Henry Clay : Compromise Legislation – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders

Andrew Jackson : Personal Politics
Henry Clay : Compromise Legislation
Daniel Webster : The American Union
John C. Calhoun : The Slavery Question
Abraham Lincoln : Civil War and Preservation of the Union
Robert E. Lee : The Southern Confederacy

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Leaders
John Lord

Topics Covered
Birth and education
Studies law
Favorite in society
Settles in Lexington, Ky.
Absorbed in politics
Marriage; personal appearance
Member of Congress
Speaker of the House
Advocates war with Great Britain
His speeches
Comparison with Webster
Peace commissioner at Ghent
Returns to Lexington
Re-elected speaker
The tariff question
The tariff of 1816
The charter of the United States Bank
Beginning of slavery agitation
Beecher in England, on cotton as affecting slavery
The Missouri question
Clay as a pacificator
Internal improvements
Greek struggle for liberty
Tariff of 1824
The “American system”
The cotton lords
Clay’s aspirations for the presidency
His competitors
Clay secretary of state for Adams
Jackson’s administration
Clay as orator
His hatred of Jackson
The tariff of 1832
The compromise tariff of 1833
Clay again candidate for the presidency
Political disappointments
Bursting of the money bubble
Harrison’s administration
Repeal of the Sub-Treasury Act
Slavery agitation
Annexation of Texas under Polk
Clay as pacificator of slavery agitation
John C. Calhoun
Anti-slavery leaders
Passage of Clay’s compromise bill of 1850
Fugitive-slave law
Clay’s declining health

Henry Clay : Compromise Legislation


All the presidents of the United States, with the exception of three or four, must yield in influence to Henry Clay, so far as concerns directing the policy, and shaping the institutions of this country. Only two other American statesmen–Hamilton and Webster–can be compared to him in genius, power, and services. These two great characters will be found treated elsewhere.

In regard to what is called “birth,” Clay was not a patrician, like Washington, nor had he so humble an origin as Andrew Jackson or Abraham Lincoln. Like most other great men, he was the architect of of his own fortunes, doomed to drudgeries in the early part of his career, and climbing into notice by energy and force of character.

He was born, 1777, in a little Virginian hamlet called the “Slashes,” in Hanover County, the son of a Baptist minister, who preached to poor people, and who died when Henry was four years old, leaving six other children and a widow, with very scanty means of support. The little country school taught him “the rudiments,” and his small earnings as plough-boy and mill-boy meantime helped his mother. The mother was marked by sterling traits of character, and married for her second husband a Captain Watkins, of Richmond. This worthy man treated his step-son kindly, and put him into a retail store at the age of fourteen, no better educated than most country lads,–too poor to go to college, but with aspirations, which all bright and ambitious boys are apt to have, especially if they have no fitness for selling the common things of life, and are fond of reading. Henry’s step-father, having an influential friend, secured for the disgusted and discontented youth a position in the office of the Clerk of the High Court of Chancery, of which the eminent jurist, George Wythe, was chancellor. The judge and the young copyist thus naturally became acquainted, and acquaintance ripened into friendship, for the youth was bright and useful, and made an excellent amanuensis to the learned old lawyer, in whose office both Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall had been students of law.

After serving four years, Clay resolved to become a lawyer, entered the office of the Attorney-General of the State, and one year after was admitted to the bar, having in all probability acquired much legal knowledge from the communicative Chancellor, whom everybody loved and honored,–one of the earliest in Virginia to emancipate his slaves, and provide for their support. The young fellow’s reading, also, had been guided by his learned friend, in the direction of history, English grammar, and the beginnings of law.

The young lawyer, with his pleasing manners, quick intelligence, and real kindness of heart soon became a favorite in Richmond society. He was neither handsome, nor elegant, nor aristocratic, but he had personal geniality, wit, brilliancy in conversation, irreproachable morals, and was prominent in the debating society,–a school where young men learn the art of public speaking, like Gladstone at Oxford. It is thought probable that Clay’s native oratorical ability, which he assiduously cultivated,–the gift which, as Schurz says, “enabled him to make little tell for much, and to outshine men of vastly greater learning,”–misled him as to the necessity for systematic and thorough study. Lack of thoroughness and of solid information was his especial weakness through life, in spite of the charm and power of his personal oratory.

It is always up-hill work for a young lawyer to succeed in a fashionable city, where there is more intellect than business, and when he himself has neither family, nor money, nor mercantile friends. So Henry Clay, at twenty-one, turned his eyes to the West,–the land of promise, which was especially attractive to impecunious lawyers, needy farmers, spendthrift gentlemen, merchants without capital, and vigorous men of enterprise,–where everybody trusts and is trusted, and where talents and character are of more value than money. He had not much legal knowledge, nor did he need much in the frontier settlements on the Ohio and its valleys; the people generally were rough and illiterate, and attached more importance to common-sense and industry than to legal technicalities and the subtle distinctions of Coke and Blackstone. If an advocate could grasp a principle which appealed to consciousness, and enforce it with native eloquence, he was more likely to succeed than one versed in learned precedents without energy or plausible utterances.

The locality which Clay selected was Lexington in Kentucky,–then a small village in the midst of beautiful groves without underbrush, where the soil was of virgin richness, and the landscape painted with almost perpetual verdure; one of the most attractive spots by nature on the face of the earth,–a great contrast to the flat prairies of Illinois, or the tangled forests of Michigan, or the alluvial deposits of the Mississippi. It was a paradise of hills and vales, easily converted into lawns and gardens, such as the primitive settlers of New England would have looked upon with blended envy and astonishment.

Lexington in 1797, the year that Clay settled in it as a lawyer, was called “the intellectual centre of the Far West,” as the Ohio valley was then regarded. In reality it was a border-post, the inhabitants of which were devoted to horse-racing, hunting, and whiskey-drinking, with a sprinkling of educated people, among whom the young lawyer soon distinguished himself,–a born orator, logical as well as rhetorical.

Clay’s law practice at first was chiefly directed to the defence of criminals, and it is said that no murderer whom he defended was ever hanged; but he soon was equally successful in civil cases, gradually acquiring a lucrative practice, without taking a high rank as a jurist. He was never a close student, being too much absorbed in politics, society, and pleasure, except on rare occasions, for which he “crammed.” His reading was desultory, and his favorite works were political speeches, many of which he committed to memory and then declaimed, to the delight of all who heard him. His progress at the bar must have been remarkably rapid, since within two years he could afford to purchase six hundred acres of land, near Lexington, and take unto himself a wife,–domestic, thrifty, painstaking, who attended to all the details of the farm, which he called “Ashland.” As he grew in wealth, his popularity also increased, until in all Kentucky no one was so generally beloved as he. Yet he would not now be called opulent, and he never became rich, since his hospitalities were disproportionate to his means, and his living was more like that of a Virginia country gentleman than of a hard-working lawyer.

At this time Clay was tall, erect, commanding, with long arms, small hands, a large mouth, blue, electrical eyes, high forehead, a sanguine temperament, excitable, easy in his manners, self-possessed, courteous, deferential, with a voice penetrating and musical, with great command of language, and so earnest that he impressed everybody with his blended sincerity and kindness of heart.

