Friday, November 27, 2009

"Calm the violence and rage of party"

On Tuesday February 5, 1850 – one week after he had introduced his resolutions – Henry Clay again took the Senate floor to present a more extended defense of his proposed “amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the Free and the Slave States, growing out of the subject of Slavery."

The Senate chamber was packed. As I described some time ago in this post, people eager to hear the Great Pacificator speak were standing in the aisles and galleries. The crowds extended into the entranceway and halls outside the chamber. The resulting pushing and shoving resulted in an interruption to Clay's speech immediately after his opening remarks, discussed below.

Clay's speech extended over two days and takes up more than twelve pages of small print in the Congressional Globe, so I am going to try to be selective. But the opening paragraphs are worth a separate post.

Henry Clay opened his effort by addressing the President of the Senate – none other than Millard Fillmore:
Mr. President, never, on any former occasion, have I risen under feelings of such deep solicitude. I have witnessed many periods of great anxiety, of peril, and of danger even to the country; but I have never before arisen to address any assembly so oppressed, so appalled, so anxious.

And, sir, I hope it will not be out of place to do here what again and again I have done in my private chamber – to implore of Him who holds the destinies of nations and individuals in his hands to bestow upon our country his blessings – to bestow upon our people all his blessings – to calm the violence and rage of party – to still passion – to allow reason once more to resume its empire. And may I now ask of Him, to bestow upon his humble servant, now before Him, the blessings of his smiles, of strength, and of ability, to perform the work which lies before him.

Sir, I have said that I have witnessed other anxious periods in the history of our country; and if I were to mention – to trace to their original source – the cause of all our present dangers and difficulties, I should ascribe them to the violence of party spirit. We have had testimony of this in the progress of this session, and Senators, however they may differ in other matters, concur in acknowledging the existence of that cause in originating the unhappy differences which prevail throughout the country upon this subject of the institution of slavery.

Parties, in their endeavors to obtain the one the ascendency over the other, catch at every passing and floating plank, in order to add strength and power to themselves. We have been told by two honorable Senators, [John P. Hale of New Hampshire and Samuel S. Phelps of Vermont] that the parties at the North have each in its turn, wooed and endeavored to obtain the assistance of a small party called Abolitionists, in order that the scale in its favor might preponderate over its adversaries. Let us look wherever we may, we see too many indications of the existence of the spirit and intemperance of party.

It's hard to know what to make of Clay's diagnosis that “the violence of party spirit” was the “originating” “cause” of the country's differences over slavery. While it is true that rivalry between the Democrats and Whigs sometimes heightened tensions over slavery, it is hard to believe that so astute a student of the American political scene as Henry Clay believed that the Second Party System lay at the heart of the problem. The Wilmot Proviso had revealed sectional fissures that threatened to transcend party differences and to create a new alignment that would overwhelm party identity.

Did Henry Clay really believe, then, that parties were the core problem? I suppose it is possible. The alternative – that parties could not control the discord – might simply have been too frightening to contemplate. But it is also possible to see this as another example of the indirection that I have detected in Clay's method of argument. By characterizing the problem as one of party, perhaps Clay was hoping to remind his auditors that their traditional party affiliations, and not their sectional affiliations, should define their identities. Those party affiliations were or should be defined by their positions on issues such as a national bank, tariffs and internal improvements. It was incumbent on members of both parties, which transcended section, to insure that sectional differences did not make them irrelevant.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails