Life of Henry Clay/07 In the House of Representatives
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IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.
Before Clay left Lexington to take his seat in Congress, he received a letter from the Secretary of State, James Monroe, offering him the mission to Russia. He declined it. He was evidently resolved to remain in Congress while Madison was President, for when, less than a year later, in August, 1816, Madison invited him to a place in his cabinet as Secretary of War, his answer was still a refusal.
On the first day of the session, December 4, 1815, Clay was again elected Speaker. In both Houses the Republicans had strong majorities; in the Senate twenty-two against fourteen Federalists, and in the House of Representatives one hundred and seventeen against sixty-five. But the Federalists, as a party contending for power, were weaker even than these numbers indicated. There is no heavier burden for a political party to bear, than to have appeared unpatriotic in time of war. The Federal party went down under this load at a period when its principles were, one after another, unconsciously adopted by its victorious opponents.
The Republicanism left behind by the war of 1812 was no longer the Republicanism of frugal economy, simple, unpretentious, narrowly circumscribed government, and peace and friendship with all the world, which the famous triumvirate, Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin, had set out with in 1801, and which was the political ideal of bucolic democracy. The rough jostle with the strong powers of the external world had made sad havoc of the idyl. Instead of the least possible government there had been, even before the war, while Jefferson himself was President, during that painful struggle under the oppressive practices of the European belligerents, enormous stretches of power, such as the laws enforcing the embargo, which equaled, if not outstripped, anything the Federalists had ever done. Instead of frugal economy and regular debt paying, there had been enormous war expenses with new taxes and heavy loans. Instead of unbroken peace and general friendship, there had been a long and bloody war with the nearest of kin. Now, with that war finished, there was a large public debt, a frightfully disordered currency, a heavy budget of yearly expenditures, and a people awakened to new wants and new ambitions, for the satisfaction of which they looked, more than ever before, to the government. The old triumvirate of leaders were indeed still alive; but Jefferson was sitting in his lofty Monticello, the sage of the period, giving forth oracular sounds, many of them very wise, always respectfully received, but apt to be minded only when what he said corresponded with the wishes of his listeners; Gallatin, having witnessed and sagaciously recognized the break down of his favorite theory of government, was serving the Republic as a diplomatic representative abroad; Madison was still President, but, having never been a strong leader of men for his own purposes, he could offer but feeble resistance to the new tendencies. A new school of Republican leaders had pressed forward into the places of these retired veterans, — new leaders, who would speak with pity of a government "going on in the old imbecile method, contributing nothing by its measures to the honor and reputation of the country;" who wanted a conduct of public affairs "on an enlarged policy;" who thought that revenues might be raised, not only to provide for the absolute wants of the government, but, beyond that, for the advancement of the public benefit.
Of this new Republican school Clay and Calhoun were the foremost champions. Clay boldly put forth its programme in a speech made in committee of the whole on January 29, 1816, on a bill reported by Lowndes, to reduce the direct taxes imposed during the war. After having defended, with great force, the war of 1812 as a just and necessary war, and the peace of Ghent as an honorable peace, he enumerated the reasons why he deemed no great reduction of taxes advisable. Our relations with Spain, he said, were unsatisfactory; there would be more wars with Great Britain; and the United States might have to aid the Spanish South American colonies in their struggle for independence. It was necessary, therefore, to maintain a respectable military establishment, to augment the navy, and to provide for coast defenses, Furthermore he would, "as earnestly, commence the great work, too long delayed, of internal improvement. He desired to see a chain of turnpike roads and canals from Passamaquoddy Bay to New Orleans, and other similar roads intersecting the mountains, to facilitate intercourse between all parts of the country, and to bind and connect us together." He would also "effectually protect our manufactories, — not so much for the manufactories themselves, as for the general interest. We should thus have our wants supplied, when foreign resources are cut off; and we should also lay the basis of a system of taxation to be resorted to when the revenue from imports is stopped by war." Provision for the contingency of war was a prominent consideration in all this; Clay's political ideas had not yet come down to the peace footing. Calhoun followed him with a vigorous speech of similar tenor. These arguments prevailed, and the direct tax was in part retained.
