George Dallas

George Dallas

Stories about George Dallas

George Mifflin Dallas, 11th Vice President (1845-1849) Part II

    President of the Senate

    From 1789 to 1845, the Senate followed the practice of selecting its committees by ballot, with the exception of several years in the 1820s and 1830s when the power was specifically given to the presiding officer (1823-1826) or, more pointedly, to the president pro tempore (1828-1833), an officer selected by and responsible to the Senate. When the Senate convened in March 1845 for its brief special session to receive the new president's executive nominations, Democratic party leaders engineered a resolution that revived the practice of having the vice president appoint the members of standing committees. Acknowledging that the vice president was not directly responsible to the Senate, administration allies asserted that his was a greater responsibility, as guaranteed in the Constitution, "to the Senate's masters, the people of these United States." The goal was to pack the Committee on Foreign Relations with members sympathetic to the administration's position on the Oregon boundary question. Vice President Dallas made the desired appointments.

    In December 1845, at the opening of the Senate's regular legislative session, party leaders again sought to give the appointment power to Dallas. On this occasion, however, four rebellious Democrats joined minority party Whigs to defeat the resolution by a one-vote margin. This action presented the Polk administration with the unappealing likelihood that, in balloting by the full Senate, Democrats hostile to its specific objectives would take control of key Senate committees. Dallas reported that the return to the usual procedure required him to work "unusually hard . . . to superintend some sixteen or twenty ballotings for officers and chairmen of Committees." He was "much encouraged by the kind manner in which I am complimented on my mode of presiding. But I assure you," he continued, "contrary to my expectations, it is not done without a great deal of preparatory labor. Now that [the anti-administration] hostility has shewn itself, I am bound to be ready at all points and against surprizes."

    To end this time-consuming process, Senate party leaders took a step of major importance for the future development of legislative political parties. The Democrats and Whigs each organized a party caucus to prepare lists of committee assignments, an arrangement that marked the beginning of the Senate seniority system. As long as committee members had been selected by secret ballot or appointed by presiding officers, a member's experience did not guarantee his selection. After 1845, seniority became a major determinant, particularly in the selection of committee chairmen. Legislative parties, charged with preparing slates of committee assignments, tended to become more cohesive.  In this period the tradition also began of seating in the chamber by party—with the Democrats to the presiding officer's right and the Whigs (later the Republicans) to the left.

    From his canopied dais, the vice president had the best seat in the nation's best theater. On one memorable occasion, he reported to his wife that "the speech of [Senator Daniel] Webster to-day would have overwhelmed and perhaps disgusted you. He attacked [Pennsylvania's Representative] Mr. C. J. Ingersoll with the savage and mangling ferocity of a tiger. For at least a half an hour, he grit his teeth, scowled, stamped, and roared forth the very worst & most abusive language I have ever heard uttered in the Senate." Dallas later observed that "[v]ast intellect, like Webster's, almost naturally glides into arrogance."

    In his brief inaugural address to the Senate, Dallas had acknowledged that he entered into his "tranquil and unimposing" new duties "[w]ithout any of the cares of real power [and] none of the responsibilities of legislation" except in rare instances when he might be called on to break tied votes.  If anything, he would stand as "an organ of Freedom's fundamental principle of order." Despite this noble disclaimer of partisanship, Dallas involved himself deeply in the struggle to help the president achieve his legislative agenda. He worked against strong contrary pressures from the party's western faction, led by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and its southern bloc under the inspiration of Senator John C. Calhoun. In assessing these senators' motives, Dallas reported that Benton intended to oppose Calhoun wherever possible. "If Mr. Calhoun should support the [Polk] administration, Col. Benton will not be able to resist the impulse to oppose it:—on the contrary, if Mr. Calhoun opposes, Col. Benton will be our champion. Such are, in the highest spheres of action, the uncertainties and extravagancies of human passions!"

