Life of Henry Clay/03 Beginnings in Politics

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Life of Henry Clay by Carl Schurz
Chapter III. Beginnings in Politics.



Henry Clay's first participation in politics was highly honorable to him. The people of Kentucky were dissatisfied with those clauses in their Constitution which provided for the election of the governor and of the state senators through the medium of electors. They voted that a convention be called to revise the fundamental law. This convention was to meet in 1799. Some public-spirited men thought this a favorable opportunity for an attempt to rid the state of slavery. An amendment to the Constitution was prepared providing for general emancipation, and among its advocates in the popular discussions which preceded the meeting of the convention, Clay was one of the most ardent. It was to this cause that he devoted his first essays as a writer for the press, and his first political speeches in popular assemblies. But the support which that cause found among the farmers and traders of Kentucky was discouragingly slender.

The philosophical anti-slavery movement which accompanied the American Revolution had by this time very nearly spent its force. In fact, its practical effects had been mainly confined to the North, where slavery was of little economic consequence, and where, moreover, the masses of the population were more accessible to the currents of opinion and sentiment prevailing among men of thought and culture. There slavery was abolished. Further, by the Ordinance of 1787, slavery was excluded from the territory northwest of the Ohio. But nothing was accomplished in the South except the passage of a law by the Virginia legislature in 1778, prohibiting the further introduction of slaves from abroad, and the repeal, in 1782, of the old colonial statute, which forbade the emancipation of slaves except for meritorious services. Maryland followed the example of Virginia, but then Virginia, ten years after the repeal, put a stop to individual emancipation by reënacting the old colonial statute. The convention framing the Constitution of the United States did nothing but open the way for the abolition of the slave-trade at some future time. On the whole, as soon as the philosophical anti-slavery movement threatened to become practical in the South, it stirred up a very determined opposition, and the reaction began. Indeed, the hostility to slavery on the part of some of the Southern Revolutionary leaders was never of a very practical kind. Very characteristic in this respect was a confession Patrick Henry made concerning the state of his own mind as early as 1773, in a letter to a Quaker: —

"Is it not amazing that, at a time when the rights of humanity are defined and understood with precision, in a country above all others fond of liberty, in such an age, we find men professing a religion the most humane, mild, meek, gentle, and generous, adopting a principle as repugnant to humanity as it is inconsistent with the Bible, and destructive of liberty? Every thinking, honest man rejects it in speculation, but how few in practice, from conscientious motives! Would any one believe that I am a master of slaves of my own purchase? I am drawn along by the general inconvenience of living without them. I will not, I cannot, justify it; however culpable my conduct, I will so far pay my devoir to virtue as to own the excellence and rectitude of her precepts, and lament my want of conformity to them."

This merely theoretical kind of anti-slavery spirit lost all aggressive force, as those whose pecuniary interests and domestic habits were identified with slavery grew more defiant and exacting. In 1785 Washington complained in a letter to Lafayette that "petitions for the abolition of slavery, presented to the Virginia legislature, could scarcely obtain a hearing." While the prohibition of slavery northwest of the Ohio by the Ordinance of 1787 proceeded from Southern statesmen, the slave-holding interest kept all the land south of the Ohio firmly in its grasp.

At the period of the elections for the convention called to revise the Constitution of Kentucky, the philosophical anti-slavery spirit of the Revolution survived in that state only in a comparatively feeble flicker among the educated men who had come there from Virginia and Pennsylvania. It had never touched the rough pioneers of Kentucky with any force. The number of slaves held in the state was, indeed, small enough to render easy the gradual abolition of the system. But the Kentucky farmer could not understand why, if he had money to buy negroes, he should not have them to work for him in raising his crops of corn, and hemp, and tobacco, and in watching his cattle and swine in the forest. His opposition to emancipation in any form was, therefore, vehement and overwhelming. The cause so fervently advocated by Clay, following his own generous impulses, as well as the teachings of his noble mentor, Chancellor Wythe, and by a small band of men of the same way of thinking, was, therefore, desperate from the beginning. But they deserve the more credit for their courageous fidelity to their convictions. Clay was then a promising young man just attracting public attention. At the very start he boldly took the unpopular side, thus exposing himself to the displeasure of a power, which, in the South, was then already very strong, and threatened to become unforgiving and merciless. Nor did he ever express regret at this first venture in his public career. On the contrary, all his life he continued to look back upon it with pride. In a speech he delivered at Frankfort, the political capital of Kentucky, in 1829, he said: —

