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May 6 1812: Speech of John Calhoun


On May 6 1812, John Calhoun, from South Carolina, rose in the House of Representatives to give a speech against a Petition of the Citizens of Albany to repeal the Embargo Act.  The Embargo Act had been passed on  April 4 1812 prohibiting American ships from leaving for foreign ports. Petitions were delivered from various states seeking the repeal or amendment of the act.  One such petition came from the citizens of Albany. The petition resulted in various speeches being made in the House of Representatives dealing with the embargo and the accelerated  drift towards war. One such speech was given by Calhoun, who had been elected to Congress in 1810 and had become leader of the "War Hawks". Calhoun would become Vice President under Andrew Jackson, but is now remembered as the leading political theorist of state's rights, nullification, secession and his defense of slavery. His speech of May 6 is reproduced below.
MB. SPEAKER :—It is not my intention to discuss the merits of the embargo law, or to follow the gentleman from Virginia in that maze of arguments and assertions through which he has thought proper to wander. The House must be wearied, and can receive no additional light in a subject which, through the zeal of some gentlemen in opposition, has been so frequently ragged into discussion. I cannot suppose that our opponents, in their importunity, are governed by an expectation that a change will be made in the opinions of any individual of the majority. This, they must see, is hopeless. The measure has been too recently adopted, and after too much deliberation, to leave to the most sanguine any hope of change. To reply, then, to the arguments of gentlemen on the general merits of the embargo,,would be an useless consumption of time, and an unwarranted intrusion on the patience of the House. This, as I have already stated, is not my intention; but it is my object to vindicate the motion now under discussion from unmerited censure, and to prove that it cannot be justly considered as treating the petitioners with contempt. I am aware that the right to petition this body is guaranteed by the Constitution, and that it is not less our interest than our duty to receive petitions expressed in proper terms, as this is, with respect.

Two propositions have been made relative to the disposition of the petition now before us: one, to refer it to a committee; the other—that now under consideration—to postpone the further consideration to a day beyond the termination of the embargo. It is contended, not by argument, but assertion, that the former would have been more respectful to the petitioners; but the reasons have been left to conjecture. I ask, then, why would it be more respectful?Would it present stronger hopes of success, or admit as great latitude of discussion on its merits? Gentlemen know that it would not; they well know, when the House wishes to give the go-by to a petition, it has been usual to adopt the very motion which, in this instance, they advocate. On a motion of reference, debate on the merits is precluded ; and, when referred, the committee, where there are no hopes of success, usually allow it to sleep. But, Sir, I ask what is the necessity- for referring this petition to a committee ? What are the objects of a reference? I conceive them to be two: one to investigate some matter of fact, and the other when a subject is much tangled with detail, to digest and arrange the parts, so the House may more easily comprehend the whole. This body is too large for either of those operations, and therefore a reference is had to smaller ones. In the present case, neither of these furnishes a good reason for the reference asked for. The facts are not denied, and as to detail, there is none ; it ends in a point—the repeal of the embargo law—and it has been so argued in opposition. This House is as fully competent to discuss its merits now, as it would be after the report of any committee, and the motion to postpone admits of the greatest latitude of discussion on its merits. This, the speech of the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Randolph) has proved. He has argued not only on the merits of the petition, but on the embargo, and almost every subject, however remotely connected. I know that the motion is tantamount to that of rejection, in the present instance. In fact, it has been vindicated by the mover on that ground. He has justly said: as we cannot grant the relief prayed for, we ought to act with promptitude and decision, so that the petitioners may know what to expect. This motion has that character ; it leaves no expectation where there can be no relief. I know, Sir, we might have acted very differently: we might have spun out the hopes of the petitioners. Some may think that it would be sound policy ; but, in my opinion, it would be unworthy of this House. Candor, in our government, is one of the first of political virtues. Let us always do directly, what we intend shall finally be done.

Since there can be no objection to the motion now before the House, it remains to be considered whether the relief prayed for ought to be granted. I am' sensible that the maxim is generally correct, that individual profit is national gain ; and that the party interested is the best judge of the hazard and propriety of a speculation. But there are exceptions ; there are cases in which the government is the best judge; and such are those where the future conduct of government is the eause of the hazard. It certainly is the best judge of what it intends; and, in those cases, where it foresees a hazard, it ought, in humanity to the party interested, to restrain speculations. Such is the present case. Many of our merchants labor under a delusion as to the measures of government:  nor can this seem strange, since some gentlemen, even in this House, have taken up such mistaken views of things. With such conceptions of the course of events, as the gentleman from New-York (Mr. Bleecker) entertains, I am not surprised that he should advocate the prayer of the petition. He believes that the embargo will be permitted to expire without any hostile measure being taken against Great Britain ; and that, in the present state of our preparations, it would be madness to think of war in sixty days, or any short period. When I hear such language on this floor, I no longer wonder that merchants are petitioning you to aid them in making speculations, which in a short time must end in their ruin. I ask the gentleman from New-York, who are the true friends to the petitioners—the majority who, foreseeing the hazard to which they would be exposed, restrain them from falling into the hands of British cruisers,— or the minority, who, by suppressing the evidences of danger, induce them to enter into the most ruinous speculations ?

