Miller Center

Addendum to March 28 Message to Congress (June 22, 1860)

James Buchanan

Transcript

In my message to the House of Representatives of the 28th March last I solemnly protested against the creation of a committee, at the head of which was placed my accuser, for the purpose of investigating whether the President had, "by money, patronage, or other improper means, sought to influence the action of Congress or any committee thereof for or against the passage of any law appertaining to the rights of any State or Territory." I protested against this because it was destitute of any specification; because it referred to no particular act to enable the President to prepare for his defense; because it deprived him of the constitutional guards which, in common with every citizen of the United States, he possesses for his protection, and because it assailed his constitutional independence as a coordinate branch of the Government.
There is an enlightened justice, as well as a beautiful symmetry, in every part of the Constitution. This is conspicuously manifested in regard to impeachments. The House of Representatives possesses" the sole power of impeachment," the Senate "the sole power to try all impeachments;" and the impeachable offenses are "treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors." The practice of the House from the earliest times had been in accordance with its own dignity, the rights of the accused, and the demands of justice. At the commencement of each judicial investigation which might lead to an impeachment specific charges were always preferred; the accused had an opportunity of cross-examining the witnesses, and he was placed in full possession of the precise nature of the offense which he had to meet. An impartial and elevated standing committee was charged with this investigation, upon which no member inspired with the ancient sense of honor and justice would have served had he ever expressed an opinion against the accused. Until the present occasion it was never deemed proper to transform the accuser into the judge and to confer upon him the selection of his own committee.
The charges made against me in vague and general terms were of such a false and atrocious character that I did not entertain a moment's apprehension for the result. They were abhorrent to every principle instilled into me from my youth and every practice of my life, and I did not believe it possible that the man existed who would so basely perjure himself as to swear to the truth of any such accusations. In this conviction I am informed I have not been mistaken.
In my former protest, therefore, I truly and emphatically declared that it was made for no reason personal to myself, but because the proceedings of the House were in violation of the rights of the coordinate executive branch of the Government, subversive of its constitutional independence, and if unresisted would establish a precedent dangerous and embarrassing to all my successors. Notwithstanding all this, if the committee had not transcended the authority conferred upon it by the resolution of the House of Representatives, broad and general as this was, I should have remained silent upon the subject. What I now charge is that they have acted as though they possessed unlimited power, and, without any warrant whatever in the resolution under which they were appointed, have pursued a course not merely at war with the constitutional rights of the Executive, but tending to degrade the Presidential office itself to such a degree as to render it unworthy of the acceptance of any man of honor or principle.
The resolution of the House, so far as it is accusatory of the President, is confined to an inquiry whether he had used corrupt or improper means to influence the action of Congress or any of its committees on legislative measures pending before them--nothing more, nothing less. I have not learned through the newspapers or in any other mode that the committee have touched the other accusatory branch of the resolution, charging the President with a violation of duty in failing to execute some law or laws. This branch of the resolution is therefore out of the question. By what authority, then, have the committee undertaken to investigate the course of the President in regard to the convention which framed the Lecompton constitution? By what authority have they undertaken to pry into our foreign relations for the purpose of assailing him on account of the instructions given by the Secretary of State to our minister in Mexico relative to the Tehuantepec route? By what authority have they inquired into the causes of removal from office, and this from the parties themselves removed, with a view to prejudice his character, notwithstanding this power of removal belongs exclusively to the President under the Constitution, was so decided by the First Congress in the year 1789, and has accordingly ever since been exercised? There is in the resolution no pretext of authority for the committee to investigate the question of the printing of the post-office blanks; nor is it to be supposed that the House, if asked, would have granted such an authority, because this question had been previously committed to two other committees--one in the Senate and the other in the House. Notwithstanding this absolute want of power, the committee rushed into this investigation in advance of all other subjects.
The committee proceeded for months, from March 22, 1860, to examine ex parte and without any notice to myself into every subject which could possibly affect my character. Interested and vindictive witnesses were summoned and examined before them; and the first and only information of their testimony which, in almost every instance, I received was obtained from the publication of such portions of it as could injuriously affect myself in the New York journals. It mattered not that these statements were, so far as I have learned, disproved by the most respectable witnesses who happened to be on the spot. The telegraph was silent respecting these contradictions. It was a secret committee in regard to the testimony in my defense, but it was public in regard to all the testimony which could by possibility reflect on my character. The poison was left to produce its effect upon the public mind, whilst the antidote was carefully withheld.
