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America: I. (1761–1837). 1906.

Thomas Hart Benton

On the Expunging Resolution

IT is now three years since the resolve was adopted by the Senate which it is my present motion to expunge from the journal; at the moment that this resolve was adopted I gave notice of my intention to move to expunge it, and then expressed my confident belief that the motion would eventually prevail. That expression of confidence was not an ebullition of vanity or a presumptuous calculation intended to accelerate the event it affected to foretell. It was not a vain boast, or an idle assumption, but was the result of a deep conviction of the injustice done President Jackson, and a thorough reliance upon the justice of the American people. I felt that the president had been wronged; and my heart told me that this wrong would be redressed. The event proves that I was not mistaken. The question of expunging this resolution has been carried to the people, and their decision has been had upon it.

Assuming that we have ascertained the will of the people on this great question, the inquiry presents itself how far the expression of that will ought to be conclusive of our action here. I hold that it ought to be binding and obligatory upon us; and that, not only upon the principles of representative government, which require obedience to the known will of the people, but also in conformity to the principles upon which the proceeding against President Jackson was conducted when the sentence against him was adopted. Then everything was done with especial reference to the will of the people. Their impulsion was assumed to be the sole motive to action; and to them the ultimate verdict was expressly referred. The whole machinery of alarm and pressure—every engine of political and moneyed power—was put in motion and worked for many months to excite the people against the president, and to stir up meetings, memorials, petitions, traveling committees, and distress deputations against him; and each symptom of popular discontent was hailed as an evidence of public will, and quoted here as proof that the people demanded the condemnation of the president. Not only legislative assemblies, and memorials from large assemblies were then produced here as evidence of public opinion, but the petitions of boys under age, the remonstrances of a few signers, and the results of the most inconsiderable elections were ostentatiously paraded and magnified as the evidence of the sovereign will of our constituents.

Thus, sir, the public voice was everything, while that voice, partially obtained through political and pecuniary machinations, was adverse to the president. Then the popular will was the shrine at which all worshiped. Now, when that will is regularly, soberly, repeatedly, and almost universally expressed through the ballot-boxes at the various elections and turns out to be in favor of the president, certainly no one can disregard it, nor otherwise look at it than as the solemn verdict of the competent and ultimate tribunal upon an issue fairly made up, fully argued, and duly submitted for decision. As such verdict, I receive it. As the deliberate verdict of the sovereign people, I bow to it. I am content. I do not mean to reopen the case or to recommence the argument. I leave that work to others, if any others choose to perform it. For myself, I am content; and dispensing with further argument I shall call for judgment and ask to have execution done upon that unhappy journal which the verdict of millions of freemen finds guilty of bearing on its face an untrue, illegal, and unconstitutional sentence of condemnation against the approved president of the Republic.

But, while declining to reopen the argument of this question, and refusing to tread over again the ground already traversed, there is another and a different task to perform; one which the approaching termination of President Jackson’s administration makes peculiarly proper at this time, and which it is my privilege and perhaps my duty to execute, as being the suitable conclusion to the arduous contest in which we have been so long engaged. I allude to the general tenor of his administration and to its effect, for good or for evil, upon the condition of his country. This is the proper time for such a view to be taken. The political existence of this great man now draws to a close. In little more than forty days he ceases to be an object of political hope to any, and should cease to be an object of political hate, or envy, to all. Whatever of motive the servile and time-serving might have found in his exalted station for raising the altar of adulation and burning the incense of praise before him, that motive can no longer exist. The dispenser of the patronage of an empire, the chief of this great confederacy of States, is soon to be a private individual, stripped of all power to reward or to punish. His own thoughts, as he has shown us in the concluding paragraph of that message which is to be the last of its kind that we shall ever receive from him, are directed to that beloved retirement from which he was drawn by the voice of millions of freemen, and to which he now looks for that interval of repose which age and infirmities require. Under these circumstances he ceases to be a subject for the ebullition of the passions, and passes into a character for the contemplation of history.