The true field for such a man was politics, which Clay loved, so that his duties and pleasures went hand in hand,–an essential thing for great success. His first efforts were in connection with a constitutional convention in Kentucky, when he earnestly advocated a system of gradual emancipation of slaves,–unpopular as that idea was among his fellow-citizens. It did not seem, however, to hurt his political prospects, for in 1803 he was solicited to become a member of the State legislature, and was easily elected, being a member of the Democratic-Republican party as led by Jefferson. He made his mark at once as an orator, and so brilliant and rapid was his legislative career that he was elected in 1806 to the United States Senate to fill the unexpired term, of John Adair,–being only twenty-nine years old, the youngest man that ever sat in that body of legislators. All that could then be said of him was that he made a good impression in the debates and on the committees, and was a man of great promise, a favorite in society, attending all parties of pleasure, and never at home in the evening. On his return to Kentucky he was again elected as a member of the lower House in the State legislature, and chosen Speaker,–an excellent training for the larger place he was to fill. In the winter of 1809-10 he was a second time sent to the United States Senate, for two years, to fill the unexpired term of Buckner Thurston, where he made speeches in favor of encouraging American manufacturing industries, not to the extent of exportation,–which he thought should be confined to surplus farm-produce,–but enough to supply the people with clothing and to make them independent of foreign countries for many things unnecessarily imported. He also made himself felt on many other important topics, and was recognized as a rising man.

When his term had expired in the Senate, he was chosen a member of the House of Representatives at Washington,–a more agreeable field to him than the Senate, as giving him greater scope for his peculiar eloquence. He was promptly elected Speaker, which position, however, did not interfere with his speech-making whenever the House went into Committee of the Whole. It was as Speaker of the House of Representatives that Clay drew upon himself the eyes of the nation; and his truly great congressional career began in 1811, on the eve of the war with Great Britain in Madison’s administration.

Clay was now the most influential, and certainly the most popular man in public life, in the whole country, which was very remarkable, considering that he was only thirty-seven years of age. Daniel Webster was then practising law in Portsmouth, N.H., two years before his election to Congress, and John C. Calhoun had not yet entered the Senate, but was chairman of the Committee of Foreign Relations in the House of Representatives, and a warm friend of the Speaker.

The absorbing subject of national interest at that time was the threatened war with England, which Clay did his best to bring about, and Webster to prevent. It was Webster’s Fourth-of-July Oration at Portsmouth, in 1812, which led to his election to Congress as a Federalist, in which oration he deprecated war. The West generally was in favor of it, having not much to lose or to fear from a contest which chiefly affected commerce, and which would jeopardize only New England interests and the safety of maritime towns. Clay, who had from his first appearance at Washington made himself a champion of American interests, American honor, and American ideas generally, represented the popular party, and gave his voice for war, into which the government had drifted under pressure of the outrages inflicted by British cruisers, the impressment of our seamen, and the contempt with which the United States were held and spoken of on all occasions by England,–the latter an element more offensive to none than to the independent and bellicose settlers in Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Clay is generally credited with having turned the scales in favor of the war with Great Britain, when the United States comprised less than eight millions of people, when the country had no navy of any account, and a very small army without experienced officers, while Great Britain was mistress of the seas, with an enormous army, and the leader of the allied Powers that withstood Napoleon in Spain and Portugal. To the eyes of the Federalists, the contest was rash, inexpedient, and doubtful in its issues; and their views were justified by the disasters that ensued in Canada, the incompetency of Hull, the successive defeats of American generals with the exception of Jackson, and the final treaty of peace without allusion to the main causes which had led to the war. But the Republicans claimed that the war, if disastrous on the land, had been glorious on the water; that the national honor had been vindicated; that a navy had been created; that the impressment of American seamen was practically ended forever; and that England had learned to treat the great republic with outward respect as an independent, powerful, and constantly increasing empire.

As the champion of the war, and for the brilliancy and patriotism of his speeches, all appealing to the national heart and to national pride, Clay stood out as the most eminent statesman of his day, with unbounded popularity, especially in Kentucky, where to the last he retained his hold on popular admiration and affection. His speeches on the war are more marked for pungency of satire and bitterness of invective against England than for moral wisdom. They are appeals to passions rather than to reason, of great force in their day, but of not much value to posterity. They are not read and quoted like Webster’s masterpieces. They will not compare, except in popular eloquence, with Clay’s own subsequent efforts in the Senate, when he had more maturity of knowledge, and more insight into the principles of political economy. But they had great influence at the time, and added to his fame as an orator.

In the summer of 1814 Clay resigned his speakership of the House of Representatives to accept a diplomatic mission as Peace Commissioner to confer with commissioners from Great Britain. He had as associates John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin–the ablest financier in the country after the death of Hamilton. The Commissioners met at Ghent, and spent five tedious months in that dull city. The English commissioners at once took very high ground, and made imperious demands,–that the territory now occupied by the States of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and a part of Ohio should be set apart for the Indians under an English protectorate; that the United States should relinquish the right of keeping armed vessels on the great Lakes; that a part of Maine should be ceded to Great Britain to make a road from Halifax to Quebec, and that all questions relating to the right of search, blockades, and impressment of seamen should remain undiscussed as before the war. At these preposterous demands Clay was especially indignant. In fact, he was opposed to any treaty at all which should not place the United States and Great Britain on an equality, and would not have been grieved if the war had lasted three years longer. Adams and Gallatin had their hands full to keep the Western lion from breaking loose and returning home in disgust, while they desired to get the best treaty they could, rather than no treaty at all. Gradually the British commissioners abated their demands, and gave up all territorial and fishery claims, and on December 14, 1814, concluded the negotiations on the basis of things before the war,–the status quo ante bellum. Clay was deeply chagrined. He signed the document with great reluctance, and always spoke of it as “a damned bad treaty,” since it made no allusion to the grievance which provoked the war which he had so eloquently advocated.

Gallatin and Clay spent some time in Paris, and most of the ensuing summer in London on further negotiations of details. But Clay had no sooner returned to Lexington than he was re-elected to the national legislature, where he was again chosen Speaker, December 4, 1815, having declined the Russian mission, and the more tempting post of the Secretary of War. He justly felt that his arena was the House of Representatives, which, as well as the Senate, had a Republican majority. It was his mission to make speeches and pull political wires, and not perplex himself with the details of office, which required more executive ability and better business habits than he possessed, and which would seriously interfere with his social life. How could he play cards all night if he was obliged to be at his office at ten o’clock in the morning, day after day, superintending clerks, and doing work which to him was drudgery? Much more pleasant to him was it to preside over stormy debates, appoint important committees, write letters to friends, and occasionally address the House in Committee of the Whole, when his voice would sway the passions of his intelligent listeners; for he had the power “to move to pity, and excite to rage.”

Besides all this, there were questions to be discussed and settled by Congress, important to the public, and very interesting to politicians. The war had bequeathed a debt. To provide for its payment, taxes must be imposed. But all taxation is unpopular. The problem was, to make taxes as easy as possible. Should they be direct or indirect? Should they be imposed for a revenue only, or to stimulate and protect infant manufactures? The country was expanding; should there be national provision for internal improvements,–roads, canals, etc.? There were questions about the currency, about commerce, about the Indians, about education, about foreign relations, about the territories, which demanded the attention of Congress. The most important of these were those connected with revenues and tariffs.

It was this latter question, connected with internal improvements and the sales of public lands, in which Clay was most interested, and which, more than any other, brought out and developed his genius. He is generally quoted as “the father of the protective policy,” to develop American manufactures. The genius of Hamilton had been directed to the best way to raise a revenue for a new and impoverished country; that of Clay sought to secure independence of those foreign products which go so far to enrich nations.