Then the tariff was taken in hand. The embargo, the non-intercourse, and the war, while dealing the shipping interest a terrible blow, had, by excluding foreign products, served as a powerful stimulus to manufacturing industry. But after the war the country was flooded by a tremendous importation of English goods. American industry, artificially developed by an abnormal state of things, was now to be artificially sustained against that competition. Tariff duties were resorted to for that avowed purpose, and a scheme was proposed by Dallas, the Secretary of the Treasury. He arranged the articles subject to duty in three classes: 1. Those of which the home supply was sufficient to satisfy the demand; they were to bear the highest duty, thirty-five per cent, ad valorem. 2. Those of which the domestic supply was only partially sufficient to satisfy the demand, comprising cotton and woolen goods, as well as iron and most of its coarser products, distilled spirits, etc.; these were to bear twenty per cent. And 3, those of which the home production was small, or nothing; these were to bear a simple revenue tax.
Most of the Federalists opposed this protective policy, while the Republican protectionists, illustrating the remarkable mutation of things, quoted against them Hamilton's famous report on manufactures. Webster and most of the New England men opposed it, because it would injure the shipping interest. John Randolph, independent of party, opposed it, because it would benefit the Northern States at the expense of the South. Calhoun, Lowndes, and their Southern followers supported it, not only as a means of national defense, but also in order to help the cotton interest, since England at that time levied a discriminating duty on raw materials to the disadvantage of cotton raised in America, and since the coarser cotton fabrics imported into the United States were mostly made of India cotton. The principal argument urged by Clay and generally accepted by the Republicans was, that certain manufacturing industries must be built up and sustained for the safety of the country in time of war. Thus the tariff of 1816 was enacted, embodying substantially the scheme proposed by Dallas.
So far Clay had, as to definite measures of public concern, preserved a plausible consistency with the principles and measures advocated by him before the war of 1812. But he should not be spared the ordeal brought on by direct self-contradiction. The war had thrown the currency into great disorder. Upon the expiration of the charter of the United States Bank, the renewal of which Clay had helped to defeat, the notes of that institution were withdrawn, and the notes of state banks took their place. These banks multiplied very rapidly. In the years 1811, 1812, and 1813 one hundred and twenty of them went into operation, many with insufficient capital. The Secretary of the Treasury endeavored in vain to bring the banks into prudent coöperation. They began to refuse one another's bills. In 1814 specie payments were suspended. Reckless paper issues produced a corresponding inflation of prices. Under such circumstances Dallas finally saw no other way to restore order in the currency than by the promptest possible return to specie payments, and to this end he proposed the establishment of a specie-paying national bank, virtually a revival of the old Bank of the United States.
The Republican majority of 1816 was ready to return to Hamilton's plan of a financial agency, which the Republicans of 1811 had denounced and rejected; and they were ready, too, to enlarge that plan in all the features formerly objected to. But how could Clay support such a scheme? We shall see.
On January 8, 1816, Calhoun reported to the House of Representatives a bill providing that a Bank of the United States should be chartered for twenty years, with a capital of $35,000,000, divided into 350,000 shares, Congress to have the power to authorize an increase of the capital to $50,000,000; 70,000 shares, amounting to $7,000,000, to be subscribed and paid for by the United States, and 280,000 shares to be taken by individuals, companies, or corporations; the government to appoint five of the twenty-five directors; the bank to be authorized to establish branches, to have the deposits of the public money, subject to the discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury, and to pay to the government $1,500,000 in three instalments, as a bonus for its charter. This was substantially Hamilton's National Bank of 1791, only on a larger scale. It was exactly the thing which, five years before, Clay had found so utterly unconstitutional, and in its very nature so dangerous, that he could under no circumstances consent to a prolongation of its existence. Again the two parties found themselves reversed in position: the Federalists were now opposing the bank, — some of them, like Webster, because the capital was too large; while the Republicans, with some exceptions, were favoring it as a necessity. But how did Clay perform his somersault? He made a speech which his contemporary friends praised as very able. It was not reported, but he reproduced its main propositions in an address subsequently delivered before his constituents for the purpose of defending himself against that charge which has such terrors for public men, — the charge of inconsistency. This was his argument: In 1811 the legislature of his state had instructed him to oppose the re-chartering of the bank, while now the people of his district, as far as he had been able to ascertain their minds by conversation with them, were in favor of a new bank. Secondly, the old bank had abused its powers for political purposes, while the new bank would be deterred from doing so by the fate of its predecessor. This was making an audacious draft upon the credulity of his audience. Thirdly, the bank had been unconstitutional in 1811, but it was constitutional in 1816, owing to a change of circumstances. We remember that magnificent passage in Clay's speech of 1811 in which he arrayed in parade the monster corporations of history, arguing that so tremendous a power as the authority to charter such companies could not possibly have been given to the federal government by mere inference and implication; that, if the Constitution did not grant that power in so many words, directly, specifically, unmistakably, it was not granted at all. What did he say now?
