Silas Wright Jr. to MVB, 8 January 1844

Silas Wright [Jr.] to MVB, 8 January 1844


My Dear Sir,   

Your favor of the 2nd Int. covering the letters of Mr. Sanford and Mr. Ingersoll reached me on Saturday evening.

So far from apprehending that you may be suspected of a disposition to advise me upon this difficult and responsible subject, I hope you will advise me frankly and fully upon it.

Mr. Sanford’s letter is an excellent one, as I have long been aware his paper is one of the most discreet and able in the whole South. I have never had the pleasure of his acquaintance, but see that he, like many other worthy friends who are wholly unacquainted with Washington, supposes I can do, what no mortal man has ever been able to do since my acquaintance with the Congress of the United States commenced, induce honest action upon a tariff. I have never seen an attempt to act upon the subject, when political designs, and hopes of advantage to some presidential aspirant, or of disadvantage to some dreaded rival, did not exert a much more powerful and universal influence than the real interests involved, nor have I seen Southern politicians less under these malign influences than the northern; and even now I greatly fear, were it in my power to do what Mr. Sanford supposes I can do, that is to pass an honest and just Tariff law, which would settle the feeling in all quarters with the members of the republican party upon that subject, that I could not render myself so odious to a certain class of Southern politicians as by doing that very thing, and thus taking away from them this cause of agitation. There are always men honest politicians, statesmen, both from the north and South, willing to do right upon this and all subjects, so far as they can judge what is right; but unfortunately they do not usually constitute a majority in any Congress, while those who honestly but mistakenly look only at their own Districts, or States, and those who have political objects and act from them, hold the command of this difficult legislation, and the mean which they can establish between their extremes gives shape to the laws which are passed.

I dispose of Mr. Sanford’s letter as you direct, and I confess I burn reluctantly so good a letter, breathing so pure and patriotic a spirit.

Mr. Ingersoll’s letter I return to you. His views of present law are unquestionably sound and correct in the main, and are plain and practical. They are the same views which I took, in my efforts, in the Senate, to modify the duties upon silks, coarse cottons, and one or two other articles. Finding myself wholly unable to change these monstrous duties, I abandoned any attempts to change others. Glass ware is an article upon which the duties are assessed by the pound, and they are, as I believe from all the information I could then, or can yet, obtain, from 100 to 250 or 300 per cent. I could not change that duty. It is not true however, as in reference to silks and many other things that the fine and coarse pay the same duty, as the distinction between plain and cut glass is wide per lb. I think 14 and 45 cents.

I have been engaged for some days, and am still, when I can command the time, in going through with the present law and making a statement of what the duties in fact are, so far as I can gain information, and proposing simple rates ad valorem in lieu of the present duties, putting them at such rates as it seems to me all northern democrats may safely vote for, though I fear many, and a large portion of our own delegation, will not be persuaded to vote for them. I find more sensitiveness and apprehension among our republicans, upon this point, than I had expected to find, and I very much fear, despite every effort, our vote upon this whole subject will make a bad appearance. I have feared, and do fear, though I know nothing, that our friend Beardsley is promoting a feeling among his colleagues on this subject, as you must have seen that his course is upon another subject of equal, if not even greater delicacy, very different from the feeling which I would wish to prevail among them and influence their action.

I have little hope either that any thing I can propose, with any hope of carrying a respectable northern vote, will meet the approbation of the Southern members most given to complaining upon this point, and I fear it may not be such that the fair and candid men of the South, with such a force of dissentients, will feel themselves authorised to go for it.

I propose to constitute one action of specific modifications of the present law, because in that way we can present the enormity of the present duty and the extent of the reduction, even although we should not come down as low as we should suppose proper.

The great difficulty in acting in any way upon this whole subject is the importance men give to words. For example. If we should agree to lay a duty of 25 or 30 per cent. upon woolens, in the abstract, and in the present state of the revenue, all might agree to that, but a man South will declare it a purely revenue duty and to have no protection in or about it, when a northern whig, or mayhap democrat, will insist that it is a protective duty and that he votes for it as such. This raises an argument, which is carried on, with so much show of foundation upon both sides, and with so much more show of feeling than reason, that finally neither side will vote for that exact duty, but the former must depress it to 24 per cent. to prove that it is a revenue duty exclusively, and the latter must raise it to 26 per cent. to prove that it is intended for protection, and in this way the support of the one party or the other is lost, merely about “words,” and without thinking that every duty, which is not perfectly prohibitory, must be a revenue duty to a greater or less extent, and that every duty must be protective, as far as it goes, from 1 per cent. to perfect prohibition. Nor is this the only bad consequence of this “wordy” warfare. The law passed becomes, in the estimation of both the parties, a revenue law, or a protective tariff, according as the one or the other shall succeed upon this struggle for the 1 per cent. up or down.

Enough however of this matter. I commenced with the intention of writing you a page and I have made out nearly four. Tell Mrs. Van Buren I fear her remark as to the attention with which you had been accustomed to read my letters may lead me to punish you very severely for the compliment.

I was stopped here to attend the 8th Jany. Supper, which threatened to be a failure but turned out, so far as I was present, better than I feared. Having to close your letter this morning, I have to acknowledge your favor of the 4th. Your chance for the Judgeship has gone by as we had the nomination of Mr. Spencer yesterday. What will be the disposition of it in the Senate I am, as yet, wholly unable to Conjecture, but I now suspect the Course of the majority is to be such as to throw the responsibility of the confirmation, or rejection, of Henshaw, Porter, Spencer, &c. upon us. If that shall prove to be so, what shall I do? My inclination is to a bloody disposition. Is that safe.

I will examine Forsyth’s claim, but I fear I shall find its strongest merits are sympathies for the family. If so it must go down as to my action, if for no other reason, because there are too many bad claims for the allowance of which it might constitute a precedent. I am sorry you have concluded to write to Beardsley about it. You must let your intercourse with him be such that we can denounce him here, if his course shall compel it, without implicating you, and I wish I could believe he entertains one friendly feeling towards you.

2nd sheet)

My construction of the absence of the leading whigs from the levee is that they are disposed, when the bargain is made, to have a fair side of it, and at least half the advantages, and that, to show the Capt. that such is their disposition, it was thought advisable to stay away then, and thus prove that they, not himself, were the party to be conciliated. That the bargain will soon be made, if it is not, I cannot doubt, because all the natural affinities are already most perceptible.

Pardon the too great length of this very hasty two day letter, and believe me

Most Respectfully

And Truly Yours              

Silas Wright


Tariff—Sandford & 

Ingersoll's Letters

Forsyth claim


Editorial Process Complete