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PUBLIC DINNER AT PHILADELPHIA.*
MR. CHAIRMAN, - It is my duty, in the first place, to express the uncommon emotions which I feel in rising to discuss important subjects in a presence like this. It has not been my fortune, heretofore, to enter upon such a duty as is now before me, while galleries like these have been filled by an assemblage of the worth and beauty of the sex. Gentlemen, I come among you to address you as men of business of the city of Philadelphia, men engaged in the honorable pursuits of private life, and having no other interest in the political events and occurrences of the day, than as the course and acts of government affect life and liberty, property and industry. You are merchants, you are therefore deeply concerned in the peace of the country, and in whatever respects its commercial prosperity. Tyou are manufacturers, mechanics, artisans; you have an interest, therefore, in all those wise laws which protect capital and labor thus employed, all those laws which shed their benign influence over the industrial pursuits of human life. You are holders of city property, many of you are landholders in the country, many of you are occupiers and cultivators of your own land in the neighborhood of the city. Finally, I know you are all Americans, you are all members of this great and glorious republic, bound to its destiny, partaking of all the happiness which its government is calculated to afford, and interested in every thing that respects its present prospects and its future renown.
I am honored, Gentlemen, by an invitation to address such an
* A Speech delivered at a Great Public Dinner, given to Mr. Webster at Philadelphia, on the 2d of December, 1846, Hon. Samuel Breck in the Chair.
assemblage of my fellow-citizens. I will say that it is always agreeable to me to speak, and to think, upon great questions respecting our political institutions, their progress and their results, in this city of Philadelphia. With no habits of public life but such as have connected me with the Constitution of the United States, accustomed somewhat to study its history and its principles, and called upon now, for some years, to take a part in its administration, so far as the action of Congress is concerned, it is natural that I should look back to the origin of that independence from which the Constitution sprung, and to the Constitution itself, out of which the government now established over us arose. These reflections bring with them agreeable local associations. The independence of our country was declared in yonder hall, the Constitution was framed, also, within the same venerable walls; and when one to whom that Declaration of Independence and that Constitution are objects of the highest human regard enters that hall, it is natural that he should gather around him, in imagination, the great men, the illustrious sages, who filled it on those successive occasions. They are all gone to their graves. But they have left their works behind them, as imperishable memorials of their wisdom. The city of Philadelphia is, in all respects, much connected with the history of our country. She is, in all respects, interested in what affects the weal or woe of the republic. Her position along the line of the coast is central and important, her population is large, the occupations of her people are various; she is the capital of the great State of Pennsylvania, not improperly called the “Keystone” of the arch of this Union. Gentlemen, some years ago, in addressing a public meeting in the neighborhood of this city, I said, what I believed and now believe, that, with the exception of England, perhaps there is no spot upon the globe so abounding in natural riches as the State of Pennsylvania. She enjoys a mild and delightful climate, a rich and exuberant soil, certainly one of the best in the world, with mineral wealth beyond calculation. I know no portion of the globe that can go beyond her in any just statement of natural advantages, and of productive power. Pennsylvania, too, Gentlemen, is concerned in every interest that belongs to the country. On her eastern boundary she touches the tide-waters of the Atlantic, on her western border she reaches to the great river which carries, westward and southward, her products raised beyond the Alleghanies to the Gulf of Mexico. Thus she is open to the Gulf on the south and west, and to the ocean on the east. Her position is central, her population is numerous. If she chooses to say that she will connect the navigable waters which flow into the Gulf with the navigable waters of the Atlantic, she can do it without trespassing on any stranger's territory. It is with her a family affair. She has made one line of communication, she can make another, and as many as she pleases, towed the waters of the Ohio with those of the Atlantic. Gentlemen, I cannot help thinking that what Pennsylvania. is, and that greater which Pennsylvania is to be, is and will be mainly owing to the constitutional government under which we live. I would not regard the Constitution of the United States, nor any other work of man, with idolatrous admiration; but, this side of idolatry, I hold it in profound respect. I believe that no human working on such a subject, no human ability exerted for such an end, has ever produced so much happiness, or holds out now to so many millions of people the prospect, through such a succession of ages and ages, of so much happiness, as the Constitution of the United States. We who are here for one generation, for a single life, and yet, in our several stations and relations in society, intrusted, in some degree, with its protection and support, — what duty does it devolve, – what duty does it not devolve