The President’s Message

“The doctrine, in our estimation, is, on the most essential point, atrocious, and the objects which are sought to be compassed are unworthy of the man, the office, thee country, and the age.”

As a mere literary production, the Message of Mr. Buchanan is so superior to any of the Messages of his immediate predecessor, that the reader naturally expects to find in it a corresponding superiority of sentiment and aim. When we meet a man who is well-dressed, and whose external demeanor is that of a gentleman, we are prone to infer that he is also a man of upright principles and honorable feelings. But we are very often mistaken in this inference; the nice garment proves to be little better than a nice disguise; and the robe of respectability may cover the heart of a very scurvy fellow.

Mr. Buchanan’s sentences run smoothly enough; they are for the most part grammatical; the tone throughout is sedate, if not dignified; and the general spirit unambitious and moderate. But the doctrine, in our estimation, is, on the most essential point, atrocious, and the objects which are sought to be compassed are unworthy of the man, the office, thee country, and the age. We refer, of course, to what is said of the one vital question with us now, — the question of Slavery in Kansas; but before proceeding to a discussion of that, let us say a word or two of other parts of the important document.

The President introduces, as the first of his topics, the prevailing money pressure, which he treats at considerable length, with some degree of truth, but without originality or comprehensiveness of view. He professes to inquire into the causes of the unfortunate disasters of trade, and into the remedies which may he devised against their recurrence; but on neither head is he remarkably profound or instructive. It is merely reiterating the commonplaces of the newspapers, to talk about “the excessive loans and issues of the banks,” and to ring changes of phraseology on the vices of speculation, over-trading, and stock-jobbing. All the world is as familiar with all that as the President can be, and scarcely needed a reminder on either score; what we wanted of the head of the nation, — what a real statesman, who understood his subject, would have given us, — that is, if he had pretended to go at all beyond the simple statement of the fact of commercial revulsion, into a discussion of it, — was a comprehensive and philosophic analysis of all the causes of the phenomenon, a calm and careful review of all its circumstances, and a rigid deduction of broad general principles from an adequate study of the entire case. But this the President has not furnished. In connecting our commercial derangements with the disorders of the banking system he has unquestionably struck upon a great and fundamental truth; but it is merely a single truth, and he strikes it in rather a vague and random way. In considering these reverses, there are many things to be taken into account besides the constitution and customs, whether good or bad, of our American banks, — many things which do not even confine themselves to this continent, but are spread over the greater part of the civilized world.

Mr. Buchanan is still lamer in his suggestion of remedies than he is in his inquiry after causes. The Federal Government, he thinks, can do little or nothing in the premises, — a fatal admission at the outset, — and we are coolly turned over to the most unsubstantial and impracticable of all reliances, “the wisdom and patriotism of the State legislatures”! Why cannot the Federal Government do anything in the premises? The President tells us that the Constitution has conferred upon Congress the exclusive right “to coin money and regulate the value thereof,” and that it has prohibited the States from “issuing bills of credit,” — which phrase, if it mean anything, means making paper-money; and the inference would seem to be inevitable that Congress has a sovereign authority and power over the whole matter. It may, moreover, touch the circulation of bills, by means of its indisputable right to lay a stamp-tax upon paper; and Mr. Gallatin long ago recommended the exercise of this power, as an effectual method of restraining the emission of small notes. Upon what principle, then, can the President assert so dictatorially as he does, that the Federal Government is concluded from action? If the excesses of the State Banks are so enormous as he represents, and so perpetually and so widely disastrous, why should it not interpose to avert the fearful evil? Why refer us for relief to the proceedings of thirty-one different legislative bodies, no three of which, probably, would agree upon any coherent system? We do not ourselves say that Congress ought to interfere and undertake by main force to regulate the currency, because we hold to other and, as we think, better methods of arriving at a sound and stable currency; but from the stand-point of the President, and with his views of the efficiency of legislative restrictions upon banks, we do not see how he could consistently avoid recommending the instant action of Congress. On the heel of his grandiloquent description of the evils of redundant paper money, — evils which are felt all over the country, — it is a lamentably impotent conclusion to say, “After all, we can’t do much to help it! Yes, let us confide piously in ‘the wisdom and patriotism of the State legislatures,’” — which are almost the last places in the world, as things go, where we should look for either quality.

