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On the President’s Message Concerning Texas and New Mexico

Speech of Representative Thaddeus Stevens,

Delivered On August 14, 1850 in the House of Representatives


    Mr. Stevens. Mr. Chairman, I fear I shall be thought somewhat bold, when I announce my determination to defend the President from the assaults of the gentlemen from Georgia, (Mr. Stephens and Mr. Toombs,) the gentleman from Mississippi, (Mr. Brown,) and other southern gentlemen; and the still more grievous assaults of the gentleman from Massachusetts, (Mr. Ashmun,) who has just taken his seat.

    The message of the President of the United States relative to New Mexico has been bitterly assailed by gentlemen on this floor, without distinction of party; unless parties have already assumed a geographical organization, to which I fear they are fast and inevitably tending. The gentleman from Mississippi, (Mr. Brown,) of one party, concurs with the gentlemen from Georgia (Mssrs. Stephens and Toombs) of the other party, and other southern gentlemen, in denouncing the principles of the message as subversive of civil liberty. The most fearful consequences are predicted, and the most terrible vengeance threatened. Civil war, disunion, and bloody desolation, are the mildest figures with which they garnish their discourses.

    To their impotent threats, and their gory predictions, I have nothing to say. They do not rise to the dignity of an argument, or the efficacy of potential menace. I am at a loss to know why they are so often paraded before us, unless they have become chronic phantasies of the brain, or are cunningly expected to operate on the timidity, not to say cowardice, of the North.

    May I tell southern gentlemen that I think they mistake northern character? I admit that the North, in this and the other branch of Congress, have shown all the usual symptoms of cowardice. Notwithstanding the rude and vulgar assault made by the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Ashmun) on the gentleman from Ohio, (Mr. Giddings,) for referring to the acts of the Senators, I crave his mercy while I say, that I believe every northern Senator who voted for this Texas boundary bill – certainly every northern Whig Senator – believed, and most of them expressed the belief, that Texas had no shadow of title to one particle of the soil of New Mexico. The gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Ashmun) this morning declared his firm belief of the same fact; yet they voted, and he avows his determination to vote, for a bill surrendering to Texas more than fifty thousand square miles of New Mexico, and giving her ten million dollars! For what? To buy peace from armed rebels! This evidence would certainly, prima facie, warrant the conclusion that the North were cowards. But you must perceive that to be impossible, when you remember that they are descendants of the men of Bunker’s Hill, of Lexington, of Bennington, of Saratoga, and of Brandywine.

    Why, sir, it is in the effect of mere benevolence. True, we turn pale and tremble somewhat, and plead and supplicate and finally yield. It is not the effect of fear, but humanity – the love of rebels! So copious is the milk of human kindness in northern breasts, that it overflows, runs down upon the sinews and nerves, and moistens and relaxes them, so that at the loud voice of mimic treason, and the imaginary gleaming’s of southern bayonets, our frames become convulsed and our knees amite together. This is not cowardice, but benevolence! – the love of peace! If any should taunt us with want of courage, as they will do, after we shall have surrendered and been marched out of camp with furled banners, we can refute it by pointing to our revolutionary fathers, as effectually as could the Lazaroni of Rome, by vaunting the courage of their Trojan ancestors, and showing the brave acts of the mighty Hector before the walls of Troy, or of their immediate progenitor, the warlike Aeneas, on the plains of Latrum.

    It ought, perhaps, to be confessed, that there is another cause that operates upon our commercial and moneyed communities. The price of stocks – the cent per cent. are vital and sensitive parts of their nature, which it is their amiable duty to themselves to nourish. The pocket lies close to the heart, and often affects it with involuntary tremor. But this is not mercenary interest, but duty!

    I will now briefly examine the legal and constitutional principles contained in the message, which have been so severely criticized.

    The message states that the Constitution requires that the “President shall take care that the laws shall be faithfully executed.” That the acts of Congress of 1795 and 1807 declare, that whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed, or their execution obstructed, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by ordinary judicial tribunals, or the power vested in the marshals, the President may call forth the military and naval force of the country, as far as necessary to suppress such combinations. That New Mexico was conquered by the United States; possession taken by her army; and subsequently it was ceded by treaty to the United States, who have ever since been in possession as Mexico was before, it never having been occupied by Texas, nor her jurisdiction exercised over it for a moment. That by the treaty of cession made between the United States and Mexico, this Government expressly stipulated, that until New Mexico should be admitted into the Union as a State, the inhabitants should be protected in the enjoyment of their lives, liberty, property, and religion. That such treaty is the supreme law of the land, and makes it the duty of the President to protect New Mexico from all invasions, and forcible possession from any quarter, until her true limits be ascertained and peaceably settled. And the President expresses his determination thus to execute the law, and use, if need be, the military power of the Government for that purpose. These, I think, are all the principles to which objection has been made.

