Republicanism and Liberty: The “Patrick Henry”/”Onslow” Debate

 by Charles King Bird

The fiercely contested, yet inconclusive election of 1824 set the stage for one of the great debates of American political history. According to Irving Bartlett, “the key to understanding Calhoun’s political behavior and thinking from 1825 through 1828 may be found in the peculiar conditions under which the election of 1824 occurred.”  The same can be said of John Quincy Adams. Fellow cabinet members John Quincy Adams, who served as President Monroe’s Secretary of State, and John C. Calhoun, who served as Secretary of War, entered the fray along with Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford, Speaker of the House Henry Clay, and the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and newly elected senator, Andrew Jackson.  Calhoun soon realized he lacked adequate support to be elected president and withdrew from the race after Pennsylvania nominated Andrew Jackson. Accepting the vice-presidential nomination, and aligning himself with Jackson, Calhoun was elected by a large majority.

In the presidential contest, none of the four remaining candidates won either an electoral or a popular majority. Jackson garnered 99 electoral votes, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. It then fell to the House of Representatives, where Jackson’s nemesis Clay was speaker, to choose between the top three candidates. In an unusual series of events, Clay came to Adams’s aid, with the House vote securing the election for Adams and giving the country a president and vice-president who were political rivals. The president-elect proceeded to appoint Clay as Secretary of State; the office that had become a stepping-stone to the presidency.

The more popular Andrew Jackson thought he had been robbed and immediately began preparing for 1828. Though the charge has never been proven, many Americans, including Calhoun, agreed with Jackson and considered the supposed arrangement between Clay and Adams a “corrupt bargain.” Neither Adams nor Calhoun was in a comfortable situation. Adams was a minority president, who many believed had stolen the office, and was saddled with a vice president allied with the opposition. Calhoun had been elected independently of the president whose republican virtue he questioned and whose policies he opposed.

The emerging personal and philosophical dispute between Vice-President John C. Calhoun and President John Quincy Adams prompted the “Patrick Henry”/”Onslow” debate and their subsequent disengagement from each other. Adams’s early initiatives alarmed Calhoun, who feared the “principles of ’98” were threatened by this proposed dramatic increase of the general government’s power and the erosion of constitutional integrity. On the other hand, Calhoun’s lack of support for the administration’s programs was a source of great and legitimate concern to Adams. Having been unjustly accused of striking a corrupt bargain with Henry Clay to win the presidency, Adams was especially sensitive to any hint of disloyalty.

Assuming an office considered largely ceremonial, Calhoun took his vice-presidential responsibilities seriously, bringing a new dedication to his position as Senate President. While elected a member of the executive branch, the Vice-President worked within the legislative branch. He began as a Vice-President elected in his own right, not as a disciple of John Quincy Adams. The vice-presidential office had previously proven to be a less than propitious “springboard” for political or personal advancement, with every Vice-President except John Adams and Thomas Jefferson either dying in office or becoming somewhat removed from their public responsibilities. From his first day as Senate President, Calhoun presided over the body’s deliberations, breaking a long pattern of vice-presidential inactivity regarding Senate proceedings. Given the limited constitutional requirements placed upon the office, Vice-Presidents were not intimately connected to the political struggles within their respective administrations and some rarely visited the Capital. The previous Congress had given the Vice-President power to appoint Senate committee chairmen, and Calhoun exercised this new responsibility with great fairness, selecting friends of the Adams Administration to chair eight major committees, with the remaining seven chairmanships given to senators not directly associated with the administration. However, Adams noted that some of the chairmanships went to his political enemies and therefore, with some justification, eyed Calhoun’s appointments suspiciously.

Calhoun’s approach to making committee appointments and his increasingly critical posture towards executive control drove a wedge between himself and President Adams regarding the use of power. As their debate unfolded, it became clear that Adams and Calhoun held vastly different views of the relationship between Liberty and Power. Adams advocated Liberty with or through Power.  Not so Calhoun, who viewed unchecked Power as a potential threat to Liberty. Calhoun consistently held that political power was a trust, given by the people and moderated by the states primarily, but also in a more limited degree by the general government; therefore, consolidating power always led to political disorder, threatening the country’s constancy of mission and vision. In opposition to Calhoun’s theory of power restraint and diffusion, Adams believed in actively using power for the public good. Given such a divergence between Adams and Calhoun on principle, the ensuing debate became a national event as it brought their differences into the public arena, again dramatizing the great republican philosophical divide in American politics.

As noted, the “Patrick Henry”/”Onslow” exchange should be understood as a battle for the soul of American republicanism. While one can argue that the debate traverses several levels, and indeed the exchanges themselves encourage such analysis, these reflections on the nature of political authority actually take place on two interconnected levels: the personal and the philosophical. In the course of eleven lengthy essays the authors display a depth of insight not encountered in contemporary politics, provide important commentary on central concerns of political life, and offer remarkable discernment regarding the tension between liberty and power.