Webster, when reproached for his change of views respecting tariffs, is said to have coolly remarked that when he advocated the shipping interest he represented a great commercial city; and when he afterwards advocated tariffs, he spoke as the representative of a manufacturing State,–a sophistical reply which showed that he was more desirous of popularity with his constituents than of being the advocate of abstract truth.

Calhoun advocated the new tariff as a means to advance the cotton interests of the South, and the defence of the country in time of war. Thus neither of the great political leaders had in view national interests, but only sectional, except Clay, whose policy was more far-reaching. And here began his great career as a statesman. Before this he was rather a politician, greedy of popularity, and desirous to make friends.

The war of 1812 had, by shutting out foreign products, stimulated certain manufactures difficult to import, but necessary for military operations, like cheap clothing for soldiers, blankets, gunpowder, and certain other articles for general use, especially such as are made of iron. When the war closed and the ports opened, the country received a great inflow of British products. Hence the tariff of 1816, the earliest for protection, imposed a tax of about thirty-five per cent on articles for which the home industry was unable to supply the demand, and twenty per cent on coarse fabrics of cotton and wool, distilled spirits, and iron; while those industries which were in small demand were admitted free or paid a mere revenue tax. This tariff, substantially proposed by George M. Dallas, Secretary of the Treasury, was ably supported by Clay. But his mind was not yet fully opened to the magnitude and consequences of this measure,–his chief arguments being based on the safety of the country in time of war. In this movement he joined hands with Calhoun, one of his warmest friends, and one from whose greater logical genius he perhaps drew his conclusions.

At that time party lines were not distinctly drawn. The old Federalists had lost their prestige and power. The Republicans were in a great majority; even John Quincy Adams and his friends swelled their ranks Jefferson had lost much of his interest in politics, and was cultivating his estates and building up the University of Virginia. Madison was anticipating the pleasures of private life, and Monroe, a plain, noncommittal man, the last of “the Virginia dynasty,” thought only of following the footsteps of his illustrious predecessors, and living in peace with all men.

The next important movement in Congress was in reference to the charter of the newly proposed second United States Bank, and in this the great influence of Clay was felt. He was in favor of it, as a necessity, in view of the miserable state of the finances, the suspension of specie payments, and the multiplication of State banks. In the earlier part of his career, in 1811, he had opposed a recharter of Hamilton’s National Bank as a dangerous money-corporation, and withal unconstitutional on the ground that the general government had no power to charter companies. All this was in accordance with Western democracy, ever jealous of the money-power, and the theorizing proclivities of Jefferson, who pretended to hate everything which was supported in the old country. But with advancing light and the experience of depreciated currency from the multiplication of State banks, Clay had changed his views, exposing himself to the charge of inconsistency; which, however, he met with engaging candor, claiming rather credit for his ability and willingness to see the change of public needs. He now therefore supported the bill of Calhoun, which created a national bank with a capital of thirty-five million dollars, substantially such as was proposed by Hamilton. The charter was finally given in April, 1816, to run for twenty years.

Doubtless such a great money-corporation–great for those times–did wield a political influence, and it might have been better if the Bank had been chartered with a smaller capital. It would have created fewer enemies, and might have escaped the future wrath of General Jackson. Webster at first opposed the bill of Calhoun; but when it was afterwards seen that the Bank as created as an advantage to the country, he became one of its strongest supporters. Webster was strongly conservative by nature; but when anything was established, like Lord Thurlow he ceased all opposition, especially if it worked well.

In 1816 James Monroe was elected President, and Clay expected to be made Secretary of State, as a step to the presidency, which he now ardently desired. But he was disappointed, John Quincy Adams being chosen by Monroe as Secretary of State. Monroe offered to Clay the mission to England and the Department of War, both of which he declined, preferring the speakership, to which he was almost unanimously re-elected. Here Clay brought his influence to bear, in opposition to the views of the administration, to promote internal improvements to which some objected on constitutional grounds, but which he defended both as a statesman and a Western man. The result was a debate, ending in a resolution “that Congress has power under the Constitution to appropriate money for the construction of post roads, military and other roads, and of canals for the improvement of water-courses.”

Meanwhile a subject of far greater interest called out the best energies of Mr. Clay,–the beginning of a memorable struggle, even the agitation of the Slavery question, which was not to end until all the slaves in the United States were emancipated by a single stroke of Abraham Lincoln’s pen. So long as the products of slave labor were unprofitable, through the exhaustion of the tobacco-fields, there was a sort of sentimental philanthropy among disinterested Southern men tending to a partial emancipation; but when the cotton gin (invented in 1793) had trebled the value of slaves, and the breeding of them became a profitable industry, the philanthropy of the planters vanished. The English demand for American cotton grew rapidly, and in 1813 Francis C. Lowell established cotton manufactures in New England, so that cotton leaped into great importance. Thus the South had now become jealous of interference with its “favorite institution.”

In an address in Manchester, England, October, 1863,–the first of that tremendous series of mob-controlling speeches with which Henry Ward Beecher put a check on the English government by convincing the English people of the righteousness of the Federal cause during our Civil War,–that “minister-plenipotentiary,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes called him, gave a witty summary of this change. After showing that the great Fathers of Revolutionary times, and notably the great Southerners, were antislavery men; that the first abolition society was formed in the Middle and Border States, and not in the Northeast; and that emancipation was enacted by the Eastern and Middle States as a natural consequence of the growth of that sentiment, the orator said:–

“What was it, then, when the country had advanced so far towards universal emancipation in the period of our national formation, that stopped this onward tide? First, the wonderful demand for cotton throughout the world, precisely when, from the invention of the cotton gin, it became easy to turn it to service. Slaves that before had been worth from three to four hundred dollars began to be worth six hundred dollars. That knocked away one third of adherence to the moral law. Then they became worth seven hundred dollars, and half the law went; then, eight or nine hundred dollars, and there was no such thing as moral law; then, one thousand or twelve hundred dollars,–and slavery became one of the Beatitudes.”

Therefore, when in 1818 the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a State, the South was greatly excited by the proposition from Mr. Tallmadge, of New York, that its admission should be conditioned upon the prohibition of slavery within its limits. It was a revelation to the people of the North that so bitter a feeling should be aroused by opposition to the extension of an acknowledged evil, which had been abolished in all their own States. The Southern leaders, on their side, maintained that Congress could not, under the Constitution, legislate on such a subject,–that it was a matter for the States alone to decide; and that slavery was essential to the prosperity of the Southern States, as white men could not labor in the cotton and rice fields. The Northern orators maintained that not only had the right of Congress to exclude slavery from the Territories been generally admitted, but that it was a demoralizing institution and more injurious to the whites even than to the blacks. The Southern leaders became furiously agitated, and threatened to secede from the Union rather than submit to Northern dictation; while at the North the State legislatures demanded the exclusion of slaves from Missouri.

Carl Schurz, in his admirable life of Clay, makes a pertinent summary: “The slaveholders watched with apprehension the steady growth of the Free States in population, wealth, and power…. As the slaveholders had no longer the ultimate extinction, but now the perpetuation, of slavery in view, the question of sectional power became one of first importance to them, and with it the necessity of having more slave States for the purpose of maintaining the political equilibrium, at least in the Senate. A struggle for more slave States was to them a struggle for life.”

