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A SPEECH DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF THE
UNITED STATES, IN COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON THE STATE OF THE UNION, FEBRUARY 21, 1850.
I do not rise, Mr. Chairman, to enter elaborately into the general discussion to which the annual message of the President of the United States has given occasion. But finding myself under an unexpected necessity of leaving my seat for a week or two, I have been unwilling to go, without making a few remarks, which I feel to be due to my own position and character.
I have abstained, thus far, from any expression of opinion or declaration of purpose, in regard to the unfortunate sectional controversies by which our country is now agitated. I have done so designedly, and for many reasons, satisfactory to myself, if to nobody else.
In the first place, Sir, I desired to wait until the excitement growing out of that protracted struggle for the Speakership, — to which, by the unmerited favor of my friends, I was so prominent a party, — had passed away from the minds of all who were engaged in it; and until I could express myself fully and fearlessly upon these controverted topics, without the suspicion of being influenced by any thing of private resentment or personal disappointment.*
In the second place, Sir, I desired to wait until something of that fervent and flaming heat, which had been so evidently brought here from what may well be termed " the warm and sunny South,” had abated ; until the angry passions, which seemed pent up within so many bosoms at the outset of the session, had found vent through the safe and wholesome channel of debate; and until there could be a chance that a calm and dispassionate voice from “ the cold and calculating North” might be listened to with some degree of patient attention.
* The memorable contest for the Speakership of the thirty-first Congress began December 3d, and ended, after sixty-three ballotings, December 22d, 1849. The final vote stood thus: for Howell Cobb 102, for R. C. Winthrop 100, scattering 20. A Resolution had been previously adopted that, on this trial, a majority of the whole number should not be necessary for a choice, and Mr. Cobb was accordingly declared Speaker.
In the third place, Sir, I desired to wait until matters should be rather more clearly and fully developed; until all the circumstances of the case should be before us; until we should have been able to take an observation of the precise position of the precious vessel in which we are all embarked; until we could ascertain, if possible, what is the real length, and breadth, and height, and depth, of that fearful chasm, that yawning abyss, upon the dizzy brink of which, we are told, the Ship of State is even now poising herself; until we could learn, too, what course might be proposed by older, and abler, and more experienced hands, for extricating her from peril; and until, especially, we might hear distinctly, above the roar of the elements and the rattling of the shrouds, the voice of the responsible man at the helm, — the man who has been placed at the helm by a majority of the crew, with my own cordial concurrence, and who, by the blessing of God, I hope, and trust, and believe, is destined to be hailed by us all hereafter as “the Pilot who has weathered the storm!"
These, Mr. Chairman, are some of the views with which I have thus far abstained, and would gladly have still longer abstained, from any participation in that strife of tongues which has so long been raging around us, - a strife, let me say, which has seemed to me likely to have no more important or practical issue, than that which was chronicled by one of the sacred historians in regard to a quarrel among the Hebrew tribes, when he summed up the whole matter by saying, — "and the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel."
But, Sir, I have not been permitted to pursue this expectant system, as an honorable member of the medical faculty near me, (Mr. Venable,) would probably call it, - I have not, I say, been permitted to pursue this course of silent observation without interruption. It appears to have been the studious policy of a few members of this House to drag me into the debate, whether I would or no. Not satisfied with having accomplished my defeat as a candidate for reëlection to the Speaker's chair, - a defeat, Sir, which, in all its personal incidents and consequences I have ever regarded as the most fortunate of triumphs, and over which no one of my enemies has rejoiced more heartily than myself, — not satisfied with the accomplishment of this result, they have made it their special business to provoke and taunt me by unworthy reflections upon my political and official conduct; and more than one of them has not scrupled to assail me with the coarsest and most unwarrantable personalities.
It is my purpose, Sir, at this moment, to notice some of these unmannerly assaults; and no one will be surprised, I think, if I should be found doing so in no very mincing or measured terms.