Not being able to do anything himself, however, what does he urge upon the wise and patriotic State legislatures? Why, a series of flimsy restrictions, which would have about as much effect in preventing the tremendous abuses of banking which he himself depicts, as a bit of filigree iron-work would have in restraining the expansion of steam. Restrictions! restrictions! toujours restrictions! — as if that method of correcting the evil had not been utterly exploded by nearly two centuries of experience! Mr. Buchanan calls himself a Democrat he is loud in his protestations of respect for the sagacity, the good-sense, and the virtue of the people; his political school takes for its motto the well-known adage, “That government is best which governs least”; his party, if he does not, purports to be a great advocate of the emancipation of trade from all the old-fashioned restraints which take the names of protections, tariff, bounties, etc. etc.; and we wonder how it is, that, in his presumed excursions over the entire domain of freetrade, he should have got no inkling of a thought as to the benefits of free-trade in banking. We wonder that so great a subject could be dismissed with the suggestion of a few petty restraints.

“If the State legislatures,” remarks the President, summing up his entire thought, “afford us a real specie basis for our circulation, by increasing the denomination of bank-notes, first to twenty, and afterwards to fifty dollars; if they will require that the banks shall at all times keep on hand at least one dollar of gold and silver for every three dollars of their circulation and deposits; and if they will provide, by a self-executing enactment, which nothing can arrest, that the moment they suspend they shall go into liquidation; I believe that such provisions, with a weekly publication by each bank of a statement of its condition, would go far to secure us against future suspensions of specie payments.”

Singular blindness! Mr. Buchanan lived for several years, as American ambassador, in England. It is to be presumed that while there he used his eyes, and possibly his brains. He must have noticed occasionally, at least, in his walks through “the city,” the immense marble structure in Threadneedle Street, known as the Bank of England. It is certain that he has read the history of that bank, inasmuch as it is twice or thrice alluded to in his Message; he cannot be ignorant, therefore, that the “circulation” of England has essentially “a specie basis”; that no banknotes are issued there for less than the amount of twenty-five dollars; that the banks at all times keep on hand cite dollar of gold for every three dollars of their circulation and deposits and that the laws of bankruptcy are alike rigid in regard to institutions and individuals. These are precisely the provisions which he commends to the adoption of wise and patriotic State legislatures as an admirable corrective for suspensions; yet he forgets to explain to us now it happens that the Bank of England, to which they are all applied, has virtually suspended payment six times in the course of its existence, having been saved from open dishonor only by the timely assistance of the government while the trade of England, in spite of the staid and conservative habits of the people, is quite as liable to those terrific tarantula-dances, called revulsions, as our own. Before urging his “restraints,” the President ought to have inquired a little into the history of such restraints; and he would then have saved himself from the absurdity of patronizing remedies which an actual trial had proved ludicrously inapt and inefficacious.

With regard to the second topic of the Message, — our foreign relations, — it may be said that the positions assumed are frank, manly, and explicit; unless we have reason to suspect, in the slightly belligerent attitude towards Spain, a return, on the part of the President, to one of his old and unlawful loves, — the acquisition of Cuba. In that case, we should deplore his language, and be inclined to doubt also the sincerity of his just denunciations of Walker’s infamous schemes of piracy and brigandage. Until events, however, have developed the signs of a sinister policy of this sort, we must bestow an earnest plaudit upon his decided rebuke of the filibusters, coupling that praise with a wish that the “vigilance” of his subordinates may hereafter prove of a more wide-awake and energetic kind than has yet been manifested.

