In his first speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., recalled "Great Compromiser" and fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay, and Clay's less-likely to compromise cousin Cassius, comparing their fights over slavery to today's battle to cut spending and lower the national debt.
"Today we have no issues that approach moral equivalency with the issue of slavery," Paul said. "Yet we do face a fiscal nightmare and potentially a debt crisis. Is the answer to compromise?"
Paul went on to argue the answer is no, saying those on the correct side of the slavery fight, most notably the radical abolitionist Cassius Clay, refused to compromise. The maiden floor speech signaled Paul's unwillingness to compromise on spending issues.
"The answer is of course there must be dialogue and compromise but compromise must occur on where we cut spending and by how much," he said.
But as Paul follows in the Senate shadow the Great Compromiser from Kentucky, he expects to negotiate more like Cassius than Henry.
"As long as I sit at Henry Clay's desk, I will remember his lifelong desire to forge agreement, but I will also keep close to my heart the principled stand of his cousin, Cassius Clay, who refused to forsake the life of any human simply to find agreement."
The full text of Rand Paul's first Senate floor speech:
I am honored by the privilege of serving in the United States Senate. I am honored and humbled by the responsibility of defending our Constitution and our individual freedoms.
I will sit at Henry Clay's desk. There is likely no legislator from Kentucky more famous than Henry Clay. He served as both the Speaker of the House and Leader of the Senate. He ran for President four times and nearly bested James Polk.
Henry Clay was called the Great Compromiser. During orientation, one of my new colleagues asked me with a touch of irony and a twinkle in his eye, "Will you be a great compromiser?"
I've thought long and hard about that question. Is compromise the noble position? Will compromise allow us to avoid the looming debt crisis?
Henry Clay's life story is, at best, a mixed message. Henry Clay's great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war.
Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have even encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance during his 50 years of public life of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself.
In the name of compromise, Clay was by most accounts not a cruel master, but a master nonetheless of 48 slaves. He supported the fugitive slave law until his death. He compromised on the extension of slavery into new states. He was the deciding vote in the House to extend slavery into Arkansas.
Before we eulogize Henry Clay we should acknowledge and appreciate the contrast with contemporaries who refused to compromise.
William Lloyd Garrison toiled at a small abolitionist press for thirty years refusing to compromise with Clay's desire to ship the slaves back to Africa. Garrison was beaten and imprisoned for his principled stand.
Frederick Douglass traveled the country as a free black man at great personal risk - he was beaten, he was thrown from trains - but was ultimately the living, breathing example of the intellect and leadership that a former slave could provide.
Cassius Clay was a cousin of Henry Clay and an abolitionist.In the Heidler's biography of Henry Clay they describe Cassius as follows: "a venomous pen was his first weapon of choice, a bowie knife his second, and because he was so effective with the one, he found it wise to have the other handy."
Cassius parted ways with Henry Clay when Cassius released a private letter that Henry had written to him that seemed supportive of abolition. Henry disavowed the antislavery letter he had written to Cassius and they never spoke again.
Cassius Clay was an unapologetic abolitionists who called out the slave traders. One night in Foxtown, he was ambushed by the proslavery family of Squire Turner. They came at him with cudgels and knives, stabbing him from behind. Tom Turner put a pistol to Cassius Clay's head and pulled the trigger three times and it misfired three times. Cassius pulled his Bowie knife and rammed it into the belly of the Turner boy, killing him.
Cassius Clay refused to compromise.
Cassius Clay was a hero but he was permanently estranged from Henry Clay. Henry Clay made no room for the true believers, for the abolitionists.
Who are our heroes? Are we fascinated and enthralled by the Great Compromiser or his cousin Cassius Clay?Henry Clay came within 38,000 votes out of over 2 million votes of being President. He lost the New York delegation barely because an abolitionist third party, the Liberty Party, refused to support him because of his muddled support of slavery. One could argue that Clay's compromises on slavery cost him the presidency.
Those activist who didn't compromise - Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Cassius Clay - are heroes because they said slavery was wrong and they would not compromise.
Today we have no issues that approach moral equivalency with the issue of slavery. Yet we do face a fiscal nightmare and potentially a debt crisis.
Is the answer to compromise?
Should we compromise by raising taxes and cutting spending as the Debt Commission proposes?
Is that the compromise that will save us from financial ruin?
Several facts argue against such a compromise. Government now spends more money than ever before. Raising taxes seems to only encourage more spending.Government now spends one in four GDP dollars. Twenty-five percent of our nation's economy is government spending. Any compromise must shrink the government sector and grow the private sector.
Any compromise should be about where we cut federal spending, not where we raise taxes.
The problem we face is not a revenue problem. It is a spending problem. It is spending that is now swollen to nearly a fourth of our economy.
The deficit is nearly $2 trillion annually.Entitlements and interest will consume the entire budget within a decade, leaving no room for any other spending: nothing for Defense, nothing for infrastructure. No other spending will be possible without adding massively to the debt.
The answer is of course there must be dialogue and compromise but compromise must occur on where we cut spending and by how much.
Even across the aisle, we now have much agreement. Both sides seem to agree that raising taxes in a recession is a disaster.
The compromise must be conservatives acknowledging that we can cut military spending and liberals acknowledging that we can cut domestic spending. Freezing domestic spending at 2010 levels does not significantly delay the coming debt crisis and is at best a diversion from the real budgetary cuts that are necessary.
There is a certain inevitability to this debate as the debt bomb looms and grows perilously large.
As long as I sit at Henry Clay's desk, I will remember his lifelong desire to forge agreement, but I will also keep close to my heart the principled stand of his cousin, Cassius Clay, who refused to forsake the life of any human simply to find agreement.