    At the start of his term as Senate president, Dallas was called on to make an administrative decision that had larger constitutional consequences. Since 1815, senators had received a compensation of eight dollars for each day they were present in Washington. Public opposition routinely frustrated persistent congressional efforts to move instead to an annual salary. In March 1845 several senators hit upon a novel way to supplement their compensation—to collect travel expenses to and from Washington for the special session that the Senate held at the start of each new administration to confirm presidential appointments. The problem was that senators had already been paid for their travel to the final regular session of the Congress that had adjourned the day before the special session began.  When veteran Secretary of the Senate Asbury Dickins informed Dallas that "no distinct and controlling decision" had ever been made on this issue, Dallas ruled in a lengthy written opinion that each senator should be paid for travel at the beginning and end of each session "without any enquiry or regard as to where he actually was or how he was actually engaged . . . and without any enquiry or regard as to, where he intends to travel or remain when the Senate adjourns." This decision unleashed a flood of applications from current and former senators for compensation for travel to earlier special sessions, until Dallas advised that the ruling would not be applied retroactively. Several years later, in response to a Treasury Department challenge of the Dallas ruling, the attorney general concluded that the "president of the Senate is the sole judge of the amounts of compensation due and his certificate is conclusive" and that "mileage is part of a Senator's compensation, and not mere defrayment of travelling expenses, and hence actual travel is not necessary."

    Dallas followed the custom of members of Congress who rented rooms, for the duration of a congressional session, either on Capitol Hill or closer to the White House. During the regular session of the Twenty-ninth Congress, from December 1845 through August 1846, he resided at Henry Riell's boardinghouse within a short walk of the Capitol at Third Street and Maryland Avenue, NE. For the first session of the Thirtieth Congress, from December 1847 to August 1848, he lived at Mrs. Gadsby's on President's Square across from the White House. For his final session, from December 1848 to March 1849, he moved several blocks to Mr. Levi Williams' boardinghouse on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 17th and 18th Streets, Northwest.

    At the beginning of his first regular session in December 1845, Dallas set a daily routine in which he arrived at the vice president's office in the Capitol at 9 a.m., remained busily engaged there receiving visitors and presiding until 4 p.m., adjourned to his lodgings for lunch, and then returned to the Capitol until 9 or 10 p.m. For a diversion, he would stroll around the Capitol grounds or walk down Pennsylvania Avenue. The newly refurbished Senate chamber he pronounced "redeemed from a thousand barbarisms." But he confided to his son that he expected the coming session to "be one of the most important, disturbed, and protracted" in the nation's history and feared that the weakness of administration supporters in the Senate "may exact more exertion from me than would otherwise fall my share."

    Dallas regularly complained about the inconveniences and demands of his daily life as vice president. His wife disliked Washington and remained in Philadelphia except for rare visits. He dined frequently with Treasury Secretary Robert Walker and his nephew U.S. Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Dallas Bache (a great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin). His biographer reports that during these years, the vice president allowed himself one luxury—a stylish African American coachman who wore a distinctive black hat with broad band and steel buckle. Dallas was ill a great deal and complained of digestive disorders and sore feet, which he routinely bathed in hot water augmented with mustard or cayenne pepper.

    Always concerned about earning enough money to support his desired social position and his wife's easy spending habits, Dallas supplemented his $5,000 government salary by maintaining an active law practice during his vice-presidency. He handled several high-profile cases against the federal government, including a claim against the Treasury Department for $15 million. The decision would be made by his close friend and relative by marriage, Treasury Secretary Robert Walker. Dallas, whose cocounsel in the case was Senator Daniel Webster, considered that "unless Walker has lost his intelligence and fairness, [the case] will be a lucrative one." To Dallas' dismay and veiled anger, Walker decided against his client.

