Secession Era Editorials Project

"The Privileges of the Senate"

Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury [Democratic]

(9 June 56)

If the history of "Parliamentary privileges" were faithfully written, it would discover acts of usurpation and tyranny as enormous as have ever been perpetrated by an Eastern despot. The idea, that in a free country-- a country governed by written constitutions and laws-- where the person, property and liberty of the citizen are most solemnly guaranteed -- there should exist a tribunal, at once the accuser, the lawmaker, the judge, and the executioner, is abhorrent to every conception of right and common sense. It stands out, a startling anomaly and a mocking contrast to that spirit which pervades, beautifies and vitalises free institutions.

Our readers are already apprised of the furious proceedings at the North, in consequence of Mr. BROOKS'S assault upon Mr. SUMNER; and how fanaticism and demagogueism have mingled their filthy tide on the subject. We do not propose to trouble ourselves with that part of the subject. But, through all this tirade there has run an idea which furnished a pretext for more than mere abuse. The idea is this: that Mr. BROOKS'S assault upon Mr. SUMNER was a breach of the "privileges of the Senate." Unfortunately, the popular opinion at the North has been strengthened by the verdict of the Senate and the majority report of the House; so that, if what we believe to be the true constitutional view of the question ultimately prevails, it must be against fanatical sentiment, backed by Congressional action.

In order that the whole subject may be clearly understood, we will first state the position assumed by the Senate and the majority report of the House Committee.

The Senate Report assumes:

1."That the assault was a breach of the privilege of the Senate."

2. That "the Senate, for a breach of its privileges, cannot arrest a member of the House of Representatives, and, a fortiori, cannot try and punish him; that such authority devolves upon the House of which he is a member."

The grounds upon which it bases the first conclusion are two-fold -- the report of Mr. McDUFFIE upon "the assault made in 1828, by Mr. RUSSELL DAVIS upon Mr. JOHN ADAMS, the Private Secretary of the President, just after delivering a message to the House of Representatives, and while on his way to the Senate with another message;" and sundry precedents of the House of Representatives, in which an assault upon a member for words spoken in debate," were held to be "a violation of the privileges of the House." Now, as to Mr. McDUFFIE'S report, it appears on its face to have been made upon a case wholly different from acts the present. Mr. ADAMS, the party assaulted, was in the actual discharge of his duties to Congress; both Houses were in session; and, as Mr. McDUFFIE well said, the assault was not only a violation of the privileges of the House, but of the immunity which it is bound, upon every principle, to guarantee to the person selected by the President as the organ of official communications to Congress." We do not conceive, therefore, that Mr. McDUFFIE'S report has any application whatever to the present case, in which the assault was committed when neither House was in session, and by a member of the House acting in his individual capacity. As to the precedents cited, we shall examine, at the proper time, the principles upon which they are based.

These two points comprise, in fact, all that the Senate report says in support of the principle that "an assault upon a member for words spoken in debate, is a violation of the privileges of the Senate."

We next come to the majority report of the House Committee, and here, instead of a discussion of the principle -- a vindication of the extreme course it proposes in reference to Mr. BROOKS, by arguments drawn from the Constitution or parliamentary practice, -- we find it frankly admitted by the committee that "they do not undertake to argue the question as to what constitutes a breach of privilege;" but regarding "the passage of the resolution raising the committee as a declaration on the part of the House of its power to call its members to account for such as violate the privileges of the Senate," they, without any argument whatever, adopt the conclusions of the Senate, and report accordingly.

Here, then, upon a question deeply affecting the rights of every citizen -- a question involving the exercise of absolute and arbitrary powers, and in the midst of the wildest excitement and exasperation -- we have taken action in Congress -- action calculated to awaken the intense interest of argument of the whole country -- and yet no word of argument offered, but a few precedents only, by which it is to be justified. In matter of such great moment, the country has a right to be fully informed. Precedents, we know, can be cited to sustain any cause, and to sanction usurpation, however gross. Precedent is the mask which tyranny wears when it strikes its deadliest blows. It legalised the exactions of shipmoney, until JOHN HAMPDEN arose and bid it defiance. We are disposed to look behind it, and, in the noble language of the Earl of CHATHAM, to ask, "What is this mysterious power, undefined by law, unknown to the citizen, which we must not approach with awe, nor speak of it without reverence -- which no man may question, and to which all men must submit?"


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