Thursday, May 13, 2010

"The general principles of this bill receive my approbation"

In Henry Clay: The Essential American, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler recall the drama of the moment when the public learned for the first time that the Nullification Crisis would be resolved.

In early 1833, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky fashioned a compromise tariff bill that would gradually reduce the tariff over a period of years, until it would ultimately decrease to a level merely sufficient to raise the necessary income for the federal government, with protection of industry being abandoned. Clay privately discussed his ideas with John Caldwell Calhoun of South Carolina and “emerged from these discussions . . . confident that Calhoun would support it.”

Having laid the groundwork, on the morning of February 11, 1833 Clay took the Senate floor and “announced that he would present a formal compromise proposal the following day.” He provided no details.

The next morning, February 12, 1833, Clay delivered a speech that lasted “several hours”, in which he outlined his plan. At the conclusion, he “asked 'leave' to present his bill formally.” Supporters of president Andrew Jackson immediately objected, “if only to keep Clay from gaining plaudits for breaking the impasse.”

Amid the disorder, however, “the chair recognized Calhoun. The gallery watched the South Carolinian rise from his desk. Clay's eyes were on him, and the chamber fell suddenly silent, like a church in prayer.”

The Gales and Seaton Register of Debates, which reported the proceedings, provides only an indirect account of Calhoun's remarks (e.g., “Mr. Calhoun rose and said . . .”). I have taken the liberty of translating the account back into direct speech. I have also added paragraph breaks. After rising, the Senator from South Carolina made the following brief statement:
I will make but one or two observations.

Entirely approving of the object for which the bill is introduced, I shall give my vote in favor of the motion for leave to introduce it.

He who loves the Union must desire to see this agitating question brought to a termination. Until it is terminated, we can not expect the restoration of peace or harmony, or a sound condition of things, throughout the country. I believe that to the unhappy divisions which have kept the Northern and Southern States apart from each other, the present entirely degraded condition of the country (for entirely degraded I believe it to be) is solely attributable.

The general principles of this bill receive my approbation. I believe that if the present difficulties are to be adjusted, they must be adjusted based on the principles in the bill, of fixing ad valorem duties, except in the few cases in the bill to which specific duties are assigned.

It has been my fate to occupy a position as hostile as any one could, in reference to the protecting policy; but, if it depends on my will, I will not give my vote for the prostration of the manufacturing interest. A very large capital has been invested in manufactures, which have been of great service to the country; and I will never give my vote to suddenly withdraw all those duties by which that capital is sustained in the channel into which it has been directed. But I will only vote for the ad valorem system of duties, which I deem the most beneficial and the most equitable.

At this time, I do not rise to go into a consideration of any of the details of this bill, as such a course would be premature, and contrary to the practice of the Senate. There are some of the provisions which have my entire approbation, and there are some to which I object. But I look upon these minor points of difference as points in the settlement of which no difficulty will occur, when gentlemen meet together in that spirit of mutual compromise which, I doubt not, will be brought into their deliberations, without at all yielding the constitutional question as to the right of protection.
The Register of Debates dryly reports the reaction of the gallery to the stunning news that the Crisis was on its way to resolution:
[Here there was a tumultuous approbation in the galleries, which induced the CHAIR to order the galleries to be cleared. On the expression of a hope, by Mr. [George] POINDEXTER [of Mississippi] and Mr. [John] HOLMES [of Maine] [the same John Holmes, by the way, who was the addressee of Thomas Jefferson's “fire bell in the night” letter], that the order would not, at this time, be enforced, the CHAIR subsequently withdrew it; but gave notice that on any repetition of the disorder, the officers of the House would act without any further direction.]
Drawing on contemporaneous letters (according to the endnotes), the Heidlers provide some additional color:
Spectators in the gallery were not aware that the two [Clay and Calhoun] had made an arrangement. Now, as Calhoun spoke, they heard his words in amazement and immediately exploded into loud cheers, stamping, whistling, and raising such a noise that only the threat of eviction caused the celebration to end. Clay had seized the momentum from the administration. As Calhoun took his seat, Clay's eyes were upon him.
About the illustration, entitled Destruction of the Snake of South Carolina:
Eagle holds a dead snake in beak and another in claws as many smaller snakes slither in surrounding grass. American flag behind eagle with Andrew Jackson and John Calhoun watching from top corners. White envelope with colored ink. Image covers sheet. The destruction of the snake of South Carolina, nullification and secession, and all her progeny by the national bird. To portray the ultimate overthrow of the evil power, which strikes at the life of the national government, is the object of this cut.

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