    At the mid-point in his vice-presidency, Dallas accepted a $1,000 fee for a secondary role in representing wealthy Philadelphian Pierce Butler in his celebrated divorce from the Shakespearean actress Fanny Kemble. Fearing that the nation's top legal talent would be attracted to Kemble's side, Butler preemptively purchased much of that talent, including Dallas and Daniel Webster.  Despite intense criticism by political opponents for cashing in on his national prominence, the vice president tossed off these attacks as the "hissing and gobbling" of "snakes and geese" and spent his final months in office arranging an expanded legal partnership with his son Philip.

    Tariffs and Westward Expansion

    Dallas determined that he would use his vice-presidential position to advance two of the administration's major objectives: tariff reduction and territorial expansion. As a Pennsylvanian, Dallas had traditionally supported the protectionist tariff policy that his state's coal and iron interests demanded. But as vice president, elected on a platform dedicated to tariff reduction, he agreed to do anything necessary to realize that goal. Dallas equated the vice president's constitutional power to break tied votes in the Senate with the president's constitutional power to veto acts of Congress. At the end of his vice-presidential term, Dallas claimed that he cast thirty tie-breaking votes during his four years in office (although only nineteen of these have been identified in Senate records). Taking obvious personal satisfaction in this record, Dallas singled out this achievement and the fairness with which he believed he accomplished it in his farewell address to the Senate. Not interested in political suicide, however, Dallas sought to avoid having to exercise his singular constitutional prerogative on the tariff issue, actively lobbying senators during the debate over Treasury Secretary Walker's tariff bill in the summer of 1846. He complained to his wife (whom he sometimes addressed as "Mrs. Vice") that the Senate speeches on the subject were "as vapid as inexhaustible. . . . All sorts of ridiculous efforts are making, by letters, newspaper-paragraphs, and personal visits, to affect the Vice's casting vote, by persuasion or threat."

    Despite Dallas' efforts to avoid taking a stand, the Senate completed its voting on the Walker Tariff with a 27-to-27 tie. (A twenty-eighth vote in favor was held in reserve by a senator who opposed the measure but agreed to follow the instructions of his state legislature to support it.) When he cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the tariff on July 28, 1846, Dallas rationalized that he had studied the distribution of Senate support and concluded that backing for the measure came from all regions of the country. Additionally, the measure had overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives, a body closer to public sentiment. He apprehensively explained to the citizens of Pennsylvania that "an officer, elected by the suffrages of all twenty-eight states, and bound by his oath and every constitutional obligation, faithfully and fairly to represent, in the execution of his high trust, all the citizens of the Union" could not "narrow his great sphere and act with reference only to [Pennsylvania's] interests." While his action, based on a mixture of party loyalty and political opportunism, earned Dallas the respect of the president and certain party leaders—and possible votes in 1848 from the southern and western states that supported low tariffs—it effectively demolished his home state political base, ending any serious prospects for future elective office. (He even advised his wife in a message hand-delivered by the Senate Sergeant at Arms, "If there be the slightest indication of a disposition to riot in the city of Philadelphia, owing to the passage of the Tariff Bill, pack up and bring the whole brood to Washington.")

    While Dallas' tariff vote destroyed him in Pennsylvania, his aggressive views on Oregon and the Mexican War crippled his campaign efforts elsewhere in the nation. In his last hope of building the necessary national support to gain the White House, the vice president shifted his attention to the aggressive, expansionist foreign policy program embodied in the concept of "Manifest Destiny." He actively supported efforts to gain control of Texas, the Southwest, Cuba, and disputed portions of the Oregon territory.

    The joint United States-British occupation of the vast western territory in the region north of the forty-second parallel and south of the boundary at fifty-four degrees, forty minutes, was scheduled for renewal in 1847. Dallas seized the opportunity in 1846 to call for a "settlement" at the 54  40' line, even at the risk of war with Great Britain. For several months early in 1846, the vice president pursued this position—seeking to broaden his national political base—until President Polk and British leaders agreed to compromise on a northern boundary at the forty-ninth parallel. This outcome satisfied Dallas, as it removed his earlier fear that the United States would be caught in a two-front war, with Great Britain over the Oregon boundary and with Mexico over control of Texas. Now the nation would be free to concentrate on war with Mexico, a conflict that Dallas hoped would serve to unify the Democratic party and propel him to the White House. As the Mexican War continued into 1847, Dallas expanded his own objective to the taking of all Mexico. Again, a moderate course advanced by more realistic leaders prevailed and forced Dallas to applaud publicly the result that gained for the United States the Mexican states of California and New Mexico.

