William Smith's speech of February 25, 1830

From Mises Wiki, the global repository of classical-liberal thought
Jump to: navigation, search
Key speeches in the Webster-Hayne debate[1]
# Speech by From Date
1 Hayne South Carolina January 19, 1830
2 Webster Massachusetts January 20
3 Hayne South Carolina January 25
4 Webster Massachusetts January 26–27
5 Hayne South Carolina January 27
6 Benton Missouri January 20, 29,
February 1–2
7 Rowan Kentucky February 4
8 Smith South Carolina February 25
9 Clayton Delaware March 4
10 Livingston Louisiana March 9
  1. As selected for a collection published by Liberty Fund in 2000.

William Smith's speech of February 25, 1830 was made by Senator William Smith of South Carolina in the United States Senate. Ostensibly, the speech was a response to Foote's resolution, but in reality it formed part of the larger Webster-Hayne debate. In it Smith responds to previous speakers, disagreeing with his colleague Robert Hayne on the issue of public lands, challenging fellow advocates of states' rights on internal improvements, and opposing Daniel Webster's view on the effects of slavery. He also laments what he perceives as a lack of consideration given to the Constitution, viewing the Tariff of 1828 as unconstitutional and so oppressive that secession may be a just response.

Public lands

Many senators, including Robert Hayne, supported essentially giving public land to settlers in the Western territories and states. They contended that this was essential to discourage emigration of settlers to foreign countries, where land might be cheaper, and to prevent settlers from starting out with a substantial debt load. But Smith objected to this rationale in this speech, dismissing the argument that significant numbers of Americans would emigrate when low-cost land was available nearby. Furthermore, he argued that while the land is not owned, per se, by the general government, the costs it incurred by conquering, surveying, and guarding the land ought to be repaid by settlers. Those settlers suffering from a high debt load have the option of selling the land back, and in any case, they made the purchase voluntarily.

Smith then challenged a related argument: that once the national debt is paid off, the remaining public lands should be divided among the states according to population. He quoted from the original document by which Virginia ceded territory to the general government, arguing that its wording indicates that the land was granted to repay the states that financially contributed the most to the War of Independence. This is not a trivial distinction, because whereas New York's population in 1830 was nearly four times that of South Carolina, Smith points to figures showing South Carolina as the largest state creditor in the war, being owed nearly five times as much as New York.

Furthermore, the idea of using representation to divide the lands would have been a foreign concept at the time the land was ceded. It was made while the general government operated under the Articles of Confederation, and each state, regardless of population, had one vote. Thus, Smith argued, if the lands are to be distributed to the states, South Carolina's portion should be based on the amount owed her after the war, not her current population.


On the topic of slavery, Smith praised Daniel Webster for recognizing the institution as constitutional, but challenged his claim that the free states had many advantages as a result of their lack of slaves. Smith contends instead that slavery does not negatively affect either standard of living or social virtues.

Smith then addressed a few of the contemporary approaches to dealing with the slavery issue. Transportation and recolonization of slaves in Africa, a popular approach among many (including, a few years later, a young Illinois lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln), he rejects out of hand as costly, absurd, and sure to diminish the slaves' quality of life.

Freeing the slaves he vehemently opposes, pointing to evidence that free blacks in Ohio were the cause of crime—to the extent that the state enacted laws so overbearing that blacks there were immigrating to Canada. But leaving slavery in the hands of the states and the owners of the slaves, he argued, is in the best interest of the slaves—nowhere, he claimed, is there a peasantry "that enjoys so much civil liberty, and, at the same time, lives so comfortably, and so bountifully, as the slaves of the Southern States." Instead of living in constant fear of a slave revolt, as claimed by northern pamphleteers, Smith said that he completely trusts his slaves, and were he to arm them in protection of him and his family, they would discharge the duty happily. The problem of abusive slaveholders, he argued, is declining in the face of pressure from public opinion.

Internal improvements

Turning to the topic of internal improvements, namely the building of roads and canals by the general government, Smith challenged the implicit assumption made by several of his colleagues: that such internal improvements are, in fact, constitutional. Smith especially criticized Senators Rowan and Benton, both proclaimed advocates of states' rights, for their inconsistency in this matter, saying that internal improvements, besides being unconstitutional, tend to consolidate power in the general government. He identified a slippery slope in the area of spending on internal improvements—passage of an inexpensive bill (to survey a road, for example) inevitably leads to massive long-term spending (to build and maintain that road).

This spending requires revenue, and here Smith connected internal improvements with another major issue in the current debate, calling internal improvements the food "that keeps alive your tariff." Because so-called advocates of states' rights continued to support the former, or even both, the overbearing tariff continued to exist.

Tariff and remedies

Regarding the tariff and how to deal with its oppression, Smith developed two lines of thinking. First, he questioned the ability and power of federal judges to make decisions on blatantly unconstitutional laws that affect the entire people of a state. Judges, he argued, should not have such "tremendous power" that their opinions "are to be considered the Constitution"—instead, Smith asked if a "more responsible repository" of such power ought to be found. Thus, though Smith does not express support for nullification, he agrees with its rationale—that judges should not, by virtue of being selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate, be considered the ultimate authority in constitutional debates.

Smith did, however, endorse secession as a means of addressing the unconstitutional tariff. He claimed secession as the right of the people, met in a state convention called by the state legislature. Referring to historical examples of faulty governments that were overthrown, he refused to assume that the United States cannot be one of them. Even in the history of the United States, their separation from Britain was caused, he says, by a "three penny tax on tea" and a "small tax on stamps"—interventions less significant than the tariff that nonetheless "set the whole United States in a flame" and led to civil disobedience, in the form of the Boston Tea Party, and ultimately, independence.

Describing the tariff, Smith argued that its effect is, in some sense, to centrally plan the economy. Under it, the general government has the ability to "parcel out the profits of the labor of one portion of the Union, to bestow on those of another portion of the Union." And once the national debt is repaid, there would be even less reason to keep the tariff—the only excuse then will be to protect the manufacturing interest, to the detriment of all else. Should it continue, Smith argued, the people "will submit to no such tyranny," and may, if unable to reverse the evil democratically, resort to either secession or civil war—two distinct paths, the latter not a necessary outcome of the former.

But Smith saw little immediate hope—though he spoke in favor of continued union, he considered it unlikely that either the West or New England will side with the South and abolish the tariff, unless it became clear that it is in their interest to do so. In the meantime, however, Missouri Senator Benton's bill to abolish unnecessary duties, according to Smith, did no such thing, and instead protected Western interests.

Party politics

Having alluded to a sectional alliance against the South as the source of the tariff, Smith examined the history of party politics in the United States. Originally, the contenders were the Federalists and the Republicans, the Federalists supporting greater power for the general government, and Republicans opposing it. The Federalists held power until the unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts resulted in Thomas Jefferson's election over John Adams in 1800. Initially the Federalists remained a powerful force, until their opposition to the War of 1812 resulted in the disintegration of the party. But while Smith considers himself a true Republican, this collapse resulted in a problem—former Federalists joined themselves to the Republican party. This union "has defeated all the great purposes for which the Republican party was originally instituted," and instead of an unadulterated victory for Republican ideals, it resulted in the bastardization of those ideals and the implementation of numerous evils.

Smith closes by envisioning a future in which the Constitution again limits the general government and secures liberty, this being the basis for a durable Union.