Saturday, November 29, 2008

Willie P. Mangum, Secretary of State

The article I pointed out yesterday concerning David R. Atchison does not, unfortunately, contain a serious analysis of the issues surrounding his status on March 4, 1849. It does, however, suggest that Willie P. Mangum of North Carolina had a pretty good sense of humor. According to Atchison, Mangum

waked me up at 3 o'clock in the morning and said jocularly that as I was President of the United States he wanted me to appoint him as secretary of the state.

Friday, November 28, 2008

David Rice Atchison, President

I've discussed before the arguments for and against the proposition that Senator David Rice Atchison of Missouri served as President of the United States on March 4, 1849. Now the event is the subject of an article on SSRN: Joseph J. Simeone, The First U.S. President from Missouri, March 4, 1849. Here's the abstract:
In these days of an historic presidential election, it may be fitting to recall the election of 1848 when the term of James Knox Polk expired and Zachary Taylor - "Old Rough and Ready" - was elected the President of the United States.

This short article relates the trivia story of one of Missouri Senators - David Rice Atchison, who acted as President of the United States for a very short period of time because President Taylor declined to be sworn in on a Sunday because of his religious scruples. Since Senator Atchison, as President of the Senate, was next in line for the office, Atchison served as President until Taylor took the oath of office.

About the illustration:
The cartoonist is optimistic about the prospects of Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor, here shown rowing Democratic oppponent Lewis Cass up the river of political misfortune. Cass, seated in the stern, wears an almost comical frown and Taylor, plying his oars in the bow, a look of determination.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Pinch of History

John Hinderaker at Powerline points out the following odd correction from the New York Times:
A report in the City Room column on Tuesday about politicians who have served as both United States senator from New York and secretary of state misidentified the president who was in office when Alaska was purchased from Russia and misstated several dates in the careers of two of the politicians, William L. Marcy and William H. Seward, both former governors of New York. Andrew Johnson — not Abraham Lincoln — was president when Alaska was purchased in 1867. Marcy left the governor’s office in 1838, not 1839; Seward succeeded him in 1839, not 1838; and Seward took office as senator in 1849, not 1850.

Anything else you missed, Pinch?

About the illustration:
The National Union Convention met in Philadelphia in August 1866 to create a political party that would back President Andrew Johnson's Reconstruction program and to elect a new Congress. Here, the convention is portrayed as a gathering of muzzled dogs, their collars inscribed with state names, who file toward a large doghouse, the "Wigwam." Except for the unwelcome arrival of Copperheads or Peace Democrats Fernando Wood and C. L. Vallandigham, the meeting was surprisingly harmonious even with the participation of representatives from both North and South. Here two dogs, "Massachusetts" and "South Carolina," side by side, lead the pack toward the Wigwam. Wood and Vallandigham are portrayed as cats, each held by the scruff of its neck by guard dogs Edgar Cowan and J. R. Doolittle. At bottom left stands a dog with a brush and a pail marked "N.Y. Times" tied to its tail. In the background "The Dead Dog of The White House," incumbent Andrew Johnson, lies in the road in front of the presidential mansion, which flies from its roof an American flag labeled "My Policy." "My Policy" was Johnson's campaign catchword. The Philadelphia movement ultimately failed, and anti-Johnson Republicans achieved more than a two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress.

Happy Turkey Day!

About the illustration:
Satire on the diplomatic crisis and threat of hostilities between the United States and France over the latter's refusal to pay indemnifications set by the Treaty of 1831. The situation was exacerbated by remarks, made by President Jackson in a December 1835 speech, to which the French took offense. (See also nos. 1836-2, -3 and -5 on this crisis). "Spirit of the Times" focusses on England's role as mediator in the dispute during January 1836. The leaders of the two countries face each other across an ocean through which John Bull wades saying: "In "Pantaloons" John Bull can walkAcross the Atlantic for to baulk The Cock of all his boasted pride And Eagle's passion to subside." John Bull is portrayed as a bull wearing pantaloons and holding a musket. On the left shore, atop a cage holding a squawking goose, stands a cock with the head of French king Louis Philippe crowing: "Sacre non [i.e. "nom"] de Dieu!!!! Me vont be pick by you!!" Further to the left a turkey stands over a nest egg marked "Fr.25,000,000" (the amount of French reparations established by the treaty) and says: "Before from off this egg I rise You must to me apologise." On a birdhouse behind them a row of six pigeons with bayonets stand at attention with chests puffed out. An "Aquatic Expedition" of six geese heads across the water toward the American shore on the right, from where a rattle-snake boasts, "Let them come a'Shore; I'll rattle them." On the right, perched in a tree, is an eagle with the head of Andrew Jackson. Below him is a nest made of stars and stripes holding five young birds. Corn, like the rattlesnake indigenous to America, grows nearby. Jackson says:"Come stop your puffing, cease to Crow And pay the Debt you justly owe,Or full your Crop with Pills I'll cram, And stop your muttering "French God Damn."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Montpelier Graveyards

The contrast between the Madison family graveyard and the slave graveyard at Montpelier was poignant.

Montpelier v. Monticello

On Sunday afternoon, we visited James Madison's Montpelier; early Monday morning, we toured Monticello. Maybe I just root for the underdog, or maybe I just prefer Madison to Jefferson, but I enjoyed Montpelier more. Monticello is very much like its creator: prissy, mannered, over stylized, too clever by half. Montpelier was somehow more . . . is stolid the word? Not quite, but you get the drift.

Amar on Heller

I have only skimmed the first few pages, but Akhil Amar has an amusing article out on the Supremes' recent decision in Heller, holding that the Second Amendment conveys an individual right to bear arms. Here's a taste:
Justice Scalia's landmark ruling merits our attention for its method as well as its result. Behold: a constitutional opinion that actually dwells on the Constitution itself!

* * *

At times [in most opinions] the Constitution's language can come to resemble a pea covered by a stack of judicial mattresses -- a grain of sand no longer visible, though presumably resting deep inside the pearl of judicial elaboration. The majority opinion in Roe v. Wade, for example, never even quoted the constitutional clause that the Court used to reach its sweeping results. In countless cases involving applications of the Bill of Rights against the states, the operative Fourteenth Amendment text has received little or no mention.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rotunda Skylight

My wife, mother-in-law, an old college buddy and I just arrived in North Carolina, having stopped in the Charlottesville, VA area for about 36 hours. We made a rushed stop at Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda and Quad at UVA. Here's a picture of the Rotunda skylight and reflection. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Arma virumque cano. . .

