# 10. “Right to Instruct” [Eaton]


Author: Eaton, Clement. Southern Senators and the Right of Instruction, 1789-1860. The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Aug., 1952), pp. 303-319.

The Point: In theory, the point of Resolutions of Instruction is to enable republican democracy—the will of the people to instruct their representatives. In practice, Resolutions of Instruction were a party tool to purge opposing Senators from office by forcing them to resign when he would not follow a Resolution of Instruction. The result of Instructions was an increase in partisanship often at the alienation of out-groups.


“James Madison, who had once violated instructions as a delegate of Virginia in the Continental Congress, also opposed binding the representative by a constitutional amendment to vote according to instructions. Consequently, Tucker’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 41 to 10” (304).

“Perhaps the staunchest upholder of the right of instruction in the Senate was William Maclay of Pennsylvania, who expressed the Republican doctrine that senators, being servants of the people, were responsible to the will of their states and therefore in voting should follow the instructions of their legislatures (304).

“The real motive, he [Leigh] observed, behind .the instructions was to instruct him out of his seat in the Senate. If he yielded, he would aid in the establishment of a pernicious practice by which the tenure of the senatorial term of office would be changed from six years to tenure at the pleasure of the legislature. The doctrine which the Jacksonian party wished to impose, he declared, was that the senator ‘has no right to exercise his own judgment at all, or consult his own conscience; he is not in this case a moral agent.’ The abuse of the right of instruction, he also pointed out, would give a President who was checked by senatorial opposition an incentive to intervene in state politics and by using the patronage to secure the removal of his opponents in the Senate. Leigh realized that it would be expedient for him to resign since most Virginians believed in the right of instruction.” (314-315, italics mine).

“The practice of instructions in the 1830’s constituted a standing invitation to the President to intervene in state politics and purge his opponents, as was illustrated in the history of  instruction in Tennessee” (316)

“Four states, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Vermont, had included in their original constitutions the right of the people to instruct their representatives” (304, italics added).

“The Vermont legislature two years later [1837] instructed the senators and requested the representatives from the state to present antislavery resolutions to Congress and to work toward their fulfillment” (316).

“President Jackson urged his lieutenants in the state to promote meetings in the counties for the purpose of instructing the representatives to the legislature to vote for instructions to the senators to expunge. The “Old Hero” did not scruple to draft resolutions instructing the Tennessee senators to vote for expunging and to send them to Governor William Carroll to present to the legislature” (316).

“The practice of instructions proved to be a double-edged sword. In January, 1838, the Whig majority in the Tennessee legislature, for example, tried to drive the old Jackson warhorse, Felix Grundy, from his seat in the Senate by instructing him to vote against the Sub-Treasury scheme of Van Buren. Grundy turned the tables on his opponents, however, by obeying instructions and throwing the responsibility of his act upon the legislature. In a delightful letter of irony, written February 6, 1838, he observed: ‘You, by your instructions, have taken upon yourselves the responsibility of the vote I am required to give, and I am relieved from it. The people will look to you as the principal and to me merely as the agent, in performing an act expressly required by those in whom I recognize the right to instruct’” (317, italics added).

“…the doctrine of legislative instruction developed virtually into a form of recall of senators, anticipating the Progressive Movement for the recall in the early twentieth century” (317).

“In the Senate he [White] gave his ‘swan song’ reaffirming his principles, and at a farewell dinner he bitterly condemned ‘that monster, party spirit,’ which had banished him from the service of his country because he would not recant his principles. For thirty-eight years White had been in public service, and now his abrupt dismissal by the partisan use of instruction was shocking to many people in Tennessee who loved and respected him” (318).

“Senator Henry Clay, on the other hand, maintained that the North Carolina senators should carry out the intent of the legislature without quibbling over technical terms. As for his own position, he stated that he supported the doctrine of instruction “as it stood in 1798,” namely that the representative should vote in matters of expediency but not on questions of constitutionality in accordance with the will of his constituents” (318).

“Senators, he argued [in 1858], did not represent the legislatures but the people, and  therefore they were no more responsible to the fluctuating opinions of factions in control of legislatures than was the President to the electoral college” (319).

“The doctrine of the right of legislative instruction became obsolete after 1860. It had matured in a period of great political partisanship during which the two-party system was emerging. Although in theory the doctrine of instruction seemed to be a noble expression of representative government, in actual practice it was subject to dangerous abuses which thoroughly discredited it. Hezekiah Niles in 1834 pointed out that the frequent use of instruction would render the legislation of the country uncertain and would unsettle business and commerce.04 Indeed, the partisan use of instruction in the 1830’s caused thoughtful men to reflect upon the dangers of an unrestrained and irresponsible majority in a democracy. Later, Calhoun was to incorporate this distrust of a partisan majority in his theory of government. Moreover, the record of those Southerners who opposed tyrannical instructions forms a sober annotation to the history of freedom of thought in the Old South, a rubric written, not by liberals, but by conservatives who withstood the storm of unpopularity rather than sacrifice their political principles. The adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 gave a final blow to the venerable doctrine of instructions which had been transplanted from England. Nevertheless, long before that date the development of the Solid South rendered the practice of instructions below the Potomac an act of supererogation. Like the duel and virtually at the same time, the practice of legislative instruction disappeared from the mores of the American people” (319).


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