Historically, then, shall I view him; and limiting this view to his civil administration, I demand, where is there a chief magistrate of whom so much evil has been predicted and from whom so much good has come? Never has any man entered upon the chief magistracy of a country under such appalling predictions of ruin and woe! never has any one been so pursued with direful prognostications! never has any one been so beset and impeded by a powerful combination of political and moneyed confederates! never has any one in any country where the administration of justice has risen above the knife of the bowstring been so lawlessly and shamelessly tried and condemned by rivals and enemies, without hearing, without defense, without the forms of law and justice! History has been ransacked to find examples of tyrants sufficiently odious to illustrate him by comparison. Language has been tortured to find epithets sufficiently strong to paint him in description. Imagination has been exhausted in her efforts to deck him with revolting and inhuman attributes. Tyrant, despot, usurper; destroyer of the liberties of his country; rash, ignorant, imbecile; endangering the public peace with all foreign nations; destroying domestic prosperity at home; ruining all industry, all commerce, all manufactures; annihilating confidence between man and man; delivering up the streets of populous cities to grass and weeds, and the wharves of commercial towns to the encumbrance of decaying vessels; depriving labor of all reward; depriving industry of all employment; destroying the currency; plunging an innocent and happy people from the summit of felicity to the depths of misery, want, and despair. Such is the faint outline, followed up by actual condemnation. of the appalling denunciations daily uttered against this one MAN, from the moment he became an object of political competition, down to the concluding moment of his political existence.

The sacred voice of inspiration has told us that there is a time for all things. There certainly has been a time for every evil that human nature admits of to be vaticinated of President Jackson’s administration; equally certain the time has now come for all rational and well-disposed people to compare the predictions with the facts, and to ask themselves if these calamitous prognostications have been verified by events? Have we peace or war with foreign nations? Certainly we have peace with all the world! peace with all its benign, and felicitous, and beneficent influences! Are we respected, or despised abroad? Certainly the American name never was more honored throughout the four quarters of the globe than. in this very moment. Do we hear of indignity or outrage in any quarter? of merchants robbed in foreign ports? of vessels searched on the high seas? of American citizens impressed into foreign service? of the national flag insulted anywhere? On the contrary, we see former wrongs repaired, no new one inflicted. France pays twenty-five millions of francs for spoliations committed thirty years ago; Naples pays two millions one hundred thousand ducats for wrongs of the same date; Denmark pays six hundred and fifty thousand rix-dollars for wrongs done a quarter of a century ago; Spain engages to pay twelve millions of reals vellon for injuries of fifteen years’ date; Portugal, the last in the list of former aggressors, admits her liability and only waits the adjustment of details to close her account by adequate indemnity.

From President Jackson the country has first learned the true theory and practical intent of the Constitution in giving to the executive a qualified negative on the legislative power of Congress. Far from being an odious, dangerous, or kingly prerogative, this power as vested in the president is nothing but a qualified copy of the famous veto power vested in the tribunes of the people among the Romans, and intended to suspend the passage of a law until the people themselves should have time to consider it. The qualified veto of the president destroys nothing; it only delays the passage of a law and refers it to the people for their consideration and decision. It is the reference of a law, not to a committee of the House, or of the whole House, but to the committee of the whole Union. It is a recommitment of the bill to the people, for them to examine and consider; and if, upon this examination, they are content to pass it, it will pass at the next session. The delay of a few months is the only effect of a veto in a case where the people shall ultimately approve a law; where they do not approve it, the interposition of the veto is the barrier which saves them the adoption of a law, the repeal of which might afterward be almost impossible. The qualified negative is, therefore, a beneficent power, intended as General Hamilton expressly declares in the Federalist, to protect, first, the executive department from the encroachments of the legislative department; and, secondly, to preserve the people from hasty, dangerous or criminal legislation on the part of their representatives.

This is the design and intention of the veto power; and the fear expressed by General Hamilton was that presidents, so far from exercising it too often, would not exercise it as often as the safety of the people required; that they might lack the moral courage to stake themselves in opposition to a favorite measure of the majority of the two Houses of Congress; and thus deprive the people, in many instances, of their right to pass upon a bill before it becomes a final law. The cases in which President Jackson has exercised the veto power have shown the soundness of these observations. No ordinary president would have staked himself against the Bank of the United States and the two Houses of Congress in 1832. It required President Jackson to confront that power—to stem that torrent—to stay the progress of that charter and to refer it to the people for their decision. His moral courage was equal to the crisis. He arrested the charter until it could be got to the people, and they have arrested it for ever. Had he not done so the charter would have become a law and its repeal almost impossible. The people of the whole Union would now have been in the condition of the people of Pennsylvania. bestrode by the monster, in daily conflict with him, and maintaining a doubtful contest for supremacy between the government of a State and the directory of a moneyed corporation.