As a former Classics major, I heartily endorse this observation by Victor Davis Hanson concerning the value of studying Latin (and Greek):
Four years of high-school Latin would dramatically arrest the decline in American education. In particular, such instruction would do more for minority youths than all the ‘role model’ diversity sermons on Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Montezuma, and Caesar Chavez put together. Nothing so enriches the vocabulary, so instructs about English grammar and syntax, so creates a discipline of the mind, an elegance of expression, and serves as a gateway to the thinking and values of Western civilization as mastery of a page of Virgil or Livy (except perhaps Sophocles’s Antigone in Greek or Thucydides’ dialogue at Melos). After some 20 years of teaching mostly minority youth Greek, Latin, and ancient history and literature in translation (1984-2004), I came to the unfortunate conclusion that ethnic studies, women studies—indeed, anything “studies”— were perhaps the fruits of some evil plot dreamed up by illiberal white separatists to ensure that poor minority students in the public schools and universities were offered only a third-rate education.

Thanks to Powerline for pointing out Professor Hanson's article.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Learning from History

I've been waiting for Dimitri to unload on the Obama/Lincoln/"Team of Rivals" meme. And now, God bless him, he has.

As for the illustration, your guess is as good as mine.

Secession Exploded

I have nothing to say about this illustration, except that the drawing style strikes me as extremely unusual for period. Here's the description:

This strongly anti-Confederate satire is a fantastical vision of the Union defeat of the secessionist movement. A hideous monster representing secession emerges from the water at left. He is hit by a charge from a mammoth cannon "Death to Traitors!" operated by Uncle Sam (right). A two-faced figure representing Baltimore, whose allegiance to the Union was at least questionable during the war, pulls at Uncle Sam's coattails. The explosion sends several small demons, representing the secessionist states, hurling through the air. Prominent among them is South Carolina, in a coffin at upper right. Tennessee and Kentucky, two Southern states internally divided over the secession question, are represented by two-headed creatures. Virginia, though part of the Confederacy, is also shown divided--probably an acknowledgment of the Appalachian and eastern regions' alignment with the Union. Among the demons is a small figure of Tennessee senator and 1860 presidential candidate John Bell, with a bell-shaped body. In the foreground is a large American flag on which Winfield Scott, commander of the Union forces, and a bald eagle rest. Despite the imprinted copyright date, the print, according to the inscription on the Library's impression, seems to have been registered for copyright on June 14 but not deposited until July 10, 1861.

The illustration is attributed to William Wiswell of Cincinnati.

In the News

My careful research (which consisted of looking at pictures of prior holders of the office on Wikipedia) discloses that George Woodward Wickersham appears to have been the last Attorney General who sported a mustache. For those of you who can't get enough, here's a later picture:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

An Act to provide for the Public Defence

At TOCWOC, Brett Schulte posted recently concerning an email he received from a reader concerning the creation of the Confederate Army. The e-mailer (is that a word?) had read that the Confederacy had authorized the creation of a 100,000 man army just two days after Lincoln’s inauguration as president:
I just finished reading a biography of Winfield Scott and ran across a piece of info I have never noted before. I went back through my somewhat extensive library and have taken part in a number of discussions about the origins of the Civil War, but no where have come across the fact that two days after Lincoln was inaugurated the Confederate govt called authorized [sic] an army of 100,000. This would be proposing the biggest army that had ever existed in the western hemisphere and was akin to the mobilization orders that began WWI. Why does this not get more notice?

Ah, the internet is a wonderful thing. All of the laws enacted by the Provisional Government of the Confederate States of America are available online. On March 6, 1861, President Jefferson Davis did indeed sign into a law a bill, entitled An Act to provide for the Public Defence. The first section of the Act authorized Davis, as President, to accept up to 100,000 men into military service:
The Congress of the Confederate States of America do enact, That in order to provide speedily forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States of America in every portion of territory belonging to each State, and to secure the public tranquility and independence against threatened assault, the President be, and he is hereby authorized to employ the militia, military and naval forces of the Confederate States of America, and to ask for and accept the services of any number of volunteers, not exceeding one hundred thousand, who may offer their services, either as cavalry, mounted riflemen, artillery or infantry, in such proportion of these several arms as he may deem expedient, to serve for twelve months after they shall be mustered into service, unless sooner discharged.

About the lithograph:
The Confederate leaders are portrayed as a band of competing opportunists led by South Carolina governor and secessionist Francis Pickens (far left). The artist criticizes the January 1861 secession of five states from the lower South, following the lead of South Carolina, which had formally declared its independence a month before. Armed with a whip and a pistol, Pickens sits on the back of a young slave, pronouncing, "South Carolina claims to be file leader and general whipper in of the new Confederacy, a special edict! Obey and tremble!" The other leaders are also armed. Pickens's tyranny is met by expressions of self-interest from the other confederates. The nature of these individual interests are conveyed pictorially and in the text. Leaders from Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia sit on bales of cotton, while Florida and Louisiana sit on a wrecked ship's hull and a barrel of sugar respectively. Florida (represented by a bearded man, possibly Stephen R. Mallory, senator and later secretary of the Confederate navy ): "We want it distinctly understood that all the lights on the Coast will be put out, in order to facilitate wrecking business." Alabama (William L. Yancey): "Alabama proclaims that Cotton is King,' and the rest of the Confederacy "must obey" that Sovereign. Mississippi (Jefferson Davis): "We came in, with the understanding that we shall issue bonds to an unlimited extent, with our ancient right of repudiation when they became due." Georgia (Governor Joseph E. Brown): "Georgia must have half the honors, and all the profits, or back she goes to old Pluribus Unum.'" Louisiana (a mustachioed man): "A heavy duty must be levied on foreign sweetening in order to make up for what we have sacrificed in leaving the Union, otherwise we shall be like a Pelican in the wilderness!'" Although Texas, which seceded on February 1, is not represented here, the print probably appeared at the time of the Montgomery convention in early February when the Confederate States of America was formed, but before Jefferson Davis assumed its presidency. Texas did not attend that convention.

Monday, November 17, 2008

"A Brute in human form"

Before they joined forces to oppose secession during the Winter of 1860-81, Democrat Andrew Johnson and Whig William G. Brownlow had been "[b]itter antagonists for twenty years."

You've got to admit, political invective isn't as creative as it used to be:

In Browlow's eyes, Johnson had long been "contemptible political prostitute," an "unprincipled knave," and a "disgrace to patriotic Tennessee." Johnson reciprocated in kind, labeling the Whig politico and newspaper editor a "vile miscreant," a "brute in human form," and a hypocritical liar.

Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Late Colonial and Early National Juries

William E. Nelson’s groundbreaking Americanization of the Common Law: The Impact of Legal Change on Massachusetts Society, 1760-1830 was first published over thirty years ago. For me, at least, what was most stunning about the book was its description of the way in which juries functioned in the late colonial and early Republic periods. In particular, it was understood and expected that juries would determine both the facts and the law.

This meant that, as a practical matter, the power of colonial and state legislatures was extraordinarily weak. What mattered were customs of the local community, embodied in their juries. In effect, “jury nullification” was the norm:
[T]he law-finding power of juries meant that the representatives of local communities assembled as jurors generally had effective power to control the content of the province’s substantive law. Because of the power of juries, the legal system could not serve as an instrument for the enforcement of coherent social policies formulated by political authorities, either legislative or executive, whether in Boston or in local communities, when those policies were unacceptable to the men who happened to be serving on a particular jury.


