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specimen; which is extracted from his argument in the case of Wilkes vs. Lion, before the Court of Errors at Albany, in December, 1823, reported at length in the second of Cowen. From this argument we present a single passage, which illustrates the variation in Mr. Van Buren's opinions, at different periods, on the binding obligation of legal and constitutional precedents.
“ The parties came here,” said Mr. Van Buren,“ to litigate a principle so fully and plainly established, in the Supreme Court, that the decision of the cause, there, though involving a large amount of property, was not deemed worth reporting. You saw that principle concurred in by Kent, Chief Justice, Thompson, Chief Justice, and Spencer, Van Ness, Yates, and Platt, Justices; after a series of discussions almost unparalleled in the history of any principle in our law. You saw the same question arising and the same principle established in neighboring States. From every source, opposition was hushed; not only with men of books, but in the common walks of life. You knew that thousands of wills had been made upon that very principle, and that if you unsettled the rule, you opened Pandora's box. You knew it to be more important that the law should be settled, than how it should be settled. You secured to us a principle which had been established in the mind of every man for a long time; and you were right, for the contrary would have been incalculably mischievous. You have not the moral power to change your ground, because it is not right. Who can know what the law of this State is, unless your decision is final ? Shall we look into your decisions under the idea that they are to be overturned by a new set of men who shall come here tomorrow? A change of decision with a change of men would be a less evil in the Supreme Court of this State, or of the United States, because, from the tenure of the Judges' office, frequent changes are not to be looked for. This Court may change once in four years.* Are we barely enabled to say, 'these words meant a definite failure of issue yesterday, but whether this will be the law next year, I will tell you after election ?' The law of discretion, with the best of men and the best of judges, is, more or less, the creature of prejudice or passion. Your decisions should be as stable as the Constitution; they should be so, in order that the suitor may, at least, see one spot where there is an end of uncertainty.”
The comparison of these opinions with those subsequently advanced by Mr. Van Buren in his letter to Sherrod Williams, indicates a very material change in his opinions on the points here involved.
In the thirtieth year of his age Mr. Van Buren was elected to the State Senate, where his legal term of service commenced on the fourth of July, 1812; his actual entrance on the duties of the office, however, was in the November following. The opposing candidate was Edward P. Livingston, then of the Federal party, though subsequently recognised as a Jackson Democrat. It was by the friends of De Witt Clinton that Mr. Van Buren's success was compassed. The question of “
The Senators of the State of New York, eligible every four years, together with the Lieutenant Governor, Chancellor and Justices of the Supreme Court, constitute the Court for the correction of Errors.
war or no
war”then agitated the whole country. On the 29th of May, 1812, a few days before the declaration of war, a caucus was held at Albany, in which Mr. Van Buren took an active part. At that caucus De Witt Clinton was nominated to the presidency, in opposition to James Madison. Mr. Clinton was opposed to the war. It may be reasonably inferred, then, that in its early stages, Mr. Van Buren was also opposed to the war; though the question is one of no great interest, involving only a matter of opinion, and reflecting, in any event, no discredit upon Van Buren. There is no doubt that at the period to which we refer, the test of Democracy was the policy of the Democratic Congressional Caucus. It was by the nomination of this body that Mr. Jefferson had been iwice elected, and Mr. Madison already once. By the nomination of this caucus, Vt. Van Buren was unwilling to abide ; and by the Democratic party was regarded as politically heterodox.
During the autumn of 1812, Mr. James A. Hamilton, subsequently district attorney of New York, under the administration of General Jackson, resided at Hudson, and formed an intimate connection with Mr. Van Buren. At this period these gentlemen rallied, nominally, under different standards ; but they were aiming at the same objects, to bring the war into disrepute, and through the agency of Mr. Clinton defeat the re-election of Madi. son. They both labored zealously in behalf of Mr. Clinton; they were both loud and strong in their denunciations of his opponent. The journals, which were sustained by them and their friends, used the most decided and violent language in condemnation of the war and its promoters.
On the third of November, 1812, the Legislature met in Albany for the purpose of choosing electors. Mr. Van Buren took his seat as a member of the Senate. Governor Tompkins announced in his message that war had been declared. A committee, consisting of Messrs. Wilkins, Van Buren and Platt, was appointed to draft a respectful answer. This docu. ment breathes any thing but approbation of the war. It is cold, brief, and studied. The following is the language of Mr. Van Buren : “ The Senate fully concur with your excellency in the sentiment, that, at a period like the present, when our country is engaged in a war with one of the most powerful nations of Europe, difference of opinion on abstract points should not be suffered to impede or prevent our united and vigorous support of the constituted authority of the nation.”