    The events of 1846 extinguished Dallas' presidential fire. Although he remained strong in Philadelphia and its immediate precincts, Buchanan sapped his strength throughout the rest of their state. The vice president, incapable of the intense and sustained personal drive necessary to secure the nomination, nonetheless sought to bolster his political standing by advocating popular sovereignty as a solution to the crippling issue of allowing slavery in the territories. This stance only hardened the opposition against him and he soon abandoned his presidential quest. Democratic party leaders originally looked to Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor as their 1848 standard-bearer. When the general cast his lot with the Whigs, Democrats turned to Michigan's Lewis Cass, who took the nomination at the Baltimore convention on the fourth ballot. They chose General William O. Butler as the vice-presidential candidate. With Martin Van Buren's third-party candidacy eroding the Democratic vote, Taylor and his running mate Millard Fillmore easily won the election.

    By the end of the Mexican War in 1848, relations between Polk and Dallas had deteriorated to the point that the two men rarely spoke to one another. From the first days of his vice-presidency, Dallas complained to his wife Sophia and others that the president cared little for his advice on either small matters or major affairs of state. At the outbreak of the war with Mexico, Dallas confided, "In making the officers of the new Regiment of mounted riflemen, the tenant of the White House has maintained his consistency of action by excluding every one for whom I felt an interest." When Polk summoned the vice president to the White House for "a most important communication," Dallas told Sophia that Polk had a habit of "making mountains out of molehills," and that the meeting was "another illustration of the mountain and the mouse.  I am heartily sick of factitious importance." Dallas considered Polk to be "cold, devious, and two-faced." When he received Thomas Macauley's newly published History of England, he noted that the author's description of Charles I's "defects of character"—faithlessness and cunning—"are so directly applicable to President Polk as almost to be curious."

    Last Session

    Dallas entered the sunset of his vice-presidency at the three-month final session of the Thirtieth Congress, beginning on December 4, 1848. On the following day at noon, the Senate convened for the reading by its clerk of President Polk's State of the Union message. Dallas listened for a while, until boredom compelled him to turn the chair over to Senator William King. "It was insufferably long, and some of its topics, a dissertation on the American system and one on the Veto Power especially, were almost ludicrous from their being misplaced and prolix." This "lame duck" session, with its contentiousness and inaction, proved particularly frustrating as the Democrats sought to defer action on the volatile issues. "The great party project of the Session is to try hard to do nothing:—leaving all unsettled questions, and especially the free soil one, to harass Genl. Taylor next winter."

    Dallas was constantly aware of his responsibilities for maintaining order on the Senate floor. During the contentious final session, Mississippi's Henry Foote constantly baited Missouri's Thomas Hart Benton. While Benton never hesitated to bully other adversaries, he inexplicably refrained from challenging the diminutive Mississippian. As the Senate adjourned for the day on February 10, 1849, Benton approached Dallas and, in a whisper, asked whether he intended to act on his earlier request that alcoholic beverages be banned in the Senate. Dallas responded by asking whether any drinking had been taking place in the chamber.  "Yes, in quantities, in every part, and at all times," responded the agitated Missourian. Dallas, believing that Benton's concern stemmed from an effort to curb Foote's behavior and "to excuse his own silent disregard of it in that way," instructed the Sergeant at Arms to ban liquor on the Senate side of the Capitol, except for members claiming to require it for medicinal purposes.

