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IN SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, JANUARY 10, 1838,
■ Ruolvtd, That the interference, by the citizens of any of the State■, with the 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 slave-holding States, and have a direct and inevitable tendency to disturb and endanger the Union."
Mr. Webster said he could not concur in this resolution. I do not know (said he) any matter of fact, or any ground of argument, on which this affirmation of plighted faith can be sustained. I see nothing by which Congress has tied up its hands, either directly or indirectly, so as to put its clear constitutional power beyond the exercise of its own discretion. I have carefully examined the acts of cession by the States, the act of Congress, the proceedings and history of the times, and I find nothing to lead me to doubt that it was the intention of all parties to leave this, like other subjects belonging to the legislation for the ceded territory, entirely to the discretion and wisdom of Congress. The words of the constitution are clear and plain. None could be clearer or plainer. Congress, by that instrument, has power to exercise exclusivejurisdiction over the ceded territory, in all cases whatsoever. The acts of cession contain no limitation, condition, or qualification whatever, except that, out of abundant caution, there is inserted a pronto that nothing in the acts contained should be construed to vest in the United States any right of property in the soil, so as to affect the rights of individuals therein, otherwise than as such individuals might themselves transfer their right of soil to the United States. The acts of cession declare, that the tract of country "is forever ceded and relinquished to Congress and to the Government of the United States, in full and absolute right and exclusive jurisdiction, as well of soil as of persons residing or to reside therein, pursuant to the tenor and effect of the 8th section of the 1st article of the constitution of the United States."
Now, that section to which reference is thus expressly made in these deeds of cession, declares, that Congress shall have power "to exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever, over such district, not exceeding ten miles square, as may, by cession of particular States and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of Government of the United States."
Nothing, therefore, as it seems to me, can be clearer than that the States making the cession expected Congress to exercise over the District precisely that power, and neither more nor less, which the constitution had conferred upon it. I do not know how the provision, or the intention, either of the constitution in granting the power, or of the States in making the cession, could be expressed in a manner more absolutely free from all doubt or ambiguity.
I see, therefore, nothing in the act of cession, and nothing in the constitution, and nothing in the history of this transaction, and nothing in any other transaction, implying any limitation upon the authority of Congress.
If the assertion contained in this resolution be true, a very strange result, as it seems to me, must follow. The resolution affirms that the faith of Congress is pledged, indefinitely. It makes no limitation of time or circumstance. If this be so, then, it is an obligation that binds us forever, as much as if it were one of the prohibitions of the constitution itself. And at all times hereafter, even when in the course of their history, availing themselves of events, or changing their views of policy, the States themselves should make provisions for the emancipation of their slaves, the existing state of things could not be changed, nevertheless, in this District. It does really seem to me, that if this resolution, in its terms, be true, though slavery in every other part of the world should be abolished, yet in the metropolis of this great republic it is established in perpetuity. This appears to me the result of the doctrine of plighted faith, as stated in the resolution.
[In reply to Mr. Buchanan— ]
Mr. Webster said: The words of the resolution will speak for themselves. They require no comment. They express an unlimited plighted faith. The honorable member will so see, if he will look at those words. The gentleman asks whether those who made the cession could have expected that Congress would ever have exercised such a power. To this I answer, that I see no reason to doubt that the parties to the cession were as willing to leave this as to leave other powers to the discretion of Congress. I see not the slightest evidence of any especial fear, or any especial care or concern, on the part of the ceding States, in regard to this
reticular part of the jurisdiction ceded to Congress. And, I think, can ask, on the other side, a very important question for the consideration of the gentleman himself, and for that of the Senate and the country; and that is, would Congress have accepted the cession with any such restraint upon its constitutional power, either express or understood to be implied? I think not. Looking back to the state of things then existing, and especially to what Congress had done so recently before, when it accepted the cession of the North-western Territory, I entertain no doubt whatever, that Congress would have refused the cession, altogether, if offered with any condition or understanding that its constitutional authority to exercise exclusive legislation over the District in all cases whatsoever should be abridged.
The Senate will observe that I am speaking solely to the point of plighted faith. Upon other parts of the resolution, and upon many other things connected with it, I have said nothing. I only resist the imposition of new obligations, or a new prohibition, not to be found, as I think, either in the constitution or any act of Government. I have said nothing on the expediency of abolition, immediate or gradual, or the reasons which ought to weigh with Congress, should that question be proposed, f can well conceive, 1 think, what would be a natural and fair mode of reasoning on such an occasion.
