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IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, MARCH 16, 1836, ON
PRESENTING SUNDRY ABOLITION PETITIONS.
MR. WEBSTER addressed the Senate as follows:
AGREEABLY to notice, I offer sundry petitions on the subject of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. The first purports to be signed by two thousand four hundred and twentyfive of the female inhabitants of Boston.
This petition is in the usual printed form. It is respectful to Congress, and contains no reproaches on any body. It asks for the consideration of Congress, both with respect to the existence of slavery in the District, and with respect to the slave trade in the District.
The second is a petition, signed by Joseph Filson, and about a hundred others, citizens of Boston, some of whom are known to me, and are highly respectable persons. The petition is to the same effect, and in the same form.
The third petition appears to be signed by a large number of persons, inhabitants of Wayne county, in Michigan. I am not acquainted with them. It is a printed petition, different in form from the preceding, drawn more at length, and going farther into the subject. But I perceive nothing in it disrespectful to the Senate, or reproachful to others.
The fourth petition is like the two first, in substance and in form. It is signed by four hundred and thirty-three citizens of Boston. Among these signors, Sir, I recognize the names of many persons well known to me to be gentleinen of great worth and respectability. There are clergymen, lawyers, merchants, literary men, manufacturers, and indeed persons from all classes of society.
I ask, Sir, that these petitions may be received, and move that they be referred to the Committee for the District of Columbia.
This motion itself, Sir, sufficiently shows in what manner I think this subject ought to be treated in the Senate.
The petitioners ask Congress to consider the propriety and expediency of two things — first, of making provision for the extinction of slavery in the District; second, of abolishing or restraining the trade in slaves within the District. Similar petitions have already been received. Those gentlemen who think Congress have do power over any part of the subject, if they are clear and settled in that opinion, were perfectly justifiable in voting not to receive them. Any petition, which, in our opinion, asks us to do that which is plainly against the Constitution, we might very justly reject. As, if persons should petition us to pass a law abridging the freedom of the press, or respecting an establishment of religion, such petition would very properly be denied any reception at all.
In doubtful cases, we should incline to receive and consider; because doubtful cases ought not to be decided without consideration.
But I cannot regard this case as a doubtful one. I think the constitutional power of Congress over the subject is clear, and, therefore, that we were bound to receive the petitions. And a large majority of the Senate are also of opinion that the petitions ought to be received.
I have often, Mr. President, expressed the opinion that, over slavery, as it exists in the States, this Government has no control whatever. It is entirely and exclusively a State concern. And while it is thus clear that Congress has no direct power over the subject, it is our duty to take care that the authority of this Government is not brought to bear upon it by any indirect interference whatever. It must be left to the States, to the course of things, and to those causes over which this Government has no control. All this, in my opinion, is in the clear line of our duty.
On the other hand, believing that Congress has constitutional power over slavery, and the trade in slaves, within the District, I think petitions on those subjects, respectfully presented, ought to be respectfully treated, and respectfully considered. The respectful mode, the proper mode, is the ordinary mode. We have a committee on the affairs of the District. For very obvious reasons, and without any reference to this question, this committee is ordinarily composed principally of Southern gentlemen. For many years a member from Virginia or Maryland has, I believe, been at ihe head of the committee. The committee, therefore, is the appropriate one, and there can be possibly no objection to it, on account of the manner in which it is constituted.
Now, I believe, Sir, that the unanimous opinion of the North is, that Congress has no authority over slavery in the States; and perhaps equally unanimously, that over slavery in the District it has such rightful authority.
Then, Sir, the question is a question of the fitness, propriety, justice, and expediency of considering these two subjects, or either of them, according to the prayer of these petitions.
It is well known to us and the country, that Congress has hitherto entertained inquiries on both these points. On the 9th of January, 1809, the House of Representatives resolved, by very
large majorities, “ That the Committee for the District of Columbia be instructed to take into consideration the laws within the District in respect to slavery ; that they inquire into the slave trade as it exists in, and is carried on through, the District ; and that they report to the House such amendments to the existing laws as shall seem to them to be just.”
And it resolved also, “ That the committee be further instructed to inquire into the expediency of providing by law for the gradual abolition of slavery within the District, in such manner that the interest of no individual shall be injured thereby.”
As early as March, 1816, the same House, on the motion of Mr. Randolph, of Virginia, resolved, “ That a committee be appointed to inquire into the existence of an inhuman and illegal traffic of slaves carried on in and through the District of Columbia, and to report whether any, and what measures are necessary for putting a stop to the same.”