    The gentleman from Georgia (Mr. Stephens) denies the right of the Executive to interpose to preserve the laws until a judicial decision has been had, and the process shall have been resisted. I shall answer his argument, endorsed by his colleague, (Mr. Toombs,) as the argument of all on that side of the question. Wide as we differ in opinion, I always listen to him with pleasure, on account of the clear, distinct, and fearless manner in which he maintains his opinion. I have much more respect for bold, sincere, manly error, than for timid, driveling, wavering truth. He says further, that there are no judicial tribunals in New Mexico to issue process, and therefore no case can possibly arise within that Territory to justify the Executive interposition. He contends, that although a treaty is by the Constitution the supreme law of the land, that the President cannot execute it until Congress passes laws to enable him to do so. I think the gentleman is wrong both in his law and his facts. Many parts of treaties may be and are executed without any legislative provisions. Without an act of Congress the President is competent to take possession of ceded territory, and of course to hold it. He may, in pursuance of a treaty of peace, stop the war, recall the army and navy, withdraw our troops from, and surrender captured fortresses and territory. All this was done in the case of Mexico without legislative enactment. It is true there are sometimes stipulations in treaties which require the aid of Congress to fulfill. Where money is agreed to be paid, as mentioned by the gentleman from Georgia, the aid of Congress is necessary, because the Constitution provides that “no money shall be drawn from the Treasury but in consequence of appropriations made by law.” So it is with the other case cited by the gentleman, of a commercial treaty granting to a foreign power privileges with regard to duties on commerce inconsistent with existing laws. The gentleman says truly, I think, that the treaty cannot go into effect until Congress repels those laws. The reason is obvious. The treaty-making power has no right to regulate foreign commerce – that is expressly reserved by the Constitution to Congress. In my judgment, such provisions in a treaty are a nullity until ratified, not by the Senate only, but by both Houses of Congress. I know it has been customary for the President and Senate to insert such provisions in treaties, and to call on Congress to provide for their execution. I think it is a dangerous assumption of power. If such treaties are valid per se, all the industrial pursuits of the country – the whole system of imports, of revenue, of tariff, of duties, would be at the mercy of the President and two thirds of the Senate. I trust such treaties will be sparingly made.

     But except where, by the Constitution, the provisions of a treaty require the concurrent action of Congress, all treaties being supreme laws of the land, may be executed by the President alone. President Polk executed a large part of the treaty of Hildalgo, without legislative action. It provided for peace. He stopped the conflict of arms. He withdrew our troops from Buena Vista and Mexico, and surrendered the fortresses of Monterrey, Vera Cruz, and all others in territory not permanently ceded to the United States.

    It is said the President can take no means to protect the peaceable inhabitants of a territory, and to repel invasion, until legal proceedings have been had and successfully resisted. Such, I think, is not the spirit of the Constitution, nor a fair construction of the acts of Congress. The act of 1795, on which the gentleman relies, authorizes the use of military force whenever the “laws are opposed, or their execution obstructed by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the marshals.” It does not require previous judicial proceedings. The fact of opposition to the laws by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary police, and judicial authorities, is a contingency which authorizes the action of the Executive. Such combinations need not be judicially proved preliminary to action, or the whole law would be nugatory and useless. Suppose a body of pirates, such as infest the Chinese seas, or such as formerly descended from Denmark to invade and plunder England, should navigate the Rio Grande, and threaten to land by thousands in New Mexico, and burn and plunder the country, and destroy the inhabitants: must the courts summon them to appear before them on a given day and answer; and if they did not, give judgment against them by default, issue their warrant, and have its execution obstructed, before the President could repel them by force? Must the constable attempt to seize them and bind them over to keep the peace, before the troops of the United States could be placed on the shore, and meet them at the point of the bayonet? If this be true, an actual invasion must first be allowed, for judicial process could not be served beyond the line. When the Comanche Indians invade a village in New Mexico by night, and begin to massacre the inhabitants, must the United States troops withhold resistance until the efficacy of a magistrate’s warrant, or a sheriff’s posse shall have been tried and failed? Suppose five hundred or a thousand frontier ruffians, from other States, should assemble within the borders of Texas, with the known purpose of making an inroad upon New Mexico, of taking possession of the land, exterminating the inhabitants, and establishing themselves after the ancient manner of the northern hordes; could not the President order the army to meet them on the border and repel them by force, before any judicial proceeding had taken place? The very statement of the position of the gentleman, I think, shows its absurdity; and when a proposition is reduced to absurdity in logic, as well as in mathematics, it must be false.

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