When it is said, for instance, byway of argument, that Congress, although it have the power, ought not to take a lead in the business of abolition, considering that the interest which the United States have in the whole subject is vastly less than that which the States have in it, I can understand the propriety and pertinency of the observation. It is, as far as it goes, a pertinent and appropriate argument, and I shall always be ready to give it the full weight belonging to it. When it is argued that, in a case so vital to the States, the States themselves should be allowed to maintain their own policy, and that the Government of the United States ought not to do any thing which shall, directly or indirectly, shake or disturb that policy, this is a line of argument which I can understand, whatever weight I may be disposed to give to it; for I have always not only admitted, but insisted, that slavery, within the States, is a subject belonging absolutely and exclusively to the States themselves.
But the present is not an attempt to exhibit any such course of reasoning as this. The attempt is to set up a pledge of the public faith, to do the same office as a constitutional prohibition, in terms, would do; that is, to set up a direct bar, precluding all exercise of the discretion of Congress over the subject. It has been often said, in this debate, and I believe it is true, that a decided majority of the Senate do believe, that Congress has a clear constitutional power over slavery in this District. But while this constitutional right is admitted, it is at the same moment attempted to be effectually counteracted, overthrown, and done away with, by the affirmation of plighted faith, as asserted in the resolution before us.
Now, I have already said I know nothing to support this affirmation. Neither in the acts of cession, nor in the act of Congress accepting the District, nor in any other document, history, publication, or transaction, do I know a single fact or suggestion, supporting this proposition, or tending to support it. Nor has any gentleman, so far as I know, pointed out, or attempted to point out, any such fact, document, transaction, or other evidence. All is left to the general and repeated statement, that such a condition must have been intended by the States. Of all this I see no proof whatever. I see no evidence of any desire on the part of the States thus to limit the power of Congress, or thus to require a pledge against its exercise. And, indeed, if this were made out, the intention of Congress, as well as that of the States, must be inquired into. Nothing short of a clear and manifest intention of both parties, proved by proper evidence, can amount to plighted faith. The expectation, or intent of one party, if excited, founded on something not provided for nor hinted at in the transaction itself, cannot plight the faith of the other party.
In short, I am altogether unable to see any ground for supposing that either party to the cession had any mental reservation, any unexpressed expectation, or relied on any implied, but unmentioned and unsuggested pledge, whatever. By the constitution, if a district should be ceded to it for the seat of Government, Congress was to have a right, in express terms, to exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever. The cession was made and accepted, in pursuance of this power. Both parties knew well what they were doing. Both parties knew that by the cession the States surrendered all jurisdiction, and Congress acquired all jurisdiction ; and this is the whole transaction.
As to any provision in the acts of cession stipulating for the security of property, there is none, except only what I have already observed; this condition, that no right of individuals in the soil should be construed to be transferred, but only the jurisdiction. But, no doubt, all rights of property ought to be duly respected by Congress, and all other Legislatures.
And since the subject of compensation to the owners of emancipated slaves has been referred to, I take occasion to say, that Congress, if it should think that a wise, just, and politic legislation for this District required them to make compensation for slaves emancipated here, they have the same constitutional authority to make such compensation as to make grants for roads and bridges, almshouses, penitentiaries, and other similar objects in the District. A general and absolute power of legislation carries with it all the necessary and just incidents belonging to such legislation.
[Mr. Clay having made some remarks in reply — ]
Mr. Webster rejoined. The honorable member from Kentucky (said Mr. W.) asks the Senate to suppose the opposite case; to suppose that the seat of Government had been fixed in a free State, Pennsylvania, for example; and that Congress had attempted to establish slavery in a district, over which, as here, it had thus exclusive legislation — he asks whether, in that case, Congress could establish slavery in such a place? This mode of changing the question does not, I think, vary this argument; and I answer, at once, that however improbable or improper such an act might be, yet, if the power were universal, absolute, and without restriction, it might unquestionably be so exercised. No limitation being expressed or intimated in the grant itself, or any other proceeding of the parties, none could be implied.
And, in the other cases, of forts, arsenals, &tc., if Congress has exclusive and absolute legislative power, it must, of course, have the power, if it could be supposed to be guilty of such folly, whether
I)rop|sed to be exercised in a district within a free State, to estabish slavery, or in a district in a slave State, to abolish or regulate it. If it be a district over which Congress has, as it has in this District, unlimited power of legislation, it seems to me that whatever would stay the exercise of this power, in either case, must be drawn from discretion, from reasons of justice and true policy, from those high considerations which ought to influence Congress in questions of such extreme delicacy and importance ; and to all these considerations I am willing, and always shall be willing, 1 trust, to give full weight. But I cannot, in conscience, say that the power, so clearly conferred on Congress by the constitution, as a power to be exercised, like others, in its own discretion, is immediately taken away again by an implied faith that it shall not be exercised at all.