"On one occasion allusion was made to a South Carolina hot-head, who had publicly proposed to raise the flag of disunion. When Clay retorted by saying, that, if Mr. Rhett had really meant that proposition, and should follow it up by corresponding acts, he would be a traitor, and added, "and I hope he will meet a traitor's fate," thunders of applause broke from the crowded galleries."
Known as "the Great Pacificator," Henry Clay spent his political life as a champion of Union, but one who would go to great lengths to avoid a civil war.
Taken from "The Great American Book of Biography," by Hamilton W. Mabie, et al. (Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1896). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
WITH THE CLOSE OF THE GREAT CIVIL WAR in 1865 disappeared from our politics the great problem which for half a century had absorbed the attention and tasked the abilities of American statesmen.
Throughout that period there was always one overshadowing subject. Whatever other questions of domestic policy came up, — tariff, currency, internal improvements, state rights, — they were always subordinate to the main question, how to preserve the Union and slavery together. Some, like Calhoun, were ready to abandon the Union to save slavery; others, like Garrison, were ready to abandon the Union to destroy slavery; but between these extremes stood a great body of able and patriotic statesmen, who loved and prized the Union above all else, and who, to save it, would make any sacrifice, would join in any compromise. At the head of these, for more than fifty years, towered the great figure of Henry Clay.
Not often does a man whose life is spent in purely civil affairs become such a popular hero and idol as did Clay — especially when it is his fate never to reach the highest place in the people's gift. "Was there ever," says Parton, "a public man, not at the head of a state, so beloved as he? Who ever heard such cheers, so hearty, distinct and ringing, as those which his name evoked? Men shed tears at his defeat, and women went to bed sick from pure sympathy with his disappointment. . .When he left home the public seized him and bore him along over the land, the committee of one State passing him on to the committee of another, and the hurrahs of one town dying away as those of the next caught his ear." One evidence of his popularity is the great number of children named in his honor. An English woman traveling in America during the Presidential canvass of 1844 writes that at least three-fourths of all the boy babies born in that year must have been named for Henry Clay.
Henry Clay was born in Hanover county, near Richmond, Virginia, in one of the darkest days of the Revolution, 1777. His father, a poor Baptist preacher, died when Henry was four years old, leaving a wife and seven children. When he was 15, his step-father had influence enough to obtain for Henry a clerkship in the office of the Court of Chancery. When his mother and step-father had removed to Kentucky in 1792, he resolved to follow them to the western wilds, and there "grow up with the country." He was in his twenty-first year when he left Richmond, with his license to practice as an attorney, but with little else, in his pocket.
During the first thirteen years of Henry Clay's active life as a politician, he appears only as the eloquent champion of the policy of Mr. Jefferson, whom he esteemed the first and best of living men. After defending him on the stump and aiding him in the Kentucky Legislature, he was sent in 1806, when scarcely thirty, to fill for one term a seat in the Senate of the United States, made vacant by the resignation of one of the Kentucky Senators. Returning home at the end of the session, he re-entered the Kentucky Legislature.
In support of President Jefferson's policy of non-intercourse with the warring nations of Europe who were preying upon American commerce, Mr. Clay proposed that members of the Legislature should bind themselves to wear nothing that was not of American manufacture. A Federalist member, ignorant of the fact that the refusal of the American colonists to use foreign imports had caused the repeal of the Stamp Act, denounced Mr. Clay's proposition as the act of a demagogue. Clay challenged this ill-informed gentleman, and a duel resulted, in which two shots were exchanged, and both antagonists were slightly wounded.
Mr. Clay's public life proper began in November, 1811, as a member of the House of Representatives. He was immediately elected speaker by the war party, by the decisive majority of thirty-one. He was then thirty-four years of age.
It is agreed that to Henry Clay, Speaker of the House of Representatives, more than to any other individual, we owe the war of 1812. When the House hesitated, it was he who, descending from the chair, spoke so as to reassure it. When President Madison faltered, it was the stimulus of Clay's resistless presence that put heart into him again. Clay it was whose clarion notes rang out over departing regiments, and kindled within them the martial fire; and it was Clay's speeches which the soldiers loved to read by the campfire. When the war was going all wrong in the first year, President Madison wished to appoint Clay commander-in-chief of the land forces; but, said Gallatin, "What shall we do without him in the House of Representatives?"