In their examinations the committee violated the most sacred and honorable confidences existing among men. Private correspondence, which a truly honorable man would never even entertain a distant thought of divulging, was dragged to light. Different persons in official and confidential relations with myself, and with whom it was supposed I might have held conversations the revelation of which would do me injury, were examined. Even members of the Senate and members of my own Cabinet, both my constitutional advisers, were called upon to testify, for the purpose of discovering something, if possible, to my discredit.
The distribution of the patronage of the Government is by far the most disagreeable duty of the President. Applicants are so numerous and their applications are pressed with such eagerness by their friends, both in and out of Congress, that the selection of one for any desirable office gives offense to many. Disappointed applicants, removed officers, and those who for any cause, real or imaginary, had become hostile to the Administration presented themselves or were invited by a summons to appear before the committee. These are the most dangerous witnesses. Even with the best intentions they are so influenced by prejudice and disappointment that they almost inevitably discolor truth. They swear to their own version of private conversations with the President without the possibility of contradiction. His lips are sealed, and he is left at their mercy. He can not, as a coordinate branch of the Government, appear before a committee of investigation to contradict the oaths of such witnesses. Every coward knows that he can employ insulting language against the President with impunity, and every false or prejudiced witness can attempt to swear away his character before such a committee without the fear of contradiction.
Thus for months, whilst doing my best at one end of the Avenue to perform my high and responsible duties to the country, has there been a committee of the House of Representatives in session at the other end of the Avenue spreading a drag net, without the shadow of authority from the House, over the whole Union, to catch any disappointed man willing to malign my character; and all this in secret conclave. The lion's mouth at Venice, into which secret denunciations were dropped, is an apt illustration of the Covode committee. The star-chamber, tyrannical and odious as it was, never proceeded in such a manner. For centuries there has been nothing like it in any civilized country, except the revolutionary, tribunal of France in the days of Robespierre. Now I undertake to state and to prove that should the proceedings of the committee be sanctioned by the House and become a precedent for future times the balance of the Constitution will be entirely upset, and there will no longer remain the three coordinate and independent branches of the Government--legislative, executive, and judicial. The worst fears of the patriots and statesmen who framed the Constitution in regard to the usurpations of the legislative on the executive and judicial branches will then be realized. In the language of Mr. Madison, speaking on this very subject in the forty-eighth number of the Federalist:
In a representative republic, where the executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and duration of its power, and where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength, which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions by means which reason prescribes, it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.
And in the expressive and pointed language of Mr. Jefferson, when speaking of the tendency of the legislative branch of Government to usurp the rights of the weaker branches:
The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the Republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be rounded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy as that no one could transcend their legal limits without being effectually checked and controlled by the others.
Should the proceedings of the Covode committee become a precedent, both the letter and spirit of the Constitution will be violated. One of the three massive columns on which the whole superstructure rests will be broken down. Instead of the Executive being a coordinate it will become a subordinate branch of the Government. The Presidential office will be dragged into the dust. The House of Representatives will then have rendered the Executive almost necessarily subservient to its wishes, instead of being independent. How is it possible that two powers in the State can be coordinate and independent of each other if the one claims and exercises the power to reprove and to censure all the official acts and all the private conversations of the other, and this upon ex parte testimony before a secret inquisitorial committee; in short, to assume a general censorship over the other? The idea is as absurd in public as it would be in private life. Should the President attempt to assert and maintain his own independence, future Covode committees may dragoon him into submission by collecting the hosts of disappointed office hunters, removed officers, and those who desire to live upon the public Treasury, which must follow in the wake of every, Administration, and they in secret conclave will swear away his reputation. Under such circumstances he must be a very bold man should he not surrender at discretion and consent to exercise his authority according to the will of those invested with this terrific power. The sovereign people of the several States have elected him to the highest and most honorable office in the world. He is their only direct representative in the Government. By their Constitution they have made him Commander in Chief of their Army and Navy. He represents them in their intercourse with foreign nations. Clothed with their dignity and authority, he occupies a proud position before all nations, civilized and savage. With the consent of the Senate, he appoints all the important officers of the Government. He exercises the veto power, and to that extent controls the legislation of Congress. For the performance of these high duties he is responsible to the people of the several States, and not in any degree to the House of Representatives.
