« ZurückWeiter »
ON THE DIRECT TAX,
AND THE STATE OF THE NATION AFTER THE CLOSE OF THE WAR
WITH GREAT BRITAIN.
IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, JANUARY, 1816.
[In this speech, which was made in committee of the whole, on a proposition to lay a direct tax for the purpose of providing for the interest on the public debt, and for other objects, as expressed in the report of the committee of ways and means, Mr. Clay enters into a general view of the state of public affairs, as they existed at the conclusion of the war with Great Britain. His defence of the policy of the war, and of the treaty of peace concluded by himself and the other commissioners at Ghent, will be found interesting and valuable, as a portion of our national history. On the present occasion, it will be observed. Mr. Clay first boldly avows his sympathies for the cause of the patriots of South America; thus shadowing forth, at this early period, the feelings which prompted him, in 1818, to propose, in a definite form, the recognition of their independence. This speech concludes with a masterly, although rapid, sketch of the true policy of the country, in which are seen the outlines of the Amer. ican system, a subject always prominent in the thoughts of this statesman.)
MR. Clay (speaker) said, the course had been pursued, ever since he had had the honor of a seat on this floor, to select some subject during the early part of the session, on which, by a general understanding, gentlemen were allowed to indulge themselves in remarks on the existing state of public affairs. The practice was a very good one, he said, and there could be no occasion more proper than that of a proposition to lay a direct tax.
Those who have for fifteen years past administered the affairs of this government, have conducted this nation to an honorable point of elevation, at which they may justly pause, challenge a retrospect, and invite attention to the bright field of prosperity which lies before us.
The great objects of the committee of finance, in the report under consideration, are, in the first place, to provide for the pay. ment of the public debts, and in the second, to provide for the support of the government, and the payment of such expenses as should be authorized by congress. The greater part of the debt, Mr. Clay admitted, had grown out of the late war; yet a considerable portion of it consisted of that contracted in the former war for independence, and a portion of it, perhaps, of that which arose out of the wars with Tripoli and Algiers. Gentlemen had, on this occasion, therefore, fairly a right to examine into the course of administration heretofore, to demonstrate the impolicy of those wars, and the injudiciousness of the public expenditures generally. In the cursory
view which he should take of this subject, he must be allowed to say, he should pay no particular attention to what had passed before, in debate. An honorable colleague (Mr. Hardin) who spoke the other day, like another gentleman who preceded him in debate, had taken occasion to refer to his (Mr. Clay's) late absence from this country on public business; but, Mr. Clay said, he trusted, among the fruits of that absence were a greater respect for the institutions which distinguish this happy country, a greater confidence in them, and an increased disposition to cling to them. Yes, sir; I was in the neighborhood of the battle of Waterloo, and some lessons I did derive from it; but they were lessons which satisfied me, that national independence was only to be maintained by national resistance against foreign encroachments; by cherishing the interests of the people, and giving to the whole physical power of the country an interest in the preservation of the nation. I have been taught that lesson; that we should never lose sight of the possibility, that a combination of despots, of men unfriendly to liberty, propagating what in their opinion constitutes the principle of legitimacy, inight reach our happy land, and subject us to that tyranny and degradation which seems to be one of their objects in another country. The result of my reflections is, the determination 10 aid with my vote in providing my country with all the means to protect its liberties, and guard them even from serious menace. Motives of delicacy, which the committee would be able to understand and appreciate, prevented bim from noticing some of his colleague's (Mr. Hardin's) remarks; but he would take the occasion to give him one admonition—that, when he next favored the house with an exhibition of his talent for wit - with a display of those elegant implements, for his possession of which, the gentleman from Virginia had so handsomely complimented him that he would recollect that it is bought, and not borrowed wit, which the adage recommends as best. With regard to the late war with Great Britain, history, in deciding upon the justice and policy of that war, will determine the question according to the state of things which existed when that war was declared. I gave a vote for the declaration of war.
I exerted all the little influence and talents I could command to make the war. The war was made; it is terminated; and I declare with perfect sincerity, if it had been permitted me to list the veil of futurity, and to have foreseen the precise series of events which has occurred, my vote would have been unchanged. The policy of the war, as it regarded our state of preparation, must be determined with reference to the state of things at the time that war was declared. He need not take up the time of the house, in demonstrating that we had cause sufficient for war.
We had been insulted and outraged, and spoilated upon by almost all Europe — by Great Britain, by France, Spain, Denmark, Naples, and, to cap the climax, by the little, contemptible power of Algiers. We had submitted too long and too much. We had become the scorn of foreign powers, and the contempt of our own citizens. The question of the policy of declaring war at the particular time when it was commenced, is best determined by applying to the enemy himself; and what said he !- that of all the circumstances attending its declaration, none was so aggravating as that we should have selected the moment which of all others was most inconvenient to him; when he was struggling for sell-existence in a last effort against the gigantic power of France. The question of the state of preparation for war at any time is a relative question — relative to our own means, the condition of the other power, and the state of the world at the time of declaring it. We could not expect, for instance, that a war against Algiers would require the same means or extent of preparation, as a war against Great Britain; and if it was to be waged against one of the primary powers of Europe, at peace with all the rest of the world, and therefore all her force at command, it could not be commenced with so little preparation, as if her whole force were employed in another quarter. It is not necessary again to repel the stale, ridiculous, false story of French influence, originating in Great Britain, and echoed here. I now contend, as I have always done, that we had a right to take advantage of the condition of ihe world, at the time war was declared. If Great Britain were engaged in war, we had a right to act on the knowledge of the fact, that her means of annoyance, as to us, were diminished; and we had a right to obtain all the collateral aid we could, from the operations of other powers against her, without entering into those connections which are forbidden by the genius of our government. But it was rather like disturbing the ashes of the dead, now to discuss the questions of the justice or expediency of the war. They were questions long since settled, and on which the public opinion was decisively made up, in favor of the administration.