The power of juries over the substance of the law, the restraints that the doctrine of precedent imposed on judges in their performance of their few law tasks, the lack of coercive power on the part of officials, and their liability to damage judgments at the hands of juries rendered formal institutions relatively weak. Officials were, in essence, incapable of exercising their coercive powers without the consent of the local communities they “governed.”


The antiauthoritarian response of the province’s legal system, which made it impossible for officials to act without the approval of local communities, apparently insured that officials would act on against people who violated community norms of morality and justice, while people who followed those norms would be safe and their rights and properties secure.

Over the past several years, Professor Nelson’s work has assumed increasing importance as other scholars have used it to explore diverse areas of legal and constitutional history.

One recent example is an article posted earlier this month on SSRN: Robert L. Jones, Finishing a Friendly Argument: The Jury and the Historical Origins of Diversity Jurisdiction. By way of background, Article III, Section 1 of the Constitution gave Congress the power to create “inferior” federal courts below the Supreme Court, but did not require Congress to do so (“The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.”).

The First Congress promptly used this authorization to create federal trial courts, called District Courts, the major business of which was to try so-called “diversity” cases – that is, ordinary cases, involving state law issues, where the parties were citizens of different states, or one party was a foreign national. By way of example, if a New Yorker sued another New Yorker for breach of contract or theft of property, he had no choice but to bring that suit in state court. But if a Virginian, or a citizen of Britain, sued a New Yorker on such a claim, he had the option of bringing his suit in the newly-created federal trial court for the “District” of New York.

In his article, Professor Jones explores the question, Why did Congress bother? Why create a duplicative set of federal trial courts devoted largely to trying cases that state courts were already handling? Building on Professor Nelson’s findings, Professor Jones identifies the jury as the key to the puzzle. Federal legislators intent on creating a system of justice that gave greater weight to national interests presumably understood that the composition of jury panels was crucial. By establishing separate federal trial courts, local federal officials could manipulate the composition of federal juries in several ways.

First, unlike now, when jurors are summoned by lot, at the time federal marshals had the discretion to select just about anyone they wished. A federal marshal could therefore summon men he knew to be reliable Federalists who were sensitive to national interests. Professor Jones’s review of jurors summoned to the federal District Court in New York shows exactly this pattern. Leading men in the professional and business communities were summoned over and over again.

The other crucial element was geography. In state courts, trials were truly local affairs. Judges rode circuit from county to county. If a case involving a contract or a dispute over a parcel of land went to trial, the trial was held in the county where the contract was made or the land was situated. The jurors came from the same county. Their decision reflected (in Professor Nelson’s words) “community norms of morality and justice.”

In contrast, in most states the federal District Courts sat in only one (occasionally two) places. Typically, those locations were the leading business and financial centers. In New York, for example, the court sat in Manhattan (it also sat one time in Albany). That meant that the overwhelming percentage of jurors would come from Manhattan – even if the dispute involved a contract or land in the distant reaches of the state. As already noted, those Manhattan jurors tended to be the “better sort”, members of the merchant, financial and business community.

These devices could be extremely effective. Professor Jones cites as an example an extraordinary string of victories by out-of-state and British plaintiffs seeking to recover land in New York:
Between 1809 and 1815, the New York Circuit Court rendered judgments in approximately thirty-five ejectment suits. In all of these cases, diverse [that is, out-of-state] plaintiffs claimed title to the land and sought to eject a local inhabitant in an upstate county [including Broome, Cayuga, Cortland, Seneca, Tioga and Washington]. Twenty-six of the suits were brought by British heirs of Donald Fisher to eject landholders in upstate Washington County. The Fisher cases arose of the New York confiscation laws, which had redistributed the lands of loyalists during the Revolution.

Under New York law, all of these title disputes would have been tried in the counties where the land was located had they been litigated in state court. One can speculate whether a British heir to a loyalist would have been successful in dispossessing a local inhabitant had the case been tried before a jury composed exclusively of local farmers. The federal juries, however, were composed of Manhattan residents who were predominantly merchants. The Fisher plaintiffs succeeded in dispossessing the local inhabitants in every one of their federal cases. In fact, the judgment rolls reveal only one instance during this period where the federal jury found for the defendant in an ejectment case.

As a side note, did you ever wonder how federal authorities so successfully stacked the juries in the Sedition Act cases with Federalist jurors prepared to convict the defendants? Now you know.

Professor Nelson’s work has also gained new attention as the result of an article by Suja A. Thomas bearing the startling title Why Summary Judgment is Unconstitutional. For non-lawyers, summary judgment is a procedural device that defense lawyers use in civil cases (that is, non-criminal cases) to seek the dismissal of cases before they are presented to a jury. Under modern rules, if the relevant facts are undisputed, a judge is entitled to dismiss a case “as a matter of law” if the substantive law warrants it. For example, if a judge concludes that the wording of a written contract is unambiguous (not reasonably susceptible of more than one meaning), he may rule in favor of one party or the other. The jury is not involved.

Professor Thomas argues that the use of this procedure violates the Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial in civil cases (“In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”). When the Seventh Amendment was ratified, she argues, juries decided both the facts and the law; it was practically impossible to obtain dismissal of cases unless a jury decided to so rule, and there was certainly no procedure akin to modern-day summary judgment. Thus, the right to a jury trial included the right to have a jury decide virtually every case -- including cases that are now dismissed before trial today.

It is obviously impossible, in the context of an already-long blog entry, to evaluate Professor Thomas’s claim. However, it is worth noting that the University of Iowa recently held a symposium on the issue, with papers by both Professors Thomas and Nelson, among others.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Thought on the James Madison Problem

The best attempt to reconcile the federalist and Jeffersonian James Madison is Gordon Wood’s Is There a “James Madison Problem”? Unfortunately, that effort is only a fairly brief essay. The devil, however, is in the details. Consider, for example, the following from Ralph Ketcham’s biography:
In drafting the full financial plan submitted to [the Continental] Congress on March 6, 1783, Madison also included a provision that the debts of the states resulting from the “reasonable expenses” of war should in justice and equity be assumed by the general government.

Why, then, did Madison go crazy when Alexander Hamilton introduced just such an assumption of state debts plan seven years later?

On the other hand, I find another claimed inconsistency less compelling – or at least Ketcham’s description is confusing. Ketcham states:
In a plea that would haunt him seven years later, when he opposed Hamilton’s plan for funding the public debt, [Madison] rejected any discrimination between the various kinds of creditors; all had lent in good faith and any distinctions would be “equally unnecessary and invidious.”

It’s the “all had lent in good faith” language that has me confused. As I understand it, Madison did not object to Hamilton’s plan because it treated all original lenders equally. The heart of his objection was that the federal government should discriminate between original “lenders” and second-generation holders who had subsequently purchased notes and debts for less than their face amount.