But for the terms in which the President has disposed of his third topic, — the Kansas difficulty, — we can scarcely characterize their disingenuousness and meanness. We have already spoken of the object of this part of the document as atrocious, — and we repeat the word, as the most befitting that could be used. That object is nothing less than an attempt to cover the enormous frauds which have marked the proceedings of the Pro-Slavery agents in Kansas, from their initiation, with a varnish of smooth and plausible pretexts. Adroitly taking up the question at the point which it had reached when his own administration began, he leaves out of view all the antecedent crimes, treacheries, and tricks by which the people of the Territory had been led into civil war, and thus assumes that the late Lecompton Convention was a legitimate Convention, and that the Constitution framed by it (or said to have been framed by it, — for there is no official report of the instrument as yet) was framed in pursuance of proper authority or law. He does not tell us that the Territorial legislature which called the Convention was a usurping legislature, brought together, as the Congressional records show, by an invading horde from a neighboring State; he does not tell us, that, even if it had, been a properly constituted body in itself, it had no right to call a Convention for the purpose of superseding the Territorial organization; he does not tell us that the Convention, as assembled, represented but one-tenth of the legal voters of the Territory; nor does he seem to regard the fact, that the other nine-tenths of the people were virtually disfranchised by that Convention, so far as their right to determine the provisions of their organic law is concerned, as at all a vital and important fact. By a miserable juggle, worthy of the frequenters of the gambling-house or the race-course, the people of Kansas have been nominally allowed to decide the question of Slavery, and that permission, according to Mr. Buchanan, fulfils and completes all that he ever meant, or his associates ever meant, by the promise of popular sovereignty!

Now this may be all that the President and his party ever meant by that phrase, but it is not all that their words expressed or the country expected. In the course of the last three or four years, and by a series of high-handed measures, the established principles of the Federal Government, in regard to its management of the Territories, — principles sanctioned by every administration from Washington’s down to Fillmore’s, — have been overruled for the sake of a new doctrine, which goes by the name of Popular Sovereignty. The most sacred and binding compacts of former years were annulled to make way for it; and the judicial department of the government was violently hauled from its sacred retreat, into the political, into the political arena, to give a gratuitous coup-de-grace to the old opinions and the apparent sanction of law to the new dogma, so that Popular Sovereignty might reign triumphant in the Territories. At the convention of the party which nominated Mr. Buchanan as a candidate for his present office, — “a celebrated occasion,” as he calls it, — the members affirmed in the most emphatic manner the right of the people of all the Territories, including Kansas, to form their own Constitutions as they pleased, under the single condition that it should be republican. Mr. Buchanan reiterated that assertion in his inaugural address, and in subsequent communications. When he appointed Mr. Robert J. Walker Governor of the Territory, he instructed him to assure the people that they should be guarantied against all “fraud or violence” when they should be called upon “to vote for or against the Constitution which would be submitted to them,” so that there might be “a fair expression of the popular will.” Nothing, in short, could have been clearer, more direct, more frequently repeated, than the asseverations of the “Democratic Party,” made through its official representatives, its newspapers, and its orators, — to the effect, that its only object, in its Kansas policy, was to secure “the great principle of Popular Sovereignty.” On the strength of these assurances alone, it was enabled to achieve its hard-won victory in the last Presidential campaign. Mr. Buchanan owes his position to them, as is repeatedly admitted by Mr. Douglas in his speech of December 9th last, — and the whole nation, having discussed and battled and voted on the principle, acquiesced, as it accustomed to do after an election, in the ascendency of the victors. It prepared itself to see the application of the principle which had been announced and defended as so important and wise.

Under these pledges and promises, what has been the performance? A Convention, for which, inasmuch as it was illegally called by an illegal body, a large proportion of the citizens of Kansas refused to vote, frames a Constitution, in the interest and according to the convictions of the slenderest minority of the people; it incorporates in that Constitution a recognition of old Territorial laws to the last degree offensive to the majority of the people; it incorporates in it a clause establishing slavery in perpetuity; it connects with it a Schedule perpetuating the existing slavery, whatever it may be, against all future remedy which has not the sanction of the slave-master; and then, by a miserable chicane, it submits the Constitution to a vote of the people, but it submits it under such terms, that the people, if they vote at all, must vote for it, whether they like it or not, while the only part in which they can exercise any choice is the clause which relates to future slavery. The other parts, especially the Schedule, which recognizes the existing slavery, and that almost irremediably, the people are not allowed to pronounce upon. They are not allowed to pronounce upon the thousand-and-one details of the State organization; they are fobbed off with a transparent cheat of “heads I win, — tails you lose”; — and the whole game is denominated, Popular Sovereignty.

