Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Henry Clay and the First Bank: "A most unjustifiable law"

Early in his national career, Henry Clay opposed the extension of the charter of the First Bank of the United States. In his book The Old Republicans: Southern Conservatism in the Age of Jefferson, Norman K. Risjord has characterized Clay's principal speech in opposition to the BUS as "probably the ablest exposition of Republican doctrine on the subject since [James] Madison's war on the bank in 1791." That prompted me to find the speech in the Annals of Congress, and I thought I'd share some highlights here.

Clay first came to Washington to serve brief stints as United States Senator from Kentucky in 1806-07 and 1810-11. It was during his second term that the Senate took up the question whether the Bank of the United States should be extended. The BUS had originally been chartered by the First Congress in 1791 for a period of twenty years, and the charter was scheduled to expire in 1811.

On Friday February 15, 1811, Henry Clay took the Senate floor to oppose extension of the charter. In light of Clay's later advocacy of his American System - based on the three pillars of a national bank, a high, protective tariff, and federal funding of internal improvements - young Senator Clay's denunciation of the First Bank proved to be a supreme irony, which his political opponents ever used against him.

But in February 1811 Clay declared that he had, after much deliberation, concluded that he had no choice but to oppose the charter extension bill as "a most unjustifiable law." Clay maintained that he had initially decided not to speak against the bill. The original Bank bill had been passed after the founders themselves had thoroughly explored the arguments pro and con. What more could Clay add?
As the subject, at the memorable period when the charter was granted, called forth the best talents of the nation- as it has, on various occasions, undergone the most thorough investigation, and as we can hardly expect that it is susceptible of receiving any further elucidation, it was to have been hoped that we should have been spared an useless debate. This was the more desirable because there are, I conceive, much superior claims upon us for every hour of the small portion of the session yet remaining to us.
But the arguments advanced in favor of charter extension, Clay explained, demanded refutation:
Under the operation of these motives, I had resolved to give a silent vote, until I felt myself bound, by the defying manner of the arguments advanced in support of the renewal, to obey the paramount duties I owe my country and its constitution; to make one effort, however feeble, to avert the passage of what appears to me a most unjustifiable law.
With this preamble, Clay rounded on one of the orators whose "defying manner" of argument had apparently stirred Clay - Senator William Branch Giles of Virginia. Sen. Giles, generally an advocate of an energetic federal government, had argued that the federal government nonetheless lacked the power to establish a bank, resulting in (in the words of John Randolph of Roanoke) "the most unintelligible speech on the subject of the Bank of the U.S. I ever heard." Clay played on these contradictions:
After my honorable friend from Virginia (Mr. GILES) had instructed and amused us with the very able and ingenious argument which he delivered on yesterday, I should have still forborne to trespass on the Senate, but for the extraordinary character of his speech. He discussed both sides of the question, with great ability and eloquence, and certainly demonstrated to the satisfaction of all who heard him, both that it was Constitutional and unconstitutional, highly proper and improper to prolong the charter of the bank.
Clay then illustrated Sen. Giles's oratorical success by relating a no doubt apocryphal story about Patrick Henry:
The honorable gentleman appeared to me in the predicament in which the celebrated orator of Virginia, Patrick Henry, is said to have been once placed. Engaged in a most extensive and lucrative practice of the law, he mistook in one instance the side of the cause on which he was retained, and addressed the court and jury in a very splendid and convincing speech in behalf of his antagonist.

His distracted client came up to him whilst he was progressing, and interrupting him, bitterly exclaimed, "you have undone me! "you have ruined me!"

"Never mind, give yourself no concern," said the adroit advocate; and turning to the court and jury, continued his argument by observing, "May it please your honors, and you, gentleman of the jury, I have been stating to you what I presume my adversary may urge on his side. I will now show you how fallacious his reasoning and groundless his pretensions are."

The skilled orator proceeded, satisfactorily refuted every argument he had advanced, and gained his cause! A success with which I trust the exertion of my honorable friend will on this occasion be crowned.

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