Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Clayton Compromise 7: The House Tables the Bill

As we have seen in earlier posts, an exhausted Senate passed the Clayton Compromise bill on the morning on Thursday July 27, 1848. The bill was then reported to the House of Representatives.

After all of the Senate's efforts, the action in the House was an anticlimactic. Immediately after the bill's introduction on Friday July 28 Alexander Stephens, Whig of Georgia, “moved to lay the bill on the table, and demanded the yeas and nays.”

At the time, Rep. Stephens made only a short statement in support of his motion, one which did not explain in any detail the basis for his disapproval of the bill. The bill, he maintained, merely postponed the question of slavery in the territories and would not give any peace to the country. The session had already been a long one; it was time to go home:
Mr. STEPHENS here said that he admitted, with the gentleman from Kentucky, [Mr. Boyd,] that this bill was connected with a question of the deepest interest; but he could not believe, as that gentleman seemed to do, that its passage would secure peace and quiet to the country; if he did, he should be willing to protract this session indefinitely till it was passed. But, as he read the bill, all it did was merely to postpone the question, not to settle it, or give any peace to the country. The session was already of unusual length; he thought it was time they should go home. He had no belief that the question could be settled during the present session; and, wishing to bring it to a test vote, he would move to lay the bill on the table.
Shortly thereafter, the yeas and nays were taken. By a vote of 112 to 97 “the bill was laid upon the table.” As in the Senate, Southern Democrats voted solidly against the motion (and therefore in favor of the bill), while Northern Whigs voted solidly in favor of the motion (and against the bill). Northern Democrats and southern Whigs were divided. The breakdown among parties and sections was as follows (bear in mind that a vote in favor of the motion was in effect a vote against the bill):

Dems Whigs Total
North 31 - 21 73 - 0 104 - 21
South 0 - 49 8 - 27 8 - 76
Total 31 - 70 81 - 27 112 - 97

The votes of Stephens and his seven southern Whig colleagues were thus crucial. Had they voted against the motion it would have been defeated 104 – 105.

As Thomas E. Schott explains in Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography, both Democrats and some Whigs in his native state blasted Stephens for his motion and vote:
Georgia Democrats yowled. “Oh Whiggery! manifold are they since! But this is the climax of its iniquities,” raged the Constitutionalist. “A Georgian . . . took the lead in this act, which stabs the very bosom of his country's peace.” The editor foamed like this for weeks. The Federal Union immediately established on its front page a black-bordered box headed “Who Killed the Compromise Bill?” followed by a list, entitled “The Immortal Eight,” with Stephens' name in block capitals at the top. . . .

Some Georgia Whigs were similarly outraged. The Augusta Republic hoped that the “calculating demagogue” who would hazard the country's safety would “be damned forever.”
To combat such criticism, on August 7, 1848 Stephens took the House floor to explain his position. It is to that speech, generally regarded as the most thoughtful and intelligent delivered concerning the Clayton Compromise, that we will turn in the next post.

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