Friday, November 14, 2008

"Civil War between North and South would then have likely erupted"

Several weeks ago, I highlighted Mark J. Stegmaier’s discussion of the firm and statesmanlike leadership that President Millard Fillmore and his hand-picked Secretary of State Daniel Webster displayed in bringing about the Compromise of 1850. I thought I’d take one more post to emphasize how much was at stake.

Some commentators downplay the importance of the Compromise because they focus only on whether southern states would have been prepared to secede at that point if no compromise had been reached. But, as Professor Stegmaier points out, that is not where the true danger lay. The most serious threat to the Union lay in the possibility that a shooting war might have broken out between Texas and New Mexico. In that event, it is possible – and I would submit probable – that at least some of the Cotton South states would have lined up with Texas. As was the case eleven years later, mid-south and border-south states would have been forced to choose sides, unless the federal government simply allowed Texas to complete its invasion of New Mexico, and allowed the seceding states to go their own way.

Since Professor Stegmaier describes the potential consequences far better than I, I’ll let him speak for himself:
No great feats of imagination are required to contemplate the probable consequences of a failure to settle the issues of 1850 in a manner acceptable to great majorities in both North and South. . . . Texas . . . might have attempted to send a military force toward Santa Fe. A bloodletting could have occurred there, and, even though the Texans would have probably suffered defeat, the incident would probably have rallied the Southern states to aid Texas. Civil War between North and South would then have likely erupted.

I have posted before about my belief in the importance of hypotheticals and “what-ifs” in assessing historical events. Again, Professor Stegmaier makes the point most eloquently:
“Might-have-beens” and “what-ifs” are always dangerous for historians perhaps stretching too far, but some consideration of possible alternative outcomes can illuminate the significance of what did take place.

The description of the illustration is as follows:
A crudely drawn but complex satire mocking Zachary Taylor's military background and lack of political experience. Student Zachary Taylor, wearing a paper cap made out of the journal "The True Whig" is seated on a low stool at the feet of his more politically seasoned running mate Millard Fillmore. Taylor reads from a book "Congressional Debates 1848. Slavery . . .", and spells out "W-I-L-M-O-T: Wilmot, P-R-O-V-I-S-O: Proviso. What do I know about such political stuff. Ah! Wait until I get loose, Then you will see what fighting is!" A torn sheet marked "National Bank" lies at his feet. Fillmore, who reads from "The Glorious Whig Principles [by] Henry Clay," admonishes Taylor, "This will never do, you must forsake this course,--for our party is a peaceful and rightous sect--free from wickedness." Behind Fillmore are an open book cabinet, the Constitution, and a globe. This are in obvious contrast to the maps of "The Late War" and a broadsheet "The Life of Johnny Tyler" on the wall behind Taylor. At Taylor's knee sits a bloodhound with a collar marked "Florida," a reminder of Taylor's controversial use of bloodhounds in the Second Seminole War. To the right two black youths polish Taylor's weapons. The first, kneeling and wiping a pistol, says, "By golly! Massa Taylor like fighting better then him dinner." The other, cleaning a sword, claims, "Dis am de knife wot massa use to cut up de Mexijins wid." In the center of the floor are a group of toy soldiers and a cannon.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Hurly-Burly Pot

Charles W. McCurdy's wonderful book, The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics 1839-1865 covers a dense and complex subject and, unfortunately, does not readily translate into blog entries. In lieu of a meaningful post, here instead is a contemporary illustration that alludes to the anti-rent movement.

The summary of the lithograph, produced in New York City in 1850, is as follows:
The artist attacks abolitionist, Free Soil, and other sectionalist interests of 1850 as dangers to the Union. He singles out for indictment radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Pennsylvania Free Soil advocate David Wilmot, New York journalist Horace Greeley, and Southern states' rights spokesman Senator John C. Calhoun. The three wear fool's caps and gather, like the witches in Shakespeare's "Macbeth," round a large, boiling cauldron, adding to it sacks marked "Free Soil," "Abolition," and "Fourierism" (added by Greeley, a vocal exponent of the doctrines of utopian socialist Charles Fourier). Sacks of "Treason," "Anti-Rent," and "Blue Laws" already simmer in the pot. Wilmot: "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble! / Boil, Free Soil, / Ther Union spoil; / Come grief and moan, / Peace be none. / Til we divided be!" Garrison: "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble / Abolition / Our condition / Shall be altered by / Niggars strong as goats / Cut your master's throats / Abolition boil! / We divide the spoil." Greeley: "Bubble, buble [sic], toil and trouble! / Fourierism / War and schism / Till disunion come!" In the background, stands the aging John Calhoun. He announces, "For success to the whole mixture, we invoke our great patron Saint Benedict Arnold." The latter rises from the fire under the pot, commending them, "Well done, good and faithful servants!"

Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig

On Armistice Day, it seems appropriate to point out this article on a new biography of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig: Field Marshal Douglas Haig would have let Germany win, biography says:
The one constant belief has been in Haig’s unswerving pursuit of a final and complete victory. It is also inaccurate, Dr Harris said. In the final month of the war Haig “seemed to lose faith in his ability to conclusively defeat the German armies and thought it was necessary to offer them very moderate ceasefire terms followed by a moderate peace that may indeed have left Germany with many of its ill-gotten gains in Eastern Europe.” Haig did not even expect the Germans to disarm – they would be left with a full complement of weapons, including artillery.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Anti-Rent Era

Although I'm working on James Madison, I made the mistake of picking up Charles McCurdy's The Anti-Rent Era in New York Law and Politics 1839-1865 today. What a great, great book. Very dense -- I recommend it only if you're deeply interested in the era. But if you are, the book does an excellent job of immersing you in the politics and worldviews of Whigs and Democrats in a particular state, New York, and providing a close-up examination of the interaction between state and national political and economic developments.

Thanks, Sean!

About the illustration:
A satire on the Democrats' defeat in the fall [1838] New York state elections, here viewed as a referendum on Van Buren's independent treasury, or "Sub-treasury" system. A large ball labeled "Sub Treasury" is pushed down a hill by successful Whig gubernatorial candidate William H. Seward, who says, "A long push, a strong push, and a push all together, and down goes Tyranny and Oppression!" He is assisted by three other men whose arms are linked, one of whom holds a banner with the Whig motto "Preserve Credit and Commerce." Inside the ball is a sleeping Van Buren, who exclaims, "I must be dreaming, for it seems to me, I am going down hill!" The ball rolls onto New York Democratic incumbent governor William Marcy, wearing a uniform with a "50 cents" trouser patch (See "Executive Marcy and the Bambers," no. 1838-5), and several other men, including Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. Benton cries, "Push Governor; or down you goes!" Another holds a flag with the words "Trades Union" and cries "Lord ha! Marcy upon us!" In the lower left a crowd of workingmen applaud the scene. Among them are a farmer, a seaman, and a driver or husbandman who waves his hat and says, "Huzza! for the Empire State, she has sent the Ball rolling back again, in double quick time!"