Shall he surrender these high powers, conferred upon him as the representative of the American people for their benefit, to the House to be exercised under their overshadowing influence and control? Shall he alone of all the citizens of the United States be denied a fair trial? Shall he alone not be "informed of the nature and cause of the accusation" against him? Shall he alone not "be confronted with the witnesses" against him? Shall the House of Representatives, usurping the powers of the Senate, proceed to try the President through the agency of a secret committee of the body, where it is impossible he can make any defense, and then, without affording him an opportunity of being heard, pronounce a judgment of censure against him? The very same rule might be applied for the very same reason to every judge of every court of the United States. From what part of the Constitution is this terrible secret inquisitorial power derived? No such express power exists. From which of the enumerated powers can it be inferred? It is true the House can not pronounce the formal judgment against him of "removal from office," but they can by their judgment of censure asperse his reputation, and thus to the extent of their influence render the office contemptible. An example is at hand of the reckless manner in which this power of censure can be employed in high party times. The House on a recent occasion have attempted to degrade the President by adopting the resolution of Mr. John Sherman declaring that he, in conjunction with the Secretary of the Navy, "by receiving and considering the party relations of bidders for contracts and the effect of awarding contracts upon pending elections, have set an example dangerous to the public safety and deserving the reproof of this House."
It will scarcely be credited that the sole pretext for this vote of censure was the simple fact that in disposing of the numerous letters of every imaginable character which I daily receive I had in the usual course of business referred a letter from Colonel Patterson, of Philadelphia, in relation to a contract, to the attention of the Secretary of the Navy, the head of the appropriate Department, without expressing or intimating any opinion whatever on the subject; and to make the matter if possible still plainer, the Secretary had informed the committee that "the President did not in any manner interfere in this case, nor has he in any other case of contract since I have been in the Department." The absence of all proof to sustain this attempt to degrade the President, whilst it manifests the venom of the shaft aimed at him, has destroyed the vigor of the bow.
To return after this digression: Should the House, by the institution of Covode committees, votes of censure, and other devices to harass the President, reduce him to subservience to their will and render him their creature, then the well-balanced Government which our fathers framed will be annihilated. This conflict has already been commenced in earnest by the House against the Executive. A bad precedent rarely, if ever, dies. It will, I fear, be pursued in the time of my successors, no matter what may be their political character. Should secret committees be appointed with unlimited authority to range over all the words and actions, and, if possible, the very thoughts, of the President with a view to discover something in his past life prejudicial to his character from parasites and informers, this would be an ordeal which scarcely any mere man since the fall could endure. It would be to subject him to a reign of terror from which the stoutest and purest heart might shrink. I have passed triumphantly through this ordeal. My vindication is complete. The committee have reported no resolution looking to an impeachment against me; no resolution of censure; not even a resolution pointing out any abuses in any of the Executive Departments of the Government to be corrected by legislation. This is the highest commendation which could be bestowed on the heads of these Departments. The sovereign people of the States will, however, I trust, save my successors, whoever they may be, from any such ordeal. They are frank, bold, and honest. They detest delators and informers. I therefore, in the name and as the representative of this great people, and standing upon the ramparts of the Constitution which they "have ordained and established," do solemnly protest against these unprecedented and unconstitutional proceedings.
There was still another committee raised by the House on the 6th March last, on motion of Mr. Hoard, to which I had not the slightest objection. The resolution creating it was confined to specific charges, which I have ever since been ready and willing to meet. I have at all times invited and defied fair investigation upon constitutional principles. I have received no notice that this committee have ever proceeded to the investigation.
Why should the House of Representatives desire to encroach on the other departments of the Government? Their rightful powers are ample for every legitimate purpose. They are the impeaching body. In their legislative capacity it is their most wise and wholesome prerogative to institute rigid examinations into the manner in which all departments of the Government are conducted, with a view to reform abuses, to promote economy, and to improve every branch of administration. Should they find reason to believe in the course of their examinations that any grave offense had been committed by the President or any officer of the Government rendering it proper, in their judgment, to resort to impeachment, their course would be plain. They would then transfer the question from their legislative to their accusatory jurisdiction, and take care that in all the preliminary judicial proceedings preparatory to the vote of articles of impeachment the accused should enjoy the benefit of cross-examining the witnesses and all the other safeguards with which the Constitution surrounds every American citizen.
If in a legislative investigation it should appear that the public interest required the removal of any officer of the Government, no President has ever existed who, after giving him a fair hearing, would hesitate to apply the remedy.
This I take to be the ancient and well-established practice. An adherence to it will best promote the harmony and the dignity of the intercourse between the coordinate branches of the Government and render us all more respectable both in the eyes of our own countrymen and of foreign nations.