The debate began on rather innocuous terms when Calhoun refused to preserve “order” and interrupt Senator John Randolph’s speech against President Adams and Secretary of State Clay, with whom Randolph had recently dueled. Adams considered the speech not just indecorous, but slanderous. Responding to Calhoun’s failure to stifle Randolph, an essay appeared in the “party press” paper, the National Journal, under the pseudonym “Patrick Henry,” criticizing the Vice-President. Some mystery persists over “Patrick Henry”‘s authorship, although the attachment of the author to Adams’s neo-Federalism cannot be questioned. Research shows that the author was either Adams or a confidant acting under the President’s direct tutelage. It is unlikely Calhoun would have participated in such a debate if he thought “Patrick Henry” was a surrogate, and public attention to these issues and personages would also have been greatly diminished if some other individual besides President Adams was the acknowledged author of “Patrick Henry.”  Influenced by the reputation of Sir Arthur Onslow, a noted Speaker of the House of Commons whose expertise in parliamentary procedure influenced Jefferson’s A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, Calhoun took the nom de plume “Onslow.”

Taking up his pen, Calhoun argued that the Senate President held “appellate power” as the beneficiary of the Senate’s trust; such responsibility did not primarily dictate that the Senate President preside over legislative sessions. In fact, Calhoun cited Senate rules six and seven that allowed the President to “call for the sense of Senate” when order was disputed, and for the recording of “exceptionable” speech before rendering a judgment about a member’s comments. “Patrick Henry,” as the ensuing debate would prove, argued that Calhoun’s proposition was impractical and politically untenable.

The first essay in the exchange found “Patrick Henry” inveighing personally against Calhoun, suggesting that the Vice-President promoted criticism of the Adams’s Administration and “sacrificed the proprieties of office to the sympathies of a desperate ambition.” “Patrick Henry” argued that the presiding officer inherently possessed the power to preserve order, stressing the necessity of authority in relation to the Senate. In other words, the powers of the Senate President resided in the office, with the office also implying particular duties. “Patrick Henry” criticized Calhoun as a disciple of Jackson and one whose understanding of Senate procedure exceeded “scholastic absurdity.” Defending his limited view of his own powers, Calhoun refused to “stand in the light of a usurper,” exerting the power to preside when such a responsibility was “too high for the Chair [Senate President].”

Calhoun then offered his first response as “Onslow,” addressing two questions–the necessity of calling Randolph to order, and secondly, the more profound problem of using power when it is not explicitly needed or when it is reserved for other purposes. As Calhoun summarized this central philosophical thrust of “Onslow,” he countered “Patrick Henry”‘s emerging theory of power. The power to call to order was directly bestowed upon the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Speaker was selected from among the Representatives. As an executive officer not elected by the Senate, the Senate President was not given the body’s approval and consent for controlling its deliberations. In other words, the Senate President lacked legitimacy when compared to the Speaker of the House’s obligation to preside. As rational agents on the behalf of the people and the states, the Senators had failed to entrust the Senate President with sufficient authority for calling members to order, but he may determine and articulate the appropriate intervals for debate, although he could not interfere with the “freedom of debate.” Moreover, as a figure not elected from within the Senate, he could not appropriately referee issues concerning the “latitude” or limits of discussions, citing the English House of Lords as precedent for such a posture.

By referring to constitutional provisos and the wisdom of the Founders, especially Jefferson, both discussants offered a convincing and accurate appeal to the republican worldview. In opposition to Calhoun’s use of Jefferson, “Patrick Henry” presented his contribution with copious quotations from Jefferson’s Manual, including references to Hatsell’s treatise on procedure in the English House of Commons. While the struggle between “Patrick Henry” and Calhoun over the Manual and whose position most closely resembled its guidelines for organizing the Senate’s work might appear to be of an inclusively procedural nature, “Patrick Henry”‘s used Jefferson and Senate history to support his theory of power. In “Patrick Henry”’s view, power was inherent in the government and was given with the expectation that it was to be energetically used for the public good. Calhoun’s “Onslow” believed that primary responsibility for Senate deliberations as well as the work of American government depended on a more explicit and concise guide, the Constitution. According to the fundamental law, the Senate was to make its own rules regarding proceedings, and then obey these structures (Article 1, Section 5, Clause 2), hopefully preventing disruption and stalemate. (As a supplement to the Constitution, the Manual remains an important source for American parliamentary procedure, although Jefferson relied more in practice upon his Parliamentary Pocket-Book as a guide.) Power was diffused through delegation, which strengthened the parts and the whole, allowing the parts ample opportunity to mold popular rule within the whole. For Calhoun, the theory of power and ultimately of popular rule espoused by “Patrick Henry” tended to support the “uncontrolled and unlimited power” of the executive. To articulate inherent power as intrinsic to a particular office neglected the sources and primary agency genuine authority required. The people, acting through their state legislatures, delegated a modicum of power to the Senate. A symbiotic relationship developed between the recipient of power and its original sources, encouraging deliberation and mutual respect. The Senate had evolved into an institution that was responsive to state preferences, but also sensitive to national needs. With the Vice-President, the Senate had crafted certain boundaries of authority through established legislative and procedural habits. In a fashion, the Senate entrusted the Vice-President as Senate President with certain delegated powers, while retaining most of its authority, including the power to maintain order “in the body, and not in the presiding officer.” Connecting the power to preserve order with enforcement duty, the Senate as a body reserved for itself the obligations placed upon the Speaker in the House of Representatives.