On the evening of the fourth of November, the Democratic members of the Legislature met in the Senate chamber to nominate candidates for presidential electors. The proposition before the caucus was “Madison and war" or “ Clinton and peace.'
Mr. Van Buren spoke strongly for Clinton and peace. He was severe on Southern men and policy, and indulged in bitter sneers and sarcasms at the expense of the Old Dominion. In com. paring Madison with Clinton, he rated the former infinitely below the latter. He denounced the policy of the general government in plunging the nation, unprepared, into a war; and denounced the entire cabinet as unworthy the confidence and support of the people. Mr. Van Buren carried his point, and the caucus decided that ihey would support no man who would vote for James Madison.
Thus it appears that from 1811 to 1813. Mr. Van Buren was the associate and friend of that class of politicians opposed to the war ; that he was the opponent of Madison, and the adherent of Clinton. It is not our purpose to discuss the merits of the respective parties or candidates ; to assail or eulogize either the one or the other. Our only -object is to make an impartial record of facts. When Mr. Madison was re-elected, December, 1812, Mr. Van Buren was disinclined to continue his opposition, and made arrangements to transfer his influence to the Madison party. Having ingratiated himself with Governor Tompkins, who possessed the confidence of the administration, and had sustained the war from its commencement, he was introduced to the attention of the General Government. The trials of Hall and Wilkinson offered an opportunity to the war department for bestowing considerable largesses upon a new supporter; and Mr. Van Buren was suddenly converted into an advocate of the war, a supporter of Mr. Madison, and a professor of the current Virginia politics. In this complexion he continued during the war.
In 1816, the gubernatorial term of Mr. Tompkins expired. During the same year Mr. Madison was to retire from the presidency. Promises nad been made to the friends of Mr. Tompkins that he should receive the nomination to the successorship; but it soon became apparent that Mr. Monroe and Mr. Crawford would be the prominent candidates. The friends of either of these gentlemen were willing to take Mr. Tompkins as Vice-President; and he was accordingly designated as the candidate at Washington. While it was well understood that he would receive this nomination, a legislative caucus at Albany again put him before the people for Governor. In April he was re-elected to the office. In the following December he was elected to the vice-presidency, but did not resign the former station till the 24th of February, 1817.
During the summer and autumn of 1816, it had become apparent to Mr. Van Buren that Mr. Clinton, as the head of the canal party, would be the next candidate for the gubernatorial chair. The canal policy was evidently in the ascendant. Till the convening of the Legislature in January, 1817, Mr. Van Buren had been entirely non-committal on the subject of internal improvements, and since his original rupture had been engaged in violent denunciations of Mr. Clinton. When the legislative nominating caucus was to be held, delegates were admitted from the Federal counties. Previous to the convention several preliminary meetings were held by the anti-Clintonians, among whom Mr. Van Buren was then numbered, and one of them at his own house. It was then determined that as soon as Mr. Clinton was nominated, the minority should withdraw. At length the grand caucus was held, on the 27th of March, 1817, and, as had been expected, Mr. Clinton received the nomination. As soon as the result was declared, Mr. Van Buren rose and moved that the nomination should be unanimous. This movement was utterly unexpected, and produced great confusion and consternation in the ranks of the anti-Clintonians. Some withdrew, others acquiesced in the measure, because they were too much prised to think of opposition. Mr. Van Buren found himself once more safely landed among the friends of Mr. Clinton, and three weeks afterwards gave his first vote in favor of appropriations for the canal.
After the election of Governor Clinton, Mr. Van Buren ascertained that he could not obtain his confidence, and was soon found in an opposition. The course pursued in appointments to office was not approved by the Democratic party; and an open rupture was soon the consequence. Mr. Van Buren and his friends withdrew their support from Mr. Clinton's measures, and prepared to oppose his re-election.
In 1819, Rufus King's term of service in the Senate of the United States expired. The New York Legislature convened in January. The Democratic members, Clintonian, and anti-Clintonian, united, were as three to one of the Federalists. Through Mr. Van Buren's influence, the election of Senator was postponed ; no nomination being made by either branch of the Legislature. This body then adjourned, leaving the State in part unrepresented in the Senate. At this period the Federal newspapers were assailing Mr. Clinton and his friends for not supporting Mr. King. The newspapers under Mr. Van Buren's influence were making the most solemn declarations “ that the Republicans would not move to the right or to the left. They would support their candidate and no other."