    Dallas told his wife that he was tempted to return home, leaving his Senate duties to a president pro tempore, but he felt obligated to remain at the Capitol for the important business of receiving the presidential electoral ballots, addressed to his attention, that were then arriving from the individual states. He explained that his duty was to "mark on each [envelope containing a state's ballots] the day and manner of receiving it, and file them with the Secretary [of the Senate], of course without breaking the seals. If a messenger hand me the list, I give him a certificate to that effect, on which he is entitled to be paid his expenses, at the Treasury Department."

    The president expressed to the vice president his ambivalence about his plans for the forthcoming inauguration of Zachary Taylor. If the planners reserved a place for him, he would attend, otherwise he would follow Van Buren's 1841 precedent and simply go home. Dallas said he would try to "follow the proper courtesies of public life," unless he too was intentionally slighted. He examined the practice of his predecessors and found Richard M. Johnson to be the only vice president to have attended the swearing in of his successor.

    On March 2, 1849, Dallas followed the vice-presidential custom of delivering a farewell address to the Senate and then stepping aside so that the Senate could elect a president pro tempore to bridge the transition between administrations.  In remarks more exalted in phrasing than the observations of his personal diary and correspondence, Dallas praised the Senate for the "elevated principle and dignified tone which mark [its] proceedings; the frank and yet forbearing temper of its discussions; the mutual manifestations of conciliatory deference, so just and appropriate among the delegates of independent States; and the consequent calmness and precision of its legislative action," which he believed had "attracted to it a very large share of veneration and confidence." He noted that, on occasion, tempers flared into "sudden impulses of feeling," but these "transient disturbances" were rare and passed "over the scene like flashes which do but startle, and then cease, [serving] only to exhibit in stronger relief the grave decorum of its general conduct."

    To a standing ovation, Dallas left the chamber in what he believed would be "the last scene of my public life." He recorded in his diary that "Mr. Filmore [sic] called at my chamber in the Capitol today, shortly I had left the Senate, and remained for an hour, making enquiries as to the forms of proceeding and the general duties annexed to the office he was about assuming. He was good enough to say that every body had told him I eclipsed as a presiding officer, all of my predecessors, and that he felt extreme diffidence in undertaking to follow me. Of course, after this, I took pleasure in answering all his questions."

    Dallas left Washington largely embittered about the price of success in public life, which he believed led "almost invariably to poverty and ignorance. Truth, Courage, Candour, Wisdom, Firmness, Honor and Religion may by accident now and then be serviceable:— but a steady perseverance in them leads inevitably to private life." His only regret about leaving the Senate was that he would miss the "strange political tableau [that] would present itself on the floor of the Senate Chamber . . . on the 6. of March next [if] Mr. Clay, Genl. Cass, Mr. Van Buren, Mr, Calhoun, Mr. Webster, and Col. Benton were grouped together! Such a convocation of self-imagined gods could not fail to be followed by much thunder and lightening."  But, he consoled himself, "All this galaxy, in the order of nature, may disappear in the course or two or three years. When then? Why, the Sun will still shine, the earth still roll upon its axis, and the worms of the Capitol be as numerous and phosphorescent as ever."

    Later Years

    Dallas returned to private life until 1856, when James Buchanan resigned as minister to Great Britain to launch his presidential campaign challenging President Franklin Pierce for the Democratic nomination. Pierce, seeking to remove another potential rival for reelection, named Dallas to that prize diplomatic post. Philadelphia journalist John Forney, a longtime Buchanan ally who had once described Dallas as "below mediocre as a public man," thought the sixty-four-year-old Dallas fit the part. "I do not know anything more charming, always excepting a lovely woman, than a handsome old man—one who, like a winter apple, is ruddy and ripe with time, and yet sound to the heart. Such a man was George M. Dallas." After Buchanan won the presidency, he retained Dallas at the Court of St. James but conducted sensitive diplomatic relations with Great Britain from the White House. Tired and longing for the comforts of home and family, Dallas resigned his post in May 1861. As a states' rights Unionist, he was deeply saddened by the eclipse of his Democratic party and its failure to prevent civil war. He died at the age of seventy-two on December 31, 1864.

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