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26 June, 2013
On the Expunging Resolutions
by Henry Clay
U.S. Senate, 16 January 1837
What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this Expunging
resolution? What new honor or fresh laurels will it win for our
common country? Is the power of the Senate so vast that it ought to
be circumscribed, and that of the President so restricted that it ought
to be extended? What power has the Senate? None, separately. It can
only act jointly with the other House, or jointly with the Executive.
And although the theory of the Constitution supposes, when consulted
by him, it may freely give an affirmative or negative response,
according to the practice, as it now exists, it has lost the faculty of
pronouncing the negative monosylllable. When the Senate expresses
its deliberate judgment, in the form of resolution, that resolution has
no compulsory force, but appeals only to the dispassionate
intelligence, the calm reason, and the sober judgment, of the
community. The Senate has no army, no navy, no patronage, no
lucrative offices, no glittering honors, to bestow. Around us there is
no swarm of greedy expectants, rendering us homage, anticipating our
wishes, and ready to execute our commands.
How is it with the President? Is he powerless? He is felt from one
extremity to the other of this vast Republic. By means of principles
which he has introduced, and innovations which he has made in our
institutions, alas! but too much countenanced by Congress and a
confiding people, he exercises, uncontrolled, the power of the State.
In one hand he holds the purse, and in the other brandishes the sword
of the country. Myriads of dependants and partisans, scattered over
the land, are ever ready to sing hosannas to him, and to laud to the
skies whatever he does. He has swept over the government, during the
last eight years, like a tropical tornado. Every department exhibits
traces of the ravages of the storm. Take as one example the Bank of
the United States. No institution could have been more popular with
the people, with Congress, and with State Legislatures. None ever
better fulfilled the great purposes of its establishment. But it
unfortunately incurred the displeasure of the President; he spoke, and
the bank lies prostrate. And those who were loudest in its praise are
now loudest in its condemnation. What object of his ambition is
unsatisfied? When disabled from age any longer to hold the sceptre
of power, he designates his successor, and transmits it to his favorite!
What more does he want? Must we blot, deface, and mutilate the
records of the country, to punish the presumptuousness of expressing
an opinion contrary to his own?
What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this Expunging
resolution? Can you make that not to be which has been? Can you
eradicate from memory and from history the fact that in March, 1834,
a majority of the Senate of the United States passed the resolution
which excites your enmity? Is it your vain and wicked object to
arrogate to yourselves that power of annihilating the past which has
been denied to Omnipotence itself? Do you intend to thrust your
hands into our hearts, and to pluck out the deeply rooted convictions
which are there? Or is it your design merely to stigmatize us? You
cannot stigmatize us.
"Ne'er yet did base dishonor blur our name."
Standing securely upon our conscious rectitude, and bearing
aloft the shield of the Constitution of our country, your puny efforts are
impotent; and we defy all your power. Put the majority of 1834 in one
scale, and that by which this Expunging resolution is to be carried in
the other, and let truth and justice, in heaven above and on earth
below, and liberty and patriotism, decide the preponderance.
What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by the
Expunging resolution? Is it to appease the wrath and to heal the
wounded pride of the Chief Magistrate? If he be really the hero that
his friends represent him, he must despise all mean condescension, all
grovelling sycophancy, all self-degradation and self-abasement. He
would reject, with scorn and contempt, as unworthy of his fame, your
black scratches and your baby lines in the fair records of his country.
Black lines! Black lines! Sir, I hope the Secretary of the Senate will
preserve the pen with which he may inscribe them, and present it to
that Senator of the majority whom he may select, as a proud trophy, to
be transmitted to his descendants. And hereafter, when we shall lose
the forms of our free institutions, all that now remain to us, some
future American monarch, in gratitude to those by whose means he
has been enabled, upon the ruins of civil liberty, to erect a throne, and
to commemorate especially this Expunging resolution, may institute
a new order of knighthood, and confer on it the appropriate name of
"the Knights of the Black Lines."
But why should I detain the Senate, or needlessly waste my
breath in fruitless exertions? The decree has gone forth. It is one of
urgency, too. The deed is to be done--that foul deed which, like the
blood, staining the hands of the guilty Macbeth, all ocean's waters
will never wash out. Proceed, then, to the noble work which lies
before you, and, like other skilful executioners, do it quickly. And
when you have perpetrated it, go home to the people, and tell them
what glorious honors you have achieved for our common country. Tell
them that you have extinguished one of the brightest and purest lights
that ever burned at the altar of civil liberty. Tell them that you have
silenced one of the noblest batteries that ever thundered in defence of
the Constitution, and bravely spiked the cannon. Tell them that,
henceforward, no matter what daring or outrageous act any president
may perform, you have forever hermetically sealed the mouth of the
Senate. Tell them that he may fearlessly assume what powers he
pleases, snatch from its lawful custody the public purse, command a
military detachment to enter the halls of the Capitol, overawe
Congress, trample down the Constitution, and raze every bulwark of
freedom; but that the Senate must stand mute, in silent submission,
and not dare to raise its opposing voice. Tell them that it must wait
until a House of Representatives, humbled and subdued like itself, and
a majority of it composed of the partisans of the President, shall prefer
articles of impeachment. Tell them, finally, that you have restored the
glorious doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance. And, if the
people do not pour out their indignation and imprecations, I have yet
to learn the character of American freemen.