In 1814, Clay was sent with four other commissioners to Ghent, in Belgium, to arrange the terms of a peace with England. A single anecdote will illustrate the impression he everywhere produced. An octogenarian British earl, who had retired from public life because of his years, but being struck by the impression made in the aristocratic circles of London by the American commissioners, requested a friend to bring them to see him at his house. The visit was promptly and cheerfully paid, and the obliging friend afterwards inquired of the old lord as to the impression the Americans had made upon him. "Ah!" said the veteran, with the "light of other days" gleaming from his eyes, "I liked them all, but I liked the Kentucky man best." It was so everywhere.
From 1815, when he returned from Europe, until 1825, when he became Secretary of State under John Ouincy Adams, Clay was Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mr. Clay was often impetuous in discussion, and delighted to relieve the tedium of debate, and modify the bitterness of antagonism, by a sportive jest or lively repartee. On one occasion, General Smythe of Virginia, who often afflicted the house by the dryness and verbosity of his harangues, had paused in the middle of a speech, which seemed likely to endure forever, to send to the library for a book from which he wished to note a passage. Fixing his eye on Mr. Clay, he observed the Kentuckian writhing in his seat, as if his patience had already been exhausted. "You, sir," remarked Smythe, addressing him, "speak for the present generation; but I speak for posterity." "Yes," said Clay, "and you seem resolved to speak until the arrival of your audience."
In March, 1818, a petition for the admission of Missouri into the Union was presented in Congress; and then began that long and bitter struggle over slavery, which, after convulsing the country for nearly half a century, was finally ended on the banks of the Appomattox, in 1865. "No sooner had the debate begun," says Schurz, "than it became clear that the philosophical anti-slavery sentiment of the revolutionary period had entirely ceased to have any influence upon current thought in the South. The abolition of the foreign slave trade had not, as had been hoped, prepared the way for the abolition of slavery or weakened the slave interest in any sense. On the contrary, slavery had been immensely strengthened by an economic development making it more profitable than it ever had been before.
The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, in 1793, had made the culture of cotton a very productive source of wealth. In 1820 the value of the cotton export was nearly $20,000,000 [$404,000,000 in today's dollars], almost all of it the product of slave labor. The value of slaves may be said to have at least trebled in twenty years. The breeding of slaves became a profitable industry. Under such circumstances the slaveholders arrived at the conclusion that slavery was by no means so wicked and hurtful an institution as their revolutionary fathers had thought it to be. The anti-slavery professions of the revolutionary time became to them an awkward reminiscence, which they would have been glad to wipe from their own and other people's memories.
On the other hand, in the Northern States there was no such change of feeling. Slavery was still, in the nature of things, believed to be a wrong and a sore. The change of sentiment in the South had not yet produced its reflex in the North. The slavery question had not become a subject of difference of opinion and of controversy among the Northern people. As they had abolished slavery in their States, so they took it for granted that it ought to disappear, and would disappear in time, everywhere else. The amendment to the Missouri Bill, providing for a restriction with regard to slavery, came therefore in a perfectly natural way from that Northern sentiment which remained still faithful to the traditions of the revolutionary period. And it was a great surprise to most Northern people that so natural a proposition should be so fiercely resisted on the part of the South.
It was the sudden revelation of a change of feeling in the South which the North had not observed in its progress. "The discussion of this Missouri question has betrayed the secret of their souls," wrote John Quincy Adams. The slaveholders watched with apprehension the steady growth of the free States in population, wealth, and power. In 1790 the population of the two sections had been nearly even. In 1820 there was a difference of over 600,000 in favor of the North in a total of less than ten millions. In 1790 the representation of the two sections in Congress had been about evenly balanced. In 1820 the census promised to give the North a preponderance of more than thirty votes in the House of Representatives. 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. This was the true significance of the Missouri question."
The famous "Missouri Compromise," by which the ominous dispute of 1820 was at last sedated, included the admission of one free State (Maine) and one slave State (Missouri) at the same time; — a precedent which it was understood would be thereafter followed; and it was enacted that no other slave State should be formed out of any of the Louisiana or "Northwest territory" north of latitude 36° 30', which was the southern boundary line of Missouri. The assent of opposing parties to this arrangement was secured largely by the patriotic efforts of Clay, who, says Schurz, "did not confine himself to speeches. . .but went from man to man, expostulating, beseeching, persuading, in his most winning way. . .His success added greatly to his reputation and gave new strength to his influence." The result, says John Ouincy Adams, was "to bring into full display the talents and resources and influence of Mr. Clay." He was praised as "the great pacificator," — a character which was confirmed by the deeds of 1850.
