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Speech delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States,
January 15, 1839.
Mr. LEGARE said he would, in the remarks with which he was about to trouble the House, confine himself, as much as possible, to the subject immediately submitted to its consideration. He said as much as possible, because the questions that had for some time past occupied and agitated the public mind were so complicated, and ran so naturally into one another, that it was not very easy to single out any one of them, and treat of it as if it were perfectly isolated. As he trusted, however, that he should have an opportunity-perhaps more than one-before the close of the session, to explain at large his views in regard to these high matters, he would content himself, for the present, with stating and enforcing the reasons which had determined himand he thought would (as they ought) determine the Houseto vote, without any hesitation, for the amendment of the gentleman from Virginia. He would be glad if he were fortunate enough to satisfy the Chair itself that the course marked out by that amendment was the proper one. He would not for the world that any thing he did in that hall should be fairly construed into a wilsul trespass upon the jurisdiction of the Chair; much less, into a wanton slur upon the character of the Speaker. He had (he said) too high a sense of what was due to the relations that subsisted between that gentleman and the House, as president and members of a high deliberative body. He knew that the official dignity of that officer was identified with that of the House ; that his personal feelings are recommended, in a peculiar manner, to its tenderest protection; and he would promise the Chair that it might count with confidence on receiving at his hands -- what certainly it would cost him no great effort of generosity to afford—the most indulgent, the most delicate, and the most scrupulous attention, both to the one and to the other.
But, sir, (said Mr. L.,) if the Speaker stands, as I think he does, in a false position in relation to this subject, it is his friends, they, I mean, who profess to be his exclusive friends-that have placed him in it. Not satisfied with claiming for the Chair, as belonging to it of right, a power it does not possess, they have chosen to rest their pretensions on grounds as bad as the claim
itself. Not only does their argument not prove what they purpose, but it leads, if it proves any thing at all, to the very opposite conclusion. If their law is bad, their logic is worse. Instead of showing that the House ought, as its rules now stands, to confide the appointment of this committee to the Speaker, it would justify the House in depriving him of the power, even if it hitherto belonged to him. What is it? Say the gentleman, your committee ought to be composed of members of whom a majority should be favorable to the administration. This is their first assumption. Then they proceed to their second proposition, which is that the Speaker is pledged to his party, and bound upon principle to appoint such a committee ; and from these premises they draw their conclusion that he is properly vested with power to appoint it, and should be allowed to exercise it in this
In other words, the House, which has been called upon by the Executive to institute an extraordinary inquiry into the causes of a defalcation itself so extraordinary as to demand the the most rigid scrutiny, ought, contrary, as I shall show, to every sound principle, to confide that inquiry to a committee so constituted as to be, by the confession of gentlemen, advocates rather than judges of the department of the government whose conduct is the subject of investigation.
Nothing, indeed, can be more extraordinary than the whole course of those professing to be the exclusive friends of the administration on this subject. If a stranger to the proceedings of this House had happened to come into it, for the first time, when the gentleman from New-York was making what I must be permitted to call his very singular opening speech-a speech in which he said all that he ought not to have said, and left unsaid all that he ought to have said--a speech which he yesterday boasted had occupied the House but ten minutes, and in the course of which, I will add, he did not give a single second to any argument to show that the investigation he demanded should be carried on at all—such a stranger would naturally have asked what foul conspiracy had been detected ? who they were that were moving with such "a stealthy pace,” in deep darkness to some purpose as dark
[Here Mr. Cambreleng disclaimed any intention of indulging in denunciation, and asked what he had said that could be so interpreted.]
Mr. Legaré. Did the gentleman mean nothing by "voting in the dark,” and “shunning responsibility ?" Did he mean nothing by the private interests to which he so significantly alluded? Would he venture to utter imputations, in an assembly of gentlemen, about "Morris Canals," and things of that sort, of which he (Mr. L.) knew nothing, and then ask, so innocently, what he had said that could be considered as denunciation ?
Mr. Cambreleng here made some explanation, (scarcely heard by the reporter,) of which the purport seemed to be that what he had said on the subject of the conservatives and the Morris Canal was in reply to Mr. Wise, who urged as a reason, against the Speaker's appointing the committee, that it would be so constituted as to shield the wrong-doers of his own party--that he made no charge himself, &c.]
Mr. Legaré. Sir, I call the attention of the House and of the country to the avowal that has been just made. The gentleman from New York is one of the most ancient and experienced members of this House ; he is its official leader: the accredited organ of the administration; a guide and an adviser, followed by a great party here ; and does he talk of our shunning responsibility and shielding fraud-does he hint at combinations to protect peculators, because they disgrace this or that political party by assuming its name—and then come forward before the American people, and coolly confess that he has uttered language of this sort without any sense of the responsibility which it imposes upon him—that they were mere idle words, thrown out at random against a gentleman of one party, because he and his friends had been attacked by another gentleman of a different party? But I will omit what I was going to say on this head. I will not hold the gentleman to language so inconsiderately uttered. I will proceed with the argument which he said not a syllable to impugn, and will show conclusively that, by adopting the amendment of the gentleman from Virginia, the Honse, far from departing from every precedent, violating every principle, and trampling under foot the rights of the Chair, as had been so confidently alleged, will only be exercising its own undoubted rights, according to the very letter of its positive and written rules.