Thus the two elements of commercial profit and political power were involved in the struggle of the South for the maintenance and extension of slavery.

The House of Representatives in 1819 adopted the Missouri bill with the amendment restricting slavery, but the Senate did not concur; and Alabama was admitted as a Territory without slavery restriction. In the next Congress Missouri was again introduced, but the antislavery amendment was voted down. In 1820 Mr. Thomas, a senator from Illinois, proposed, as a mutual concession, that Missouri should be admitted without restriction, but that in all that part of the territory outside that State ceded by France to the United States, north of the latitude of 36° 30′ (the southern boundary of Missouri), slaves should thereafter be excluded; and this bill was finally passed March 2,1820. Mr. Clay is credited with being the father of this compromise, but, according to Mr. Schurz, he did not deserve the honor. He adopted it, however, and advocated it with so much eloquence and power that it owed its success largely to his efforts, and therefore it is still generally ascribed to him.

At that time no statesmen, North or South, had fully grasped the slavery question. Even Mr. Calhoun once seemed to have no doubt as to the authority of Congress to exclude slavery from the Territories, but he was decided enough in his opposition when he saw that it involved an irreconcilable conflict of interests,–that slavery and freedom are antagonistic ideas, concerning which there can be no genuine compromise. “There may be compromises,” says Von Holst, “with regard to measures, but never between principles.” And slavery, when the Missouri Compromise was started, was looked upon as a measure rather than as a principle, concerning which few statesmen had thought deeply. As the agitation increased, measures were lost sight of in principles.

Henry Clay Restored Photograph

Henry Clay Restored Photograph

The compromise by which Missouri was admitted as a slave State, while slavery should be excluded from all territory outside of it north of 36° 30′, was a temporary measure of expediency, and at that period was probably a wise one; since, if slavery had been excluded from Missouri, there might have been a dissolution of the Union. The preservation of the Union was the dearest object to the heart of Clay, who was genuinely and thoroughly patriotic. Herein he doubtless rendered a great public service, and proved himself to be a broad-minded statesman. To effect this compromise Clay had put forth all his energies, not only in eloquent speeches and tireless labors in committees and a series of parliamentary devices for harmonizing the strife, but in innumerable interviews with individuals.

In 1820, Clay retired to private life in order to retrieve his fortunes by practice at the bar. Few men without either a professional or a private income can afford a long-continued public service. Although the members of Congress were paid, the pay was not large enough,–only eight dollars a day at that time. But Clay’s interval of rest was soon cut short. In three years he was again elected to the House of Representatives, and in December, 1823, was promptly chosen Speaker by a large majority. He had now recovered his popularity, and was generally spoken of as “the great pacificator.”

In Congress his voice was heard again in defence of internal improvements,–the making of roads and canals,–President Monroe having vetoed a bill favoring them on the ground that it was unconstitutional for Congress to vote money for them. Clay, however, succeeded in inducing Congress to make an appropriation for a survey of such roads as might be deemed of national importance, which Mr. Monroe did not oppose. It was ever of vital necessity, in the eyes of Mr. Clay, to open up the West to settlers from the East, and he gloried in the prospect of the indefinite expanse of the country even to the Pacific ocean. “Sir,” said he, in the debate on this question, “it is a subject of peculiar delight to me to look forward to the proud and happy period, distant as it may be, when circulation and association between the Atlantic and the Pacific and the Mexican Gulf shall be as free and perfect as they are at this moment in England, the most highly improved country on the globe. Sir, a new world has come into being since the Constitution was adopted…. Are we to neglect and refuse the redemption of that vast wilderness which once stretched unbroken beyond the Alleghany?” In these views he proved himself one of the most far-sighted statesmen that had as yet appeared in Congress,–a typical Western man of enthusiasm and boundless hope.

Not less enthusiastic was he in his open expressions of sympathy with the Greek struggle for liberty; as was the case also with Daniel Webster,–both advocating relief to the Greeks, not merely from sentiment, but to strike a blow at the “Holy Alliance” of European kingdoms, then bent on extinguishing liberty in every country in Europe. Clay’s noble speech in defence of the Greeks was not, however, received with unanimous admiration, since many members of Congress were fearful of entangling the United States in European disputes and wars; and the movement came to naught.

Then followed the great debates which led to the famous tariff of 1824, in which Mr. Clay, although Speaker of the House, took a prominent part in Committee of the Whole, advocating an increase of duties for the protection of American manufactures of iron, hemp, glass, lead, wool, woollen and cotton goods, while duties on importations which did not interfere with American manufactures were to be left on a mere revenue basis. This tariff had become necessary, as he thought, in view of the prevailing distress produced by dependence on foreign markets. He would provide a home consumption for American manufactures, and thus develop home industries, which could be done only by imposing import taxes that should “protect” them against foreign competition. His speech on what he called the “American System” was one of the most elaborate he ever made, and Mr. Carl Schurz says of it that “his skill of statement, his ingenuity in the grouping of facts and principles, his plausibility of reasoning, his brilliant imagination, the fervor of his diction, the warm patriotic tone of his appeals” presented “the arguments which were current among high-tariff men then and which remain so still;” while, on the other hand, “his superficial research, his habit of satisfying himself with half-knowledge, and his disinclination to reason out propositions logically in all their consequences” gave incompleteness to his otherwise brilliant effort. It made a great impression in spite of its weak points, and called out in opposition the extraordinary abilities of Daniel Webster, through whose massive sentences appeared his “superiority in keenness of analysis, in logical reasoning, in extent and accuracy of knowledge, in reach of thought and mastery of fundamental principles,” over all the other speakers of the day. And this speech of. Mr. Webster’s stands unanswered, notwithstanding the opposite views he himself maintained four years afterwards, when he spoke again on the tariff, but representing manufacturing interests rather than those of shipping and commerce, advocating expediency rather than abstract principles the truth of which cannot be gainsaid. The bill as supported by Mr. Clay passed by a small majority, the members from the South generally voting against it.

After the tariff of 1824 the New England States went extensively into manufacturing, and the Middle States also. The protective idea had become popular in the North, and, under strong protests from the agricultural South, in 1828 a new tariff bill was enacted, largely on the principle of giving more protection to every interest that asked for it. This, called by its opponents “the tariff of abominations,” was passed while Clay was Secretary of State; the discontent under it was to give rise to Southern Nullification, and to afford Clay another opportunity to act as “pacificator.” All this tariff war is set forth in clear detail in Professor Sumner’s “Life of Jackson.”

This question of tariffs has, for seventy years now, been the great issue, next to slavery, between the North and South. More debates have taken place on this question than on any other in our Congressional history, and it still remains unsettled, like most other questions of political economy. The warfare has been constant and uninterrupted between those who argue subjects from abstract truths and those who look at local interests, and maintain that all political questions should be determined by circumstances. When it seemed to be the interest of Great Britain to advocate protection for her varied products, protection was the policy of the government; when it became evidently for her interest to defend free trade, then free trade became the law of Parliament.