He proceeded to examine the conditions of the peace and the fruits of the war— questions of more recent date, and more immediately applicable to the present discussion. The terms of the peace must be determined by the same rule that was applicable to the declaration of war — that rule which was furnished by the state of the world at the time the peace was made; and, even if it were true, that all the sanguine expectations which might have been formed at the time of the declaration of war, were not realized by the terms of the subsequent peace, it did not follow that the war was improperly declared, or the peace dishonorable, unless the
condition of the parties, in relation to other powers, remained substantially the same, throughout the struggle, and at the time of the termination of the war, as it was at the commencement of it. At the termination of the war, France was annihilated - blotted out of the map of Europe; the vast power wielded by Bonaparte existed no longer. Let it be admitted, that statesmen, in laying their course, are to look at probable events; that their conduct is to be examined, with reference to the course of events, which in all human probability might have been anticipated; and is there a man in this house, in existence, who can say, that on the eighteenth day of June, 1812, when the war was declared, it would have been anticipated, that Great Britain, by the circumstance of a general peace, resulting from the overthrow of a power whose basements were supposed to be deeper laid, more ramified, and more extended, than those of any power ever were before, would be placed in the attitude in which she stood in December, 1814? Would any one say, that this government could have anticipated such a state of things, and ought to have been governed in its conduct accordingly? Great Britain, Russia, Germany, did not expect--not a power in Europe believed -as late even as January, 1814, that, in the ensuing March, Bonaparte would abdicate, and the restoration of the Bourbons would follow. What, then, was the actual condition of Europe, when peace was concluded ? A perfect tranquillity reigned throughout; for, as late as the first of March, the idea of Napoleon's reappearing in France, was as little entertained as that of a man's coming from the moon to take upon himself the government of the country. In December, 1814, a profound and apparently a permanent peace existed; Great Britain was left to dispose of the vast force, the accumulation of twentyfive years, the work of an immense system of finance and protracted war; she was at liberty to employ that undivided force against this country. Under such circumstances, it did not follow, according to the rules laid down, either that the war ought not to have been made, or that peace on such terms ought not to have been concluded.
What, then, were the terms of the peace? The regular opposition in this country, the gentlemen on the other side of the house, had not come out to challenge an investigation of the terms of the peace, although they had several times given a sidewipe at the treaty, on occasions with which it had no necessary connection. It had been sometimes said, that we had gained nothing by the war, that the fisheries were lost, &c. How, he asked, did this question of the fisheries really stand? By the first part of the third article of the treaty of 1783, the right was recognized in the people of the United States to take fish of every kind on the Grand Bank, and on all the other banks of Newfoundland; also in the gulf of St. Lawrence, and at all other places in the sea, where the inhabitants of both countries used at any time to fish. This right was a necessary incident to our sovereignty, although it is denied to some of the powers of Europe. It was not contested at Ghent; it has never been drawn in question by Great Britain. But by the same third article it was further stipulated, that the inhabitants of the United States shall have • liberty to take fish of every kind on such part of the coast of Newfoundland as British fishermen shall use (but not to dry or cure the same on that island), and also on the coasts, bays, and creeks, of all other of his Britannic majesty's dominions in America; and that the American fishermen shall have liberty to dry and cure fish in any of the unsettled bays, harbors, and creeks of Nova Scotia, Magdalen islands, and Labrador, so long as the same shall remain unsettled; but so soon as the same or either of them shall be sented, it shall not be lawful for the said fishermen to dry or cure fish at such seitlement, without a previous agreement for that purpose with the inhabitants, proprietors, or possessors of the ground. The British commissioners, assuming that these liberties had expired by the war between the two countries, at an early period of the negotiation, declared that they would not be revived without an equivalent. Whether the treaty of 1783 does not form an exception to the general rule, according to which treaties are vacated by a war breaking out between the parties, is a question on which he did not mean to express an opinion. The first article of that treaty, by which the king of Great Britain acknowledges the sovereignty of the United States, certainly was not abrogated by the war; that all the other parts of the same instrument, which define the limits, privileges, and liberties attaching to that sovereignty, were equally unaffected by the war, might be contended for with at least much plausibility. If we determined to offer them the equivalent required, the question was, what should it be? When the British commissioners demanded, in their projet, a renewal to Great Britain of the right to the navigation of the Mississippi, secured by the treaty of 1783, a bare majority of the American commissioners offered to renew it, upon the condition that the liberties in question were renewed to us. He was not one of that majority. He would not trouble the committee with his reasons for being opposed to the offer. A majority of his colleagues, actuated he believed by the best motives, made, however, the offer, and it was refused by the British commissioners.
If the British interpretation of the treaty of 1783 be correct, we have lost the liberties in question. What the value of them really is, he had not been able to meet with any two gentlemen who agreed. The great value of the whole mass of our fishery interests, as connected with our navigation and trade, was sufficiently demonstrated by the tonnage employed; but of what was the relative importance of these liberties, ihere was great contrariety of