According to information on the verso of this volume, American Orations is a series of books in four volumes printing important speeches in American history. The first volume includes speeches on colonialism, constitutional government, the rise of democracy, and the rise of nationalism. The second volume (under review here) includes speeches on the question of slavery. Slavery is also the subject of the speeches in the third volume. The fourth volume important subjects of the post-war era. The speeches found in the present volume are by Rufus King, William Pinkney, Wendell Phillips, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and Charles Sumner. Together they provide an interesting look into the salient issues leading up to the Civil War and the manner of oratory of the time.
New York Senator Rufus King addressed the Senate in February, 1820 during the debate over the Missouri Compromise. His speech is an impressive brief, outlining the precedents and principles giving Congress the power to regulate and ban slavery in newly admitted states, without extending that power to currently recognized states. His argument rests on the constitutional principle that Congress has '"the power to make all needful regulations" governing any territory of the United States. Furthermore, Congress retains the power to admit new states, without limitation on the terms of admission. Consequently, Congress may prohibit slavery in U.S. territories and admit states on the condition that slavery remains prohibited. At the same time, Congress my choose not to exercise these powers. He also explains that the current states, having established slavery prior to the adoption of the constitution, are free to maintain slavery within their borders as their ratification of the constitution was dependent upon the continuation of slavery within their states. King's speech recounts several instances in which states were admitted to the Union consistent with these principles, importantly, the Northwest Territory that would be composed of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and eastern Minnesota. Among the speeches contained in this volume, King's stands out as well-argued.
In the same week as King's speech, Maryland Senator William Pinkney rose in rebuttal. Pinkney argued that to admit new states on terms different from the original thirteen was to deny the equality of states and create a different form of union. While Pinkney no doubt reasons from a plausible premise of equality among states, the protagonists of freedom can just as plausibly argue that there is no reasons that the terms of formation and expansion of the union might not be different. Taken together, King and Pinkney provide clear examples of the two sides of the debate during the discussion of the Missouri Compromise.
The third speech in the volume is by Wendell Phillips which he gave in Boston in 1837 following the murder of Elijah Lovejoy. Lovejoy printed an abolitionist newspaper in St. Louis until the proponents of slavery destroyed his printing press for a third time. He then set up his newspaper across the Mississippi River in Alton, Illinois, but the mob followed him and murdered him while he attempted to defend his press. I'll confess that coming from St. Louis, I have always held Lovejoy in the highest esteem. There are few white abolitionists prior to the war who remained so determined and risked so much as Lovejoy. Consequently, I was rather disappointed in Phillips's speech. While it did eulogize Lovejoy, its primary point was to defend the freedom of the press -- a good cause, no doubt, but I had hoped for a more forceful call to follow Lovejoy's example and raise the profile of resistance to slavery.
John Quincy Adams's speech, given on the floor of the House in 1837. The occasion of the speech was a bill to authorize money to suppress an Indian revolt in Georgia. Adams pointed out that many of his constituents might not be in favor of such an expenditure and that it was beyond the authority of the federal government to tax them for this purpose. In response, Adams argued that the federal government had authorities in peace and authorities in war. While the authorities in peace are limited, authorities in war know no limits. In modern terminology, Adams was appealing to a "national defense" argument. To make this case, he observed several instances when the federal government intervened on the issue of slavery. This was his real purpose. Early, he had been prohibited from making comments about slavery when a resolution was moved that the federal government had no authority to intervene in the slavery question, due to the "gag rule" previously passed into law. No, in the context of appropriating money to suppress an Indian revolt, he was able to lay out his case for why the federal government had the authority to intervene in the slavery question. The speech provides an interesting glimpse into the subtleties of the parliamentary contest that Congress was engaged in during the 1830s along with the constitutional questions that slavery posed.
John C. Calhoun's speech recorded in this volume was the last and perhaps the most significant that he ever gave. It occurred in 1850 during the debate of the great compromise fashioned by Henry Clay. The bill -- an omnibus bill -- called for admitting California as a free state, forming a territorial government in Utah without mention of slavery, amending the Fugitive Slave Act, the abolishing the slave trade in Washington D.C., and establishing the border between Texas and New Mexico. The bill failed in its omnibus form, but each element was subsequently passed by Congress. Calhoun's speech was noteworthy for its rigorous reasoning in opposition to the compromise. His main objections were leveled against allowing California to be admitted as a free state and not unambiguously asserting a right that slaveholders might bring slavery to the territories and establish slavery under the territorial laws. This became known as "squatter sovereignty." He argued that by denying the authority of Californians to choose their own laws related to slavery and failing to stand up for the "rights" of the slave holding states, the honor and equal standing of those states were diminished. With the advantage of an modern viewpoint, it seems clear that Calhoun must have understood that slavery could not be saved by normal political means and that he understood that the slave states would eventually need to secede in order to preserve their human property. Indeed, his speech directly threatens secession if the federal government does not accommodate slavery throughout the nation. Of all the speeches in this volume, Calhoun's is perhaps the most significant and the most reprehensible.