Indeed, Mr. Chairman, both the House and the country will bear witness, that I have been placed in a somewhat extraordinary position during the present session of Congress. Hardly had I reached the Capital, before I found myself held up, at the length of three or four columns, in the Democratic organ of this city, as a desperate Abolitionist. The Abolition papers, in reply, exhibited me at equal length, as, indeed, they had often done before, as a rank pro-slavery man. The honorable member from Tennessee, (Mr. Andrew Johnson,) coming next to the onslaught, and doing me the favor to rehearse before my face a speech which he had delivered behind my back at the last session, arraigned me in the most ferocious terms as having prostituted the prerogatives of the Chair to sectional purposes. and as having framed all my committees in a manner and with a view to do injustice to the South. The honorable member from Ohio, (Mr. Giddings,) following him, after a due delay, denounced me with equal violence, as having packed the most important of those committees for the purpose of betraying the North. The one proclaimed me to be the very author and originator of the Wilmot Proviso. The other reproached me as being a downright, or, at best, a disguised, enemy to that
proviso. The one exclaimed, as the very climax of his condemnation, " I would sooner vote for Joshua R. Giddings himself than for Robert C. Winthrop.” The other responded with an equally indignant emphasis, “and I would sooner vote for Howell Cobb than for Robert C. Winthrop, - he cannot do worse, he may do better.” Nay, I presume it is safe to say, that the honorable member is now of opinion that he has done better, since not only has the honorable member secured for himself a place on the Territorial Committee, but the report of the antislavery convention, at their late meeting in Boston, has remarked upon it as “a curious and instructive fact, that, in the composition of committees, Mr. Cobb has given more weight to the antislavery element of the House than was done by his Northern predecessor.” How far this is true, I leave others to pronounce.
But the honorable members from Tennessee and Ohio, (par nobile fratrum .) have not been the only contributors to this most amiable, consistent, and harmonious testimony in regard to my public conduct and character. An honorable colleague from Massachusetts (Mr. Allen) has cast in his mite, also, both by prompting others at his elbow, and by the manlier method of direct accusation. He, too, has charged me with having arranged certain committees, with the deliberate purpose of preventing the action which northern men demanded. And more recently, again, an honorable member from Virginia, (Mr. Morton,) in a speech which, I take pleasure in saying, was characterized by entire courtesy, if not by entire justice, has told the House and his constituents that he voted against me as Speaker, because " he believed me to be in favor of the Wilmot Proviso; because he believed me to be in favor of the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia ; and because my name was found in a minority of forty-five against the admission of Florida as a slave State."
Sir, if my name were a little less humble than I feel it this day to be, - if I were not conscious how small a claim it has to be classed among the great names even of our own age and country, much more of the world, I should be tempted to console myself under these conflicting accusations with those noble lines of Milton, which, as it is, I cannot but remember:
But indeed, Mr. Chairman, I need no consolation. These contradictory charges are the natural consequence of the very position which I have sought to occupy, — of the very position which I glory this day in occupying, - and from which no provocations and no reproaches can ever drive me.
Sir, when I was first a candidate for Congress, now some ten winters gone, I told the Abolitionists of my district, in reply to their interrogatories, that, while I agreed with them in most of their abstract principles, and was ready to carry them out, in any just, practicable, and constitutional manner; yet, if I were elected to this House, I should not regard it as any peculiar part of my duty to agitate the subject of slavery. I have adhered to that declaration. I have been no agitator. I have sympathized with no fanatics. I have defended the rights and interests and principles of the North, to the best of my ability, wherever and whenever I have found them assailed; but I have enlisted in no crusade upon the institutions of the South. I have eschewed and abhorred ultraism at both ends of the Union. “ A plague o' both your houses," has been my constant ejaculation; and it is altogether natural, therefore, that both their houses should cry a plague on me! I would not have it otherwise. I covet their opposition. I dote on their dislike. I desire no other testimony to the general propriety of my own course than their reproaches. I thank my God that he has endowed me, if with no other gifts, with a spirit of moderation, which incapacitates me for giving satisfaction to ultraists any. where and on any subject. If they were to speak well of me, I should be compelled to exclaim, like one of old, “What bad thing have I done, that such men praise me?"
The only thing which I have to regret, Mr. Chairman, is, that these various charges could not have been made against me in one and the same debate, and on one and the same day. They would then have effectually answered each other. They would then have fairly shamed each other out of court, and I should