January 16, 1837
Senate Reverses a Presidential Censure
A unique sheet of time-weathered paper rests in a green steel vault at the National Archives Building. Careful inspection reveals that it was originally created as page 552 of the Senate’s 1834 handwritten legislative journal. Because of the document’s great significance, someone later sliced it out of the bound journal to make it easier to display.
The yellowed document symbolizes a titanic struggle in the Senate of the 1830s between allies of Democratic President Andrew Jackson and the forces of Whig Senator Henry Clay. Its most striking visual feature is a rectangular box, formed of thin black lines, which encloses thirty-four words. Inscribed by the secretary of the Senate on March 28, 1834, they read as follows: “Resolved that the President in the late Executive proceedings in relation to the public revenue, has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.”
This message was placed in the journal following the Senate’s vote to censure Jackson for refusing to provide documents related to his plan to remove government funds from the privately run Bank of the United States. This censure, totally without constitutional authorization, united the Senate’s “Great Triumvirate” of Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun against Jackson and his Senate ally, Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton.
For the next three years, Benton worked tirelessly to remove this blot from Jackson’s record and from the Senate’s official journal. Early in 1837, with less than two months remaining in the president’s final term, and with majority control back in Democratic hands, Benton called for a vote. By a five-vote margin, the Senate agreed to reverse its earlier censure. On January 16, 1837, the secretary of the Senate carried the 1834 Journal into the chamber, drew careful lines around its text, and wrote, “Expunged by order of the Senate.”
Pandemonium swept the galleries. When a disgruntled Whig sympathizer ignored the presiding officer’s repeated calls for order, that officer directed the sergeant at arms to arrest the man and haul him onto the Senate floor. After the Senate voted to free the demonstrator, he approached the presiding officer and demanded, “Am I not permitted to speak in my own defense?” The outraged presiding officer ordered him removed from the chamber and the Senate adjourned amidst the tumult.
Peterson, Merrill D. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Remini, Robert V. Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.