Imagini ale paginilor

tian population of that country and the government of their Ottoman oppressors. At an early period of this contest, it had attracted much notice in the United States. A correspondence had been opened between an accredited committee of the Grecian patriots sitting at Paris, with the celebrated Koray at their head, and friends of the cause of Greece in this country;* and a formal appeal had been made to the people of the United States, by the Messenian Senate of Kalamata, the first revolutionary congress which assembled in Greece. President Monroe, both in his annual message of December, 1822, and in that of 1823, had expressed respect and sympathy for their cause. The attention of Congress being thus called to the subject, Mr. Webster thought it a favorable opportunity to speak an emphatic word, from a quarter whence it would be respected, in favor of those principles of rational liberty and enlightened progress which were seeking to extend themselves in Europe. As the great strength of the Grecian patriots was to be derived, not from the aid of the governments of Christendom, but from the public opinion and the sympathy of the civilized world, he felt that they had a peculiar right to expect some demonstration of friend. ly feeling from the only powerful republican state.

He was also evidently willing to embrace the opportunity of entering an American protest against the doctrines which had been promulgated in the manifestoes of the recent congresses of the European sovereigns.

Till the administration of Mr. Jefferson, it had been the custom of the two houses to return answers to the annual messages of the President. These answers furnished Congress with the means of responding to the executive suggestions. As much time was often consumed in debating these answers, (a consumption of time not directly leading to any legislative result,) and as differences in opinion between Congress and the executive, if they existed, were thus prematurely developed, it was thought a matter of convenience, when Mr. Jefferson came into power, to depart from the usage. But though attended with evils, it had its advantages. The opportunity of general political debate, under a government like ours, if not furnished, will be taken. The constituencies look to their representatives to discuss pub

See North American Review, Vol. XVII. p. 414.


lic questions. It will perhaps be found, on comparing the proceedings of Congress at the present day with what they were fifty years ago, that, although the general debate on the answer to the President's message has been retrenched, there is in the course of the session quite as much discussion of topics incidentally brought in, and often to the serious obstruction of the public business, at the advanced stages of the session.

Whatever may be thought of this as a general principle, President Monroe, as we have seen, having in two successive annual messages called the attention of Congress to this subject, Mr. Webster, by way of response to these allusions, at an early period of the session offered the following resolution in the House of Representatives :

Resolved, That provision ought to be made by law for defraying the expense incident to the appointment of an agent or commissioner to Greece, whenever the President shall deem it expedient to make such appointment."

His speech in support of this resolution was delivered on the 19th of January, 1824, in the presence of an immense audience, brought together by the interesting nature of the subject and by the fame of the speaker, now returned, after six years' absence, to the field where he had gathered early laurels, and to which he had now come back with greatly augmented reputation. The public expectation was highly excited; and it is but little to say, that it was entirely fulfilled. The speech was conceived and executed with rare felicity; and was as remarkable for what it did not, as for what it did contain. To a subject on which it was almost impossible to avoid a certain strain of classical sentiment, Mr. Webster brought a chastened taste and a severe logic. He indulged in no ad captandum reference to the topics which lay most obviously in his way. A single allusion to Greece, as the mistress of the world in letters and arts, found an appropriate place in the exordium. But he neither rhapsodized about the ancients, nor denounced the Turks, nor overflowed with Americanism. He treated, in a statesmanlike manner, what he justly called “the great political question of the age," the question “ between absolute and regulated governments," and the duty of the United States on fitting occasions to let their voice be heard on this question. He concisely reviewed the doctrines of the Continental sovereigns, as set forth in what has been called “the Holy Alliance," and in the manifestoes of several successive congresses. He pointed out the inconsistency of these principles with those of self-government and national independence, and the duty of the United States to declare their sentiments in support of the latter. He showed that such a declaration was inconsistent with no principle of public law, and forbidden by no prudential consideration. He briefly sketched the history of the Greek revolution; and having shown that his proposal was a pacific measure, both as regards the Turkish government and the European allies, he took leave of the subject with a few manly words of sympathy for the Greeks.

He was supported by several leading members of the House, by Mr. Clay, Mr. Stevenson of Virginia, afterwards Speaker of the House and Minister to England, and by General Houston of Tennessee; but the subject lay too far beyond the ordinary range of legislation; it gained no strength from the calculations of any of the Presidential candidates; it enlisted none of the great local interests of the country; and it was not of a nature to be pushed against opposition or indifference. It was probably with little or no expectation of carrying it, that the resolution was moved by Mr. Webster. His object was gained in the opportunity of expressing himself upon the great political question of the day.