The Deep Ocean: A Ribbon of Life

I haven't mentioned TED in a while. What a great site. Here's David Gallo talking on "The deep ocean: a ribbon of life."

"Hens set"

I can't resist one more Isaac Bassett story, a wonderful little recollection about Senator Thomas Hart Benton:
Benton, he took a prominent part in the deliberation of the Senate. Few public measures were discussed that he did not participate in. He was distinguished for his iron will. As a public speaker, he was not interesting. Senator Benton was the author of the expunging resolution, which I was an [eye]witness to in the Senate. He was distinguished for his learning, he had a practical mind and a strong memory. As a public speaker he was not interesting, but his speeches were read with great interest and his influence was widely felt.

I remember on one occasion when I was quite a boy, he wanted to see a friend who was on the floor of the Senate and requested me to find him. I found him and pointed him out on one of the sofas. I made use of the word “setting,” instead of “sitting.” He stopped and put his hand on my head and said, “My boy, don’t say that again, hens set.”

About the illustration:
A caricature of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton, as an insect rolling a large ball "Expunging Resolution" uphill toward the Capitol. The print employs Benton's own metaphor of rolling a ball for his uphill campaign to have a March 1834 Senate censure of then-President Andrew Jackson stricken from the Senate journal. The censure had condemned Jackson's removal of federal deposits from the Bank of the United States as exceeding the President's constitutional power. In the cartoon Benton says, "Solitary and alone and amidst the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this Ball in motion." The quotation comes from Benton's 1834 speech given in the Senate, stating his intention to move to expunge the censure. Benton's campaign earned him scorn from the opposition and, initially, little support from friends of the administration. But his resolution was finally passed in January 1837. The cartoon must have appeared shortly after the successful vote, for the ball is inscribed with a "List of the Black Knights," which names the twenty-four senators who voted for the resolution.

The Head of Preston Brooks's Cane

I’ve really enjoyed looking around the website devoted to Isaac Bassett and his unpublished recollections concerning his sixty-four years of service in the Senate (1831-1895). Here’s another account that grabbed my attention.

Although the Senate was not in session when Rep. Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner, Bassett was in the Senate chamber when Brooks entered on May 22, 1856. As a result, Bassett was an eyewitness to ensuing events:
I witness[ed] the attack on Senator Sumner by Mr. Brooks of South Carolina in 1856. Sumner was sitting in his seat, addressing the speech to his constituents when Mr. Brooks approached him from the front aisle (this was on the 22 of May) and said, “I have come over from the House to chastise you for the remarks that you made. I have read your speech, it is a libel on South Carolina and against my relative Senator Butler.” At the same time raising his cane, and struck him three time [sic] on the head. Mr. Sumner arose from his seat and made an effort to take hold of Mr. Brooks, but the last blow brought him to the floor. It was all done in a minute. As soon as he fell Senator Cass, myself and Arthur Gorman and several lifted him up, and we led him out to the Reception Room of the Senate. I got towels and a basin of water. Washed his head. He walked back down to the front door of the Capitol, got a hack, and went to his lodgings. In the meantime, Brooks and his friends, Mr. Edmundson of Virginia and Mr. Keitt of South Carolina, returned to the House. The cane that Mr. Brooks used was broken in small pieces. I have a piece now in my possession. It was a gutta percha cane an inch thick, the cane broke into fragments. It was the speech that Mr. Sumner delivered on the 19 and 20 of May that caused Mr. Brooks to cane him.

Mr. St. John, one of the employees of the Senate, was picking up the loose paper from the floor and picked up the head of Mr. Brooks’ cane. Mr. Douglas then being in the Senate asked him for it. He gave it to him. What Mr. Douglas done with it I never knew.

All of which raises the question: What did Senator Douglas do with the head of Preston Brooks’s cane?

About the illustration:
A dramatic portrayal, clearly biased toward the northern point of view, of an incident in Congress which inflamed sectional passions in 1856. The artist recreates the May 22 attack and severe beating of Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner by Representative Preston S. Brooks of South Carolina. Brooks's actions were provoked by Sumner's insulting public remarks against his cousin, Senator Andrew Pickens Butler, and against Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, delivered in the Senate two days earlier. The print shows an enraged Brooks (right) standing over the seated Sumner in the Senate chamber, about to land on him a heavy blow of his cane. The unsuspecting Sumner sits writing at his desk. At left is another group. Brooks's fellow South Carolinian Representative Lawrence M. Keitt stands in the center, raising his own cane menacingly to stay possible intervention by the other legislators present. Clearly no help for Sumner is forthcoming. Behind Keitt's back, concealed in his left hand, Keitt holds a pistol. In the foreground are Georgia senator Robert Toombs (far left) and Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas (hands in pockets) looking vindicated by the event. Behind them elderly Kentucky senator John J. Crittenden is restrained by a fifth, unidentified man. Above the scene is a quote from Henry Ward Beecher's May 31 speech at a Sumner rally in New York, where he proclaimed, "The symbol of the North is the pen; the symbol of the South is the bludgeon." David Tatham attributes the print to the Bufford shop, and suggests that the Library's copy of the print, the only known example, may have been a trial impression, and that the print may not actually have been released. The attribution to [Winslow] Homer was first made by Milton Kaplan.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

"He then jumped on top of one of the desks"

I was looking around for other information about the confrontation between Senators Thomas Hart Benton and Henry S. Foote when I stumbled across a wonderful account by Issac Bassett. Bassett’s life story is itself remarkable: he was appointed as a page in the Senate in 1831, at the age of twelve. He then remained in the Senate in a series of posts – messenger, assistant doorkeeper – for over sixty years, until his death in 1895.

Bassett’s recollection of events on April 17, 1850 includes additional details not found in the Congressional Globe account (emphasis added):
Mr. Benton rose from his seat, threw his chair violently from him [and] made for Mr. Foote. Down the passage he was stopped by Senator Dodge and several other senators. He then jumped on top of one of the desks and laid open his breast and said, “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire.” In the meantime Mr. Foote had reached the aisle in front of the secretary’s table. Mr. Foote drew his pistol as soon as Mr. Benton made a move towards him. Mr. Foote remained standing in the same position he had taken with his pistol in his hand. My impression was that it was a horse pistol. I was standing very near him. It was certainly a very long one. Mr. Dickinson a senator from New York, asked him to give up the pistol which he did. Mr. Dickinson then locked it up in his desk. Soon after both senators resumed their seats.

Although unrelated, I can’t help pointing out this story, because it features Vice President Fillmore:
In olden times it was fashionable for senators to take snuff. It was the custom to keep a box of snuff on the vice president’s table. The senators would step up to the vice president’s table and take a pinch of snuff. It seemed to be a part of the senatorial dignity but soon after Mr. Fillmore was vice president, during the morning hour, when so many senators rise to offer petitions, the senators annoyed him so much that he called me up to him and said, “Bassett I want you to take this snuff box away from this table. I cannot understand what is going on in the Senate on account of the conversation of senators who come here to get a pinch of snuff. You must get some other place for it.” I suggested that on each side of the Senate there be placed a snuff box. “That is just the thing, go and have it done.” It has been done ever since. On each side of the Chamber there is secured to the walls a comely black snuff box.

