Jefferson Davis' Remarks on Henry Clay's Resolutions

Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, January 29, 1850

Mr. DAVIS, of Mississippi. I do not rise to continue the discussion, but, as it has been made an historical question as to what the position of the Senate was twelve years ago, and as with great regret I see this, the conservative branch of the Government, tending towards that fanaticism which seems to prevail with the majority in the United States, I wish to read from the journals of that date the resolutions then adopted, and to show that they went further than the honorable Senator from Kentucky has stated. I take it for granted, from the date to which the honorable Senator has alluded, he means the resolutions introduced by the honorable Senator from South Carolina, [Mr. CALHOUN,] not now in his seat, and to which the Senator from Kentucky proposed certain amendments. Of the resolutions introduced by the Senator from South Carolina, I will read the fifth in the series, that to which the honorable Senator from Kentucky must have alluded. It is in these words:

"Resolved, That the intermeddling of any State, or States, or their citizens, to abolish slavery in the District, or any of the Territories, on the ground or under the pretext that it is immoral or sinful, or the passage of any act or measure of Congress with that view, would be a direct and dangerous attack on the institutions of all the slave-holding States."

Such is the general form of the proposition. It was variously modified, but never, in my opinion, improved. On the 27th, the fifth resolution being again under consideration, Mr. Clay, of Kentucky, moved to amend the amendment by striking out all after the word "resolved," and insert:

"That the interference, by the citizens of any of the States, with a view to the abolition of slavery in this District, is endangering the rights and security of the people of the District; and that any act or measure of Congress designed to abolish slavery in this District would be a violation of the faith implied in the cessions by the States of Virginia and Maryland; a just cause of alarm to the people of the slaveholding States, and have a direct and inevitable tendency to disturb and endanger the Union.

"And, resolved, That it would be highly inexpedient to abolish slavery within any district of country set apart for the Indian tribes, where it now exists, or in Florida, the only Territory of the United States in which it now exists, because of the serious alarm and just apprehensions which would be thereby excited in the States sustaining that domestic institution; because the people of that Territory have not asked it to be done, and, when admitted into the Union, will be exclusively entitled to decide that question for themselves; because it would be in violation of the stipulations of the treaty between the United States and Spain, of the 22d of February, 1819; and also because it would be in violation of a solemn compromise, made at a memorable and critical period in the history of this country, by which, whilst slavery was prohibited north, it was admitted south, of the line of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes north latitude."

But this resolution was not finally adopted. Upon the motion of Mr. BUCHANAN to amend said amendment, by striking out the second clause thereof, commencing with the word "resolved," it was determined in the affirmative, and finally the resolution which here follows was submitted in place of the second clause:

"That the interference, by the citizens of any of the States, with a view to the abolition of slavery in this District, is endangering the rights and security of the people of the district; and that any act or measure of Congress, designed to abolish slavery in this District, would be a violation of the faith implied in the cessions by the States of Virginia and Maryland; a just cause of alarm to the people of the slaveholding States, and have a direct and inevitable tendency to disturb and endanger the Union."

This was the form in which the resolutions was finally adopted, passing by a vote of thirty-six to eight. Here, then, was fully and broadly asserted the danger resulting from the interference in the question of slavery in the District of Columbia, as trenching upon the rights of the slaveholding States. Twelve years only have elapsed, yet this brief period has swept away even the remembrance of principles then deemed sacred and necessary to secure the safety of the Union. Now an honorable and distinguished Senator, to whom the country has been induced to look for something that would heal the existing dissensions, instead of raising new barriers against encroachment, dashes down those heretofore erected and augments the existing danger. A representative from one of the slaveholding States raises his voice for the first time in disregard of this admitted right. Nor, Mr. President, did he stop here. The boundary of a State, with which we have no more right to interfere than with the boundary of the State of Kentucky, is encroached upon. The United States, sir, as the agent for Texas, had a right to settle the question of boundary between Texas and Mexico. Texas was not annexed as territory, but was admitted as a State, and at the period of her admission her boundaries were established by her Congress. She, by the terms of annexation, gave to the United States the right to define her boundary by treaty with Mexico; but the United States, in the treaty made with Mexico subsequent to the war with that country, received from Mexico not merely a cession of the territory that was claimed by Texas, but much which lay beyond the asserted limits. Shall we, then, act simply as the agent of Texas in the settlement of this question of boundary, take from the principal for whom we act that territory which belongs to her, to which we asserted her title against Mexico, and appropriate it to ourselves? Why, sir, it would be a violation of justice and of a principle of law which is so plain that it does not require one to have been bred to the profession of law to understand it. The principle I refer to is, that an agent cannot take for his own benefit anything resulting from the matter in controversy, after having acquired it as belonging to the principal for whom he acts. The agent cannot appropriate to himself rights acquired for his client. The right of Texas, therefore, to that boundary was made complete by the treaty of peace, which silenced the only rival claim to the territory. It was distinctly defined by the acts of her Congress, before the time of annexation; and I have only to refer to those acts to show that the boundary of Texas was the Rio Bravo del Norte, from its mouth to its source. What justice, or even decent regard for fairness, can there be, now that Texas has acceded to annexation upon certain terms, to propose a change of boundary in violation of these terms, and by the power we hold over her as a part of the Union? Can this power extend so far as to take from her a portion of her territory, or to assert there is a portion to which she is not entitled?

