Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!"

Inspired by the description Ed Darrell found explaining the illustration “Uncle Sam’s Senate,” I found and read the relevant portions of the Congressional Globe for April 17, 1850.

What is most surprising about the confrontation between Democratic Senators Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, and Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton of Missouri on April 17, 1850 is that it seems to have come out of nowhere; the immediate provocation was slight, indeed.

By way of background, earlier in the year Whig Senator Henry Clay had succumbed to pressure from Senator Foote to package Clay’s proposed compromise measures into a single bill. Clay pushed through a proposal to refer the measures to a select Committee of Thirteen, which would draft what would become known as the Omnibus.

Although from a slave state, Benton, a Democrat, detested the pro-slavery radicals. He also detested the Omnibus plan. He therefore proposed an amendment that would give “instructions” to the Committee. One series of instructions basically directed the Committee not to include anything relating to California in any bill the Committee drafted. This, of course, would rob the Committee of a principal reason for its creation: any set of compromise measures had to include a provision or provisions dealing with that state.

Compounding the felony, Benton proposed another set of instructions that effectively barred the Committee from proposing any legislation concerning slavery. Everyone understood that these instructions, if enacted, killed the entire enterprise, and made a mockery of it in the bargain:
Provided, That nothing in this instruction shall be construed to take into consideration anything that relates to either of the four following subjects:
1. The abolition of slavery within the States.
2. The suppression of the slave trade between the States.
3. The abolition of slavery within the forts, arsenals, dock-yards, and navy-yards of the United States.
4. Abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia.
And provided further, That said committee shall not take into consideration any question in relation to the subject of domestic slavery in the United States, which shall not be specifically referred to it by order of the Senate.

There then followed a colloquy on the procedural propriety of the amendment. It appears that Senator Benton had previously offered a similar amendment, presumably when the formation of the Committee was originally debated. The Senate had rejected that earlier amendment.

Senator Joseph R. Underwood, Whig of Kentucky, now presented a “point of order. I think it is out of order to propose these points of instruction, when the Senate have already decided that they will not instruct the committee.” The point of order was referred to Vice President Millard Fillmore, sitting as President of the Senate.

I have seen summaries of the proceedings that state that the Vice President ruled Benton out of order. The Congressional Globe indicates otherwise. The Vice President seems to have ruled that Benton’s earlier amendment was similar to, but not identical to, his present amendment. Therefore, he was not out of order. However, he also ruled that the full Senate had the power to consider the question and decide otherwise. “[T]he question that presents itself is, whether inconsistencies are questions of order . . .. The Chair is of the opinion that the amendment is in order, but it is for the Senate to decide.”

Henry Clay then took the Vice President up on his invitation by melodramatically “appealing” the Vice President’s ruling to the full Senate:
Mr. CLAY. I rise to perform the painful duty of appealing from the decision of the Chair, and I ask the yeas and nays on the question. I do not mean to take up time. My opinion is, that when the Senate has decided that it will not do a given thing, it is out of order for that thing to be proposed to be done, and it is within the province of the Chair to decide it to be out of order.

At that point, Senator Benton rose to deliver a bitter objection. The Vice President’s ruling, and Clay’s appeal, had shifted the question from the proposed amendment itself to the procedural question whether the proposed amendment was out of order. Benton angrily complained that the Vice President’s ruling improperly threatened to cut off debate, contrary to Senate rules and tradition.

In the course of his speech, however, Benton (not unexpectedly) shifted to a defense of the substance of his proposed amendment. In the process, he characterized his amendment as an attempt to expose southern radicals as flim-flam artists (to enhance readability, I have added paragraph breaks):

Sir, I intend by these amendments to cut at the root of all that agitation, and to cut up the whole address of the southern members, by which the country was thrown into a flame. I mean to show that there was no foundation for any such thing; that is, I mean to offer a proposition upon which the votes will show that there has been a cry of “wolf,” when there was no wolf; that the country has been alarmed without reason, and against reason; that there is no design in the Congress of the United States to encroach upon the rights of the South, nor to aggress upon the South, nor to oppress them upon the subject of their institutions.