On abstract grounds there is little dispute on the question: if all the world acted on the principles of free trade, protection would be indefensible. Practically, it is a matter of local interest: it is the interest of New England to secure protection for its varied industries and to secure free raw materials for manufacture; it is the interest of agricultural States to buy wares in the cheapest market and to seek foreign markets for their surplus breadstuffs. The question, however, on broad grounds is whether protection is or is not for the interest of the whole country; and on that point there are differences of opinion among both politicians and statesmen. Formerly, few discussed the subject on abstract principles except college professors and doctrinaires; but it is a most momentous subject from a material point of view, and the great scale on which protection has been tried in America since the Civil War has produced a multiplicity of consequences–industrial and economic–which have set up wide-spread discussions of both principles and practical applications. How it will be finally settled, no one can predict; perhaps through a series of compromises, with ever lessening restriction, until the millennial dream of universal free trade shall become practicable. Protection has good points and bad ones. While it stimulates manufactures, it also creates monopolies and widens the distinctions between the rich and the poor. Disproportionate fortunes were one of the principal causes of the fall of the Roman Empire, and are a grave danger to our modern civilization.

But then it is difficult to point out any period in the history of civilization when disproportionate fortunes did not exist, except in primitive agricultural States in the enjoyment of personal liberty, like Switzerland and New England one hundred years ago. They certainly existed in feudal Europe as they do in England to-day. The great cotton lords are feudal barons under another name. Where money is worshipped there will be money-aristocrats, who in vulgar pride and power rival the worst specimens of an hereditary nobility. There is really little that is new in human organizations,–little that Solomon and Aristotle had not learned. When we go to the foundation of society it is the same story, in all ages and countries. Most that is new is superficial and transitory. The permanent is eternally based on the certitudes of life, which are moral and intellectual rather than mechanical and material. Whatever promotes these certitudes is the highest political wisdom.

We now turn to contemplate the beginnings of Mr. Clay’s aspirations to the presidency, which from this time never left him until he had one foot in the grave. As a successful, popular, and ambitious man who had already rendered important services, we cannot wonder that he sought the envied prize. Who in the nation was more eminent than he? But such a consummation of ambition is not attained by merit alone. He had enemies, and he had powerful rivals.

In 1824 John Quincy Adams, as Monroe’s Secretary of State, was in the line of promotion,–a statesman of experience and abilities, the superior of Clay in learning, who had spent his life in the public service, and in honorable positions, especially as a foreign minister. He belonged to the reigning party and was the choice of New England. Moreover he had the prestige of a great name. He was, it is true, far from popular, was cold and severe in manners, and irritable in temperament; but he was public-spirited, patriotic, incorruptible, lofty in sentiment, and unstained by vices.

Andrew Jackson was also a formidable competitor,–a military hero, the idol of the West, and a man of extraordinary force of character, with undoubted executive abilities, but without much experience in civil affairs, self-willed, despotic in temper, and unscrupulous. Crawford, of Georgia, Secretary of the Treasury, with great Southern prestige, and an adroit politician, was also a candidate. Superior to all these candidates in political genius was Calhoun of South Carolina, not yet so prominent as he afterwards became.

The popular choice in 1824 lay between Jackson and Adams, and as no candidate obtained a majority of the electoral votes, the election reverted to the House of Representatives, and Adams was chosen, much to the chagrin of Jackson, who had the largest number of popular votes, and the disappointment of Clay, who did not attempt to conceal it. When the latter saw that his own chances were small, however, he had thrown his influence in favor of Adams, securing his election, and became his Secretary of State. Jackson was indignant, as he felt he had been robbed of the prize by a secret bargain, or coalition, between Clay and Adams. In retiring from the speakership of the House, which he had held so long, Clay received the formal and hearty thanks of that body for his undeniably distinguished services as presiding officer. In knowledge of parliamentary law and tactics, in prompt decisions,–never once overruled in all his long career,–in fairness, courtesy, self-command, and control of the House at the stormiest times, he certainly never had a superior. Friends and enemies alike recognized and cordially expressed their sense of his masterly abilities.

The administration of Adams was not eventful, but to his credit he made only four removals from office during his term of service, and these for good cause; he followed out the policy of his predecessors, even under pressure from his cabinet refusing to recognize either friends or enemies as such, but simply holding public officers to their duty. So, too, in his foreign policy, which was conservative and prudent, and free from entangling alliances, at a time when the struggle for independence among the South American republics presented an occasion for interference, and when the debates on the Panama mission–a proposed council of South and Central American republics at Panama, to which the United States were invited to send representatives–were embarrassing to the Executive.

The services of Mr. Clay as Secretary of State were not distinguished. He made a number of satisfactory treaties with foreign powers, and exhibited great catholicity of mind; but he was embroiled in quarrels and disputes anything but glorious, and he further found his situation irksome. His field was the legislature; as an executive officer he was out of place. It may be doubted whether he would have made as good a President as many inferior politicians. He detested office labor, and was sensitive to hostile criticism. His acceptance of the office of Secretary of State was probably a blunder, as his appointment was (though unjustly) thought by many to be in fulfilment of a bargain, and it did not advance his popularity. He was subject to slanders and misrepresentations. The secretaryship, instead of being a step to the presidency, was thus rather an impediment in his way. It was not even a position of as much power as the speakership. It gave him no excitement, and did not keep him before the eyes of the people. His health failed. He even thought of resignation.

The supporters of the Adams administration, those who more and more came to rank themselves as promoters of tariffs and internal improvements, with liberal views as to the constitutional powers of the national government, gradually consolidated in opposition to the party headed by Jackson. The former called themselves National Republicans, and the latter, Democratic Republicans. During the Jacksonian administrations they became known more simply as Whigs and Democrats.

On the accession of General Jackson to the presidency in 1829, Mr. Clay retired to his farm at Ashland; but while he amused himself by raising fine cattle and horses, and straightening out his embarrassed finances, he was still the recognized leader of the National Republican party. He was then fifty-two years of age, at his very best and strongest period. He took more interest in politics than in agriculture or in literary matters. He was not a learned man, nor a great reader, but a close observer of men and of all political movements. He was a great favorite, and received perpetual ovations whenever he travelled, always ready to make speeches at public meetings, which were undoubtedly eloquent and instructive, but not masterpieces like those of Webster at Plymouth and Bunker Hill. They were not rich in fundamental principles of government and political science, and far from being elaborate, but were earnest, patriotic, and impassioned. Clay was fearless, ingenuous, and chivalric, and won the hearts of the people, which Webster failed to do. Both were great debaters, the one appealing to the understanding, and the other to popular sentiments. Webster was cold, massive, logical, although occasionally illuminating his argument with a grand glow of eloquence,–the admiration of lawyers and clergymen. Clay was the delight of the common people,–impulsive, electrical, brilliant, calling out the sympathies of his hearers, and captivating them by his obvious sincerity and frankness,–not so much convincing them as moving them and stimulating them to action. Webster rarely lost his temper, but he could be terribly sarcastic, harsh, and even fierce. Clay was passionate and irritable, but forgiving and generous, loath to lose a friend and eager for popularity; Webster seemed indifferent to applause, and even to ordinary friendship, proud, and self-sustained. Clay was vain and susceptible to flattery. No stranger could approach Webster, but Clay was as accessible as a primitive bishop. New England was proud of Webster, but the West loved Clay. Kentucky would follow her favorite to the last, whatever mistakes he might make, but Massachusetts deserted Webster when he failed to respond to her popular convictions. Both men were disappointed in the prize they sought: one because he was not loved by the people, colossal as they admitted him to be,–a frowning Jupiter Tonans absorbed in his own majesty; the other because he had incurred the hatred of Jackson and other party chiefs who were envious of his popularity, and fearful of his ascendency.