During that same debate, Daniel Webster made a speech that forever separated him from the opponents of slavery. He had previously been seen as at least a lukewarm ally, but his forceful defense of the Fugitive Slave Act outraged his former fellow travelers. The amended Fugitive Slave Act would strengthen the powers of slave hunters and require state and local officials to assist in the captures. The Fugitive Slave Act was justified by a clause in the Constitution which directs that persons "held to service or labour in one state...escaping into another...shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due." Webster found this was sufficient to bind state and local authorities to assist in the capture and return of fugitive slaves. He furthermore referenced the Supreme Court's support for this view. At the time, opponents of the Fugitive Slave Act argued that the clause did not specify "slaves," but on persons "held to service or labour." This reading required the authorities to return indentured servants or other persons who were under contract to perform service or labor. Had it been meant to include slaves, the clause would have said as much. Webster's decision to read the critical clause to include slaves was taken as a betrayal by his anti-slavery supporters. Webster might be praised for standing by what he believed was an honest interpretation of the Constitution, but a reasonable case can be made that no law permitting the enslavement of a person can be valid under a constitution putatively dedicate to freedom. Furthermore, the concept of natural (or human) rights was already well-established, making a free state's assessment of the invalidity of slave labor arguably justified. Webster chose not to avail himself of these arguments and must go down in history as a proponent of a reprehensible positive law at the expense of human rights.
The next speech in the volume is by Henry Clay, the author of the Compromise of 1850. Here we get his direct appeal to the Senate to pass his bill. It is a classic appeal to everyone to give a little in order to get a little. He understands that no one, perhaps including himself, will be happy with every element of the bill, but that peace and tranquility in the nation requires that the Congress come to an agreement on the vexing issues of the day and that given the profound disagreement within the country on so many of these issues, there can be no agreement that satisfies everyone. Perhaps the most surprising passages in the speech -- at least for me -- were those in which Clay condemned slavery in no uncertain terms. I had always understood that he his attitude toward slavery was ambiguous. He both attempted to have it outlawed in his home state and owned 60 slaves at one point. It appears he thought it an unfortunate evil that should not be extended beyond its current scope, but that it was also a fact of economic life for the well-to-do Southerner. Perhaps much as a democratic socialist might regard his or her stock portfolio today. It is an interesting lesson in parliamentary strategy to recognize that his compromise was defeated in its omnibus form, but that each element passed Congress. Often omnibus bills are crafted to ensure an unpopular element passes, but in this case the aggregated opposition minorities combined to defeat the omnibus bill. Alone, each minority failed to defeat what they opposed.
The volume includes a second speech by Wendell Phillips. This is perhaps appropriate as he was widely regarded as the most effective abolitionist speaker. It is a masterful summary of the abolitionist movement starting in 1830 with William Garrison's groundbreaking newspaper The Liberator. He provides an account of the contributions of most of the important abolitionists and places their work in the context of the social and political opposition that they faced. He emphasizes that abolitionists have always been a despised minority, but points out how successful they have been in moving public opinion. He shows how many Whigs, Northern Democrats, and members of the Free Soil Party eventually made use of the arguments of the more radical Garrisonians and other abolitionists when it became politically expedient to do so. For Phillips, staking out a principled, though unpopular opinion was a necessity and he relied on its fundamental decency to eventually win popular support. It's hard to say his strategy was mistaken.
His speech was given in 1853, just three months after the death of Daniel Webster and his unwillingness to speak well of the dead with whom he disagreed is a testament to his principled stand for truth. At one point, he denounces Webster's "treachery," underscoring the abolitionists' dissatisfaction with Webster's support for the Compromise of 1850, particularly his defense of the Fugitive Slave Act.
One could get tied in knots attempting to understand the legal and constitutional status of slavery, the slave trade, the power of the federal government to regulate it, control it within the territories, etc. The intractability of these legal and constitutional questions is rooted in the contradictory attitudes of the framers of the constitution and the presidents and legislators who labored under the Constitution; but the question of the fate of slavery was for many people prior to the war so monumental that it transcended the constraints of law and the Constitution and posed a profound moral question. Wendell Phillips's speeches make it perfectly clear that he understood this and his voice, as much as anyone's, moved our country beyond the terrible condition that it had inherited from colonial times.
The final speech in the volume is by Charles Sumner, given in 1853 on the occasion of a debate over the repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act. Sumner was widely recognized as the Senate's most articulate proponent of the abolition of slavery. He is perhaps best known as the victim of a "caning" by Rep. Preston Brooks on the Senate floor. Two days following a speech given by Sumner, Brooks beat Sumner unconscious with a gold tipped cane. His reason for doing so was that Sumner's speech had insulted another Senator Andrew Butler, who was related to Brooks. It is noteworthy that in the run up to the Civil War, it was not uncommon for Congress members to come to debates armed and on at least one occasion, several pistols were drawn on the floor of the House.
In Sumner's speech recorded here, he presented a detailed argument that slavery was not properly considered "national," but instead an institution of the states. Consequently, the federal government had no obligation to require officers of free states to participate in the return of fugitive slaves. His argument was based primarily on references to the sentiments of the nation's founders. He then turned to a critique of the argument that the Fugitive Slave Act was required by the Constitution. here is argument was quite strong. Sumner provided a detailed summary of the controversy at issue during the drafting of the Constitution in order to establish the original intent of the Constitution. He makes a strong case that the clause requiring that "persons held to service or labour...escaping to another state" shall be delivered up to whom their service or labour is due was not intended to include slaves. Sumner mentions that an earlier draft of the clause which specifically mentions fugitive "slaves" was rejected and that in a passage in the Constitution the term "service" was adopted in place of "servitude" in order to specify the work of free labor. It is interesting to read Sumner's speech along with Daniel Webster's speech also in this volume. Here, two Massachusetts senators come to completely different interpretations of the Constitution. Perhaps it is my own desire that the Constitution not endorse slavery, but Sumner's arguments seem obviously stronger.
In all, the speeches recorded in this volume are indeed noteworthy, though not always Earth-shattering. Their seeming moderate nature may be due to the distance we have from the super-charged political environment of the antebellum decades. Nonetheless, one does get a sense that the speakers on both sides understood the gravity of what was at stake. Whether they all truly understood that they were drifting toward what William Seward would call an "irrepressible conflict" isn't so clear.