His words of encouragement were soon read in every capital and at every court of Europe, and in every Continental language; they were received with grateful emotion in Greece. At home the speech fully sustained Mr. Webster's reputation, not merely for parliamentary talent, but for an acquaintance with general politics, which few public men in the United States give themselves the trouble to acquire, - even among those who are selected to represent the country abroad. In a letter from Mr. Jeremiah Mason, a person whose judgment on a matter of this kind was entitled to as much respect as that of any man in the community, this speech is pronounced “the best sample of parliamentary eloquence and statesmanlike reasoning which our country can show.”

It was during this session, that Mr. Webster made his great argument in the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Gibbons and Ogden, to which we have already alluded. It

must increase the admiration with which this great constitutional effort is read, to know that the case came on in court a week or ten days earlier than Mr. Webster expected, and that it was late in the afternoon, after a severe debate in the House of Representatives on some of the details of the tariff bill, that he received the intimation that he must be ready to go into court and argue the cause the next morning. At this time bis brief was not drawn out; and the statement of the argument, the selecting of the authorities, and the final digest of his materials, whether of reasoning or fact, were to be the work of the few intervening hours. It is superfluous to say that there was no long space for rest or sleep; though it seems hardly credible that the only specific premeditation of such an argument before such a tribunal should have been in the stolen watches of one night.

In the course of this session Mr. Webster, besides taking a leading part in the discussion of the details of the tariff law of 1824, made a carefully prepared speech, in reply to Mr. Clay, on some of the principles upon which he had supported it. His exposition of the popular errors on the subject of the balance of trade may be referred to as a very happy specimen of philosophical reasoning applied to commercial questions. Mr. Webster did not contest the constitutional right of Congress to lay duties for the protection of manufactures. He opposed the bill on grounds of expediency, drawn from the condition of the country at the time, and from the unfriendly bearing of some of its provisions on the navigating interests. He was the representative of the principal commercial city of New England. The great majority of his constituents were opposed to the bill; one member only from Massachusetts voted in its favor. The last sentence of the speech shows the general view which he took of the provisions of the act as a whole : 66 There are some parts of this bill which I highly approve; there are others in which I should acquiesce; but those to which I have now stated my objections appear to me so destitute of all justice, so burdensome and so dangerous to that interest which has steadily enriched, gallantly defended, and proudly distinguished us, that nothing can prevail upon me to give it my support.” This sentence sufficiently shows with how little justice it was asserted, in 1828, that Mr. Webster had, in 1824, declared an uncompromising

[ocr errors]

hostility to all legislative provision for the encouragement and protection of manufactures.

No subject of great popular interest came up for debate in the second session of the Eighteenth Congress, but the attention of Mr. Webster, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was assiduously devoted to a subject of great practical importance; brought forward entirely without ostentation or display, but inferior in interest to scarce any act of legislation since the first organization of the government. We refer to the act of the 3d of March, 1825, “ more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes.” This chapter in the legislation of the United States had been comparatively overlooked. The original act of the 30th of April, 1790, “ for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States,” deserves, in common with much of the legislation of the First Congress, the praise of great sagacity and foresight in anticipating the wants and the operation of the new system of government. Still, however, there was a class of cases, arising out of the complex nature of our system, and the twofold jurisdiction existing in the United States, which, being entirely novel in the history of other governments, was scarcely to be provided for in advance. The analysis of the English constitution here failed the able men upon whom it devolved to put the new system of government in operation. It is to be wondered at, not that some things were overlooked, but that so many were provided for.

Of the cases left thus unprovided for, more perhaps were to be found in the judiciary department than in any other. Many crimes committed on shipboard, beyond the jurisdiction of any State, or in places within the Union excepted from State jurisdiction, were unprovided for. Statutes had been enacted from time to time to supply these deficiencies; but the subject does not appear at any time to have attracted the special attention of any one whose professional knowledge and weight of character qualified him to propose a remedy. It was at length taken up by Mr. Webster, in the second session of the Eighteenth Congress. It fell appropriately within the sphere of the Committee on the Judiciary, of which he was chairman; and his own extensive practice in the courts both of the United States and of the separate States had made him well acquainted with

« ÎnapoiContinuă »