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Browsing: Diary of Charles Francis Adams, Volume 1


Docno: ADMS-13-01-02-0003-0001-0016

Author: CFA
Date: 1824-01-16

Friday. 16th.

After reading my maps and having a pleasant morning conversation after breakfast on the state of parties I went to the Capitol and heard Mr. McDuffie of South Carolina deliver an argument in favour of his amendment to the Constitution respecting the election of President and Vice President of the United States.1 This man has been famous to this day only for possessing talents to be shown in future and for a most ridiculous affair of a duel with a man by the name of Cumming, in which they reviled each other for cowards for some time, met four times, twice without coming to any conclusion and twice seriously in which Mr. McDuffie was wounded both times.2 He is supposed to be an able man and is now coming out. His delivery is not popular however as I perceived the galleries thinning off as he proceeded until there was hardly a person left. I do not think him a catching orator by any means.
He commenced by telling them that he disclaimed any thing like personal or interested observations, and this might be known by the fact that this could not be passed time enough to bear upon the next election. He then tried to prove the necessity of the measure and traced to the time when complaints had first been made against this part of the constitution. He argued against the final decision in the House of Representatives as it is now laid down from three reasons. First that it was destroying the expression of the will of the majority as the smallest states had a voice equal to the largest, and by this { 46 } means, a number of small states connected together might force a president upon far the greater number of the nation. Sectional feeling might influence these states to act together on any great interest, by which means the expression of the popular voice would be entirely disowned. Secondly, he argued that Members might be influenced by bribery which once getting a hold in this House would ruin the independence of the nation. He meant nothing disrespectful to the House, but he must describe nature not as we wish it to be, but as it is. Men would be influenced by prospects and while this was the case it could not but be an unfair mode of decision. Thirdly. If they were not bribed, almost every man was influenced in some degree, by feelings of friendship to individuals, the most just man on earth could not restrain them, his feelings would blind him to the faults of his candidate and the virtues of the opposing ones, so that he would not give a fair vote on the subject. He concluded by saying that whatever fame other men might wish, he would rest satisfied with the portion of fame allotted to him if this bill was sanctioned and became a law.
On the whole it was a sound speech but not a very interesting one, he used no figures or dashes but simply stated a course of argument which must convince every one of one point, that a change is necessary. But whether Mr. McDuffie’s amendment is the best, is a question which admits of much more doubt. It is to divide the population of the United States into a certain number of districts each of which is to choose an elector and a certain number of these will elect a president and vice president. He supported this not as perfect but as the best to be got. The former arguments though will apply with equal force against this, consequently, it would be better if any change be made to refer it without any mediation to the people directly, and in this way the people which is the important matter, will have the decision of the question in their own hands where it belongs. He sat down and the House adjourned immediately so I returned home very well satisfied with Mr. McDuffie although I do not think him the great genius he is said to be.
After dinner we went to Aunt Frye’s, that is to say four of us, John and Monsieur at home, and Miss Cranch gone yesterday which I forgot to mention in it’s proper place. Major General Brown and three daughters or two I forget which with Mrs. B.3 and Major Kirby4 were there, also Mrs. Thomson5 and her daughter Mrs. Hersant,6 who really is almost too far advanced in her pregnancy to go out at all but she buffets it through our most crowded parties. The younger part { 47 } of us sat down and played loto, a most amazingly stupid game, so we got away as soon as possible. I could not have the conscience to speak to Mrs. Hersant consequently avoided the room. We went home early after having spent a very “mediocre” evening.
1. On 5 December 1823 George McDuffie, a Calhounite, had asked for the appointment of a special committee to consider amending the Constitution. The plan, presented on 22 December, proposed that: (1) each state should be divided into as many districts as would equal the number of Representatives to which the state was entitled, and each district would choose one elector to vote for the President and the Vice President, and that the electors thus appointed in each state would choose the two additional electors to which the state was entitled; (2) if no candidate won a majority on the first ballot, the electors should meet immediately in their respective states and vote for one of the two persons having the highest number of votes; (3) only in the unusual event that no candidate was then able to obtain a majority of votes (McDuffie explained in a supporting speech) would Congress, voting as one body with one vote for each member, choose a President.
Calhoun’s political prospects inspired McDuffie’s amendments. Calhoun’s friends knew that he was not likely to receive the votes of the large states (committed that year to JQA or to Crawford) or of a caucus (dominated by Crawfordites that session), so they planned for the future. The votes of the people, unobstructed by political mechanisms, could elect Calhoun, they hoped. Although discussed in Congress until 1827, the proposed amendment was never approved. See Annals of Congress , 18 Cong., 1 sess., p. 801, 1067–1082; U.S., House of Representatives, Report [of the Select Committee on Amending the Constitution], 18 Cong., 1 sess., Vol. I, No. 8; Herbert V. Ames, The Proposed Amendments to the Constitution of the United States (Amer. Hist. Assoc., Annual Report for 1896, Vol. II), p. 84, 89, 108, 338, 340, 342, which, however, does not accurately report McDuffie’s intentions as outlined in his speech of 16 Jan. 1824; and Bemis, JQA , 2:11–30.
2. McDuffie’s duel with William Cumming, of Georgia, grew out of the rivalry between Calhoun and Crawford for the Presidency in 1821–1822. Injured in the spine, McDuffie was never again a well man ( DAB ).
3. Jacob Jennings Brown (1775–1828) and his wife, the former Pamelia Williams ( DAB ).
4. Major Edmund Kirby (Heitman, Register U.S. Army ).
5. Possibly Mrs. Smith Thompson, whose husband was appointed a judge after his service in Monroe’s cabinet as Secretary of the Navy (JQA, Diary, 21 Jan. 1824; Bemis, JQA , 2:390).
6. Mrs. Hersant’s husband was a member of the French legation in Washington (JQA, Diary, 11 Feb. 1820).
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