To detail specific acts which adorn the administration of President Jackson and illustrate the intuitive sagacity of his intellect, the firmness of his mind, his disregard of personal popularity, and his entire devotion to the public good, would be inconsistent with this rapid sketch intended merely to present general views, and not to detail single actions, howsoever worthy they may be of a splendid page in the volume of history. But how can we pass over she great measure of the removal of the public moneys from the Bank of the United States in the autumn of 1833? that wise, heroic, and masterly measure of prevention which has rescued an empire from the fangs of a merciless, revengeful, greedy, insatiate, implacable, moneyed power!

The difficulty with France: what an instance it presents of the superior sagacity of President Jackson over all the commonplace politicians who beset and impede his administration at home! That difficulty, inflamed and aggravated by domestic faction, wore, at one time, a portentous aspect; the skill, firmness, elevation of purpose, and manly frankness of the president avoided the danger, accomplished the object, commanded the admiration of Europe, and retained the friendship of France. He conducted the delicate affair to a successful and mutual honorable issue. All is amicably and happily terminated, leaving not a wound, nor even a scar, behind; leaving the Frenchman and American on the ground on which they have stood for fifty years and should for ever stand—the ground of friendship, respect, good will, and mutual wishes for the honor, happiness, and prosperity of each other.

But why this specification? So beneficent and so glorious has been the administration of this president that where to begin and where to end in the enumeration of great measures would be the embarrassment of him who has his eulogy to make. He came into office the first of generals; he goes out the first of statesmen. His civil competitors have shared the fate of his military opponents; and Washington City has been to the American politicians who have assailed him what New Orleans was to the British generals who attacked his lines. Repulsed! driven back! discomfited! crushed! has been the fate of all assailants, foreign and domestic, civil and military. At home and abroad the impress of his genius and of his character is felt. He has impressed upon the age in which he lives the stamp of his arms, of his diplomacy, and of his domestic policy.

In a word, so transcendent have been the merits of his administration that they have operated a miracle upon the minds of his most inveterate opponents. He has expunged their objections to military chieftains! He has shown them that they were mistaken; that military men were not the dangerous rulers they had imagined, but safe and prosperous conductors of the vessel of state. He has changed their fear into love. With visible signs they admit their error, and, instead of deprecating, they now invoke the reign of chieftains. They labored hard to procure a military successor to the present incumbent; and if their love goes on increasing at the same rate the Republic may be put to the expense of periodical wars to breed a perpetual succession of these chieftains to rule over them and their posterity for ever.

To drop this irony which the inconsistency of mad opponents has provoked, and to return to the plain delineations of historical painting, the mind instinctively dwells on the vast and unprecedented popularity of this president. Great is the influence, great the power, greater than any man ever before possessed in our America, which he has acquired over the public mind.

And how has he acquired it? Not by the arts of intrigue, or the juggling tricks of diplomacy: not by undermining rivals or sacrificing public interests for the gratification of classes or individuals. But he has acquired it, first, by he exercise of an intuitive sagacity which, leaving all book learning at an immeasurable distance behind, has always enabled him to adopt the right remedy at the right time and to conquer soonest when the men of forms and office thought him most near to ruin and despair; next, by a moral courage which knew no fear when the public good beckoned him to go on.

Last, and chiefest, he has acquired it by an open honesty of purpose which knew no concealments; by a straightforwardness of action which disdained the forms of office and the arts of intrigue; by a disinterestedness of motive which knew no selfish or sordid calculation; a devotedness of patriotism which staked everything personal on the issue of every measure which the public welfare required him to adopt. By these qualities and these means he has acquired his prodigious popularity and his transcendent influence over the public mind; and if there are any who envy that influence and popularity let them envy also, and emulate if they can, the qualities and means by which they were acquired.

And now, sir, I finish the task which three years ago I imposed upon myself. Solitary and alone, and amid the jeers and taunts of my opponents I put this ball in motion. The people have taken it up and rolled it forward, and I am no longer anything but a unit in the vast mass which now propels it. In the name of that mass I speak. I demand the execution of the edict of the people; I demand the expurgation of that sentence which the voice of a few senators and the power of their confederate, the Bank of the United States, has caused to be placed on the journal of the Senate, and which the voice of millions of freemen has ordered to be expunged from it.