The hatred which Clay and Jackson had for each other was inexorable. It steeped them both in bitterness and uncompromising opposition. They were rivals,–the heads of their respective parties. Clay regarded Jackson as an ignorant, despotic, unscrupulous military chieftain, who had been raised to power by the blind adoration of military success; while Jackson looked upon Clay as an intriguing politician, without honesty, industry, or consistency, gifted only in speech-making. Their quarrels and mutual abuse formed no small part of the political history of the country during Jackson’s administration, and have received from historians more attention than they deserved. Mr. Colton takes up about one half of his first volume of the “Life of Clay” in dismal documents which few care about, relating to what he calls the “Great Conspiracy,” that is, the intrigues of politicians to rob Clay of his rights,–the miserable party warfare which raged so furiously and blindly from 1825 to 1836. I need not here dwell on the contentions and slanders and hatreds which were so prominent at the time the two great national parties were formed, and which divided the country until the Civil War.

The most notable portion of Henry Clay’s life was his great career as Senator in Congress, which he entered in December, 1831, two years after the inauguration of President Jackson. The first subject of national importance to which he gave his attention was the one with which his name and fame are mostly identified,–the tariff, to a moderate form of which the President in 1829 had announced himself to be favorable, but which he afterwards more and more opposed, on the ground that the revenues already produced were in excess of the needs of the government. The subject was ably discussed,–first, in a resolution introduced by Senator Clay declarative of principles involving some reduction of duties on articles that did not compete with American industries, but maintaining generally the “American System” successfully introduced by him in the tariff of 1824; and then, in a bill framed in accordance with the resolution,–both of which were passed in 1832.

Clay’s speeches on this tariff of 1832 were among the strongest and ablest he ever delivered. Indeed, he apparently exhausted his subject. Little has been added by political economists to the arguments for protection since his day. His main points were: that it was beneficial to all parts of the Union, and absolutely necessary to much the largest portion; that the price of cotton and of other agricultural products had been sustained and a decline averted, by the protective system; that even if the foreign demand for cotton had been diminished by the operation of this system (the plea of the Southern leaders), the diminution had been more than compensated in the additional demand created at home; that the competition produced by the system reduces the price of manufactured articles,–for which he adduced his facts; and finally that the policy of free trade, without benefiting any section of the Union, would, by subjecting us to foreign legislation, regulated by foreign interests, lead to the prostration and ruin of our manufactories.

It must be remembered that this speech was made in 1832, before our manufactures–really “infant industries”–could compete successfully with foreigners in anything. At the present time there are many interests which need no protection at all, and the protection of these interests, as a matter of course, fosters monopolies. And hence, the progress which is continually being made in manufactures, enabling this country to be independent of foreign industries, makes protective duties on many articles undesirable now which were expedient and even necessary sixty years ago,–an illustration of the fallacy of tariffs founded on immutable principles, when they are simply matters of expediency according to the changing interests of nations.

We have already, in the lecture on Jackson, described the Nullification episode, with the threatening protests against the tariff of 1828 and its amendments of 1832; Jackson’s prompt action; and Clay’s patriotic and earnest efforts resulting in the Compromise Tariff of March, 1833. By this bill duties were to be gradually reduced from 25 per cent ad valorem to 20 per cent. Mr. Webster was not altogether satisfied, nor were the extreme tariff men, who would have run the risks of the threatened nullification by South Carolina. It proved, however, a popular measure, and did much to tranquillize the nation; yet it did not wholly satisfy the South, nor any extreme partisans, as compromises seldom do, and Clay lost many friends in consequence, a result which he anticipated and manfully met. It led to one of his finest bursts of eloquence.

“I have,” said he, “been accused of ambition in presenting this measure. Ambition! inordinate ambition! Low, grovelling souls who are utterly incapable of elevating themselves to the higher and nobler duties of pure patriotism–beings who, forever keeping their own selfish aims in view, decide all public measures by their presumed influence on their own aggrandizement–judge me by the venal rule which they prescribe for themselves. I am no candidate for any office in the gift of these States, united or separated. I never wish, never expect to be. Pass this bill, tranquillize the country, restore confidence and affection for the Union, and I am willing to go to Ashland and renounce public service forever. Yes, I have ambition, but it is the ambition of being the humble instrument in the hands of Providence to reconcile a divided people, once more to revive concord and harmony in a distracted land,–the pleasing ambition of contemplating the glorious spectacle of a free, united, prosperous, and fraternal people.”

The policy which Mr. Clay advocated with so much ability during the whole of his congressional life was that manufactures, as well as the culture of rice, tobacco, and cotton, would enrich this country, and therefore ought to be fostered and protected by Congress, whatever Mr. Hayne or Mr. Calhoun should say to the contrary, or even General Jackson himself, whose sympathies were with the South, and consequently with slavery. Therefore Clay is called the father of the American System,–he was the advocate, not of any local interests, but the interests of the country as a whole, thus establishing his claim to be a statesman rather than a politician who never looks beyond local and transient interests, and is especially subservient to party dictation. The Southern politicians may not have wished to root out manufacturing altogether, but it was their policy to keep the agricultural interests in the ascendent.

Soon after the close of the session of the Twenty-Second Congress, Mr. Clay, on his return to Ashland, put into execution a project he had long contemplated of visiting the Eastern cities. At that period even an excursion of one thousand miles was a serious affair, and attended with great discomfort. Wherever Mr. Clay went he was received with enthusiasm. Receptions, public dinners, and fêtes succeeded each other in all the principal cities. In Baltimore, in Wilmington, and in Philadelphia, he was entertained at balls and banquets. In New York he was the guest of the city and was visited by thousands eager to shake his hand. The company controlling the line between New York and Boston tendered to him the use of one of their fine steamers to Rhode Island, where every social honor was publicly given him. In Boston he was welcomed by a committee of forty, in behalf of the young men, headed by Mr. Winthrop, and was received by a committee of old men, when he was eloquently addressed by Mr. William Sullivan, and was subsequently waited upon by the mayor and aldermen of the city. Deputations from Portland and Portsmouth besought the honor of a visit. At Charlestown, on Bunker Hill Edward Everett welcomed him in behalf of the city, and pronounced one of his felicitous speeches. At Faneuil Hall a delegation of young men presented him with a pair of silver pitchers. He was even dragged to lyceum lectures during the two weeks he remained in Boston. He thence proceeded amid public demonstrations to Worcester, Springfield, Hartford, Northampton, Pittsfield, Troy, Albany, and back again to New York. The carriage-makers of Newark begged his acceptance of one of their most costly carriages for the use of his wife. No one except Washington, Lafayette, and General Grant ever received more enthusiastic ovations in New England,–all in recognition of his services as a statesman, without his having reached any higher position than that of Senator or Secretary of State.