During the summer of 1819, Mr. Van Buren's intercourse with Mr. King was of a very familiar, if not confidential character; and an arrangement was effected with the Federalists to elect Mr. King to the Senate. With the anti-Clintonian party, an impression was created that the Clintonians would elect Mr. King if they did not; and the ensuing session of the Legislature, Mr. King was elected by the unanimous vote of the Senate, and with but three dissenting votes in the House of Representatives. In the summer previous a pamphlet had been prepared, entitled “Considerations in favor of the appointment of Rufus King to the Senate of the United States," addressed to the Republican members of the New York Legislature, by one of their colleagues. This pamphlet was said 10 be the joint production of Mr. Van Buren and Mr. Benjamin F. Butler. In the autumn of the same year, Mr.Van Buren addressed a letter to one of his friends, in which a passage occurs which has been the subject of a good deal of comment, and which we therefore copy :
“I should sorely regret to find any flagging on the subject of Mr. King. We are committed to his support. It is both wise and honest; and we must have no fluttering in our course. Mr. King's views towards us are honorable and correct. The Missouri question conceals, so far as he is concerned, no plot, and we shall give it a true direction. You know what the feelings and views of our friends were, when I saw you ; and you know what we then concluded to do. My considerations, &c., and the aspect of the Albany Argus, will show you that we have entered on the work in earnest. We cannot, therefore, look back. Let us not, then, have any halting. I will put my head on its propriety."
In the winter of 1819–20, a public meeting was held at Albany to express the feelings of its citizens on the extension of slavery beyond the Mississippi. Mr. Van Buren did not attend the primary meeting ; at which his name was placed on the committee without his knowledge, but subsequently retained there by his own consent. When the large meeting was held Mr. Van Buren was absent from Albany on professional business. Resolutions were adopted, and a committee appointed to memorialize Congress. On this committee Mr. Van Buren's name was placed during his absence. Their memorial was reported and adopted. On the return of Mr. Van Buren, he declined signing the memorial or cooperating with its friends, as he disapproved the sentiments contained in the resolutions.
At the meeting of the Legislature, Governor Clinton directed their attention to the question of admitting Missouri into the Union, with the right to hold slaves. The House of Representatives accordingly adopted a resolution, instructing their Senators, and requesting the Representatives of the State in Congress, “ to oppose the admission as a State in the Union of any territory not comprised in the original boundary of the United States, without making the prohibition of slavery therein an indispensable condition of admission." In this resolution the Senate, and Mr. Van Buren as one of the number, concurred. It was adopted without division or debate.
On the sixth day of February, 1821, Mr. Van Buren was appointed, by the Legislature of New York, a member of the Senate of the United States. In the August following, he was returned a member of the convention to revise the Constitution of the State. In this convention he took an active part. Several of his speeches on the important questions which came before it have been preserved. Some extracts from them we copy as favorable specimens of his style and political opinions. Of the legislative power, and the executive veto, he speaks in the following manner:
“Sir, such is the superior force and influence of legislative power such is the reverence and regard with which it is looked up to, that no man in the community will have the temerity, on ordinary occasions, to resist its acts, or check its proceedings. I cannot illustrate this position more strongly than by a reference to the Constitution of England. There the executive is a branch of the Legislature, and has an absolute negative. Surrounded as he is with prerogative, and placed far beyond the reach of the people, yet, since the year 1692, no objection has been made by the king of Great Britain to any bill presented for his approbation. Rather than produce the excitement and irritation which, even there, would result from the rejection of a bill passed by the Parliament, he has resorted to means which have degraded the government, and dishonored the nation, to prevent the passage of bills which he should feel it his duty to reject. In the declaration of independence, in the catalogue of wrongs under which our fathers had been suffering, one of the most prominent was, that the king had exercised his prerogative, and had refused his sanction to salutary laws. Gentlemen may therefore rest satisfied, that very
little danger is to be apprehended on this subject."
On the question of universal and unrestricted suffrage, we find the following record of his opinion. He would only say, that among the many evils which would flow from a wholly unrestricted suffrage, the following would be the most injurious, viz :
"First. It would give to the city of New York about twenty-five thousand votes ; whilst, under the liberal extension of the right on the choice of delegates to this convention, she had but about thirteen or fourteen thousand. That the character of the increased number of votes would be