upon us! Gentlemen, there were those in the country at the time the Constitution was adopted who did not approve it. Some feared it from an excessive jealousy of power; others, for various causes, disliked it. The great majority of the people of the United States, however, adopted it, and placed Washington at the head of the first administration of the government. This Constitution, fairly expounded and justly interpreted, is the bond of our Union. Those who opposed it were all bound, in honor and justice, to follow the example of Patrick Henry, who himself opposed it, but who, when it had been adopted, took it in the fulness of its spirit, and to the highest extent of its honest interpretation. It was not, then, fair for those who had opposed the adoption of the Constitution to come in under it afterwards, and attempt to fritter away its provisions because they disliked them. The people had adopted the instrument as it stood, and they were bound by it, in its fair and full construction and interpretation. For the same reason, Gentlemen, those called upon to exercise high functions under the Constitution, in our day, may think that they could have made a better one. It may be the misfortune of the age of our fathers, that they had not the intelligence of this age. These persons may think that they could have made it much better, — that this thing and that ought not to have been put in it, and therefore they will try to get them out of it. That is not fair. Every man that is called upon to administer the Constitution of the United States, or act under it in any respect, is bound, in honor, and faith, and duty, to take it in its ordinary acceptation, and to act upon it as it was understood by those who framed it, and received by the people when they adopted it; and as it has been practised upon since, through all administrations of the government. It may have happened, I think it has happened, on more than one occasion, that the spirit of this instrument has been departed from ; that serious violations of that spirit have taken place. What of that? Are we to abandon it on that account? Are we to abandon it? Why, I should as soon think of abandoning my own father when ruffians attacked him No! we are to rally around it with all our power and all our force, determined to stand by it, or fall with it. What was the conduct of the great lovers of liberty in the early periods of English history ! They wrested from a reluctant monarch, King John, a great charter. The crown afterwards violated that charter. What did they then do? They remonstrated, they resisted, they reasserted, they reënforced it; and that, Gentlemen, is what we are to do. Gentlemen, I have never felt more interested, I may say never so much interested, in the course of my public life, as during some periods of the last session of Congress. I could not but feel that we were in the midst of most important events. It was my purpose, towards the close of the session, to consider with some care the acts of Congress, and the course of the administration during that session, and to express my opinions on them, in my place in the Senate. It so happened, however, that, in the fleeting hours of the last week of the session, no opportunity was offered; and I therefore announced a purpose of taking some occasion before the public of reviewing the acts of
Congress during the last session, and of making such comments upon them as, in my humble judgment, they deserved. The present may be a proper occasion for fulfilling that duty. But my purpose has been so long deferred, that it has been anticipated. Other commentators have arisen, more effective and authoritative than I, and they have expressed their opinions upon the conduct of the last session of Congress, with an emphasis which must have penetrated the dullest perception. Gentlemen, the political events that have occurred in the country since the termination of the session have impressed me with very profound feelings. The results of the elections, especially in the central States on the Atlantic, while they have awakened new hopes and new prospects, have been, nevertheless, of a nature to excite emotions far too deep to be expressed in any evanescent glow of party feeling. It appears to me quite plain, that no such revolution of public opinion as we have now witnessed has happened in this country before, for nearly fifty years. I may confine my remarks, in this respect, to those two great States, Pennsylvania and New York. When has such a change of public sentiment been manifested before, in the State of Pennsylvania, since the great controversy of 1799 and 1800? At that period, a very strong political dispute was carried on in this city, as well as elsewhere throughout the State, of which controversy the election between Governor McKean and Mr. Ross was one part and one element. The former was elected, and certain highly important political results followed. Since that time, no such entire revolution of popular sentiment, in regard to questions connected with the general government, as that witnessed within the last year, has taken place in Pennsylvania. I may say the same, in substance, I believe, of New York. Since the time of the great controversy in that State about the same period, I know of no change of sentiment in New York of such magnitude, and which has taken every body so much by surprise. At the same time, it is quite manifest that these changes have not been produced by effort. The country has been calm, the public mind serene. There have been no mass meetings, no extraordinary efforts of the press, no great attempts of any kind to influence men's opinions. It seems to me that the most remarkable circumstance connected with the occurrence is the spontaneous, selfVOL. II. 27