Primary Resource

Speech by Nathaniel H. Claiborne to the U.S. House of Representatives (February 18, 1830)

In this speech, dated February 18, 1830, Nathaniel H. Claiborne registers his vote against a bill that proposed to provide pensions to the families—including brothers and sisters—of the navy men aboard the USS Hornet when it foundered in 1829 and was never seen again.

Transcription from Original

An engrossed bill, entitled "An act for the relief of the widows and orphans of the officers, seamen, and marines of the sloop of war Hornet," was read the third time; and the question was stated, Shall the bill pass? when Mr. Claiborne, of Virginia, said he could not vote for this bill if the words brothers and sisters were retained. When a man fell in the service of his country, he had no objection to make a reasonable provision for his wife and children, if he had such; but to extend it further, was a dangerous precedent. He felt no hesitation in saying he could not and would not sustain it. If we could make donations—to the relations of officers who have perished in the service of their country, to brothers and sisters, where, and at what point, shall we stop? Have we entered into an agreement to provide for all the relations of our officers who have perished in the service of their country, to brothers and sisters, where, and at what point, shall we stop? Have we entered into an agreement to provide for all the relations of our officers now in service, in case of their deaths? If such engagement has been entered into, I hope it will be produced. The system of pensions, sinecures, and donations, name it as you please, is a dangerous system; it has been sustained in most countries where it is now permanently enthroned, by passionate appeals to the liberality—the generosity of the people. Those appeals have also been too successful—they have produced bitter fruits.

In the Old World palaces have been built, estates purchased for distinguished individuals—with money drawn by a rigorous and cruel and oppressive taxation, from the poorest classes of the community; I say the poorest classes of the community, for while many fatten upon taxation, there are in all countries those who feel its burdens only. I do not like the term generosity. We have no right to be generous and charitable with the money of other people. We may give pensions to the widows and children of those who perish in the service of the country; for we have every reason to believe that they have thereby been deprived of the means of support; go beyond this in your pensioning system, and you are in great danger. The isthmus which separates acts that are generous from those that are venal, is very narrow, and we must be cautious, or we may pass it, and be involved in all the consequences that an overgrown system of pensioning has brought about in some of the more ancient nations of the earth. Our system has gone nearly as far as that of Great Britain, except that as yet we have no civil pensions. Let in civil pensions, and then you have the British plan—a system that has entailed an enormous debt on that nation, subjected their people to the horrors of heavy taxation, and reduced a large portion of their population (if their own writers are to be believed) to penury. Such have been the effects of pensions, sinecures, and donations indulged in by another country. When you have equaled them in the extent of your pensioning system, you may witness here what is witnessed there, for nature is not the partisan of a cis or a trans-atlantic world. My alarm is the greater, because no one pretends to know any thing of the condition of the brothers and sisters of the deceased officers. Those who support this bill assume (I suppose) they are poor. I may assume that the officers of the army and navy are most generally related to the wealthiest men in the community. Let no one suppose he venerates the glory of the navy more than I do. I esteem the navy most highly. My willingness to provide, for a reasonable time, for the wives and children of the officers and seamen who have perished in the service of the country, is proof of this disposition to the cause of the navy. The amount that is depending on this question is not of very great consequence. But it is a question of principle, and that makes it all important. It is a great and memorable principle, that will fix hereafter, if settled as in the bill contained, the expenditure of millions. That is what constitutes its importance. I enter against the passage of this bill my protest. I will detain you no longer.