"More than thirty years ago, an attempt was made, in this commonwealth, to adopt a system of gradual emancipation, similar to that which the illustrious Franklin had mainly contributed to introduce in 1780, in the state founded by the benevolent Penn. And among the acts of my life which I look back to with most satisfaction is that of my having coöperated, with other zealous and intelligent friends, to procure the establishment of that system in this state. We were overpowered by numbers, but submitted to the decision of the majority with that grace which the minority in a republic should ever yield to that decision. I have, nevertheless, never ceased, and shall never cease, to regret a decision, the effects of which have been to place us in the rear of our neighbors, who are exempt from slavery, in the state of agriculture, the progress of manufactures, the advance of improvements, and the general progress of society."

His early advocacy of that cause no doubt displeased the people of Kentucky; but what helped him promptly to overcome that displeasure was the excitement caused by another topic of great public interest, on which he was in thorough accord with them, — the alien and sedition laws, that tremendous blunder of the Federalists in the last days of their power. The conduct of the French government toward the United States, and especially the corrupt attempts of its agents, revealed by the famous X Y Z correspondence, had greatly weakened that sympathy with the French Revolution which was one of the most efficacious means of agitation in the hands of the American Democrats. The tide of popular sentiment turned so strongly in favor of the Federalists that they might easily, by prudent conduct, have attracted to themselves a large portion of the Republican rank and file, thus severely crippling the opposition to the administration of John Adams. But to push an advantage too far is one of the most dangerous errors a political party can commit; and this is what the Federalists did in giving themselves the appearance of trying to silence their opponents by the force of law. Nothing could have been better calculated not only to alarm the masses, but also to repel thinking men not blinded by party spirit, than an attempt upon the freedom of speech and of the press, wholly unwarranted by any urgency of public danger. The result was as might have been foreseen. The leaders of the opposition, with Jefferson at their head, were not slow in taking advantage of this stupendous folly. Their appeals to the democratic instincts of the people, who felt themselves threatened in their dearest rights, could not fail to meet with an overwhelming response. That response was especially strong west of the Alleghanies, where Federalism had never grown as an indigenous plant, but existed only as an exotic. In the young communities of Kentucky, the excitement was intense, and Clay, fresh from the Virginia school of democracy, threw himself into the current with all the fiery spirit of youth. Of the speeches he then delivered in popular gatherings, none are preserved even in outline. But it is known that his resonant declamation produced a prodigious impression upon his hearers, and that after one of the large field meetings held in the neighborhood of Lexington, where he had spoken after George Nicholas, a man noted for his eloquence, he and Nicholas were put in a carriage and drawn by the people through the streets of the town amid great shouting and huzzaing.

It was not, however, until four years afterward, in 1803, that he was elected to a seat in the legislature of the state, having been brought forward as a candidate without his own solicitation. The sessions in which he participated were not marked by any discussions or enactments of great importance; but Clay, who had so far been only the remarkable man of Lexington and vicinity, soon was recognized as the remarkable man of the state. In such debates as occurred, he measured swords with the "big men" of the legislature who thus far had been considered unsurpassed; and the attention attracted by his eloquence was such that the benches of the Senate became empty when he spoke in the House.

At this time, too, he paid his first tribute to what is euphoniously called the spirit of chivalry. A Mr. Bush, a tavern-keeper at Frankfort, was assaulted by one of the magnates of Kentucky, Colonel Joseph Hamilton Daviess, then District Attorney of the United States. The Colonel's influence was so powerful that no attorney at Frankfort would institute an action against him for Mr. Bush. Clay, seeing a man in need of help, volunteered. In the argument on the preliminary question he expressed his opinion of Daviess's conduct with some freedom, whereupon the redoubtable Colonel sent him a note informing him that he was not in the habit of permitting himself to be spoken of in that way and warning him to desist. Clay promptly replied that he, on his part, permitted nobody to dictate to him as to the performance of his duty, and that he "held himself responsible," etc. The Colonel sent him a challenge, which Clay without delay accepted. The hostile parties had already arrived at the place agreed upon, when common friends interposed and brought about an accommodation.