For those interested, the summary of the illustration at the top is as follows:
Senators Thomas Hart Benton and Henry S. Foote are paired here in a facetious farewell scene, as Benton departs the "Shop of the Senate." In reality Benton lost his Senate seat in a January 1851 election, largely because of his refusal to honor the Missouri Resolutions on Slavery (also known as the Jackson-Napton Resolutions of 1849). He charged that the resolutions were engineered by John C. Calhoun, Foote, and a few other Senate foes. Benton's term ended on March 3. In the center stands Benton dressed as a ragged Irishman, a stock character common in Yankee theatre productions of the New York stage at the time. He smokes a cigar, and stands near a mangy donkey which is laden with saddle, pack, and whip, a bundle marked "Life & Times of Thos H. Benton [bound] for California" at his feet. His California destination has several possible explanations. It may be an oblique allusion to Benton's antislavery stance, as Benton was embroiled in the dispute during his last Senate term, on the admission of California to the Union as a free state. He was also a prominent advocate of a transcontinental railroad. Also likely is the artist's association of the recent California Gold Rush with Benton's career-long bullionist ideology. Benton looks left and shakes the hand of Foote, who is dressed as a New York fireman or street tough, with a visored cap and boots. Foote: "So, yer goin ter leave us, ha Benton? well if I had my Pocket Hankercher about me I'de cry." Benton: "Thank yer Foote! any other time will do, the fact is I won't work in no Shop where the Boss is all the time a findin fault with me work, & the Fellers in the Shop is all the time a Laughin at me." At the far left Calhoun and two others watch from a window with the sign "Cabinet Work." Weitenkampf dates the print 1850. But it is unlikely that it appeared long before the March 3, 1851, expiration of Benton's term in the Senate.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Senate Chamber 1850

I may have been wrong. In the this illustration, a larger version of which may be accessed here, the portrait appears to be that of George Washington.

Senate Chamber 1848

You can access a larger image of the above illustration, showing the Senate Chamber in 1848, by going here.

On the wall at the center top, above what I assume is the President's chair, there is a picture. Any idea who it is? It looks like John Adams to me, which would make sense, since he was the first President of the Senate.

"There was not any danger on foot at all"

The cartoon/illustration that prompted this series of posts, A Scene in Uncle Sam’s Senate, shows Henry Clay punning on the incident, “It’s a ridiculous matter, I apprehend there is no danger on foot.” In fact, Henry Clay did not speak the words – another, less well-known senator did.

The Congressional Globe shows where the cartoonist got the idea. As order was being restored shortly after Senator Foote pulled a pistol on Benton, Senator John P. Hale of Vermont demanded an investigation of the incident. Hale, an adamant Free Soiler and opponent of the Omnibus, presumably hoped that an investigation would distract the Senate and tend to make compromise less likely.

In response, freshman Senator Solon Borland, Democrat of Arkansas, then rose. Borland took the position that the incident was “a very ridiculous affair” that warranted no further attention. In the process of his brief speech, Senator Borland, consciously or unconsciously, included in his remarks a pun on Senator Foote’s name, which the cartoonist later transferred, with only minor alteration, to Senator Clay’s lips:
Mr. BORLAND. So far from thinking it so serious a matter that the Senate are called upon to take notice of it, I think it a very ridiculous affair, of which the Senate should rather feel ashamed, and say as little about as possible. I am a young member of the Senate, and one perhaps of the least experience, but to my mind there was not any danger on foot at all.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

"So help me God, such alone was my intention"

Before reading the Congressional Globe description of the events that took place on April 17, 1850, I had assumed that Senator Henry S. Foote was the aggressor. After all, southerner legislators tended to be proud and violent when insulted or challenged – just look at what Rep. Preston Brooks did a few years later to Charles Sumner. Foote himself was not a stranger to dueling and violence. In this case, he had pulled out a pistol on the Senate floor and threatened another Senator with it! What excuse could there be for that?

A pretty good one, it turns out. “Old Bullion” Benton was a bear of a man, had a history of violence, and was known as a crack shot. In 1813, before he became Andrew Jackson’s fast friend and political ally, Benton and his brother Jesse were involved in a wild melee in downtown Nashville with Jackson and others that involved guns, knives, swords and knuckles. In the brawl, Jesse shot and nearly killed Andrew Jackson himself.

Four years later, Benton fought two duels with a lawyer by the name of Charles Lucas. In the first match, Benton shot Lucas in the neck, and rumors circulated that Benton had deliberately set the rules to take advantage of his superior marksmanship. In the second, Benton shot Lucas dead.

The slightly-built Foote might well have been alarmed when he saw Benton striding down the aisle toward him. The description of Foote’s actions by the Congressional Globe reporter makes clear that Foote was retreating down the aisle, away from Benton. The fact that Foote later disputed the term “retreating” only highlights the fact that that was exactly what he was doing.

Turning to Benton, it is noteworthy that he did not deny that he had been advancing menacingly on Foote. His entire defense was that he had no gun:
Mr. BENTON. We are not going to get off in this way. A pistol has been brought here to assassinate me. The scoundrel had no reason to think I was armed, for I carry nothing of the kind, sir.


Mr. BENTON. Nothing of the kind, sir. It is a false imputation. I carry nothing of the kind, and no assassin has a right to draw a pistol on me.

SEVERAL SENATORS. “Order,” “order.”

Mr. BENTON. It is a mere pretext of the assassin. Will the Senate take notice of it, or shall I be forced to take notice of it by going and getting a weapon myself. A pistol has been brought here and drawn upon me by an assassin.


Mr. BENTON. I have done nothing upon God Almighty’s earth to authorize any man to charge me with a breach of the peace, and I will rot in jail before I will give a promise admitting that the charge is true. I regret nothing. It is lying and cowardly to undertake to impute to me the bearing of arms here, in order to justify the use of them upon me. I have done nothing, and I will rot in jail before I will give a promise which admits, by implication, that I have been guilty of a breach of the peace.

The theatricality of Benton’s oratory as soon as he saw the gun (“I have no pistols!” “Let him fire!” etc.) suggests that he knew he was in little danger and immediately had the presence of mind to milk the scene for everything it was worth. Is it unfair to wonder whether Benton advanced on Foote knowing that Foote had a weapon and hoping that Foote would reach for it?

Finally, Foote’s repeated apologies ring true. Here was no defiant southerner proudly defending his conduct, but a somewhat shaken man trying to explain a panicked reaction (paragraph break added):
Mr. FOOTE. If my presenting a pistol here has been understood as anything except the necessary means of self-defense, after threats of personal chastisement, it is doing me a wrong. I saw him advancing towards me, and I took it for granted he was armed; for had I thought otherwise, I should have stopped to meet him in that narrow alley. But I supposed that he was armed, and therefore I determined to take ground where I could meet him more fairly, and I drew out the pistol and was ready to fire it in self-defense.

