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SOUTHERN NAVAL DEPOT.
Speech, delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States,
January 11, 1839.
The House, having under consideration the bill providing for a dry dock, at the navy yard, at Brooklyn, New-York, which bill Mr. Paynter proposed to amend by making provision for a similar improvement at Philadelphia, and the question iminediately pending being on a further amendment, moved by Mr. Thompson, to strike out Philadelphia and insert Pensacola
Mr. Legaré said that, when he entered the House a few minutes ago, nothing was further from his thoughts than that he should be then addressing the Chair in reply to what he had understood to be a violent attack of the gentleman from Maine upon the peaceful city which he (Mr. L.) had the honor still to represent.
(Here Mr. Evans rose and disavowed an intention of saying any thing that might be offensive to Mr. L's constituents, further than a fair argument against their claims to have a navy yard, &c., might be considered as offensive.]
Mr. Legaré. I did not hear the gentleman myself. I received my impressions from what others understood the gentleman as saying. I am informed, for instance, that he repeated the words, “begging, begging, begging," as if to imply that no importunities had been spared by the citizens of Charleston to obtain what they knew they had no right to ask on broad grounds of justice and policy.
[Mr. Evans explained again.]
Mr. L. Be it so, sir; I am not quite sure that I should very materially have altered the spirit of my reply, had the gentleman really been betrayed into the use of language so unjust and unbecoming. It is not my habit to sacrifice the dignity and the decencies of this House to wrangling personalities; nor, standing here as the advocate of so good a cause, would I cast a suspicion upon it by resorting to the language of passion. As to the imputations thrown out by the gentleman against Southern members, for the sectional spirit (as it is called) with which they discuss matters of the kind, I fearlessly appeal to the House whether the uniform tenor of my conduct and language here does not entirely exempt me from such a charge. I have never resorted to topics of that sort without reluctance, and in the
exercise of those rights of self-defence which sanction so many other deviations from strict formal rules. I do not ask for my constituents any thing but what I think them fairly entitled toany thing which they would not consent that I should grant to others. But it is surely no objection to a measure, that, besides being recommended to your adoption by general reasons of national policy, it will be attended with peculiar local advantages; and, if my predecessor, in the zealous and able arguments which he from time to time put forth on this subject, did urge it as a weighty consideration that the establishment of a navy yard at Charleston would feed and employ a strong body of white mechanics and laborers, in a part of the country where that descrip- tion of people are more wanted, and need, perhaps, more encouragement than in any other, he uttered sentiments which I here adopt for my own, and of which I will undertake to maintain the propriety upon the most incontrovertible grounds.
To begin, however, with the subject before the Committee. I was, from the first, inclined to vote for the appropriation recommended by the Committee on Naval Affairs; and, although my opinion has been occasionally shaken in the course of the debate, I am still determined to do so. It appears to me obviously proper that there should be a dry dock at New-York—the great seat of our commerce-the centre of our navigation—the port, in short, which, in times of actual service, is, for many reasons, more likely to be the point of rendezvous and resort than any at the North. This opinion I find confirmed by that sort of evidence which, I agree with the gentleman from Maine, must generally govern, or, at least, very much influence our determination here the demands of the Navy Department and the reports of the appropriate committee of this House. There may be some weight (I do not think as much as one would be led to ascribe to it from the present embarrassment of the finances) in the argument founded on the necessity of retrenchment. But, looking at the immense resources, actual and eventual, of the country, I will not consent to neglect or to weaken any of its military defences, simply because, from transient causes, our Treasury happens to be rather low. Unless our affairs be miserably mismanaged, a few years will restore to us a redundant revenue, and we should, by refusing this money, only sacrifice the strength and protection of the country, which ought never for a moment to be neglected, to an ill-timed and most timid and unreasonable parsimony.
So much for the appropriation called for; but the amendment of my colleague, (Mr. Thompson,) to whom I consider the country as under a great obligation for having drawn public attention to a matter of such vast and fundamental importance, as well as his able speech and that of another of my colleagues,
(Mr. Elmore) have given a range to this discussion which it had not at first ; and both with a view to aid them in their most laudable efforts, and to expose the fallacies of the gentleman from Maine, (Mr. Evans,) I will trespass upon the committee a little longer while I speak of the defenceless state of the Southern coast, and the urgency of its claims upou this body for a better system of measures to protect it. I deeply regret, however, to have to speak on such a subject so entirely without the preparation to which its magnitude entitles it ;' but it has long occupied my thoughts, and I will venture to throw out some general ideas in regard to it, in the hope that such suggestions will not be lost upon those who have an interest in the inquiry, and may find sufficient leisure to pursue it more in detail, and, it is to be hoped, to great practical results.
