Monday, August 10, 2009

Henry Clay Inadvertently Names the Omnibus

Having mentioned omnibuses recently, I thought I’d turn to another sort of omnibus – the bill incorporating the principal provisions of Henry Clay’s proposals to resolve the Crisis of 1850.

Clay’s proposals, which he first described in a speech to the Senate on Tuesday January 29, 1850, encompassed eight resolutions. Holman Hamilton describes them:
His first resolution called for admitting California as a state. The second specified territorial governments for New Mexico and Deseret [Utah] without any slavery restriction or condition. The third and fourth were designed to reduce Texas’ area and to pay her debt, but the amount of the payment was purposely left unspecified. The fifth and sixth resolutions denied the expediency of abolishing slavery in the District [of Columbia] while providing for termination of the slave trade there. In the seventh, the Kentuckian advocated a more effective fugitive [slave] law. The last and eighth resolution was a simple assertion that Congress had no power to obstruct the slave trade of the southern states.

The “Omnibus Bill” that emerged more than three months later encompassed the first four of Clay’s resolutions:
On Wednesday, May 8, a packed Senate finally heard Clay read the report. The Committee of Thirteen’s main recommendation consisted of the so-called “Omnibus Bill.” This not only provided for California statehood and for the two territorial governments but also offered solutions for the Texas boundary and debt questions. Kept separate were a fugitive slave measure and another limiting the District slave trade.

So how, then, did the Omnibus get its name?

On Wednesday February 13, 1850, Senator Henry S. Foote, Democrat of Mississippi, had introduced a resolution proposing to refer to a special committee “the various propositions now before the Senate relating to [California], in connection with the question of domestic slavery, in all its various bearings.”

When the issue resurfaced the next day in a slightly altered form (now the proposal was to send all matter to the Committee on Territories), Henry Clay objected:
I do not think it would be right to embrace in a general motion the question of the admission of California and all the other subjects which are treated of by the resolutions upon the table – the subject, for example, of the establishment of territorial governments, the subject of the establishment of a boundary line for Texas, and the proposition to compensate Texas for the surrender of territory. I say, sir, I do not think it would be right to confound or to combine all these subjects, and to throw them before one committee to be acted on together.

Foote, in response, expressed “unbounded astonishment” at Clay’s position. It was Clay himself who had just recently taken “the lead in urging upon this body and the country consideration of a general scheme of pacification and compromise.” Everyone understood, Foote asserted, that it had been Clay’s intention to refer all matters to a single committee, which would issue a bill covering all issues.

Foote went on at length. The thrust of his objection was that, if the California bill were referred to the Committee on Territories, and other proposals to another committee or committees, the South would be prejudiced. The Territories Committee was clearly stacked and would certainly report a bill to admit California as a free state, while other proposals friendlier to the South would get watered down or buried.

Clay then rose. Referring to Foote’s speech in a humorous aside, he inadvertently gave the future “omnibus” its name:
I do not know that I should have risen at all had not the worthy Senator from Mississippi made a sort of omnibus speech, in which he introduced all sorts of things and every kind of passenger, and myself among the number. [Laughter]

“It was thus,” Holman Hamilton reports, “on Clay’s initiative, that the word 'omnibus' was incorporated into standard 1850 congressional language."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails