In July 1848, the Senate was mired in contentious debate over how to organize the huge swaths of territory that the United States had acquired from Great Britain (Oregon) and Mexico (California and the southwest). The status of slavery in the territories was the flashpoint.
On Wednesday July 12, 1848, Senator John M. Clayton, a Whig from Delaware, arose to propose the appointment of a special committee to be assigned the task of devising a solution. The committee's proposed solution – known to us at the Clayton Compromise – proved to be unsuccessful. However, I thought it would be interesting to go back to the Congressional Globe and take a look at the proposal, the reactions to it, and why it ultimately failed.
Sen. Clayton first made his proposal for a special committee toward the end of yet another frustrating day of often fiery rhetoric over attempts to organize the Oregon Territory. Clayton proposed the formation of a special committee of eight members, equally divided both by region (four members from slave states, four from the north) and by party (four Democrats, four Whigs):
[Clayton] moved that the subject be recommended to a committee of eight members, to be appointed by ballot, four to be selected from the North, and four from the South, and he would go further, and say, to from each party in the South, and two from each party in the North.
If the report of that committee shall be that nothing can be effected at this session, let us do our ordinary business and go home.
The scope of the assignment that Sen. Clayton originally proposed for the committee is unclear to me. The Committee on the Territories was then considering bills concerning the Mexican Cession. Clayton seemed to expect that that Committee would carry on its work, and that the select committee would focus primarily on Oregon:
Mr. CLAYTON said he did not intend to refer the subjects of California and New Mexico to this committee. He wished the Committee on Territories to go on with their work – waiting before they report, for the decision of the special committee or of the Senate. For the purpose of allaying the general excitement, and giving a chance for the settlement of the question, he had proposed his motion for a select committee.
At the last moment, however, Senator Jesse D. Bright, a Democrat from Indiana, moved to amend the proposal to make clear that the select committee would be responsible for producing a plan that would cover the Mexican Cession as well as Oregon:
Mr. BRIGHT suggested a modification to the effect that the Committee on the Territories be discharged from further consideration of so much of the President's message as relates to New Mexico, California, and Oregon, and that the same be referred to the select committee of eight.
Sen. Clayton concurred with the modification, following which his proposal was put to a vote and “decided in the affirmative” by a large margin – 31 to 14. Southern senators – even John C. Calhoun of South Carolina – voted solidly in favor. Senator John M. Berrien, Whig of Georgia, presumably expressed the thoughts of most of the majority when he asserted, shortly before the vote, that
[h]e could see nothing in the motion which could be objectionable to any party; and he hoped, that on the calm comparison of opinions in the committee-room, some arrangement of a satisfactory character might be agreed on.
The nays came almost exclusively from northern senators who presumably saw appointment of the committee as setting the stage for a compromise that would abandon the Wilmot Proviso.
Immediately following the vote, “the Senate adjourned in a state of exhaustion, after a continuous session of six hours.”
The next day, the Senate appointed the members of the Clayton Committee. Counting John C. Calhoun as a Democrat, the Senate adhered to the stipulation that there be two members of each party from each section:
John M. Clayton, Chairman (Whig, Delaware)
John C. Calhoun (Democrat [more or less], South Carolina)
David R. Atchison (Democrat, Missouri)
Jesse D. Bright (Democrat, Indiana)
Daniel S. Dickinson (Democrat, New York)
Joseph R. Underwood (Whig, Kentucky)
John H. Clarke (Whig, Rhode Island)
Samuel S. Phelps (Whig, Vermont)
Of these, six had voted in favor of the Clayton's resolution. One – Senator Clarke of Rhode Island – had voted against. Sen. Phelps had not voted.
About the illustration, entitled Present Presidential Position (1846):
Once again Polk's handling of the Oregon territorial dispute between the United States and Great Britain is criticized. (See "Polk's Dream" and "War! or No War!" nos. 1846-2 and 1846-4). Here the artist seems to suggest political motivation behind Polk's insistence on the 54.40 parallel as the northern boundary to American territory. At the 54.40 line, two small boys bait "Donkey" Polk with a "Re-election" cabbage. The boy holding the cabbage comments, "Come here Jem, here's a animal as sees something and wont move no how you can fix it!" His friend encourages him to "Coax along with a cabbage Bill, if that wont move him put a locofoco match under his nose!" "Loco Foco" was a type of match as well as a nickname for radical Democrats of the time. Polk exclaims, "Here I am by the order or masters of the Baltimore Convention, with my nose down to this line and here I shall stick, though I fall a martyr to my devotion to the great Democratic party!" The Baltimore Convention of 1844, which nominated Polk for the presidency, also wedded the party's platform to the 54.40 parallel on the Oregon question. Three groups of men surround Polk. To the left stand the "Whig Members" of Congress, one of whom says to the expansionist Democrats in the center, "Take your own course, gentlemen, with your own animal! He is a sorry one at best, and won't be worth a copper after you've got him out of that fit. Its nothing more nor less than the blind staggers!" Lewis Cass and Ohio senators William Allen and Edward Hannegan stand in the center group behind Polk. Cass, in military uniform, says, "It's my opinion, Hannegan, that he's going to back out! His nose is not so near the line by three inches as it was a week ago!" Allen begs of Cass, "Oh don't let him flinch General. It's our only hope!" Hannegan says, "By heaven! it cannot be General! If he does he's worse than a second Arnold. We must be ready to cut him down at once! Let me have your sword?" The third group (far right) stands at the forty-ninth parallel. It includes more conservative Democrats (left to right) John Clayton [the description of Clayton as a Democrat is incorrect; Clayton was a Whig], John Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, and William Henry Haywood, Jr. (labeled "Hayward"). Clayton inquires, "How shall we get him off? He has not budged or brayed for the last month!" John Calhoun remarks, "I see how it is gentlemen! He has got it into his head that to be great is to be silent and obstinate! Coaxing will be of no use! You might as well use force at once!" Benton adds, "In my opinion it's a very miserable imitation of old Hickory's firmness and independence." Haywood assures everyone, "I, gentlemen, am the only man in the field that knows when that jackass is going to move."