It is known, also, Sir, that the Legislature of Pennsylvania has within a very few years urged upon Congress the propriety of providing for the abolition of slavery in the District. The House of Assembly of New York, about the same time, I think, passed a similar vote. After these proceedings, Mr. President, which were generally known, I think, the country was not at all prepared to find that these petitions would be objected to, on the ground that they asked for the exercise of an authority on the part of Congress, which Congress cannot constitutionally exercise; or that, having been formally received, the prayer of them, in regard to both objects, would be immediately rejected, without reference to the committee, and without any inquiry.
Now, Sir, the propriety, justice, and fitness of any interference of Congress, for either of the purposes stated in the petitions, are the points on which, as it seems to me, it is highly proper for a committee to make a report. The well-disposed and patriotic among these petitioners are entitled to be respectfully answered; and if there be among them others whose motives are less praiseworthy, it is not the part of prudence to give them the advantage which they would derive from a right of complaint that the Senate had acted hastily or summarily on their petitions, without inquiry or consideration.
Let the committee set forth their own views on these points, dispassionately, fully, and candidly. Let the argument be seen and heard ; let the People be trusted with it ; and I have no doubt that a fair discussion of the subject will produce its proper effect, both in and out of the Senate.
This, Sir, would have been, and is the course of proceeding, which appears to me to be prudent and just. The Senate, however, baving decided otherwise, by a very large majority, I only
say so much, on the present occasion, as may suffice to make my own opinions known.
In reply to Mr. King, of Alabama,
MR. WEBSTER said, that he was not aware of having said any thing which could justify the remarks of the honorable member. By what authority does the gentleman say (said Mr. W.) that I have placed myself at the head of these petitioners? The gentleman cannot be allowed, Sir, to assign to me any place or any character, which I do not choose to take to myself. I have only expressed my opinion as to the course which it is prudent and wise in us all to adopt, in disposing of these petitions.
It is true that, while the question on the reception of the petitions was pending, I observed that I should hold back these petitions till that question was decided. It is decided. The Senate has decided to receive the petitions; and being received, the manner of treating them necessarily arises. The origin of the authority of Congress over this District, the views and objects of the States in ceding the territory, the little interest which this Government has in the general question of slavery, and the great magnitude which individual States have in it, the great danger, to the Government itself, of agitating the question here, while things remain in their present posture, in the States around us — these, Sir, are considerations all intimately belonging to the question, as I think, and which a competent committee would naturally present to the Senate and to the public.
Mr. President, I feel bound to make one further remark. Whatever gentlemen may think of it, I assure them that these petitions, at least in many cases, have no factious origin, no political or party origin. Such may be the origin of some of them. "I am quite sure it is not of all. Many of them arise from a sense of religious duty; and that is a feeling which should be reasoned with, but cannot be suppressed by a mere summary exercise of authority. I wish that all reasonable men may be satisfied with our proceedings; that we may so act in regard to the whole matter as shall promote harmony, strengthen the bonds of our Union, and increase the confidence, both of the North and the South, in this Government.
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES, ON THE DEPOSIT
BANKS. MARCH 17, 1836.
MR. WEBSTER rose to move for the printing of 3,000 extra copies of the statement of the affairs of the deposit banks, transmitted by the Secretary of the Treasury.
In making this motion, Mr. Webster called the attention of the Senate to the document from the Treasury, showing the state of the deposit banks at the latest dates. He quoted from the tabular statement some of the leading facts. The immediate liabilities of the banks amounted, it appeared, to nearly seventy-two millions of dollars, viz. the public deposits, $30,678,879 91 ; the private deposits, $ 15,043,033 64; the bills in circulation, $ 26,243,688 36.
The amount of specie held by these banks, it further appeared, was $ 10,198,659 24; that is to say, there is less than one dollar specie for six dollars debt; and there is due to the Government by those banks more than three times the amount of all the specie.
There are other items which swell the amounts on each side, such as debts due to banks, and debts due from banks. But these are only equalling quantities, and of no moment in the view I am taking of the question.
Among the means of these deposit banks I see an item of “ other investments," of no less amount than $8,777,228 79. What is meant by these “other investments," I am not informed. I wish for light. I have my suspicions, but I have no proofs. Sir, look at the reported state of the Farmers' and Mechanics' Bank of Michigan, the last in the list. The capital of that bank is only $ 150,000. Ils portion of the public deposits is no less a sum than $784,764 75. Now, Sir, where is this money? It is not in specie in the bank itself. All its specie is only $51,011 95; all its discounts, loans, &c., are only $500,000, or thereabouts ; where is the residue ? Why, we see where it is; it is included in the item “due from banks, $678,766 37.” What banks have got this ? On what terms do they take it? Do they give interest for it? Is it in the deposit banks in the great cities ? and does this make a part of the other liabilities of these deposit banks in the cities? Now, this is one question: what are these other liabilities? But, as to these “other investments," I say again, I wish to know