Critical Thinking - Analyzing Congressional Floor Debates

Key Congressional Statements

James Madison on the Bill of Rights

After six months in our first year as a nation, Rhode Island and North Carolina still refused to ratify the Constitution, calling for the addition of a Bill of Rights. In the interest of national unity, James Madison attempts to bridge the ideological divide between the Federalists and anti-Federalists and proposes a series of amendments to the Constitution.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...I am aware that a great number of the most respectable friends to the government, and champions for republican liberty, have thought such a provision not only unnecessary, but even improper, nay, I believe have gone so far as to think it even dangerous...”

— James Madison

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Edwin, David. "James Madison, President of the United States" Engraving. Philadelphia: W.H. Morgan, between 1809 and 1817. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Henry Clay on the American System

Together with other prominent Whigs, Henry Clay promoted the "American System," an economic plan aimed at promoting the sale of American-made goods, creating a stable national currency, and improving transportation infrastructure.

With one eye firmly fixed on a bid for the Presidency, Clay makes his public defense of the controversial system of protective tariffs he championed.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...I have now to perform the more pleasing task of exhibiting an imperfect sketch of the existing state of the unparalleled prosperity of the country. On a general survey, we behold cultivation extended, the arts flourishing, the face of the country improved, our people fully and profitably employed, and the public countenance exhibiting tranquility, contentment, and happiness...”

— Henry Clay

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"Henry Clay" Print. January 3, 1842. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Daniel Webster on the Union

As the dark cloud of slavery loomed ever more ominously over the American political landscape, threats of secession from slave states were voiced with increasing frequency.

Here, Daniel Webster makes an earnest plea for national unity, advocating a series of legislative measures that would become known as the Compromise of 1850.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...Never did there devolve, on any generation of men, higher trusts than now devolve upon us for the preservation of the Constitution, and the harmony and peace of all who are destined to live under it...”

— Daniel Webster

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Andrews, Robert. "Daniel Webster" Print. Boston : Printed & published by R. Andrews, 116 Washington St. 1851?.From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Thaddeus Stevens on Reconstruction

A key figure in the Radical Republican movement of the mid-19th Century, Representative Thaddeus Stevens spoke forcefully in support of the abolitionists' cause prior to the Civil War and harshly against the defeated South when the war was over. Using fiery, religious rhetoric in this floor speech, Stevens denounces slavery as a "national sin," calls for black suffrage, and castigates those in his own party who would coddle the vanquished Confederacy.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...Sir, this doctrine of a white man's Government is as atrocious as the infamous sentiment that damned the late Chief Justice to everlasting fame, and I fear, everlasting fire...”

— Thaddeus Stevens

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"Thaddeus Stevens, 1792-1868, half length portrait, seated, facing left; hand under chin" Photograph. 1898. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic.... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Gilbert Hitchcock on War with Germany

As the Great War raged into its third year, Americans were facing the inevitability of the nation's first overseas military action. President Wilson argued that American involvement in the First World War was necessary. "The world must be made safe for democracy," he famously stated before a joint session of Congress. In this political moment, Senator Gilbert Hitchcock stands down from his anti-war position, delivering a speech that sounds a death knell to American isolationism.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...All has been in vain. All patience, all moderation, and all long-suffering have apparently been in vain - not entirely in vain, though, Mr. President, because we have avoided the horrors of war for two years or more, but the time has now come when further delay is impossible...”

— Gilbert Hitchcock

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"Gilbert M. Hitchcock, half-length portrait, standing, facing right, wearing overcoat and bowler" Photograph. 1911. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Arthur Vandenberg on the United Nations

In this speech on the Senate floor, Arthur Vandenberg makes the eloquent case for an international body, a great alliance of peace, that might forestall the coming of a Third World War. Delivered early in 1945, Vandenberg's words regarding Pearl Harbor must have seemed terribly ironic only months later, when the United States unleashed atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...Since Pearl Harbor, World War II has put the gory science of mass murder into new and sinister perspective. Our oceans have ceased to be moats which automatically protect our ramparts. Flesh and blood now compete unequally with winged steel. War has become an all-consuming juggernaut...”

— Arthur Vandenberg

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Harris & Ewing. "Arthur H. Vandenberg, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right" Photograph. 194-?. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Margaret Chase Smith on McCarthyism

With the onset of the Cold War, America's opposition to communism reached a feverish pitch of fear, paranoia, hatred, and distrust that was embodied in the person of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In this impassioned floor speech, Senator Margaret Chase Smith truly places country before party as she warns her fellow Republicans that they are headed down a dangerous path.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...The nation sorely needs a Republican victory. But I do not want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of the Calumny - fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear...”

— Margaret Chase Smith

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"Margaret Chase Smith" Photograph. 1943. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic.... (accessed October 15, 2013)

Everett Dirksen on the Civil Rights Act of 1964

During the hard-fought battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an alliance of southern Senators launched a filibuster that would delay a full-Senate vote on the bill for 57 days. Invoking the words of Jefferson and Lincoln and a spirit of bi-partisanship, Senator Everett Dirksen calls for the super-majority vote that would end the debate and lead to the bill's passage.

The Guide to Finding Debates in the Library of Congress (PDF)
“...Pending before us is another moral issue. Basically it deals with equality of opportunity in exercising the franchise, in securing an education, in making a livelihood, in enjoying the mantle of protection of the law...”

— Everett Dirksen

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"Sen. Everett Dirksen, bust portrait, facing front" Photograph. 1967. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. http://www.loc.gov/pic.... (accessed October 15, 2013)

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