I have never sought any man’s life, nor gone in quest of any man with a view of taking his life. No, sir, never. My life has been a defensive one from my boyhood. I mention it, not from the imputations that have been thrown out here, but that all the Senators present and the American public, who may hear of this thing, may be witnesses of the fact, that whilst I was making a perfectly parliamentary speech, threatening language was used, menacing gestures indulged in, and an advance made towards me, with the view, as I supposed, of putting violent designs into effect. I therefore retreated a few steps [notice that Foote admitted that he “retreated”], with a view to get elbow room to act in my own defence, and not to shoot him. So help me God, such alone was my intention.

A few minutes later, Foote added the following:
Mr. FOOTE. I am perfectly cool, and I feel the gravity of the occasion as deeply as others. . . . I have never threatened a human being with personal attacks in my life, and of course I have never executed a threat of that kind in my life. I have never worn arms to make an attack on any person, and have never worn arms at all in the Senate except when menaced, as I was the other day in the Senate with a cudgel. My friends urged upon me that, being diminutive in size and quite feeble in health, I should at least wear arms for my own defence. It was a novel thing to me, for I am not in the habit of doing it, and I put on arms, supposing it possible that I might be attacked after what had occurred, simply for the purpose of defending myself.

Although it is impossible to be sure, on balance I credit Senator Foote’s explanation. Even if he did not think that Benton was armed, he pretty clearly was afraid that Benton was going to beat him to a pulp. At the very least, it is clear that Foote was no Preston Brooks, and this incident was no prelude to the Caning of Sumner.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!"

Inspired by the description Ed Darrell found explaining the illustration “Uncle Sam’s Senate,” I found and read the relevant portions of the Congressional Globe for April 17, 1850.

What is most surprising about the confrontation between Democratic Senators Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, and Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton of Missouri on April 17, 1850 is that it seems to have come out of nowhere; the immediate provocation was slight, indeed.

By way of background, earlier in the year Whig Senator Henry Clay had succumbed to pressure from Senator Foote to package Clay’s proposed compromise measures into a single bill. Clay pushed through a proposal to refer the measures to a select Committee of Thirteen, which would draft what would become known as the Omnibus.

Although from a slave state, Benton, a Democrat, detested the pro-slavery radicals. He also detested the Omnibus plan. He therefore proposed an amendment that would give “instructions” to the Committee. One series of instructions basically directed the Committee not to include anything relating to California in any bill the Committee drafted. This, of course, would rob the Committee of a principal reason for its creation: any set of compromise measures had to include a provision or provisions dealing with that state.

Compounding the felony, Benton proposed another set of instructions that effectively barred the Committee from proposing any legislation concerning slavery. Everyone understood that these instructions, if enacted, killed the entire enterprise, and made a mockery of it in the bargain:
Provided, That nothing in this instruction shall be construed to take into consideration anything that relates to either of the four following subjects:
1. The abolition of slavery within the States.
2. The suppression of the slave trade between the States.
3. The abolition of slavery within the forts, arsenals, dock-yards, and navy-yards of the United States.
4. Abolition of slavery within the District of Columbia.
And provided further, That said committee shall not take into consideration any question in relation to the subject of domestic slavery in the United States, which shall not be specifically referred to it by order of the Senate.

There then followed a colloquy on the procedural propriety of the amendment. It appears that Senator Benton had previously offered a similar amendment, presumably when the formation of the Committee was originally debated. The Senate had rejected that earlier amendment.

Senator Joseph R. Underwood, Whig of Kentucky, now presented a “point of order. I think it is out of order to propose these points of instruction, when the Senate have already decided that they will not instruct the committee.” The point of order was referred to Vice President Millard Fillmore, sitting as President of the Senate.

I have seen summaries of the proceedings that state that the Vice President ruled Benton out of order. The Congressional Globe indicates otherwise. The Vice President seems to have ruled that Benton’s earlier amendment was similar to, but not identical to, his present amendment. Therefore, he was not out of order. However, he also ruled that the full Senate had the power to consider the question and decide otherwise. “[T]he question that presents itself is, whether inconsistencies are questions of order . . .. The Chair is of the opinion that the amendment is in order, but it is for the Senate to decide.”

Henry Clay then took the Vice President up on his invitation by melodramatically “appealing” the Vice President’s ruling to the full Senate:
Mr. CLAY. I rise to perform the painful duty of appealing from the decision of the Chair, and I ask the yeas and nays on the question. I do not mean to take up time. My opinion is, that when the Senate has decided that it will not do a given thing, it is out of order for that thing to be proposed to be done, and it is within the province of the Chair to decide it to be out of order.

At that point, Senator Benton rose to deliver a bitter objection. The Vice President’s ruling, and Clay’s appeal, had shifted the question from the proposed amendment itself to the procedural question whether the proposed amendment was out of order. Benton angrily complained that the Vice President’s ruling improperly threatened to cut off debate, contrary to Senate rules and tradition.

In the course of his speech, however, Benton (not unexpectedly) shifted to a defense of the substance of his proposed amendment. In the process, he characterized his amendment as an attempt to expose southern radicals as flim-flam artists (to enhance readability, I have added paragraph breaks):

Sir, I intend by these amendments to cut at the root of all that agitation, and to cut up the whole address of the southern members, by which the country was thrown into a flame. I mean to show that there was no foundation for any such thing; that is, I mean to offer a proposition upon which the votes will show that there has been a cry of “wolf,” when there was no wolf; that the country has been alarmed without reason, and against reason; that there is no design in the Congress of the United States to encroach upon the rights of the South, nor to aggress upon the South, nor to oppress them upon the subject of their institutions.

I propose, sir, to give the Senate an opportunity of showing that all this alarm has been without foundation; and I further propose to give to the people of the United States the highest declaration that can be given upon earth, that they have been disturbed about nothing; and when we come to that part of the question, we will see whether they are abstractions or not; and if these are abstractions, then the country has been alarmed about abstractions.

At this point, Senator Foote began to respond, but yielded the floor to Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. As one might expect, Senator Butler did not accept Senator Benton’s assertion that the south was crying wolf; the dangers were real:

Sir, the Senator [from Missouri] must see as plainly as I do, that there is a danger – that this thing has progressed to such lengths, that it will be but a feeble palliative to quiet it, to offer a resolution which merely declares that Congress has no right to interfere with slavery in the States; that the South and the whole country is in no danger; and that all of the agitation is caused by the Southern Address.

