The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Saturday, July 30, 2005
Politics then and now
A depressing slew of more or less objectionable bills passed Congress in time for the summer recess, most of them with the support of a substantial minority of Dems. (When the depression lifts a tad, I may return to them.)
Continuing my skim of Nevins, I get to the episode of the 1850 Compromise, in which those old knights of the Senate, Clay, Calhoun and Webster, are winched once more onto their warhorses for one last charge.
A noted set-piece of oratory came from Webster in his famous Seventh of March Speech - that's March 7 1850 - of which (according to this copy) the second sentence ran as follows:
It is fortunate that there is a Senate of the United States; a body not yet moved from its propriety, not lost to a just sense of its own dignity and its own high responsibilities, and a body to which the country looks, with confidence, for wise, moderate, patriotic, and healing counsels.
Nevins (Vol 1 p310) gives the lie to such bollocks: during a debate on the question of referring the various proposals for the admission of California, organising New Mexico, stiffening the Fugitive Slave Acts and so on, Thomas Benton (MO) accused the Southern leaders of blackmail in the cause of an artificial problem.
Henry Foote (MS) got up in their defence,
declaring them a band of patriots who would be held in veneration when their calumniators were regarded with loathing and contempt.
Time for some propriety and dignity?
At the word "calumniators" Benton left his desk and strode toward the Mississippian. Foote retreated toward the clerk's table, snatched out a five-chambered revolver, and cocked it. Benton, stopped by a friendly Senator, was turning back toward his seat when he saw the weapon. He instantly tore open his coat and shirt like Governor Berkeley facing Nathaniel Bacon, shouting, "I am not armed. I have no pistols. I disdain to carry arms. Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!"
As things quietened down a little, Foote - who, I gather from Nevins, was something of a moderate amongst Southern Democrats - explained why he was carrying heat:
I brought it here to defend myself. I had been informed that I should be fired at.
Evidently it was taken as read that a magnolia-scented cavalier would be excused his having drawn on an unarmed man by that perfection of honour that was every Southron's burden. (Trent Lott would understand.)
Because not only were the Feds not called to clap the gunsel in irons, but a Senate committee set up to examine the incident could not bring itself to make any recommendations.
I am happy to remain without practical experience of handguns; but I should have thought cocking a pistol in such circumstances would have been extremely dangerous. What if Foote had killed a freesoil senator? Would that have merely advanced the timing of the civil war, or been a jolt that would have sent politics down the track of gradual emancipation? The former seems altogether more likely.
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