He soon met Colonel Daviess again in connection with an affair of greater importance. In the latter part of 1806, Aaron Burr passed through Kentucky on his journey to the Southwest, enlisting recruits and making other preparations for his mysterious expedition, the object of which was either to take possession of Mexico and to unite with it the Western States of the Union, the whole to be governed by him, or, according to other reports, to form a large settlement on the Washita River. A newspaper published at Frankfort, the "Western World," denounced the scheme as a treasonable one, and on November 3d Colonel Daviess, as District Attorney of the United States, moved in court that Aaron Burr be compelled to attend, in order to answer a charge of being engaged in an unlawful enterprise designed to injure a power with which the United States were at peace. Burr applied to Henry Clay for professional aid. Colonel Daviess, the District Attorney, being a Federalist, the attempted prosecution of Burr was at once looked upon by the people as a stroke of partisan vindictiveness; popular sympathy, therefore, ran strongly on Burr's side. Clay, no doubt, was moved by a similar feeling; he, too, considered it something like a duty of hospitality to aid a distinguished man arraigned on a grave charge far away from his home, and for this reason he never accepted the fee offered to him by his client. Yet he had some misgivings as to Burr's schemes, and requested from him assurances of their lawful character. Burr was profuse in plausibilities, and Clay consented to appear for him. During the pendency of the proceedings, which finally resulted in Burr's discharge for want of proof, Clay was appointed to represent Kentucky in the Senate of the United States in the place of General Adair, who had resigned. Thereupon, feeling a greater weight of public responsibility upon him, he deemed it necessary to ask from Burr a statement in writing concerning the nature of his doings and intentions. This request did not seem to embarrass Burr in the least. In a letter addressed to Clay he said that he had no design, nor had he taken any measure, to promote the dissolution of the Union or the separation of any state from it; that he had no intention to meddle with the government or disturb the tranquillity of the United States; that he had neither issued, nor signed, nor promised any commission to any one for any purpose; that he did not own any kind of military stores, and that nobody else did by his authority; that his views had been fully explained to several officers of the government and were approved by them; that he believed his purposes were well understood by the administration, and that they were such as every man of honor and every good citizen must approve. "Considering the high station you now fill in our national councils," the letter concluded, "I have thought these explanations proper, as well to counteract the chimerical tales which malevolent persons have so industriously circulated, as to satisfy you that you have not espoused the cause of a man in any way unfriendly to the laws or the interests of the country."

Clay did not know the man he was dealing with. He knew only that Burr had been Vice-President of the United States; that he was a prominent Republican; that the Federalists hated him; that the stories told about his schemes were almost too adventurous to be true. Burr's letter seemed to be straightforward, such as an innocent man would write. If the administration, at the head of which stood Jefferson himself, knew and approved of Burr's plans, they could not but be honorable. This is what Clay believed, and so he defended Burr faithfully and conscientiously. Nothing could be more absurd than the attempt made at the time, and repeated at a later period, to hold him in part responsible for Burr's schemes, the true nature of which he discovered only when he had his first interview with President Jefferson at Washington. Then his mortification was great. "It seems," he wrote to Thomas Hart, of Lexington, "that we have been much mistaken in Burr. When I left Kentucky, I believed him both an innocent and persecuted man. In the course of my journey to this place, still entertaining that opinion, I expressed myself without reserve, and it seems, owing to the freedom of my sentiments at Chillicothe, I have exposed myself to the strictures of some anonymous writer at that place. They give me no uneasiness, as I am sensible that all my friends and acquaintances know me incapable of entering into the views of Burr." The letter by which Burr had deceived him, he delivered into the President's hands. Nine years later he accidentally met Burr again in New York, where, after aimless wanderings abroad, the adventurer had stealthily returned. Burr advanced to salute him, but Clay refused his hand.