The Tribune, the Triumvirate, and the Ethos of the Senate

James Madison famously predicted that the constitution’s division of power would be enforced by the “personal motives” of those individuals holding public office. Ambition is made to counteract ambition when “the interest of the man” is “connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”[1] This was one of Madison’s most insightful contributions to the understanding of political institutions, and key to understanding why and how an institution might assert itself against the encroachments of another. Yet today, partisan and ideological ties seem to regularly overpower institutional ones, calling Madison’s claim into question.  A look back at one of the most important institutional battles in the early republic reaffirms Madison’s assessment but also adds an additional layer of understanding to the motivations behind legislative resistance to presidential encroachment.

In early 1834, President Andrew Jackson and the Senate were on a collision course. In October of the previous year, Treasury Secretary Roger B. Taney had, at Jackson’s direction, removed the United States’ deposits in the Bank of the United States to be kept instead in a number of state banks, marking a violent end of the Bank, the recharter of which Jackson had vetoed two years earlier. The Senate, led by Henry Clay and supported by the two other members of the “Great Triumvirate,” John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, sought to resist this measure. They argued that the removal of the public funds was entrusted the Treasury Secretary alone, and that Jackson’s personal interference in the matter (he had dismissed the previous Secretary who was unwilling to remove the deposits) violated the controlling legislation. When the president refused to turn over cabinet documents related to his decision making, the Senate passed a motion of censure. A furious Jackson sent the Senate a “Protest,” the president had plenary authority to oversee the activity of the cabinet, that the Senate had no authority to pass a motion of censure, and that, as the “direct representative” of the people, he possessed a mandate to act unilaterally to end the Bank.

Clay, Webster and Calhoun’s ferocious verbal assault on the Protest in the Senate was ultimately to no avail. Jackson won the bank war. But the united front presented by the oft-divided triumvirate was remarkable. There would have been every reason to doubt that these three figures would unite so speedily: Their relations were strained by recent history, including the previous two presidential elections and the nullification crisis of 1833, all three had well-known presidential ambitions of their own, and they did not even share a common vision for the future of the bank itself.

What, then, united the triumvirate despite so many personal, partisan and ideological forces pulling them apart? It can be explained partially through the Madisonian lens: Differences and even animosity between senators gave way once the interests of the men became “connected with the constitutional rights of the [Senate].” But one defining characteristic of the triumvirate’s resistance was an ethos of the Senate that all shared. They may have defended the institution in part because their personal interests demanded it, but they also had a powerful shared identity centered on the vital role of deliberative assemblies which elevated their collaboration beyond one of mere personal convenience.

A primary target of the trio was the still-relevant claim that the president serves as a unique representative of the American people, and consequently, that presidential elections create mandates for executive action. Against this, the senators argued that such divination of the public will was both imprecise and contrary to the rule of law.  Clay pointed to the impossibility of knowing the reasons why any given vote was cast, concluding that the only reasonable policy after winning an election was “to forget all the incidents of the preceding canvass and especially the manner in which the votes were cast.”[2] All three stressed that the American political system recognized the voice of the people only through established legal and political institutions: “The constitution and laws” were the sole source of authority, according to Clay.[3] Likewise, Calhoun: “A claim on the part of the executive to interpret…the voice of the people through any other channel [than the constitutionally established institutions of government], is to shake the foundation of our system.”[4]

This claim of presidential distinctiveness, in turn, threatened to undermine the “mixed” character of the constitutional system especially when combined with the claim that the president alone exercised ultimate responsibility over the activity of the executive branch. In the Protest, Clay argued, Jackson “comes as if the Senate were guilty; and as if he were in the judgement seat…The President presents himself before the Senate not in the garb of suffering innocence, but in imperial and royal costume.”[5] The claim of the president to an “undefined, undefinable, ideal responsibility to the public” amounted to nothing more than a claim that he “may do any thing and every thing which he may expect to be tolerated in doing.”[6] Since certainly no other figure in government can claim to represent the will of the whole nation, such a claim on the part of the president was tantamount to an argument for personal rule.

Finally, the triumvirate argued that the president’s claims put “the very existence of the Senate as a deliberative body” in jeopardy. [7] The most important argument of Jackson’s Protest was that the Senate possessed no authority to issue a censure of his actions. This would mean the Senate would lose its character as a place of free deliberation on the common good, and would become a mere vessel for outside opinion: “When this and the other house shall lose the freedom of speech and debate; when they shall surrender the rights of publicly and freely canvassing all important measures of the executive…they will then be no longer free representatives of a free people, but slaves themselves, and fit instruments to make slaves of others,” claimed Webster.[8] Appeals to out-of-doors opinion as an absolute standard would inevitably wear down the walls of the Senate which allowed for genuine, uninhibited deliberation and preserved its independent place in the constitutional system.

These arguments about divided power, the proper way to discern the will of the people, and the nature of deliberative assemblies were bound together in a cohesive classical republican conception of governance. This ethos saw republican government as a struggle between the individual will of rulers on the one hand, and the representatives of the people on the other. While relatively powerful executives were a necessary part of modern governance, Caesars, Cromwells and Napoleons remained the greatest danger to the life of a republic. Their ambition, in turn, could only be restrained by the rule of law which was defined and defended by representative lawmaking assemblies free and unhindered in their pursuit of the common good. Any attempt to restrain the thoughts, proceedings and opinions within the walls of the assembly – as Jackson’s Protest did – was not merely a power grab, but a dagger aimed at the heart of the republic. In keeping with such a republican creed, Calhoun declared that “I shall take my stand at the door of the Senate, if I should stand there alone…He has no right to enter here in hostile array.”[9]

This old republican ethos died with the nineteenth century, and certainly no one can claim that Congress ever lived up to its starry-eyed portrayal. But it played an important role in sustaining the position of Congress during the era of legislative dominance. Here was a widely shared view of representative assemblies as sentinels against personal prerogative, as institutions most capable of a genuine search for the common good, as the beating heart of republican governments. This narrative was, in its time, capable of rivalling that used by presidents to justify a more personal approach to governance. In 1834, it elevated resistance against an encroaching executive from a matter of personal interest to a point of principle.

In the age of mass democracy, are there guiding ideals and a shared congressional ethos capable of uniting the institution when personal, partisan and ideological motives so often encourage defection? Is there a coherent theory of governance which can make the case that presidential elections which capture the imaginations of the people like no other political event are not, in fact, the ultimate “voice of the people”?  Is there a comprehensive theory which explains not only what constitutional powers Congress rightfully possesses, but why it possesses them? Such a Congressional creed, if it exists, has failed to take root in the public mind, and even in the mind of its members. It may nevertheless be one key to reestablishing Congress as the first branch of government.

[1] The Federalist Papers, ed. Jacob E. Cooke (Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), No. 51, p. 352.

[2] Register of Debates, 23rd Congress, 1st Session, 82.

[3] Ibid., 84-85.

[4] Ibid., 211.

[5] Ibid., 1566.

[6] Ibid., 1687

[7] Ibid., 1641; 1663.

[8] Ibid., 1673.

[9] Ibid., 1647.

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Topics: Representation & Leadership