What is worse, the President of the United States argues that this would be a fair settlement of the question, and that in the exercise of such a choice, the glorious doctrine of Popular Sovereignty is amply applied and vindicated. He admits that “the correct principle,” as in the case of Minnesota, is to refer the Constitution “to the approval and ratification of the people”; he admits that the only mode in which the will of the people can be “authentically ascertained is by a direct vote”; he admits that the “friends and supporters of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when struggling to sustain its provisions before the great tribunal of the American people,” “everywhere, throughout the Union, publicly pledged their faith and honor” to submit the question of their domestic institutions “to the decision of the bonâ-fide people of Kansas, without any qualification or restriction whatever”; but then, — and here is the subterfuge, — “domestic institutions” means only the single institution of slavery; and the Convention, in consenting to yield that (and this only in appearance) to the arbitrament of the people, has fully satisfied all the demands of the principle of Popular Sovereignty! Their other questions are all “political”; the questions as to the organization of their executive, legislative, and judicial departments, as to their elective franchise, their distribution of districts, their banks, their rates and modes of taxation, etc., etc., are not domestic questions, but political; and provided the people are suffered to vote on the future (not the existing) condition of slaves, faith has been sufficiently kept. Popular Sovereignty means “pertaining to negroes,” — not the negroes already in the Territory, but those who may be hereafter introduced; for the monopoly of that branch of trade and merchandise, which is already established, and the future growth and increase of it, must not be interfered with, even by Popular Sovereignty, because that would be “an act of gross injustice.” In other words, Popular Sovereignty is merely designed to cover the right of the people to vote on a single question, specially presented by an illegal body, under electoral arrangements made by its new officers, — which officers not only receive, but count the votes, and make the returns, — while all the rest is merely unimportant and trivial. It is just the sort of sovereignty for which Louis Napoleon provided when he wished to procure a popular sanction for the numberless atrocities of the coup-d’état of the 2d December.

An old authority tells us that “it is hard to kick against the pricks”; and the President appears to have experienced the difficulty, in kicking against the pricks of his conscience. He had committed himself to a principle which he is now compelled by the policy of his Southern masters to evade, and is painfully embarrassed as to how he shall hide his tracks. He knows, as all the world knows, that this jugglery in Kansas has been performed for no other purpose than to secure a foothold for Slavery there, against the demonstrated opinion of nine-tenths of the people; he knows, as all the world knows, that if the Convention had had the least desire to arrive at a fair expression of the popular will, on the question of Slavery or any other question, it was easy to make a candid and honorable submission of it to an election to be held honestly under the recognized officers of the Territory; but he knows, also, that under such circumstances the case would have been carried overwhelmingly against the “domestic institution,” and thus have rebuked, with all the emphasis that an outraged community could give to the expression of its will, the nefarious conduct which “the party” has pursued from the beginning, — and this was a consummation not to be wished. He therefore wriggles and shuffles, with an absurd and transparent inconsistency, to defeat the popular will, and yet mouth it bravely about “the great principle of Popular Sovereignty.”

The President thinks that it is time that these troubles in Kansas were at an end, and we cordially agree with him in the sentiment; but he needs scarcely to be reminded that they never will be at an end, until the wicked schemes, which have been so long persisted in, to override the convictions and hopes and interests of a large majority of the Kansas settlers, are utterly abandoned by those who are in power.

Of the remaining and mostly routine topics of the Message we have no occasion to speak; and we only regret that the deficiencies of the most important parts are so glaring as to oblige us to treat them with undisguised severity.