Why, sir, it was but a very few moments after the gentleman from New-York had taken his seat that the Speaker read from the Chair the law which, from time immemorial, has governed the practice of this House. By our rules, the Speaker is charged with the appointment of committees, unless the House shall see fit to order otherwise, in which case they shall be chosen by ballot. The law is on your table—it stares you in the face-it is, clear, direct, unequivocal. In general, the appointment of committees is referred to the Speaker, as was said by my colleague over the way, (Mr. Pickens,) for the sake of convenience, but the unquestionable power of this House to make the appointment itself has been expressly reserved ; and, whenever a case shall arise calling for the exercise of it, the choice shall be made by ballot. And now, sir, I ask, how comes it that nothing was ever heard before of the darkness and the odiousness of th form of proceeding? Are we better or wiser than our predecessors ? Have we any lights on the subject now which we did not possess
when those rules were adopted ? And, if it be admitted that there are any cases in which this rule should be enforced, can it be denied that this is such a case ?
But, before I proceed to show this, as I trust, conclusively, I will say a few words upon a subject which has been more than once alluded to in our debates, and seems, from several things that have been recently said in the House, not to be sufficiently understood by gentlemen. I mean the principles of parliamentary law that ought to govern the appointment of committees and their relation to the house.
We have very generally deviated in this country from the practice of the House of Commons, and what I have understood to have been that of our own legislative assemblies at an earlier period. In the House of Commous there are no standing committees at all. The principles involved in the measures proposed for its adoption are uniformly discussed and settled in the House, on resolution, or on a motion for a committee. When the majority of the House has determined that a report by bill shall be made on any subject, in conformity with principles thus previously established, a committee, of which the majority are always friends of the proposed measure, is named to mature and perfect its details. The propriety of this course is obvious, and it has the merit of precluding some very inconvenient consequences of our practice, according to which our committees, instead of being mere ministerial agents of the House, are turned into a sort of sub-legislatures, passing upon the principles of all measures committed to them, and forestalling, in some degree, and prejudicing the opinions of the House. According to the strict parliamentary course, committees have the merit of reflecting, with perfect exactness, all the shades of feeling and opinion that pass over the minds of a deliberative assembly in the fluctuations of debate--so that there is scarcely a possibility that such difficulties, both as to the principles and the details of a measure, as so frequently embarrass the proceedings of this House after a report has been made, should ever arise there. But there is an evil attending our practice which is more serious than any mere inconvenience in its proceedings. The Speaker, being almost invariably elected as the representative of a party, is expected to appoint our committees on party principles; and so it happens that the Executive, where it has a majority in this House at the opening of a Congress, exercises through the Chair an influence which is unknown in the constitutional monarchies of Europe, and is enabled, through the chairmen of our own committees, to give a direction to the business of the House and the opinions of the country the very opposite of that which would be impressed upon them by the fairly expressed sense of a majority here.* So far as the committees, connected with the great executive departments of the Government are concerned, there is some plausibility in the pretension that the administration, with which the great bulk of our most important measures originates, ought to have a majority of its friends upon them. At any rate the practice is now so inveterate that it is too late to find fault with it; but surely this is no reason why a principle so irregular should be extended to other cases, and, least of all, to such cases as that before the House. And this leads me back to the proposition from which I digressed just now; which is that if there ever was an extraordinary case, a case calling for the exercise of the power reserved to the House, of electing its own committees, that case is the one under consideration.
What is it, sir? The administration, through its official organ in this House, comes here and demands, at our hands, a committee—to do what? Why, to inquire how it happened that one of the principle agents of the Executive has been guilty of malversation in office. What right, in the first place, has the Executive to make any such call upon this House? What have we to do with the conduct of officers appointed by it-removable at its will, subjected perpetually to its censure and superintendence, responsible to it for their good behaviour, and for whose good behaviour it is itself responsible to the country through this House? The very proposal of such an interference as this implies a confusion of ideas, which can only be accounted for by the extraordinary development of the executive power which has taken place in the silent progress of things, and to which we are become so much accustomed that we are losing sight of the simplest and most elementary principles of our Government. What is the meaning of that fundamental separation of the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers-of what practical effect will it be—if such a system as is implied in the motion of the gentleman from New-York (Mr. Cambreleng) should be carried out in the appointment of a committee, according to the wishes of the administration—a system by which we shall be made to assume the responsibility of another department of the Government, without any of the powers essential to the performance of its duties—a system by which whatever is odious in that responsibility shall fall to our lot, without any of the honor, the influence, or the efficiency, that should accompany it? Sir, the constitution contemplates no such confusion and consequent destruction of responsibilities. We are not placed here as the associate, but the antagonist, not as copartners, but as a
* E. g. the case of the sub-treasury. The Committee of Ways and Means, appointed by the Speaker, has repeatedly reported a bill, which has as often been rejected by the House.