Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Wilmot Proviso 3: The Whigs Whiff

After Hugh White concluded, the Chair of the Committee of the Whole, Democrat Moses Norris, Jr. of New Hampshire, apparently decided to maintain an appearance of debate by giving another Whig a chance to speak: the senior and conservative Robert Charles Winthrop of Massachusetts.

The Chair chose well. Rep. Winthrop, to be sure, complained about the President’s message and the proposed bill, but that was to be expected. He did not, however, take Rep. White’s incendiary approach. The primary thrust of Rep. Winthrop’s remarks was simply that the bill gave the president too much discretion. Use of the funds should be limited to establishing peace – adjusting borders but not taking vast swaths of territory. There was no mention of slavery; the whole presentation was soothing, subtle and urbane, unprovocative, entirely forgettable:
He cordially responded to the President’s desire to bring about a just and honorable peace at the earliest moment. Nothing would give him more satisfaction than to join in a measure honestly proposed for that purpose. He did not grudge the payment of the two millions. He would appropriate twenty millions for the legitimate purpose of a treaty of peace without a moment’s hesitation. And he still hoped that this measure might assume a shape in which he could give it his support. Limit the discretion of the President to a settlement of those boundaries which have been the subject of dispute. Hold him to his solemn pledges, twice repeated, that he would be ready at all times to settle the existing differences between the two countries on the most liberal terms. Give him no countenance in his design to take advantage of the present war, to force Mexico into the surrender, or even the sale, of any of her provinces. If anybody wants a better harbor on the Pacific, let him wait till it can be acquired with less of national dishonor. But whatever else you do or omit, give us at least to be assured that this appropriation is not to be applied in the annexation of another Texas, or even to the purchase of another Louisiana.

By the time Winthrop finished, the Democratic Chair of the Committee of the Whole was no doubt clapping himself on the back. Winthrop’s turgid presentation had quelled any excitement that Rep. White’s speech might have roused. Figuring he was on a roll, the Chair decided to call on one more conservative Whig, Joseph Reed Ingersoll of Pennsylvania.

Rep. Ingersoll did not disappoint. In his brief speech, Rep. Ingersoll offered a substitute bill. Rep. McKay’s bill was so vague that it did not even mention Mexico, specifying only that the funds be used “for the purpose of defraying any extraordinary expenses which may be incurred in the intercourse between the United States and foreign nations.” Rep. Ingersoll’s bill, while solidly pro-administration, was designed to tie the use of the funds to resolution of the Mexican War. After a vapid and sycophantic preamble (“this Congress meets with cheerfulness and concurs in the proposition of the President of the United States for joint action by the Executive and Legislature towards the accomplishment of an object which is alike consistent with humanity, wisdom, and justice”), the meat of the bill provided
That the sum of two millions of dollars be, and the same is hereby, appropriated out of any moneys in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, for the purpose of enabling the President to take measures for securing a speedy and honorable peace with the Republic of Mexico, for the satisfactory adjudication of all matters in controversy, and for the definitive establishment of the territorial boundaries between the two nations.

The Chair was presumably pleased. No problem here. How about one more Whig, perhaps from a slaveholding state? How about Henry Grider of Kentucky?

A good choice. Rep. Grider made Rep. Winthrop look like a lion of the House. He complained that the war had been “unnecessary,” but he was not even prepared to vote against the bill:
He knew there were well-founded apprehensions as to the manner to which this money would be apprehended, but he argued that the fact that the President might abuse his power was no ground for withholding this appropriation. The country were all desirous of peace.

Eureka! The Chair had given the Whigs their chance – and they had blown it. Now he could call on a Democrat. Let me see . . . Who should I choose?

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