Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Two or three general purposes which seemed to me most desirable . . . to accomplish"

Before turning to his individual resolutions, Henry Clay first explained to the Senate on February 5, 1850 the “two or three general purposes which seemed to me most desirable, if possible, to accomplish.”

The first such purpose “was to settle all the controverted questions arising out of the subject of slavery.” Here Clay took a swipe at president Zachary Taylor, whose plans to admit California and the former Mexican territories as states did not deal with other matters such as the Texas-New Mexico border, the District of Columbia, fugitive slaves and the interstate slave trade:
[I]t seemed to me to be doing very little if we settled one question and left other disturbing questions unadjusted. It seemed to me to be doing little if we stopped one leak only in the ship of State, and left other leaks capable of producing danger, if not destruction, to the vessel. I therefore turned my attention to every subject connected with the institution of slavery, and out of which controverted questions have sprung, to see if it were possible or practicable to accommodate and adjust the whole of them.

Clay's second principle was that neither the north nor the south should “sacrifice . . . any great principle”:
Another principal object which attracted my attention was, to endeavor to frame such a scheme of accommodation as that neither of the two classes of States into which our country is unhappily divided should make a sacrifice of any great principle. I believe, sir, that the series of resolutions which I have had the honor of presenting to the Senate accomplishes that object.

Clay maintained that his resolutions required concessions by both sides - “not of principle, not of principle at all, but of feeling, of opinion, in relation to matters in controversy between them.” “[N]either party makes any concessions of principle at all, though the concessions of forbearance are ample.”

Clay's last purpose or principle was extremely odd: it focused on the extent of the concessions that the South would receive from the north:
In the next place, in respect of the slaveholding States, there are resolutions making concessions to them by the class of opposite States, without any compensation whatever being rendered by them to the non-slaveholding states.

The principles are noteworthy for what they omitted. First, there was no counterbalancing principle emphasizing how much the north would be receiving from the south. Even more jarring was the lack of the fundamental principle of equality of burden. Although Clay had mentioned earlier in his remarks that “concessions of forbearance" - presumably by both sides - "are ample,” he pointedly failed to claim that the amount or extent of concessions were equal on both sides.

Clay had explicity stated in his speech on January 29, 1850 that he believed "this project contains about an equal amount of concession and forbearance on both sides." His failure to reaffirm this fundamental idea, together with his final, one-sided declaration about the extent of northern concessions, strongly suggest that, in the intevening week, Clay had become significantly more concerned about southern objections to his plan. He was apparently willing to risk northern complaints about inequality of burden in order to try to diffuse southern complaints that he feared might prove fatal.

I, at least, suspect that this accounts for Clay's somewhat obscure differentiation between "concessions of principle" and "concessions of forbearance." The north and the south were to be treated equally in that neither would be required to make concessions of the former sort. But, Clay implied, "concessions of forbearance" would fall more heavily on the north.

Clay then transitioned to an examination of his resolutions one by one:
I think every one of these characteristics which I have assigned to the measures which I propose is susceptible of clear, satisfactory demonstration, by an attentive perusal and critical examination of the resolutions themselves. Let us take up the first, sir.

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