These constitute with me two great objections to the propositions of the honorable Senataor [sic] from Kentucky; but, without stating all the objections that I have, and they are very many, I will merely point out a few of the prominent points to which I object in the argument of the Senator. He assumes as facts things which are mere matters of opinion, and I think of erroneous and injurious opinion. But, deferring the discussion to another occasion, I desire at present merely to notice the assertion of the honorable Senator that slavery would never, under any circumstances, be established in California. This, though stated as a fact, is but a mere opinion-- an opinion with which I do not accord. It was to work the gold mines on this continent that the Spaniards first brought Africans to the country. The European races now engaged in working the mines of California sink under the burning heat and sudden changes of the climate, to which the African race are altogether better adapted. The production of rice, sugar, and cotton is no better adapted to slave labor than the digging, washing, and quarrying of the gold mines.

We, sir, have not asked that slavery should be established in California. We have only asked that there should not be any restriction; that climate and soil should be left free to establish the institution or not, as experience should determine. Sir, after the agitation of the subject within these halls and elsewhere has prevented the introduction of slavery--by preventing the emigration of slaveholders with their property--are we now to be told that the question is settled? More than that: When we have acquired territory over which the Constitution of the United States is thereby extended, and which the citizens of the United States have a right to occupy, and to establish therein what laws they please, in accordance with the principles of the Constitution--in which they have a right to establish what institutions they please--it is now claimed that the municipal regulations which previously existed shall still govern the people, and that a portion of the citizens of the United States shall thus be precluded from going there with their property. This rule has, however, in discussion here, only been applied to the property of slaveholders; as though slaves were the only property under the laws of Mexico prohibited from entering California. It is to be remembered that the late Secretary of the Treasury, in a report to Congress, stated that the Mexican law prohibited the entrance of some sixty articles of commerce; this was prohibition by law of Congress, and slavery has never been so prohibited. It never has been prohibited by the Mexican Congress in California; and the only prohibition ever issued was that contained in the edict of a usurper, under the specious pretext that it was necessary, in order to oppose the invasion of the country by Spain. This decree was recognized by a subsequent Congress, so far as to pass a law authorizing payment for slaves so liberated. It was the emancipation of all the slaves in Mexico; an act if you please of abolition, not one of prohibition; not, whatever construction may be placed upon it, done in accordance with the forms of law, and requirements of their consititution. But we have not proposed to inquire into the legality of the abolition, neither has any southern man asked that the decree should be repealed, or that those liberated under its provisions should be returned to slavery. We only claim that there shall be an equality of immunities and privileges among citizens of all parts of the United States; that Mexican law shall not be applied so as to create inequality between citizens, by preventing the immigration of any.

But, sir, we are called on to receive this as a measure of compromise! Is a measure in which we of the minority are to receive nothing, a measure of compromise? I look upon it as but a modest mode of taking that, the claim to which has been more boldly asserted by others; and that I may be understood upon this question, and that my position may go forth to the country in the same columns that convey the sentiments of the Senator from Kentucky, I here assert that never will I take less than the Missouri compromise line extended to the Pacific ocean, with the specific recogniztion of the right to hold slaves in the territory below that line; and that, before such territories are admitted into the Union as States, slaves may be taken there from any of the United States at the option of their owners. I can never consent to give additional power to a majority to commit further aggressions upon the minority in this Union; and will never consent to any proposition which will have such a tendency, without a full guaranty or counteracting measure is connected with it. I forbear commenting at any further length upon the propositions embraced in the resolutions at this time.

Mr. CLAY. I am extremely sorry that this premature, and--allow me to say--in my opinion unnecessary discussion has taken place. Whenever the Senator who has just resume his seat chooses to meet me in argument at a proper time, I pledge myself to show him that there is not the slightest discrepancy in my course in 1838 and now.