In such a rapid review of the career of Mr. Clay as we are obliged to make, it is impossible to enter upon the details of political movements and the shifting grounds of party organizations and warfare. We must not, however, lose sight of that most characteristic element of Clay’s public life,–his perennial candidature for the presidency. We have already seen him in 1824, when his failure was evident, throwing his influence into the scale for John Quincy Adams. In 1828, as Adams’ Secretary of State, he could not be a rival to his chief, and so escaped the whelming overthrow with which Jackson defeated their party. In 1832 he was an intensely popular candidate of the National Republicans, especially the merchants and manufacturers of the North and East and the friends of the United States Bank; but Southern hostility to his tariff principles and the rally of “the people” in support of Jackson’s war on moneyed institutions threw him out again in notable defeat. In 1836 and again in 1840, Clay was prominent before the Conventions of the Whig or National Republican party, but other interests subordinated his claims to nomination, and the election of Van Buren by the Democrats in 1836, and of Harrison by the Whigs in 1840, kept him still in abeyance. In 1844 Clay was again the Whig candidate, the chief issue being the admission of Texas, but he was defeated by Polk and the Democrats; and after that the paramount slavery question pushed him aside, and he dropped out of the race.

The bitter war which Clay made on the administration of General Jackson, especially in reference to the United States Bank question, has already been noticed, and although it is an important passage in his history, I must pass it by to avoid repetition, which is always tedious. All I would say in this connection is that Clay was foremost among the supporters of the Bank, and opposed not only the removal of deposits but also the sub-treasury scheme of Mr. Van Buren that followed the failure to maintain the Bank. Some of his ablest oratory was expended in the unsuccessful opposition to these Democratic measures.

Martin Van Buren Print by Mathew Brady

Martin Van Buren Print by Mathew Brady

In 1837, came the bursting of the money-bubble, which had turned everybody’s head and led to the most extravagant speculations, high prices, high rents, and lofty expectations in all parts of the country. This was followed of course by the commercial crisis, the general distress, and all the evils which Clay and Webster had predicted, but to which the government of Van Buren seemed to be indifferent while enforcing its pet schemes, against all the settled laws of trade and the experiences of the past. But the country was elastic after all, and a great reaction set in. New political combinations were made to express the general indignation against the responsible party in power, and the Whig party arose, joined by many leading Democrats like Rives of Virginia and Tallmadge of New York, while Calhoun went over to Van Buren, and dissolved his alliance with Clay, which in reality for several years had been hollow. In the presidential election of 1840 Mr. Van Buren was defeated by an overwhelming majority, and the Whigs came into power under the presidency of General Harrison, chosen not for talents or services, but for his availability.

The best that can be said of Harrison is that he was an honest man. He was a small farmer in Ohio with no definite political principles, but had gained some military éclat in the War of 1812. The presidential campaign of 1840 is well described by Carl Schurz as “a popular frolic,” with its “monster mass-meetings,” with log-cabins, raccoons, hard cider, with “huge picnics,” and ridiculous “doggerel about ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too.'” The reason why it called out so great enthusiasm was frivolous enough in itself, but it expressed the popular reaction against the misrule of Jackson and Van Buren, which had plunged the country into financial distress, notwithstanding the general prosperity which existed when Jackson was raised to power,–a lesson to all future presidents who set up their own will against the collected experience and wisdom of the leading intellects of the country.

President Harrison offered to the great chieftain of the Whig party the first place in his cabinet, which he declined, preferring his senatorial dignity and power. Besides, he had been Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams and found the office irksome. He knew full well that his true arena was the Senate Chamber,–which also was most favorable to his presidential aspirations. But Webster was induced to take the office declined by Clay, having for his associates in the cabinet such able men as Ewing, Badger, Bell, Crittenden, and Granger.

Mr. Clay had lost no time, when Congress assembled in December, 1840, in offering a resolution for the repeal of the sub-treasury act; but as the Democrats had still a majority in the Senate the resolution failed. When the next Congress assembled, General Harrison having lived only one month after his inauguration and the Vice-president, John Tyler, having succeeded him, the sub-treasury act was repealed; but the President refused to give his signature to the bill for the re-charter of the United States Bank, to the dismay of the Whigs, and the deep disappointment of Clay, who at once severed his alliance with Tyler, and became his bitter opponent, carrying with him the cabinet, which resigned, with the exception of Webster, who was engaged in important negotiations in reference to the northeastern boundary. The new cabinet was made up of Tyler’s personal friends, who had been Jackson Democrats, and the fruits of the great Whig victory were therefore in a measure lost. The Democratic party gradually regained its ascendency, which it retained with a brief interval till the election of Abraham Lincoln.

A question greater than banks and tariffs, if moral questions are greater than material ones, now began again to be discussed in Congress, ending only in civil war. This was the slavery question. I have already spoken of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which Mr. Clay has the chief credit of effecting, but the time now came for him to meet the question on other grounds. The abolitionists, through the constant growth of the antislavery sentiment throughout the North, had become a power, and demanded that slavery should be abolished in the District of Columbia.

And here again I feel it best to defer what I have to say on antislavery agitation to the next lecture, especially as Clay was mixed up in it only by his attempt to pour oil on the troubled waters. He himself was a Southerner, and was not supposed to take a leading part in the conflict, although opposed to slavery on philanthropic grounds. Without being an abolitionist, he dreaded the extension of the slave-power; yet as he wished to be President he was afraid of losing votes, and did not wish to alienate either the North or the South. But for his inordinate desire for the presidential office he might have been a leader in the antislavery movement. All his sympathies were with freedom. He took the deepest interest in colonization, and was president of the Colonization Society, which had for its aim the sending of manumitted negroes to Liberia.

The question of the annexation of Texas, forced to the front in the interest of the slaveholding States, united the Democrats and elected James K. Polk President in 1844; while Clay and the Whig Party, who confidently expected success, lost the election by reason of the growth of the Antislavery or Liberty party which cast a large vote in New York,–the pivotal State, without whose support in the Electoral College the carrying of the other Northern States went for nought. The Mexican War followed; and in 1846 David Wilmot of Pennsylvania moved an amendment to a bill appropriating $2,000,000 for final negotiations, providing that in all territories acquired from Mexico slavery should be prohibited. The Wilmot Proviso was lost, but arose during the next four years, again and again, in different forms, but always as the standard of the antislavery Northerners.

When the antislavery agitation had reached an alarming extent, and threatened to drive the South into secession from the Union, Clay appeared once again in his great role as a pacificator. To preserve the Union was the dearest object of his public life. He would by a timely concession avert the catastrophe which the Southern leaders threatened, and he probably warded off the inevitable combat when, in 1850, he made his great speech, in favor of sacrificing the Wilmot Proviso, and enacting a more stringent fugitive-slave law.

In 1848, embittered by having been set aside as the nominee of the Whig party for the presidency in favor of General Taylor, one of the successful military chieftains in the Mexican War,–who as a Southern man, with no political principles or enemies, was thought to be more “available,”–Clay had retired from the Senate, and for a year had remained at Ashland, nominally and avowedly “out of politics,” but intensely interested, and writing letters about the new slavery complications. In December, 1849, he was returned to the Senate, and inevitably became again one of the foremost in all the debates.

When the conflict had grown hot and fierce, in January, 1850, Clay introduced a bill for harmonizing all interests. As to the disputed question of slavery in the new territory, he would pacify the North by admitting California as a free State, and abolishing slavery and the slave-trade in the District of Columbia; while the South was to be placated by leaving Utah and New Mexico unrestricted as to slavery, and by a more efficient law for the pursuit and capture of fugitive slaves. His speech occupied two days, delivered in great physical exhaustion, and was “an appeal to the North for concession and to the South for peace.” Like Webster, who followed with his renowned “Seventh-of-March speech” and who alienated Massachusetts because he did not go far enough for freedom, Clay showed that there could be no peaceable secession, that secession meant war, and that it would be war to propagate a wrong, in which the sympathy of all mankind would be against us.