"The Constitution contained powers delegated and prohibitory, powers expressed and constructive. It vests in Congress all powers necessary to give effect to the enumerated powers. The powers that may be so necessary are deducible by construction. They are not defined in the Constitution. They are in their nature undefinable. With regard to the degree of necessity various rules have been, at different times, laid down; but perhaps, at last, there is no other than a sound and honest judgment, exercised under the control which belongs to the Constitution and the people. It is manifest that this necessity may not be perceived at one time under one state of things, while it is perceived at another time under a different state of things. The Constitution, it is true, never changes; it is always the same; but the force of circumstances and the lights of experience may evolve, to the fallible persons charged with its administration, the fitness and necessity of a particular exercise of constructive power to-day, which they did not see at a former period."
And how did he apply this constitutional theory to the pending case? In 1811, he said, the bank did not seem to him necessary, because it was supported mainly upon the ground "that it was indispensable to the Treasury operations," which, in his opinion, could have been sufficiently aided by the state banks then existing. Therefore the re-chartering of the United States Bank would have been, in his view, at that time unconstitutional. But now he beheld specie payments suspended. He saw about three hundred banking institutions which had lost the public confidence in a greater or less degree, and which were exercising what had always and everywhere been considered "one of the highest attributes of sovereignty," namely, the "regulation of the current medium of the country." They were no longer capable of aiding, but were really obstructing, the operations of the Treasury. To renew specie payments and to prevent further disaster and distress a national bank now appeared to him "not only necessary, but indispensably necessary." Under these circumstances, therefore, he considered the chartering of a national bank constitutional. "He preferred," he added, "to the suggestions of the pride of opinion the evident interests of the community, and determined to throw himself upon their candor and justice. Had he in 1811 foreseen what now existed, and no objection had lain against the renewal of the charter other than that derived from the Constitution, he should have voted for the renewal."
This was virtually a confession that he had seriously mistaken the situation of things in 1811, when, against Gallatin's judgment, he had helped in disarranging the fiscal machinery of the government on the eve of a war. But it was a confession, too, that he had thrown overboard that constitutional theory according to which such things as the power of chartering corporations, not being among the specifically granted powers, could not be an implied power. He had familiarized himself with larger views of governmental function, as the Republic had grown in dimensions, in strength, and in the reach of its interests. Indeed, the reasoning with which he justified his change of position in 1816 stopped but little, if at all, short of the assertion that whatever may be considered necessary, or even eminently desirable, to help the country over a temporary embarrassment, may also be considered constitutional. Clay, who seldom, if ever, reasoned out a point in all its logical bearings, would not have admitted that as a general proposition. But he evidently inclined to the most latitudinarian construction. His constitutional principles had become prodigiously elastic according to the requirements of the occasion. In this respect he was not peculiar. Most of our public men have been inclined to interpret the Constitution according to their purposes. This tendency was especially strong among the young Republicans of that period; and there it was all the more remarkable as their party had in its design and beginning been a living protest against the strong government theory favored by the Federalists. There was, however, this difference left between them and their old antagonists: the Federalists believed that government, in order to be good, or even tolerable, must be strong enough to restrain the disorderly tendencies of democracy; while the young Republicans rejected the theory of strong government in that sense, but believed that it must have large powers in order to do the things which they thought it should do for the development of a great nation.
At the next session of Congress, in February, 1817, Calhoun took the lead in advocating a bill to set apart and pledge the bonus of the national bank and the share of the United States in its dividends, as a permanent fund for "constructing roads and canals and improving the navigation of water courses, in order to facilitate, promote, and give security to internal commerce among the several states, and to render more easy and less expensive the means and provisions for the common defense." In his speech Calhoun pronounced himself strongly in favor of a latitudinarian construction of constitutional powers, and a liberal exercise of them for the purpose of binding the people of this vast country more closely together, and of preventing "the greatest of all calamities, next to the loss of liberty, and even that in its consequence — disunion." Clay thanked him for "the able and luminous view which he had submitted to the committee of the whole," and vigorously urged the setting apart of a fund to be used at a future time when the specific objects to be accomplished should have been more clearly ascertained and fixed. This contemplated the accumulation of funds in the Treasury with the expectation that suitable objects would be found for which to spend them, — a dangerous practice in a democratic government. "Congress," he said, "could at some future day examine into the constitutionality of the question, and if it had the power, it could exercise it; if it had not, the Constitution, there could be no doubt, would be so amended as to confer it." At any rate, he wished to have the fund set apart. Clay himself did not doubt that Congress had the constitutional power to use that fund, and possibly he thought that, if only the money were provided to be spent, Congress would easily come to the same conclusion.