Mr. DAVIS, of Mississippi. Now is the time.

Mr. CLAY. I choose not to give way now.

Mr. DAVIS, of Mississippi. The Senator asked me to name my time; and I say now.

[Declining to answer Davis at this time, Clay reviews the argument he voiced in 1838, that in the cession of land for the District of Columbia, Virginia and Maryland did not forsee the abolition of slavery, and that abolition in the District would be "a just cause of alarm" to all slaveholders. He regrets Davis' wish for a "positive provision" to admit slavery south of the Missouri Compromise line, concluding that the Mississippian must realize any such declaration would be "impossible."]

Mr. DAVIS. The Senator from Mississippi knows that.

[Clay declares it would be "much better for the South" if the slavery question remained open on both sides of 36o 30'.]

Mr. DAVIS, of Mississippi. The Senator from Kentucky rose with an announcement that he wanted to know my time for meeting him in argument, and I have told him that my time is now. Several times he has regretted this premature discussion; but pray, sir, who introduced it? The Senator submitted his resolutions, discussed them seriatim and then concluded with a set speech. Are we to understand that all this was done without intending to influence opinion? Was it a mere volley of blank cartridges that he was firing, in order that he might come up under cover of the smoke, and make a charge upon us before we saw him? Why, sir, at the door of any other man might lie the charge of entering prematurely upon this discussion more properly than at mine. He it was who began the discussion, and I was the last to engage in it. But he announces as his conviction, as his determined purpose, to resist the introduction of slavery into any part of California. Sir, his opinions may have been very deliberately formed. He may have been all the time making up those determinations, that he has been preparing these resolutions; for certainly no language of mine can have produced the determination of the Senator. I have not proposed to compel slaveholders to take their slaves to California, nor to revive the African slave trade. Neither was the construction warranted by my having used the word upon which he hangs his argument. I did not use the word "introduction," nor suggest the idea of compulsion. The Senator has set up his own cob-house, to show how skillfully he could knock it down. It is no fabric of mine. We maintain that it is the right of the people of the South to carry this species of property to any portion of the Territories of the United States; that it rests under the Constitution, upon the same basis as other property; but, when speaking of a compromise, it was the ultimatum I announced. It is strange that the Senator from Kentucky should be so much surprised; it certainly was not a new question with him, nor with his colleague, with whom, on a former occasion, a similar proposition originated. It is a partial recognition of a right we claim to be co- extensive with the Territories of the United States; but which we are willing, in a spirit of compromise, and in compliance with the past acquiescence of the States, to restrict by the parallel of 36o 30' north.

Now, this is conceding a great deal. If the line were established upon any great principle arising from climate or productions, it would be different; then the line would not extend upon the same parallel of latitude. If it were a line of temperature, then, as the isothermal line bends upward, it would go north of that parallel of latitude. It is out of respect to the past, and from anxious desire peaceably to adjust a most vexatious and dangerous question, that we agree to adopt this abitrary line. And this compromise, upon which most of his fame rests, originated, under like circumstances, with the Senator who now with such settled purpose declares his opposition to a fair application of its principle to the present case. Then all the territory involved, that of Misouri, was slave territory; the compromise act prohibited slavery in a part of the territory. Now, according to the position of the Senator, slavery is excluded from the whole territory of California and New Mexico. What, then, would the application of the spirit of the Missouri compromise require? Clearly that in running the line the question should be put at rest by declaring that below said line slavery should be permitted. It is common property of the States, and if it be proposed to make a division of it, fairness and future peace require that the rights and conditions of each part should be prescribed. Less than this would but narrow the ground and preserve the controversy. And unless that compromise was founded in fraud, we expect its application in this case, where all is disputed, express provisions on both sides of the line. We cannot agree to leave the question open, especially after what has been said to-day. It is the effect and not the form which I consider it my duty to examine. What matters it whether it be under cover of the acts of the Mexican Government, or by the operation of Congressional law, that slavery is excluded? The effect is the same, under the rule the Senator from Kentucky adopts, as would result from an act of prohibition by the Congress of the United States. I can only say that whenever the Senator chooses to make his argument, I shall be ready to meet it.

[William R. King, urging that the "angry discussion" end, voices his agreement with much of Clay's position. He states that the South is contending for a constitutional principle and believes that Davis could not have intended to say that slavery should be established in the territories, only that it not be prohibited-- "Do I understand the honorable Senator correctly?"]

Mr. DAVIS. That the right shall be recognised.

From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 4, pp. 62-70. Transcribed from the Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, pp. 100-101.

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