Page images



In February, 1831, several distinguished gentlemen of the City of New York, in behalf of themselves, and a large number of other citizens, invited Mr. WEBSTER to a public dinner, as a mark of their respect for the value and success of his efforts, in the preceding session of Congress, in defence of the Constitution of the United States. His speech in reply to Mr. Hayne (published in the former volume), which, by that time, had been circulated and read through the country to a greater extent than any speech ever before delivered in Congress, was the particular effort, doubtless, which procured the honor of this invitation.

The dinner took place, at the City Hotel, on the 10th of March, and was attended by a very large assembly.

Chancellor Kent presided, and, in proposing to the gentlemen the health of their guest, made the following remarks :

NEW ENGLAND had been long fruitful in great men, the necessary consequence of the admirable discipline of her institutions; and we were this day honored with the presence of one of those cherished objects of her attachment and pride, who has an undoubted and peculiar title to our regard. It is a plain truth that he who defends the Constitution of his country by his wisdom in council, is entitled to share her gratitude with those who protect it by valor in the field. Peace has its victories as well as war. We all recollect a late memorable occasion, when the exalted talents and enlightened patriotism of the gentleman to whom he had al Juded, were exerted in the support of our national Union, and the sound in terpretation of its Charter. If there be any one political precept, preeminent above all others, and acknowledged by all, it is that which dictates the absolute necessity of a union of the States under one government, and that government clothed with those attributes and powers with which the existing Constitution has invested it. We were indebted, under Providence, to the operation and influence of the powers of that Constitution, for our national honor abroad, and for unexampled prosperity at home. Its future stability depended upon the firm support and due exercise of its legitimate powers in all their branches. A tendency to disunion—to anarchy among the members rather than to tyranny in the head -had been heretofore the melancholy fate of all the federal governments of ancient and modern Europe. Our Union and National Constitution were formed, as we have hitherto been led to believe, under better auspices and with improved wisdom. But there was a deadly principle of disease inherent in the system. The assumption by any member of the


Union, of the right to question and resist, or annul, as its own judgment should dictate, either the laws of Congress, or the treaties, or the decisions of the Federal Courts, or the mandates of the executive power, duly made and promulgated as the Constitution prescribes, was a most dangerous assumption of power, leading to collision and the destruction of the system. And if, contrary to all our expectations, we should hereafter fail in the grand experiment of a confederate government, extending over some of the fairest portions of this continent, and destined to act, at the same time, with efficiency and harmony, we should most grievously disappoint the hopes of mankind, and blast forever the fruits of the revolution.

But, happily for us, the refutation of such dangerous pretensions, on the occasion referred to, was signal and complete. The false images and delusive theories which had perplexed the thoughts and disturbed the judgments of men, were then dissipated in like manner as spectres disappear at the rising of the sun. The inestimable value of the Union, and the true principles of the Constitution, were explained by clear and accurate reasonings, and enforced by pathetic and eloquent illustrations. The result was the more auspicious, as the heretical doctrines, which were then fairly reasoned down, had been advanced by a very respectable portion of the Union, and urged on the floor of the Senate by the polished mind, manly zeal, and honored name of a distinguished member from the South.

The consequences of that discussion have been extremely beneficial. It turned the attention of the public to the great doctrines of national rights and national union. Constitutional law ceased to remain wrapped up in the breasts, and taught only by the responses, of the living oracles of the law. Socrates was said to have drawn down philosophy from the skies, and scattered it among the schools. It may with equal truth be said that constitutional law, by means of those senatorial discussions, and the master genius that guided them, was rescued from the archives of our tribunals and the libraries of lawyers, and placed under the eye, and submitted to the judgment, of the American people. Their verdict is with us, and from it their lies no appeal.

As soon as the immense cheering and acclamations, with which this address and toast were received, had subsided, Mr. WEBSTER rose and spoke as follows:

I owe the honor of this occasion, gentlemen, to your patriotic and affectionate attachment to the Constitution of our country. For an effort, well intended, however otherwise of unpretending character, made in the discharge of public duty, and designed to maintain the Constitution, and vindicate its just powers, you have been pleased to tender me this token of your respect. It would be idle affectation to deny, that it gives me singular gratification. Every public man must naturally desire the approbation of his fellow-citizens; and though it may be supposed that I should be anxious, in the first place, not to disappoint the expectations of those whose immediate representative I am, it is not possible, that I should not feel, nevertheless, the high value of such a mark of esteem as is here offered. But, gentlemen, I am conscious that the main purpose of this occasion is higher than mere manifestation of per

sonal regard. It is to evince your devotion to the Constitution, your sense of its transcendent value, and your just alarm at whatever threatens to weaken its proper authority, or endanger its existence.

