nineteen against. The Whigs walked out, and as the secretary took up the journal of 1834, drew black lines around Clay’s censure resolution, and stamped it “Expunged,” the gallery broke into riot and tumult never before witnessed in the Senate.

Here is the result:

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