It is impossible, Mr. Chairman, to cast your eyes, however carelessly, over a map of the United States--and such is the important influence of geography, natural and physical, upon the destinies of empire, that no man can pretend to the character of a statesman, in such a country as this, who does not closely study its map-without at once perceiving that Pensacola is destined, by nature, to be the key of the most gigantic commerce that was ever, in the history of the world, concentrated upon a single spot. I speak not of the West as it is, wonderful as it is. I speak of what a very few years—for what is a century in the life of a nation ?-will most certainly bring about. Every thing on this side the mountains will be dwarfed in the comparison. The valley of the Mississippi, in its whole extent, is capable of supporting as great a population as that of all Europe put together; and its external commerce, borne upon the waters of a single river to New Orleans, must follow the course of the Gulf stream to more northern latitudes. There is something overpowering in the idea of such a state of things, and it is scarcely less startling to reflect upon the facility with which a foreign enemy may throw obstacles to any extent in the way of such a trade. He has only to blockade the mouth of the river with such a fleet as the possession of a port in the West Indies will enable him to keep at sea, and evils, far beyond all calculation, may be intlicted on the whole country watered by its various streams. Sir, I have only to mention a name, which no American can hear pronounced in connection with certain possibilities without some excitement-Cuba. Do you doubt that, in the event of another war with England, for instance, she would take possession of that island, and hold it if she could ? She already has the keys of almost every important sea. Will she neglect that of the most important of all? Sir, it is with a view to contingencies so probable, to exigencies so pressing as these, that I regard Pensacola, according to the best information I pos
sess upon the subject, as entitled to your most earnest attention. Looking to the facilities, in such a country, of artificial communications by canals and railways, and to the great advantages it possesses in the character of its bar and harbor, that city will, not improbably, be the Havre of New Orleans. You should render it, as far as possible, impregnable-you should arm it with every means and instrument of war, offensive and defensive. It should be your Gibraltar. And now, sir, I ask whether, in the face of such a prospect as this, it is reasoning like statesmen to argue, with the gentleman from Maine, that ihe wages of labor will be a little higher there; that the munitions of war and ship stores will not be so cheap as in New England ? Does not the gentleman perceive that if this argument is good for any thing, it proves too much for his purposes; that it would show that we ought to break up the great establishment at Norfolk, to which it applies just as forcibly as to any other port in the South ; indeed, that it would make it necessary to crowd all your dry docks and navy yards into that part of the country where contracts could be entered into upon the most reasonable terms?
[In the course of these remarks Mr. Legaré was interrupted more than once by Mr. Evans, the latter gentleman stating, at some length, that what he had said on this subject was not intended to convey his own opinions so much as to refute those of Mr. Thompson and others, who contended for the superior advantages of Pensacola, in respect of its forests of live oak, &c. Mr. Thompson also explained.]
Mr. L. replied that, although he held himself responsible only for his own opinions, yet he must say that forests of live oak, &c., were, at least, no disadvantage.
But, sir, (he continued to look at the subject in a point of view in which it most deserves the consideration of statesmen, we are to regard the seaport in question as a place d'armes-a great port of military equipment." In Europe, where the state of war is the basis of all political systems and calculations, such a point could escape the observation of no minister entrusted with the affairs of a great nation. An ingenious writer has remarked that the three men whose memories are dearest to France-I do not mean in the vulgar sense of the word "popularity”—but who have the strongest hold upon the French mind, as identified with the history and the destinies of their country-Richelieu, Louis XIV. and Bonaparte—will be remembered after all transitory grounds of reputation and influence shall be passed away, as founders of the three great military ports of Brest, Dunkirk, and Antwerp. The last of these I have often visited with interest. Its great importance to the empire of Napoleon was well expressed in his saying that it was a pistol loaded and presented at the very heart of England. The whole argument on this subject is
summed up in that sentence; it is, that your preparations should be made as near as possible to the spots where they would be most wanted. Consider, for a moment, what is passing in the other hemisphere. The navigation of the Bosphorus and the Hellespont is almost become the pivot of European politics. Russia must have this outlet for her commerce. It is only our old quarrel with Spain about the navigation of the Mississippi and the use of New Orleans as an entrepôt. Well, sir, Pensacola commands our Bosphorus and Hellespont, or will enable us to prevent others from commanding it; and if we do not, by a foresight worthy of the lawgivers of a great nation, anticipate events by preparing it at once to serve the purposes for which Providence seems to have marked it out, we shall, I have no doubt at all of it, be made to feel its importance by disastrous experience in some future war.
But to proceed to what the gentleman from Maine said in connection with the claim of the citizens of Charleston to have that place used as a naval station, and provided with a navy yard, for sloops of war. I have already said that the gentleman is mistaken in supposing that this claim rests upon the ground of favor—that it was merely because an establishment of the kind would be a great encouragement to mechanics, so much wanted in that part of the country-although this would certainly be a . very signal incidental recommendation of the measure—that I should urge it upon this House on a proper occasion. I maintain that it comes fairly within that principle which the most strenuous advocates of freedom of trade have admitted to be a fair exception to their general rule; and that is that whatever is necessary to the defence of a country ought to be protected at some cost by the government. It stands, for instance, on precisely the same principle as the navigation act, of which the gentleman seemed to speak with a perfect unconsciousness that it was a case in point against his own argument. By the navigation act a monopoly was secured, and from the foundation of the government had been continually secured, to the Northern and Eastern States, of the whole coasting trade. It had been secured to them for the very purpose of breeding the seamen, the possession of which by those States the gentleman, thought a sufficient argument to show that no naval establishments ought to be kept up at the South, because they would cost a little more. He had quite forgotten that the South had borne, without any compensation, its share in this tax for the support of Northern navigation, and borne it without murmuring, on the ground of the necessity to the defence of the country in time of war, that its commercial marine should be encouraged in time of peace ; for his colleague over the way (Mr. Elmore) had told them truly that we were