The Compromise of 1833

Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri

The act of 1833, called a "compromise," was a breach of all the rules, and all the principles of legislation - concocted out of doors, managed by politicians dominated by an outside interest - kept a secret - passed by a majority pledged to its support, and pledged against any amendment except from its managers; - and issuing from the conjunction of rival politicians who had lately, and long, been in the most violent state of legislative as well as political antagonism. It comprised every title necessary to stamp a vicious and reprehensible act - bad in the matter - foul in the manner - full of abuse - and carried through upon the terrors of some, the interests of others, the political calculations of many, and the dupery of more; and all upon a plea which was an outrage upon representative government - upon the actual government - and upon the people of the States. That plea was, that the elections (presidential and congressional), had decided the fate of the protective system - had condemned it - had sentenced it to death - and charged a new Congress with the execution of the sentence; and, therefore, that it should be taken out of the hands of that new Congress, withdrawn from it before it met - and laid away for nine years and a half under the sanction of a, so called, compromise - intangible to the people - safe in its existence during all that time; and trusting to the chapter of accidents, and the skill of management, for its complete restoration at the end of the term. This was an outrage upon popular representation - an estoppel upon the popular will - the arrest of a judgement which the people had given - the usurpation of the rights of ensuing Congresses. It was the conception of some rival politicians who had lately distracted the country by their contention, and now undertook to compose it by their conjunction; and having failed in the game of agitation, threw it up for the game of pacification; and, in this new character, undertook to settle and regulate the affairs of their country for a term only half a year less than the duration of the siege of Troy; and long enough to cover two presidential elections.

This was a bold pretension. Rome had existed above five hundred years, and citizens had become masters of armies, and people humbled to the cry of panem et circenses - bread and the circus - before two or three rivals could go together in a corner, and arrange the affairs of the republic for five years: now this was done among us for double that time, and in the forty-fourth year of our age, and by citizens neither of whom had headed, though one had raised, an army. And now how could this be effected, and in a country so vast and intelligent? I answer: The inside view which I have given of the transaction explains it. It was an operation upon the best, as well as upon the worst feelings of our nature - upon the patriotic alarms of many, the political calculations of others, the interested schemes of more, and the proclivity of multitudes to be deceived. Some political rivals finding tariff no longer available for political elevation, either in its attack or defence; and, from a ladder to climb on, become a stumbling-block to fall over, and a pit to fall into, agree to lay it aside for the term of two presidential elections; upon the pretext of quieting the country which they had been disturbing; but in reality to get the crippled hobby out of the way, and act in concert against an old foe in power, and a new adversary, lately supposed to have been killed off, but now appearing high in the political firmament, and verging to its zenith. That new adversary was Mr. Van Buren, just elected Vice-President, and in the line of old precedents for the presidency; and the main object to be able to work against him, and for themselves, with preservation to the tariff, and extrication of Mr. Calhoun.

The masses were alarmed at the cry of civil war, concerted and spread for the purpose of alarm; and therefore ready to hail any scheme of deliverance from that calamity. The manufacturers saw their advantage in saving their high protecting duties from immediate reduction. The friends of Mr. Clay believed that the title of pacificator, which he was to earn, would win for him a return of the glory of the Missouri compromise. Mr. Calhoun's friends saw, for him, in any arrangement, a release from his untenable and perilous position. Members of gentle temperaments in both Houses, saw relief in middle courses, and felt safety in the very word "compromise," no matter how fictitious and fallacious. The friends of Mr. Van Buren saw his advantage at getting the tariff out of his way also; and General Jackson felt a positive relief in being spared the dire necessity of enforcing the laws by the sword and by criminal prosecutions. All these parties united to pass the act; and after it was passed, to praise it; and so it passed easily, and was ushered into life in the midst of thundering applause. Only a few of the well-known senators voted against it - Mr. Webster, Mr. Dickerson, General Samuel Smith, Mr. Benton.