Gentlemen, this could hardly be otherwise. It would be strange, indeed, if the members of this vast commercial community should not be first and foremost to rally for the Constitution, whenever opinions and doctrines are advanced hostile to its principles. Where, sooner than here, where, louder than here, may we expect a patriotic voice to be raised, when the Union of the States is threatened ? In this great Emporium, at this central point of the united commerce of the United States, of all places, we may expect the warmest, the most determined and universal, feeling of attachment to the National Government. Gentlemen, no one can estimate more highly than I do the natural advantages of your City. No one entertains a higher opinion than myself, also, of that spirit of wise and liberal policy, which has actuated the government of your own great State in the accomplishment of high objects, important to the growth and prosperity both of the State and the City. But all these local advantages, and all this enlightened state policy, could never have made your City what it now is, without the aid and protection of a General Government, extending over all the States, and establishing, for all, a common and uniform system of commercial regulation. Without national character, without public credit, without systematic finance, without uniformity of commercial laws, all other advantages possessed by this City, would have decayed and perished, like unripe fruit. A General Government was, for years before it was instituted, the great object of desire to the inhabitants of this City. New York, at a very early day, was conscious of her local advantages for commerce-she saw her destiny, and was eager to embrace it; but nothing else than a General Government could make free her path before her, and set her forward on her brilliant career. She early saw all this, and to the accomplishment of this great and indispensable object, she bent up every faculty, and exerted every effort. She was not mistaken. She formed no false judgment. At the moment of the adoption of the Constitution, New York was the capital of one State, and contained thirty-two or three thousand people. It now contains more than two hundred thousand people, and is justly regarded as the Commercial Capital, not only of all the United States, but of the whole Continent also, from the Pole to the South Sea. Every page of her history, for the last forty years, bears high and irresistible testimony to the benefits and blessings of the General Government. Her astonishing growth is referred to, and quoted, all the world over, as one of the most striking proofs of the effects of our Federal Union. To suppose her now to be easy and indifferent, when notions are advanced tending to its dissolution, would be to suppose her equally forgetful of the past, and blind to the present, alike ignorant of her own history, and her own interest, metamorphosed, from all that she has been, into a being, tired of its prosperity, sick of its own growth and greatness, and infatuated for its own destruction. Every blow aimed at the Union of the States strikes on the tenderest nerve of her interest and her happiness. To bring the Union into debate, is to bring her own future prosperity into debate also. To speak of arresting the laws of the Union, of interposing State power in matters of Commerce and Revenue, of weakening the full and just authority of the General Government, would be, in regard to this City, but another mode of speaking of commercial ruin, of abandoned wharves, of vacated houses, of diminished and dispersing population, of bankrupt merchants, of mechanics without employment, and laborers without bread. The growth of this City, and the Constitution of the United States, are coevals and cotemporaries. They began together, they have flourished together, and if rashness and folly destroy one, the other will follow it to the tomb.

Gentlemen, it is true, indeed, that the growth of this City is extraordinary, and almost unexampled. It is now, I believe, sixteen or seventeen years since I first saw it. Within that comparatively short period, it has added to its number three times the whole amount of its population when the Constitution was adopted. Of all things having power to check this prosperity; of all things potent to blight and blast it; of all things capable of compelling this City to recede as fast as she has advanced, disturbed government, an enfeebled public authority, a broken or a weakened Union of the States,—would be most sovereign. This would be cause efficient enough. Every thing else, in the common fortune of communities, she may hope to resist or to prevent. But this would be fatal as the arrow of death.

Gentlemen, you have personal recollections and associations, connected with the establishment and adoption of the Constitution, which are necessarily called up on an occasion like this. It is impossible to forget the prominent agency which eminent citizens of your own fulfilled, in regard to that great measure. Those great men are now recorded among the illustrious dead; but they have left names never to be forgotten, and never to be remembered without respect and veneration. Least of all, can they be forgotten by you, when assembled here for the purpose of signifying your attachment to the Constitution, and your sense of its inestimable importance to the bappiness of the people.

I should do violence to my own feelings, gentlemen-I think I should offend yours—if I omitted respectful mention of distinguished names, yet fresh in your recollections. How can I stand here, to speak of the Constitution of the United States, of the wisdom of its provisions, of the difficulties attending its adoption of the evils from which it rescued the country, and of the prosperity and power to which it has raised it, and yet pay no tribute to those who were highly instrumental in accomplishing the work? While we are here, to rejoice that it yet stands firm and strong ; while we congratulate one another that we live under its benign influence, and cherish hopes of its long duration,-we cannot forget who they were that, in the day of our national infancy, in the times of despondency and despair, mainly assisted to work out our deliverance. "I should feel that I disregarded the strong recollections which the occasion presses upon us, that I was not true to gratitude, not true to patriotism, not true to the living or the dead, not true to your feelings or my own, if I should forbear to make mention of ALEXANDER HAMILTON.

Coming from the military service of the country, yet a youth, but with knowledge and maturity, even in civil affairs, far beyond his years, he made this City the place of his adoption ; and he gave the whole powers of his mind to the contemplation of the weak and distracted condition of the country. Daily increasing in acquaintance and confidence with the people of this City, he saw, what they also saw, the absolute necessity of some closer bond of union for the States. This was the great object of desire. He never appears to have lost sight of it, but was found in the lead, whenever any thing was to be attempted for its accomplishment. One experiment after another, as is well known, was tried, and all failed. The States were urgently called on to confer such further powers on the old Congress as would enable it to redeem the public faith, or to adopt, themselves, some general and common principle of commercial regulation. But the States had not agreed, and were not likely to agree. In this posture of affairs, so full of public difficulty, and public distress, Commissioners from five or six of the States met, on the request of Virginia, at Annapolis, in Sept., 1786. The precise object of their appointment was, to take into consideration the trade of the United States; to examine the relative situations and trade of the several States; and to consider how far a uniform system of commercial regulations was necessary to their common interest and permanent harmony. Mr. Hamilton was one of these Commissioners; and I have understood, though I cannot assert the fact, that their Report was drawn by him. His associate from this State was the venerable Judge BENSON, who has lived long, and still lives, to see the happy results of the counsels which originated in this meeting. Of its members, he and Mr. Madison are, I believe, now the only survivors. These Commissioners recommended, what took place the next year, a General Convention of all the States, to take into serious deliberation the condition of the country, and devise such provisions as should render the

« PreviousContinue »