Calhoun followed, defending the interests of slavery, which he called “the rights of the South,” though too weak to deliver his speech, which was read for him. He clearly saw the issue,–that slavery was doomed if the Union were preserved,–and therefore welcomed war before the North should be prepared for it. It was the South Carolinian’s last great effort in the Senate, for the hand of death was upon him. He realized that if the South did not resist and put down agitation on the slavery question, the cause would be lost. It was already virtually lost, since the conflict between freedom and slavery was manifestly irrepressible, and would come in spite of concessions, which only put off the evil day.

On the 11th of March Seward, of New York, now becoming prominent in the Senate, spoke, deprecating all compromise on a matter of principle, and declaring that there was a “higher law than the Constitution itself.” He therefore would at least prevent the extension of slavery by any means in the power of Congress, on the ground of moral right, not of political expediency, undismayed by all the threats of secession. Two weeks afterward Chase of Ohio took the same ground as Seward. From that time Seward and Chase supplanted Webster and Clay in the confidence of the North, on all antislavery questions.

After seven months of acrimonious debate in both houses of Congress and during a session of extraordinary length, the compromise measures of Clay were substantially passed,–a truce rather than a peace, which put off the dreadful issue for eleven years longer. It was the best thing to do, for the South was in deadly earnest, exceedingly exasperated, and blinded. A war in 1851 would have had uncertain issues, with such a man as Fillmore in the presidential chair, to which he had succeeded on the death of Taylor. He was a most respectable man and of fair abilities, but not of sufficient force and character to guide the nation. It was better to submit for a while to the Fugitive Slave Law than drive the South out of the Union, with the logical consequences of the separation. But the abolitionists had no idea of submitting to a law which was inhuman, even to pacify the South, and the law was resisted in Boston, which again kindled the smothered flames, to the great disappointment and alarm of Clay, for he thought that his compromise bill had settled the existing difficulties.

In the meantime the health of the great pacificator began to decline. He was forced by a threatening and distressing cough to seek the air of Cuba, which did him no good. He was obliged to decline an invitation of the citizens of New York to address them on the affairs of the nation, but wrote a long letter instead, addressed more to the South than to the North, for he more than any other man, saw the impending dangers. Although there was a large majority at the South in favor of Union, yet the minority had become furious, and comprised the ablest leaders, concerning whose intention such men as Seward and Chase and John P. Hale were sceptical. In the ferment of excited passions it is not safe to calculate on men’s acting according to reason. It is wiser to predict that they will act against reason. Here Clay was wiser in his anxiety than the Northern statesmen generally, who thought there would be peace because it was reasonable.

Clay did not live to see all compromises thrown to the winds. He died June 29, 1852, in the seventy-sixth year of his age, at the National Hotel in Washington. Imposing funeral ceremonies took place amid general lamentation, and the whole country responded with glowing eulogies.

I have omitted allusion to other speeches which the great statesman made in his long public career, and have presented only the salient points of his life, in which his parliamentary eloquence blazed with the greatest heat; for he was the greatest orator, in general estimation, that this country has produced, although inferior to Webster in massive power, in purity of style, in weight of argument, and breadth of knowledge. To my mind his speeches are diffuse and exaggerated, and wanting in simplicity. But what reads the best is not always the most effective in debate. Certainly no American orator approached him in electrical power. No one had more devoted friends. No one was more generally beloved. No one had greater experience, or rendered more valuable public services.

And yet he failed to reach the presidency, to which for thirty years he had aspired, and which at times seemed within his grasp. He had made powerful enemies, especially in Jackson and his partisans, and politicians dreaded his ascendency, and feared that as President he would be dictatorial, though not perhaps arbitrary like Jackson. He would have been a happier man if he had not so eagerly coveted a prize which it seems is unattainable by mere force of intellect, and is often conferred apparently by accidental circumstances. It is too high an office to be sought, either by genius or services, except in the military line; but even General Scott, the real hero of the Mexican war, failed in his ambitious aspirations, as well as Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Benton, Seward, Chase, and Douglas, while less prominent men were selected, and probably ever will be. This may be looked at as a rebuke to political ambition, which ought to be satisfied with the fame conferred by genius rather than that of place, which never yet made a man really great. The presidency would have added nothing to the glory which Clay won in the Congress of the United States. It certainly added nothing to the fame of Grant, which was won on the battlefield, and it detracted from that of Jackson. And yet Clay felt keenly the disappointment, that with all his talents and services, weaker men were preferred to him.

Aside from the weakness of Clay in attempting to grasp a phantom, his character stands out in an interesting light on the whole. He had his faults and failings which did not interfere with his ambition, and great and noble traits which more than balanced them, the most marked of which was the patriotism whose fire never went out. If any man ever loved his country, and devoted all the energies of his mind and soul to promote its welfare and secure its lasting union, that man was the illustrious Senator from Kentucky, whose eloquent pleadings were household words for nearly half a century throughout the length and breadth of the land. With him there was no East, no West, no North, and no South, to be especially favored or served, but the whole country, one and indivisible for ages to come. And no other man in high position had a more glowing conviction of its ever-increasing power and glory than he.

“Whether,” says his best biographer, “he thundered against British tyranny on the seas, or urged the recognition of the South American sister republics, or attacked the high-handed conduct of the military chieftain in the Florida war, or advocated protection and internal improvements, or assailed the one-man power and spoils politics in the person of Andrew Jackson, or entreated for compromise and conciliation regarding the tariff or slavery,–there was always ringing through his words a fervid plea for his country, a zealous appeal in behalf of the honor and the future greatness and glory of the republic, or an anxious warning lest the Union be put in jeopardy.”

One thing is certain, that no man in the country exercised so great an influence, for a generation, in shaping the policy of national legislation as Henry Clay, a policy which, on the whole, has proved enlightened, benignant, and useful. And hence his name and memory will not only be honorably mentioned by historians, but will be fondly cherished so long as American institutions shall endure. He is one of the greater lights in the galaxy of American stars, as he was the advocate of principles which have proved conducive to national prosperity in the first century of the nation’s history. It is a great thing to give shape to the beneficent institutions of a country, and especially to be a source of patriotic inspiration to its people. It is greater glory than to be enrolled in the list of presidents, especially if they are mentioned only as the fortunate occupants of a great office to which they were blindly elected. Of the long succession of the occupants of the Papal Chair, the most august of worldly dignities, not one in twenty has left a mark, or is of any historical importance, while hundreds of churchmen and theologians in comparatively humble positions have left an immortal fame. The glory of Clay is not dimmed because he failed in reaching a worthy object of ambition. It is enough to be embalmed in the hearts of the people as a national benefactor, and to shine as a star of the first magnitude in the political firmament.


Carl Schurz’s Life of Henry Clay is far the ablest and most interesting that I have read. The Life of Clay by Colton is fuller and more pretentious, but is diffuse. Benton’s Thirty Years in Congress should be consulted; also the various Lives of Webster and Calhoun. See also Wilson’s Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America. The writings of the political economists, like Sumner, Walker, Carey, and others, should be consulted in reference to tariffs. The Life of Andrew Jackson sheds light on Clay’s hostility to the hero of New Orleans.

Daniel Webster : The American Union

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XII : American Founders