Then Senator Foote at last took the floor. Foote’s speech strikes me as exceedingly odd. First, Senator Benton’s provocation was not all that great. Yes, his speech accused southern radicals of crying wolf, but neither its tone nor substance was outrageous in the context of the overheated rhetoric of 1850. Moreover, Foote was not a die hard radical. After all, it was he, together with Henry Clay, who was pushing the Omnibus. I can only conclude that, precisely because Foote was something of a moderate, he felt he had to protect himself against claims by southern hard-liners that he was not being sufficiently vigorous in defense of southern rights.

Senator Foote began calmly enough, emphasizing his moderation:
Mr. FOOTE. The Senate will bear witness to the fact that I have endeavored to avoid discussion and controversy on this question. I have believed, and yet believe, that, the time has come when all true patriots should unite in the pure spirit of fraternal conciliation and compromise for the settlement of these questions; and that they should feel it their bounden and imperious duty to do all in their power to quiet excitement, and save the Republic from that danger which all of us do know has environed it for the last six or eight months.

After the jab at Benton in the last clause (“that danger which all of us do know has [existed]”), Foote began to warm to his topic. Benton had defamed him personally and, even worse, he had besmirched the sainted John Calhoun, still warm in his grave! Foote wrapped himself in the flag (as it were) of Calhoun’s “holy” Southern Address (paragraph breaks added):
I repeat, that I did not come here this morning in the expectation of saying a word; and especially would I not be heard referring to anything emanating from a certain quarter, after what has occurred here, but for what I conceive to be a direct attack upon myself and others with whom I am proud to stand associated.

We all know the history of the Southern Address, and the world knows its history. It is the history of the action of a band of patriots, worthy of the highest laudation, and who will be held in veneration when their calumniators, no matter who they may be, will be objects of general loathing and contempt.

Who is the author of the Southern Address? He is known to the world. The late illustrious Senator from South Carolina, whose decease a nation now mourns, and over whose untimely death every good man in all Christian countries, at the present time, is now lamenting – is the author, and the sole author, of that address. In our presence here to-day, in the hearing of the friends of that distinguished statesman associated with him in that holy work, that address is denounced with great appearance of deliberation, as fraught with mischief, and as having supplied food for agitation and excitement which has involved our institutions in dangers . . ..

After continuing in this mode a while longer, Foote then began to confront more directly the source of this infamy:
Those who were associated with and sanctioned that address, are charged with being agitators. And by whom? With whom does such an accusation as this originate? I shall not be personal, after the lesson I have already received here. I intend to be, in a parliamentary sense, perfectly decorous in all things. But by whom is this extraordinary denunciation hurled against all those individuals who subscribed this address? By a gentleman long denominated the oldest member of the Senate – the father of the Senate. By a gentleman who, on a late occasion –

At this juncture, however, Foote broke off his speech, for “the father of the Senate” was at that moment charging – or at least advancing menacingly – down the aisle toward him. Then Foote pulled a pistol, and all hell broke loose.

At this point, the Congressional Globe includes a rare description of events in the Senate chamber:
[Here Mr. FOOTE, who occupies a seat on the outer circle, in front of the Vice President’s chair, retreated backwards down the aisle, towards the chair of the Vice President, with a pistol in his hand. Mr. BENTON, a moment before, having suddenly risen from his seat and advanced by the aisle, outside the bar, towards him, following him into the aisle down which the Senator from Mississippi had retreated. In a moment almost every Senator was on his feet, and calls to “order,” demands for the Sergeant-at-Arms; requests that Senators would take their seats, from the Chair and from individual Senators, were repeatedly made.

Senator Benton clearly recognized a golden opportunity when he saw one, and drew on every ounce of his prodigious theatrical abilities (paragraph break added):

Mr. BENTON was followed and arrested by Mr. [Henry] DODGE, [Democrat] of Wisconsin, and, in the confusion and excitement which prevailed, he was heard to exclaim, from time to time, “I have no pistols!” “Let him fire!” “Stand out of the way!” “I have no pistols!” “I disdain to carry arms!” “Stand out of the way, and let the assassin fire!”

While making these exclamations, Mr. BENTON was brought back to his seat; but, breaking away from Mr. DODGE, of Wisconsin, who sought forcibly to detain him, he advanced again towards Mr. FOOTE, who stood near the Vice President’s chair, on the right-hand side, surrounded by a number of Senators, and others not members of the Senate. Mr. [Daniel S.] DICKINSON [Hardshell Hunker Democrat, New York] took the pistol from the hand of Mr. FOOTE, and locked it up in his desk, and Mr. FOOTE, on the advice of Mr. BUTLER, returned to his seat.]

The next day, apparently after reviewing the reporter’s description of events, Senator Foote sent the reporter “A CARD” to correct “one or two slight inaccuracies” in the description. What is most interesting is that, while Foote wanted to make clear that he was not the aggressor, he also went to great lengths to deny that he “retreated.” The implication seems clear that he was worried that southerners would brand him a coward if they perceived that he had retreated when presented with the onrushing Benton (paragraph breaks added):
Now, as to the “retreat” spoken of, it was simply a movement in a line – which made something like a right angle with the one along which the Senator from Missouri was advancing, I simply glided towards the alley leading from the Secretary’s chair to the door, intending to take a defensive attitude, and then await any assault which might be made. I could not have done otherwise, without, in a certain event, endangering the lives of unoffending persons.

You seem to represent myself as being pursued by my antagonist down a narrow alley. If you allude to the alley along which I walked in order to take my defensive attitude alluded to, you are in error, as the person alluded to did not even reach my seat, nor even get something like half-way from his seat to mine. The fact is, that I neither retreated from, nor advanced upon, the Senator referred to. I simply advanced to a convenient position for purposes of defense.

You say “Mr. DICKINSON took the pistol from the hand of Mr. FOOTE.” This is true, but I would add, that it was cheerfully surrendered on application being made for it, and upon seeing that I was no longer in danger of being assaulted. I regret that I have deemed it necessary to make this explanation, but I did not know how to avoid it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

James Madison

Having recently finished Robert Allen Rutland’s James Madison: The Founding Father, I can’t recommend it except, possibly, to the most die-hard Madison fans.

The fault is probably not Professor Rutland’s. He writes perfectly well, and his mid-length (253 pages of text) biography covers all the basic episodes. The problem, I think, is Madison himself. His life just does not translate readily to the biographical form at reasonable length. To make the important episodes of Madison’s life interesting – or even comprehensible – requires providing a great amount of background information and detail. Want to find out about Madison’s contributions to the Constitutional Convention or the Federalist Papers? That’s a course of study in itself. Want to understand what was important about his service as Secretary of State, or the period of his presidency leading up to the War of 1812? You need to compose a chart recording all the bizarre permutations of embargos, Orders in Counsel and the like that litter the period. (My favorite is Macon’s Bill No. 2.) A brief course on the Napoleonic Wars wouldn’t hurt either. Etc. etc.

In preparation for my upcoming trip Madison’s plantation, Montpelier, I’ve bitten the bullet. Yep, I’ve laid my hands on Ralph Ketcham’s hefty James Madison. About fifty pages in, so far, so good.
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