I propose, sir, to give the Senate an opportunity of showing that all this alarm has been without foundation; and I further propose to give to the people of the United States the highest declaration that can be given upon earth, that they have been disturbed about nothing; and when we come to that part of the question, we will see whether they are abstractions or not; and if these are abstractions, then the country has been alarmed about abstractions.

At this point, Senator Foote began to respond, but yielded the floor to Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. As one might expect, Senator Butler did not accept Senator Benton’s assertion that the south was crying wolf; the dangers were real:

Sir, the Senator [from Missouri] must see as plainly as I do, that there is a danger – that this thing has progressed to such lengths, that it will be but a feeble palliative to quiet it, to offer a resolution which merely declares that Congress has no right to interfere with slavery in the States; that the South and the whole country is in no danger; and that all of the agitation is caused by the Southern Address.

Then Senator Foote at last took the floor. Foote’s speech strikes me as exceedingly odd. First, Senator Benton’s provocation was not all that great. Yes, his speech accused southern radicals of crying wolf, but neither its tone nor substance was outrageous in the context of the overheated rhetoric of 1850. Moreover, Foote was not a die hard radical. After all, it was he, together with Henry Clay, who was pushing the Omnibus. I can only conclude that, precisely because Foote was something of a moderate, he felt he had to protect himself against claims by southern hard-liners that he was not being sufficiently vigorous in defense of southern rights.

Senator Foote began calmly enough, emphasizing his moderation:
Mr. FOOTE. The Senate will bear witness to the fact that I have endeavored to avoid discussion and controversy on this question. I have believed, and yet believe, that, the time has come when all true patriots should unite in the pure spirit of fraternal conciliation and compromise for the settlement of these questions; and that they should feel it their bounden and imperious duty to do all in their power to quiet excitement, and save the Republic from that danger which all of us do know has environed it for the last six or eight months.

After the jab at Benton in the last clause (“that danger which all of us do know has [existed]”), Foote began to warm to his topic. Benton had defamed him personally and, even worse, he had besmirched the sainted John Calhoun, still warm in his grave! Foote wrapped himself in the flag (as it were) of Calhoun’s “holy” Southern Address (paragraph breaks added):
I repeat, that I did not come here this morning in the expectation of saying a word; and especially would I not be heard referring to anything emanating from a certain quarter, after what has occurred here, but for what I conceive to be a direct attack upon myself and others with whom I am proud to stand associated.

We all know the history of the Southern Address, and the world knows its history. It is the history of the action of a band of patriots, worthy of the highest laudation, and who will be held in veneration when their calumniators, no matter who they may be, will be objects of general loathing and contempt.

Who is the author of the Southern Address? He is known to the world. The late illustrious Senator from South Carolina, whose decease a nation now mourns, and over whose untimely death every good man in all Christian countries, at the present time, is now lamenting – is the author, and the sole author, of that address. In our presence here to-day, in the hearing of the friends of that distinguished statesman associated with him in that holy work, that address is denounced with great appearance of deliberation, as fraught with mischief, and as having supplied food for agitation and excitement which has involved our institutions in dangers . . ..

After continuing in this mode a while longer, Foote then began to confront more directly the source of this infamy:
Those who were associated with and sanctioned that address, are charged with being agitators. And by whom? With whom does such an accusation as this originate? I shall not be personal, after the lesson I have already received here. I intend to be, in a parliamentary sense, perfectly decorous in all things. But by whom is this extraordinary denunciation hurled against all those individuals who subscribed this address? By a gentleman long denominated the oldest member of the Senate – the father of the Senate. By a gentleman who, on a late occasion –

At this juncture, however, Foote broke off his speech, for “the father of the Senate” was at that moment charging – or at least advancing menacingly – down the aisle toward him. Then Foote pulled a pistol, and all hell broke loose.