The last and greatest public work of Clay's life was the famous Compromise of 1850, which, as has often been said, postponed for ten years the great Civil War. After losing his seat as a US Representative, he was unanimously elected United States Senator by the Kentucky Legislature in 1849, in spite of the well-known fact that his views on the slavery question were distasteful to a large number of his constituents. The sentiment against slavery was increasing. The free States were outstripping the slave States in wealth and population. It was evident that slavery must have more territory or die. Shut out of the Northwest by the Missouri Compromise, it was supposed that a great field for its extension had been gained in Texas and the territory acquired from Mexico.
But now California, a part of this territory which had been counted upon for slavery, was populated by a sudden rush of Northern immigration, attracted by the discovery of gold; and a State government was organized, with a constitution excluding slavery. The South was both alarmed and exasperated. Threats of disunion were freely made. It was evident that prompt measures must be taken to allay the prevailing excitement, if disruption were to be avoided. In such an emergency it was natural that all eyes should turn to the "great pacificator," Henry Clay.
When, at the session of 1849-50, he appeared in the Senate, to assist, if possible, in removing the slavery question from politics. Clay was an infirm and serious, but not sad, old man of seventy-two. He never lost his cheerfulness or faith, but he felt deeply for his distracted country. During that memorable session of Congress he spoke seventy times. Often extremely sick and feeble, scarcely able, with the assistance of a friend's arm, to climb the steps of the Capitol, he was never absent on the days when the Compromise was to be debated.
On the morning on which he began his great speech, he was accompanied by a clerical friend, to whom he said, on reaching the long flight of steps leading to the Capitol, "Will you lend me your arm, my friend? I find myself quite weak and exhausted this morning." Every few steps he was obliged to stop and take breath. "Had you not better defer your speech?" asked the clergyman. "My dear friend," said the dying orator, "I consider our country in danger; and if I can be the means, in any measure, of averting that danger, my health or life is of little consequence."
When he rose to speak, it was but too evident that he was unfit for the task he had undertaken. But as he kindled with his subject, his cough left him, and his bent form resumed all its wonted erectness and majesty. He may, in the prime of his strength, have spoken with more energy, but never with so much pathos or grandeur. His speech lasted two days; and though he lived two years longer, he never recovered from the effects of the effort. The thermometer in the Senate chamber marked nearly 100°. Toward the close of the second day, his friends repeatedly proposed an adjournment; but he would not desist until he had given complete utterance to his feelings. He said afterward that he was not sure, if he gave way to an adjournment, that he should ever be able to resume.
Never was Clay's devotion to the Union displayed in such thrilling and pathetic forms as in the course of this long debate. On one occasion allusion was made to a South Carolina hot-head, who had publicly proposed to raise the flag of disunion. When Clay retorted by saying, that, if Mr. Rhett had really meant that proposition, and should follow it up by corresponding acts, he would be a traitor, and added, "and I hope he will meet a traitor's fate," thunders of applause broke from the crowded galleries. When the chairman succeeded in restoring silence, Mr. Clay made that celebrated declaration which was so frequently quoted in 1861: "If Kentucky tomorrow shall unfurl the banner of resistance unjustly, I will never fight under that banner. I owe paramount allegiance to the whole Union, a subordinate one to my own State." Again: "The Senator speaks of Virginia being my country. This Union, sir, is my country; the thirty States are my country; Kentucky is my country, and Virginia, no more than any State in the Union." And yet again: "There are those who think that the Union must be preserved by an exclusive reliance upon love and reason. That is not my opinion. I have some confidence in this instrumentality; but, depend upon it, no human government can exist without the power of applying force, and the actual application of it in extreme cases."
"Who can estimate," says Parton, "the influence of these clear and emphatic utterances ten years after? The crowded galleries, the numberless newspaper reports, the quickly succeeding death of the great orator, all aided to give them currency and effect. We shall never know how many wavering minds they aided to decide in 1861. Not that Mr. Clay really believed the conflict would occur: he was mercifully permitted to die in the conviction that the Compromise of 1850 had removed all immediate danger, and greatly lessened that of the future. Far indeed was he from foreseeing that the ambition of Stephen A. Douglas, a man born in New England, calling himself a disciple of Andrew Jackson, would within five years destroy all compromises, and render all future compromise impossible, by procuring the repeal of the first, — the Missouri Compromise of 1821?"