Friday, August 21, 2009

"I hold in my hand a series of resolutions . . ."

Having devoted a few posts to descriptions of the oratorical style of Henry Clay, I thought I would take a look at two of his speeches. Before doing so, however, I urge you to to try to hear Clay speaking the words – a deep voice that, even at conversational levels, could fill the largest room and mesmerize an audience. You should also try to visualize Clay, a not particularly handsome, loose-limbed man who used movement – an arched eyebrow, the sweep of an arm, a stroll across the Senate floor, a pinch of snuff – to dramatize his points:
“He moved from his desk,” one observer wrote. “He walked up and down between the rows of seats. He took snuff. He used his hands freely. He varied his voice; was sometimes rapid, sometimes slow, sometimes solemn, sometimes playful. . . . He had the air of an accomplished actor playing a part with great skill but with an eye always on the audience and their applause.”

“Unfortunately,” Merrill Peterson explains, “none of the actions of his speeches could be transmitted to the printed page. The reported speeches were but skeletons of the originals.” As we read Clay’s speeches in coming posts, we must all, therefore, use our reconstructive powers to imagine a performance – not merely a speech – by a master.

The speeches that I want to take a look at are the ones he delivered in the United States Senate at the end of January and the beginning of February 1850, in support of his compromise resolutions. In the first, given on Tuesday January 29, 1850, Clay publicly unveiled his resolutions for the first time and “present[ed] a few observations upon each . . . with the purpose, chiefly, of exposing it fairly and fully before the Senate and before the country.” The second extended over two days, Tuesday and Wednesday February 5 and 6, 1850. In it, Clay set forth his arguments more fully and pleaded with his audience to support them.

In January 1850, Clay was approaching the end of a long and distinguished career. Approaching seventy-three years of age (born April 12, 1777), he had first set foot in the Senate in 1806, when, at the age of twenty-nine, he was, in theory, constitutionally ineligible to serve. Having featured prominently in the resolution of two earlier crises – the Missouri Crisis of 1819-1821 and the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 – Clay was widely expected to fill a similar role in the resolution of this crisis, and he knew it. Taking advantage of his reputation, Clay maneuvered to make his initial presentation the focus of debate. John C. Waugh explains and sets the stage:
It had been announced to the country beforehand that Clay was to appear in the Senate on January 29 to offer a set of resolutions. On that day the weather was bright and beautiful, and crowds hopeful of cramming into the Senate gallery began arriving early, long before the session opened. Alexander Stephens, who had gone to the Senate chamber with the mob, noted that “every aisle, nook and corner” was jammed. He estimated that when Clay rose to speak, “thousands were disappointed,” unable to get within earshot of him.

When Clay rose, he dramatically focused the audience's attention on a document he was holding. “ Mr. President,” Clay intoned, probably holding the document up for all to see, “I hold in my hand a series of resolutions which I desire to submit to the consideration of this body. Taken together, in combination, they propose an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and the slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery.

Clay then explained the limited purpose of his present speech:
It is not my intention, Mr. President, at this time, to enter into a full and elaborate discussion of each of these resolutions, taken separately, or the whole of them combined together, as composing a system of measures; but I desire to present a few observations upon each resolution, with the purpose, chiefly, of exposing it fairly and fully before the Senate and before the country; and I may add, with the indulgence of the Senate, towards the conclusion, some general observations upon the state of the country and the condition of the question to which the resolutions relate.

Clay concluded his introduction with an attempt to diffuse knee-jerk criticism by emphasizing the “care and deliberation” he had devoted to preparing the resolutions he was about to introduce:
Whether they shall or shall not meet with the approbation and concurrence of the Senate – as I most ardently hope they may; as I most sincerely believe they ought – I trust that at least some portion of the long time which I have devoted, with care and deliberation, to the preparation of these resolutions, and to the presentation of this great national scheme of compromise and harmony, will be employed by each Senator before he pronounces against the proposition embraced in these resolutions.

Clay then proceeded to read his first resolution:
1st. Resolved, That California, with suitable boundaries, ought, upon her application, to be admitted as one of the States of this Union, without the imposition by Congress of any restriction in respect to the exclusion or introduction of slavery within those boundaries.

He had very little to say concerning it. Clay raised and dismissed an alleged procedural “irregularity” in California’s anticipated petition for admission and praised California as worthy of admission (“She forms now one of the bright stars of this glorious Confederacy”). Although – or because – everyone knew that California was about to apply for admission as a non-slave state, Clay downplayed this initial resolution as almost unnecessary:
The resolution proposes her admission when she applies for it. There is no intention on my part to anticipate such an application, but I thought it right to present the resolution as part of the general plan which I propose for the adjustment of these unhappy difficulties.

And with that, Clay briskly moved on to his next topic.

About the illustration:
A patriotic, illustrated sheet music cover for a song composed by Charles Collins, Jr., and dedicated to Kentucky senator Henry Clay. The work celebrates Clay's efforts to preserve the Union, and was a product of the optimism following passage of the Compromise of 1850. The Union is symbolized here by a circular chain in which every link is inscribed with the name of a state and its year of entry into the Union. California, admitted in 1850, is represented by the center ring below. At the top of the ring is an eagle with shield and olive branch, emerging from a cloud and flanked by two American flags. The chain is superimposed on an arch supported by two Doric columns, which in turn rest upon a stepped pedestal inscribed: "The United States of America. Union and Liberty, Forever, One and Inseparable." Outside of the columns are floral swags and acanthus ornaments. Inside is a view "The Capitol at Washington" with two men on horseback on its lawn. Above the dome appear the lines: "In Union's Chain, within its Spell, /Freedom & peace & safety dwell." An inscription (printed) appears below the illustration, a facsimile of a note by Henry Clay endorsing "the sentiments and the poetry" of the song and acknowledging the composer's dedication of the piece to him.

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