When Calhoun presented a restrictive commentary on the Constitution, “Patrick Henry” countered with a more inclusive critique. For “Patrick Henry” the creative power of the Senate President implied inherent power; once an office was created, the officer possessed the power of the position without compromise. The Senate, having vested the Senate President with power to call members to order, “confers on the office by the single fact of creating it, every power necessary for the performance of its duties.” Once created, the Senate President’s powers could not be taken away or modified, argued “Patrick Henry.” The creation alone established the “Constitutional character of that officer.” “Patrick Henry” concluded by accusing Calhoun of promoting anarchy, degrading the Senate, and compromising the Adams Administration with his appointment of opposition senators to committee chairmanships. “Patrick Henry”‘s forceful essays connect the worldview of John Quincy Adams with the earlier New England republicanism and provide a valuable neo-Federalist assessment of Calhoun’s Jeffersonian republicanism. Calhoun’s “Onslow,” on the other hand, may be more in accord with the political thought of the Antifederalists, but its relevance must be examined in light of the demands of place and time.

For Calhoun, Senate procedures served as a microcosm of the need for restraint within political life. The orderly diffusion and application of popular rule allowed for a political system that was more sustainable. While acknowledging the need for self-imposed restraints upon the delegation and use of power, as well as the agency of control, “Patrick Henry” defended patronage as an appropriate tool for extending and confirming political power. A Vice-President or legislative leader should only install committee chairs who are “friendly to the measures of the President,” encouraging a system for rewarding the concentration of power and limiting popular participation in governing. Insofar as the version of popular rule “Patrick Henry” endorsed explicitly precluded dividing power and appealing to the higher potentialities of the citizenry, Calhoun observed that such a theory of politics “must lead to a political state,” suggesting an arbitrariness regarding constitutional “first principles.” While recognizing the need to allow for self-interest as “Patrick Henry” eloquently noted, Calhoun urged the inclusion of the moral dimension within a concept of popular rule. As a guide to these “first principles,” Calhoun’s “Onslow” again referred to the Constitution, Jefferson’s “Republican struggle,” and the need to persevere against efforts directed towards denigrating this republican worldview. The great debate thus arrayed Calhoun’s Jeffersonian republican vision of constitutionally restrained power and local autonomy against Adams’s neo-Federalist republican vision which called for the positive use of inherent power—a view that would become increasingly compelling to future generations of Americans.

In the course of this exchange some of the most salient issues with American politics and liberty are debated, including the nature of political order, democracy, and thediffusion of political power. The level of erudition and insight is remarkable. The “Patrick Henry”/”Onslow” Debate deserves a wider popular and scholarly audience.

Sean Busick and Carey Roberts contributed to this essay.  Lee, Busick, and Roberts published an edited volume of the famous Henry/Onslow debate, titled: Patrick Henry-Onslow Debate: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought

About H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is Professor of Political Science and the former Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at East Georgia State College. Dr. Cheek also directs the College's Correll Scholars Program. He received his bachelor's degree from Western Carolina University, his M.Div. from Duke University, his M.P.A. from Western Carolina University, and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America. As a senior minister in the United Methodist Church (Western North Carolina Conference) for thirty years, Cheek has served as a parish minister, visiting cleric, and U.S Army chaplain. Dr. Cheek's books include Political Philosophy and Cultural Renewal (Transaction/Rutgers, 2001; reprinted, Routledge, 2018 [with Kathy B. Cheek]); Calhoun and Popular Rule, published by the University of Missouri Press (2001; paper edition, 2004); Calhoun: Selected Speeches and Writings (Regnery, 2003); Order and Legitimacy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2004; reprinted, Routledge, 2017); an edition of Calhoun's A Disquisition on Government (St. Augustine's, 2007; reprinted, 2016); a critical edition of W. H. Mallock's The Limits of Pure Democracy (Transaction/Rutgers, 2007; reprinted, Routledge, 2017); Confronting Modernity: Towards a Theology of Ministry in the Wesleyan Tradition (Wesley Studies Society, 2010); an edition of the classic study, A Theory of Public Opinion (Transaction/Rutgers, 2013; reprinted, Routledge, 2017); Patrick-Henry Onslow Debate: Liberty and Republicanism in American Political Thought (Lexington, 2013); and, The Founding of the American Republic (Notre Dame University Press, 2022 [forthcoming]). More from H. Lee Cheek, Jr.

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