- Historic Sites
The President vs. The Senate
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
The still-small body was dominated by three strong and egotistical men, each of whom was a mortal political enemy of the President: John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay. Clay opened fire on December 10, 1833, by pushing through a resolution asking Jackson to explain the “paper” he had read to the cabinet ordering the violation of the charter. Jackson promptly replied: “The Executive is a co-ordinate and independent branch of the Government equally with the Senate; and I have yet to learn under what constitutional authority that branch of the Legislature has a right to require of me an account of any communication … made to the heads of departments.…” Over in the House John Quincy Adams was shocked at the “tone of insolence and insult” with which Jackson claimed Executive privilege, but he admitted to his diary that Clay was “paid in his own coin.”
Clay’s response was to introduce and defend a resolution declaring that “the President in the late Executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue, has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.” Calhoun and Webster, among others, joined the attack, Webster’s zeal enhanced by a regular “retainer” that he got from the bank. (Congressional ethics were somewhat limber even in the golden age.)
Clay’s resolution passed on the twenty-eighth of March—28 to 18. Jackson responded with a message saying he would continue “to persuade my countrymen … that it is not in a splendid Government, supported by powerful monopolies and aristocratical establishments, that it will find happiness … but in a plain system, void of pomp … dispensing its blessings like the dews of heaven.” The Senate voted to reject the communication. For good measure it also refused to confirm Taney to the cabinet.
But Jackson had the last word. In 1834’s voting the Democrats got control of the Senate in the new Twenty-fourth Congress. Not until its second session, in December of 1836, could Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri make his retaliatory move, and by the time he did, Jackson was a lame-duck President, due to go out of office the following March. But Benton pressed the attack. He moved to “expunge” the offending resolution—not nullify or reverse or repeal it, but physically take it out of the record. Even a few Democratic senators hesitated to meddle with the official journal that the Constitution commanded should be kept, but Benton would have nothing less.
If Presidents succumb to thinking themselves imperial, senators likewise can confuse themselves with peers of the realm.
The final debate, held on a January night, was long, arduous, and angry. The anti-Jackson minority denounced the iniquity of tampering with the historical record, and Henry Clay, anticipating defeat, ostentatiously dressed in black to mourn the impending fall of tradition. Around midnight, when both sides had shouted themselves hoarse before packed galleries, the resolution was passed. The journal of the preceding Senate was solemnly brought to the secretary’s desk, opened, and laid flat. Using a straightedge, the clerk then drew heavy black lines around the original censure and wrote across it at a right angle, “Expunged by order of the Senate this sixteenth day of January in the Year of our Lord 1837.”
An anti-Jackson participant later wrote that “the scratch of the pen alone was heard in the awful silence which prevailed when the gall of party bitterness drew its lines in the blackness of darkness around the freedom and independence of the Senate.” But if there was silence, it was soon broken by hisses and outcries in the gallery. In a final flurry of animosity a heckler was brought down to the floor by the sergeant at arms but was released without punishment. Then the Senate adjourned.
Henry Clay lost his usual urbanity and refused a pinch of snuff to a Democratic senator. He and Benton continued to jaw at each other as they descended the Capitol steps. But Byrd records that senatorial collegiality at last prevailed. Both men calmed down, Benton walked Clay home, and there they stayed until 3:00 A.M., undoubtedly rehashing matters over a nightcap.
The next day Benton sent his son over to the White House with a present for Jackson: the pen used in the expunging. Clay had become glum again, later confiding to a friend: “The Senate is no longer a place for any decent man. I am truly sick of Congress.”
Nevertheless, he served almost continuously in the Senate until his death in 1852. The censure struggle was not the last battle he would see between strong senators and ambitious Presidents. Nor is this latest 1989 installment the final one in the ongoing conflict. It is built into the system, and if you buy and read Byrd’s volume or any other history of Congress, you can, as they say, look it up.