My objections to this bill, and its mode of being passed, were deep and abiding, and went far beyond its own obnoxious provisions, and all the transient and temporary considerations connected with it. As a friend to popular representative government, I could not see, without insurmountable repugnance, two citizens set themselves up for a power in the State, and undertake to regulate, by their private agreement (to be invested with the forms of law), the public affairs for years to come. I admit no man to stand for a power in our country, and to assume to able to save the Union. Its safety does not depend upon the bargains of any two men. Its safety is in its own constitution - in its laws - and in the affections of the people; and all that is wanted in public men is to administer the constitution in its integrity, and to enforce the laws without fear of affection. A compromise made with a State in arms, is a capitulation to that State; and in this light, Mr. Calhoun constantly presented the act of 1833 and if it had emanated frm the government, he would have been right in his fact, and in his inductions; and all discontented States would have been justified, so far as successful precedent was concerned, in all future interpositions of its fiat to arrest the action of the federal government.

But it did not emanate from the government. It (the government) was proceeding wisely, justly, consitutionally in settling with South Carolina, by removing the cause of her real grievance, and by enforcing the laws against their violators. It (the constituted government) was proceeding regularly in this way, with a prospect of a successful issue at the actual session, and a certainty of it at the next one, when the whole subject was taken out of its hands by an arrangement between a few members. The injury was great then, and of permanent evil example. It remitted the government to the condition of the old confederation, acting upon sovereignties instead of individuals. It violated the feature or our Union which discriminated it from all confederacies which ever existed, and which was wisely and patriotically put into the constitution to save it from the fate which had attended all confederacies, ancient and modern. All these previous confederacies in their general or collective capacity, acted upon communities, and met organized resistance as often as they decreed any thing disagreeable to one of its strong members. This opposition could only be subdued by force; and the application of force has always brought on civil war; which has ended in the destruction of the confederacy.

The framers of our constitutional Union knew all this, and had seen the danger of it in history, and felt the danger of it in our confederation; and therefore established a UNION instead of a LEAGUE - to be sovereign and independent within its sphere, acting upon persons through its own laws and courts, instead of acting on communities through persuasion or force. It was the crowning wisdom of the new constitution; and the effect of this compromise legislation, was to destroy that great feature of our Union - to bring the general and State governments into conflict - and to substitute a sovereign State for an offending individual as often as a State chose to make the cause of that individual her own. A State cannot commit treason but a citizen can, and that against the laws of the United States, and so, if a citizen commits treason against the United States he may (if this interposition be admitted), be shielded by a State. Our whole frame of government is unhinged when the federal government shifts from its foundation, and goes to acting upon States instead of individuals; and, therefore, the "compromise," as it was called, with South Carolina in 1833 was in violation of the great Union principle of our government - remitting it to the imbecility of the old confederation, giving inducement of the Nashville convention of the present year (1850); and which has only to be followed up to see the States of this Union, like those of the Mexican republic, issuing their pronunciamientos at every discontent; and bringing the general government to a fight, or a capitulation, as often as they please.

I omit all consideration of the minor vices of the act - great and flagrant in themselves, but subordinate in comparison to the mischiefs done to the frame of our government. At any other time these vices of matter, and manner, would have been crushing to a bill. No bill containing a tithe of the vices, crowded into this one, could ever have got through Congress before. The overthrow of the old revenue principle, that duties were to be levied on luxuries, and not on necessaries - substitution of universal ad valorems to the exclusion of all specific duties - the substitution of the home for the foreign valuation - the abolition of all discriminations upon articles in the imposition of duties - the preposterous stipulation against protection, while giving protection, and even in new and unheard of forms; all these were flagrant vices of the bill, no one of which could ever have been carried through in a bill before; and which perished in this one before they arrived at their period of operation.

The year 1842 was to have been the jubilee of all these inventions, and set them all off in their career of usefulness; but that year saw all these fine anticipations fail! saw the high protective policy re-established, more burthensome than ever; but of this hereafter. Then the vices in the passage of the bill, being a political, not a legislative action - dominated by an outside interest of manufacturers - and openly carried in the Senate by a douceur to some men, not in "Kendal Green," but Kendal cotton. Yet it was received by the country as a deliverance, and the ostensible authors of it greeted as public benefactors; and their work declared by legislatures to be sacred and inviolate, and every citizen doomed to political outlawry that did not give in his adhesion, and bind himself to the perpetuity of the act. I was one of those who refused this adhesion - who continued to speak of the act as I thought - and who, in a few years, saw it sink into neglect and oblivion - die without the solace of pity or sorrow - and go into the grave without mourners or witnesses, or a stone to mark the place of its interment.


Thirty Years' View by Thomas Hart Benton, pages 345-347
D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1889