Sunday, January 11, 2009

William Cabell Rives

Drew R. McCoy devotes the final chapter of The Last of the Fathers to examining the life and "strange career" of James Madison disciple William Cabell Rives. The majority of the chapter uses Rives -- whose name, Professor McCoy reports, is pronounced "Reeves" -- to explore contradictions and pitfalls of Madisonian thought.

Since this is blog post, however, I thought I'd recount one odd incident that I hadn't heard of before. Rives returned from France, where he had served as ambassador, in the fall of 1832, as the Nullification Crisis was raging. To the surprise and horror of some of his fellow Virginians, Rives vigorously denounced nullification and maintained that the tariff was not unconstitutional.

Among the most outraged was Rives's friend and protege Thomas Walker Gilmer, then a leader of a faction of Virginian politicians who supported South Carolina's efforts. Before Rives announced his position on nullification, Gilmer had helped arrange Rives's election to the United States Senate, assuring some suspicious Virginia legislators that Rives was "right" on the tariff issue. As Senator, however, Rives "took an emphatic stand . . . against the South Carolina dissidents and committed the unpardonable sin of voting for President Jackson's 'Force Bill.'"

All of which led to the nose-pulling incident:
[Rives and Gilmer] publicly fell out, and at the courthouse in Charlottesville in early July 1833, their feud erupted into violence. Gilmer showed his contempt for Rives by trying to pull his nose (a ritual maneuver known among Virginians as "the Lieutenant Randolph outrage," after the man [Robert Beverly Randolph] who had recently pulled President Jackson's nose); the senator responded by allegedly biting Gilmer's thumb before striking him with his horsewhip. After fisticuffs of a sort ensued, the diminutive Rives returned home to Castle Hill with a black eye -- a badge, as it were, of Madison's influence and of his legatee's embattled status in his native state.

About the illustration:
A Whig vision of the rout of Van Buren in the presidential election of 1840. In a stormy sea Van Buren grasps the mast (labeled "Maine") of a foundering vessel "O.K." (the initials for "Old Kinderhook," a Van Buren nickname derived from his birthplace and home in Kinderhook, New York). In the water are supporters John Calhoun, Amos Kendall, Francis Preston Blair, Thomas Hart Benton, and Levi Woodbury. The gale seems to emanate from three faces which appear in the clouds: William C. Rives, William Henry Harrison, and Nathaniel P. Tallmadge. The image represents the formidable alliance of conservatives and Whigs that Van Buren faced in the election. (Tallmadge and Rives were conservative Democrats-turned-Whigs in opposition to Van Buren's fiscal programs.) Van Buren: "I can hold no longer to be forsaken at such a time by Maryland & Georgia too. Oh Curse that Cataline to force me to pass the Sub-Treasure Bill." Calhoun: "If I had minded what [ally and political editor] Duff Green said to me this would not have happend." Woodbury: "This is worse than getting White Washed." Kendall: "Oh my dear Babys." Kendall's remark probably refers to an incident in May of 1840 when a Whig mob discharged a cannon on his front lawn, frightening his children. This, combined with Van Buren's reference to the Independent Treasury Bill, passed by Congress in July 1840, suggests that "The Shipwreck" appeared during the second half of the year.

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