At this point, the Congressional Globe includes a rare description of events in the Senate chamber:
[Here Mr. FOOTE, who occupies a seat on the outer circle, in front of the Vice President’s chair, retreated backwards down the aisle, towards the chair of the Vice President, with a pistol in his hand. Mr. BENTON, a moment before, having suddenly risen from his seat and advanced by the aisle, outside the bar, towards him, following him into the aisle down which the Senator from Mississippi had retreated. In a moment almost every Senator was on his feet, and calls to “order,” demands for the Sergeant-at-Arms; requests that Senators would take their seats, from the Chair and from individual Senators, were repeatedly made.

Senator Benton clearly recognized a golden opportunity when he saw one, and drew on every ounce of his prodigious theatrical abilities (paragraph break added):

Mr. BENTON was followed and arrested by Mr. [Henry] DODGE, [Democrat] of Wisconsin, and, in the confusion and excitement which prevailed, he was heard to exclaim, from time to time, “I have no pistols!” “Let him fire!” “Stand out of the way!” “I have no pistols!” “I disdain to carry arms!” “Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!”

While making these exclamations, Mr. BENTON was brought back to his seat; but, breaking away from Mr. DODGE, of Wisconsin, who sought forcibly to detain him, he advanced again towards Mr. FOOTE, who stood near the Vice President’s chair, on the right-hand side, surrounded by a number of Senators, and others not members of the Senate. Mr. [Daniel S.] DICKINSON [Hardshell Hunker Democrat, New York] took the pistol from the hand of Mr. FOOTE, and locked it up in his desk, and Mr. FOOTE, on the advice of Mr. BUTLER, returned to his seat.]

The next day, apparently after reviewing the reporter’s description of events, Senator Foote sent the reporter “A CARD” to correct “one or two slight inaccuracies” in the description. What is most interesting is that, while Foote wanted to make clear that he was not the aggressor, he also went to great lengths to deny that he “retreated.” The implication seems clear that he was worried that southerners would brand him a coward if they perceived that he had retreated when presented with the onrushing Benton (paragraph breaks added):
Now, as to the “retreat” spoken of, it was simply a movement in a line – which made something like a right angle with the one along which the Senator from Missouri was advancing, I simply glided towards the alley leading from the Secretary’s chair to the door, intending to take a defensive attitude, and then await any assault which might be made. I could not have done otherwise, without, in a certain event, endangering the lives of unoffending persons.

You seem to represent myself as being pursued by my antagonist down a narrow alley. If you allude to the alley along which I walked in order to take my defensive attitude alluded to, you are in error, as the person alluded to did not even reach my seat, nor even get something like half-way from his seat to mine. The fact is, that I neither retreated from, nor advanced upon, the Senator referred to. I simply advanced to a convenient position for purposes of defense.

You say “Mr. DICKINSON took the pistol from the hand of Mr. FOOTE.” This is true, but I would add, that it was cheerfully surrendered on application being made for it, and upon seeing that I was no longer in danger of being assaulted. I regret that I have deemed it necessary to make this explanation, but I did not know how to avoid it.


  1. This is great stuff you have. There is really very little in the popular or readily available histories about Fillmore's character. There is not enough about the tensions in the Senate at this time, either.

    Great work. I find it exciting to read, though I'm sure someone could punch it up a bit (you should consider publishing your work in a journal, you know).

    And as always, the real history is so much better, so much more exciting, so much more dramatic, than anything you could make up.

  2. Ed,

    You're very kind. Thanks.

    In all honesty, all I did was take about five pages from the Congressional Globe and try to boil it down into a coherent story. I gather you're an educator; it's probably not a bad exercise for sophisticated high schoolers or even freshmen in college. Give them a few (carefully chosen) pages of Congressional Record debate and have them summarize what's going on, what the arguments are, who's on what side, etc.

    One last thing. I thought a blog WAS a journal!


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