By the one, the merchants still retain their property, depreciated, it is true, in a small degree; by the other, it will be lost to themselves and their country, and will go to augment the resources of our enemy. For, Sir, let me assure the gentleman that he makes a very erroneous estimate of our preparations, and of the time at which we will act. Our army and measures are not merely on paper, as he states. And were this the proper time and subject, it could be shown that very considerable advances have been made to put the country into a posture of defence, and to prepare our forces for an attack on our enemy. "We will not, I hope, wait the expiration of the embargo to take our stand against England— that stand which the best interests and honor of this country have so loudly demanded. With such a prospect, I again ask, would it be humanity or cruelty to the petitioners to grant their prayer, and, by relaxing the embargo in their favor, to entice them to certain destruction ?

- The gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Randolph) stated,— to induce us to repeal the embargo law, and to make it odious, I suppose, with the community,—that it operated less severely on the merchant than on the farmer and miller. He did not prove very distinctly how this unequal pressure was produced. But I understood him to say, that eastern vessels could be had with so much facility to make shipments to any European port, and that flour had risen so much already in consequence of the embargo, that the rise in price nearly compensated for the additional risk and costs of exportation. I observe the gentleman shakes his head in disapprobation of the statement. I suppose I misunderstood him. However, I could not mistake the conclusion which he drew,—that the merchants, by eluding the embargo, had prevented the depreciation of the price of wheat and flour on hand. This, Sir, is suflicient for my purpose. The gentleman from Virginia must know that, from the character of trade, the profit of such trade, if it really exists, cannot be confined to the merchant. It would soon raise the price of breadstuflis in the hands of the other classes of the community, and would prove that his statement of the distressed condition of the millers and farmers cannot be correct.

In his zeal against the embargo, the gentleman from Virginia says, it was engendered between the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Executive. Engendered! The gentleman must be sensible of the impropriety of such language, as applied to the Executive, or a Committee of this House. No, Sir, it was not engendered, but adopted by both the Executive and committee, from its manifest propriety as a prelude to war. There is no man in his reason, and uninfluenced by party feelings, but must acknowledge that a war, in this country, ought, almost invariably, to be preceded by an embargo. The very persons most loud against that measure, would be the most clamorous had it not preceded the war. There has been, Sir, much false statement in relation to the embargo. I remember, when it was under discussion on a former occasion, that a gentleman then observed, he had certain information that the French minister had been importuning our government to stop the exportation of breadstuffs to the Peninsula. I know not whether he intended to insinuate this as one of the causes of the embargo. Be it as it may, I assert, from the highest authority, that no such application has ever been made, directly or indirectly, on the part of the French government. The statement was of such a nature as induced me to inquire into its correctness; and the result is such as I have declared. I can scarcely suppose, that the gentleman intended to convey the idea that French influence had any thing to do with the measure. He must know that the Executive, as well as a majority of this body, would resist, with the greatest indignation, any attempt to influence the measures of government. But such has been the use made of it by certain prints, either from the manner in which it was connected in debate with the embargo, or the very imperfect and unfair reports of -the secret proceedings of Congress.

One would suppose, from the language of the gentleman from Virginia, that he was much in the secrets of government. He says, the plan now is, to disband the army and carry on a predatory war on the ocean. I can assure him, if such is the plan, I am wholly ignorant of it; and that, should it be proposed, it will not meet with my approbation. I am decidedly of opinion that the best interests of the country will be consulted by calling out the whole force of the community to protect its rights. Should this course fail, the next best would be to submit to our enemy with as good a grace as possible. Let us not provoke where we cannot resist. The mongrel state—neither war nor peace—is much the worst.

The gentleman from Virginia has told us much of the signs of the times. I had hoped, that the age of superstition was past, and that no attempt would be made to influence the measures of government,—-which ought to be founded in wisdom and policy,—by the vague, I may say, superstitious feelings of any man, whatever may be the physical appearances which may have given birth to them. Are we to renounce our reason? Must we turn from the path of justice and experience, because a comet has made its appearance in our system, or the moon has passed between the sun and the earth? If so, the signs of the times are bad indeed. It would mark a fearful retrograde in civilization—it would show a dreadful declension towards barbarism. Sir, if we must examine the auspices; if we must inspect the entrails of the times, I would pronounce the omens good. It is from moral, and not from brutal or physical omens, that we ought to judge ; and what more favorable could we desire than that the country is, at last, roused from its lethargy, and that it has determined to vindicate its interest and honor. On the contrary, a nation so sunk in avarice, and so corrupted by faction, as to be insensible to the greatest injuries, and lost to all sense of its independence, would be a sight more portentous than comets, earthquakes, eclipses, or the whole catalogue of omens, which I have heard the gentleman from Virginia enumerate. I assert, and gentlemen know it, if we submit to the pretensions of England, now openly avowed, the independence of this country is lost—we will be, as to our commerce, re-colonized. This is the second struggle for our liberty ; and if we but do justice to ourselves, it will be no less glorious and successful than the first. Let us but exert ourselves, and we must meet with the prospering smile of Heaven. Sir, I assert it with confidence, a war, just and necessary in its origin, wisely and vigorously carried on, and honorably terminated, would establish the integrity and prosperity of our country for centuries.

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