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PATRICK HENRY [Matthew Livingston Davis] to MVB, 25 September 1834



It is believed that no candid man who peruses the preceding letters can view you in any other light during the year 1812, than as an opponent of the war and its friends; and as having “changed fronts” from mercenary and selfish considerations, after the election of Mr. Madison, and triumph of the war party. A more impudent and unsupported claim was never made by a political juggler, than that made for you as a friend of the war. Other of your acts will be treated in a more summary, but not less pointed manner.

Before entering upon a new scene, let us take a birdseye view of the state of parties in New York in 1813. Daniel D. Tompkins was Governor. He possessed the confidence of the general administration. He had sustained the war from its commencement.-Previous to 1812 he had been in the habit of confidential intercourse with Mr. Clinton. They were now in a great measure, estranged. After the defeat of Mr. Clinton. They were now in a great measure, estranged. After the defeat of Mr. Clinton, as a candidate for the Presidency, his popularity was in the wane. You, sir, had the sagacity to perceive it. You promptly decided to make good your retreat from his camp. No man is more adroit on such an expedition than Mr. Van Buren. You knew Gov. Tompkins to be credulous and unsuspecting. He knew you to be treacherous, selfish and mercenary. You ministered to his weaknesses; and the Governor, through his friends at Washington, contributed to indulge your all absorbing passions. The trials of Hull and Wilkinson presented an opportunity for bestowing upon you munificent largesses; and you soon thus suddenly converted into an advocate of the war, a supporter of Mr. Madison, and a zealous defender of the Virginia school politics.

It is only necessary to add, that you are as wary as you are insincere. You are a waiter upon events.-You seldom act, until you feel satisfied that your movement will be with the majority. Your system of politics, is proverbial. it is non committal. You were born a jesuit; and although destitute of the education or intelligence of one of their scholars, yet you might practically be trusted as a competitor with their professors. Your policy has been, frequently, to float with the majority, in favor of a measure, while your adherents were not only opposed to, but were assailing it with great violence. In no instance of your life has this characteristic been more strongly displayed, than on the subject of the canals. All the papers under your control, or the control of your adherents, all those men over whom you were supposed to have an influence, were sneering at the system, and traducing its friends, while you were voting in favor of the appropriations, but always for the smallest sums proposed. Sir, in plain language, you well know that you were considered by the real friends of the canal policy, as an Iago in the party, and that you neither possessed, nor deserved to possess, their esteem or their confidence. And yet your biographer has the temerity to assert,

“That you were the means of carrying through both branches of the legislature the memorable act of April, 1817, which directed the commencement of the work. This bill was strenuously opposed in the Senate, and probably owed its passage through that body to the active support of Mr. Van Buren, who delivered an able and eloquent speech in its favor, at the very crisis of its fate.”

Now, sir, let us examine the truth of the above averment. In 1811 a board of canal commissioners had been established. The war prevented their making any progress. A project was set on foot, in 1813 to destroy the contemplated plan of internal improvement. You were opposed to an open and direct attack upon the system; but in favor of an insiduous and covert assault. On the 10th of Eebruary, 1813, a resolution was introduced into the Senate calling upon the commissioners, to report, &c. This was to be an entering wedge; the basis for future operations.-You, sir, voted for the resolution, but the friends of the canal policy, understanding the ulterior object, rejected the proposition. You were, therefore, in the minority on this question. From this period until the year 1816, the subject of internal improvements (so far as legislation was concerned) was permitted to sleep; but its great champion, De Witt Clinton, had not been idle. On the 9th of March 1816, the board of commissioners, at the head of which was Mr. Clinton, made a luminous and satisfactory report as to the feasibility of the project. On party questions the house of assembly were equally divided: 63 federal and 63 democratic. On the 13th of April 1816, a bill passed the house authorising the commissioners to commence operations, but limiting their expenditures to the 250,000 dollars per annum for eight years. On this bill the votes were-ayes 84, nays 18. It was sent to the Senate. What was your course? Were you the friend of the bill! No! You opposed the measure, and by a small majority accomplished its defeat. Nothing was done during the session, but authorising the commissioners to make surveys &c. and appropriating 20,000 dollars to defray the expenses. Such was the character of your friendship for the canal policy, after a board of able and intelligent commissioners had been five years organised.

And now, sir, we have arrived at that period when, according to your biographer, “the memorable act of 1817 owed its passage through the Senate to your support.” On the 17th of April 1817, a resolution from the house, respecting the navigable communication between the lakes was sent to the Senate. A bill was reported, authorizing the commencement of the canals, and an appropriation of 250,000 dollars for the purpose of carrying on the work. The Senate consisted of 32 members. The ayes and nays were called 12 times on various clauses on the bill. Your efforts, it is said, carried it “through the Senate.” You delivered an able and eloquent speech in its “favor at the very crisis of its fate.”

And pray, gentle reader, after all this puffing and parade, how numerous would you suppose the minority were, from whose deadly grasp the eloquence of Mr. Van Buren snatched the memorable canal law? Out of 32 members, the minority, or opponents of the bill, fluctuated from 4 to 7 on the various propositions that were presented. In one instance, on the fourth section, which authorised the canal commissioners, at their pleasure, to take possession of the western inland lock navigation company’s property, the minority amounted to ten. Your historian must have been amusing himself with erecting men of straw, for the purpose of exhibiting your power at knocking them down. From this period to the completion of these stupenduous improvements, the enemies of the measure could rally but a feeble force, as Mr. Clinton was shortly after elected Governor of the State.

It has been remarked, that the presses under your control continued their assaults upon the canal policy, while you were voting appropriations for carrying it into operation. As a specimen, I give the following, from the Albany Argus:-“Great canals are not safe hobbys for great men to ride. Such a hobby, at the elevation of one hundred and ninety feet above the Cayuga lake, would be very apt to make the head swim.”

I must not be told that you were not responsible for the saying and doings of the Albany Argus. Before I have done with you, I will show, by extracts from your own letters, now before me, that on a particular occasion Mr. Buel, the editor, was, as you say, “apprehensive that I (Van Buren) want to get rid of him.” Pray, sir, was he at that early period restive under the collar?


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Source: Watchman (Montpelier, VT)
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 7 (4 March 1833-3 March 1837)