The bill passed both houses, but old-school Republicanism once more stemmed the tide. President Madison, who himself had formerly expressed opinions favorable to internal improvements, vetoed it on strictly constitutional grounds, much to the astonishment and disgust of the young Republican statesmen. It was his last act.
Clay had in the mean time, by way of episode, gone through the experience of flagging popularity. It was not on account of his constitutional doctrines, or any other great question of state, but by reason of a matter to which he had probably given but little thought. At the previous session he had voted for a bill to increase the pay of members of Congress from a per diem of six dollars to a fixed salary of $1,500 a year, the law to apply to the Congress then in session. He supported it on the ground that he had never been able to make both ends meet at Washington. "The rate of compensation," he said, "ought to be such at least as that ruin should not attend a long service in Congress." Such arguments prevailed, and the bill passed both houses. But many of Clay's constituents thought differently. To the Kentucky farmers a yearly income of $1,500 for a few months sitting on cushioned chairs in the Capitol looked monstrously extravagant. They were sure men could be found who would do the business for less money. When the election of members of Congress came on, Clay was fortunate enough to force the candidate opposing him into a "joint debate," in which, as that gentleman had been "against the war," Clay made short work of him. But he himself had an arduous canvass. It was then that his meeting with the old hunter occurred, which furnished material for a school-book anecdote. The old hunter, who had always voted for Clay, was now resolved to vote against him on account of the back-pay bill. "My friend," said Clay, "have you a good rifle?" "Yes." "Did it ever flash?" "Yes, but only once." "What did you do with the rifle when it flashed, — throw it away?" "No, I picked the flint, tried again, and brought down the game." "Have I ever flashed, except upon the compensation bill?" "No." "Well, will you throw me away?" "No, Mr. Clay; I will pick the flint and try you again." Clay was tried again, but only by a majority of some six or seven hundred votes. At the next session of Congress he voted for the repeal of the compensation act, avowedly on the ground of its unpopularity; but he favored the raising of the per diem. The pay of members of Congress was fixed at eight dollars per day. This was the only time that his home constituency threatened to fail him.
James Monroe was elected President in 1816 with little opposition. He received 183 electoral votes; while his competitor, Rufus King, the candidate of the Federalists, had only 34. Monroe was inaugurated March 4, 1817, and the famous "era of good feeling" set in, — that is to say, with the disappearance of the Federal party as a national organization, the great organized contests of the old parties for power ceased, to make room for the smaller contests of personal ambitions. But these infused fully as much bitterness into the era of good feeling as the differences on important questions of public policy had infused into great party struggles. Until then the Presidents of the United States had been men of note in the American Revolution. Monroe was the last of the Revolutionary generation and of the "Virginia dynasty." It was taken for granted that he would have his two terms, and that then the competition for the presidency would be open to a new class of men. As Madison had been Jefferson's Secretary of State before he became President, and Monroe had been Madison's, the secretaryship of state was looked upon as the stepping-stone to the presidency. Those who expected to be candidates for the highest place in the future, therefore, coveted it with peculiar solicitude. One of them was Henry Clay. Among the citizens of the United States he could find none, to whom the succession to Mr. Monroe, as he believed, belonged more rightfully than to himself. Thus he started on the career of a candidate for the presidency, and that career began with a disappointment. Monroe selected for the secretaryship John Quincy Adams, a most excellent selection, although Clay very decidedly did not think so. Monroe also signified his appreciation of Clay's merits by offering him the war department, and then the mission to England. But Clay declined both places, on the ground, as Mr. Adams reports, "that he was satisfied with the situation which he held, and could render more service to the public in it than in the other situations offered him." This was true enough; but it is also probable that he was then already resolved to stand as a candidate for the presidency after Monroe's second term, although Adams had been designated as heir-apparent; and, moreover, his disappointment had so affected his personal feelings toward Monroe and Adams, as to make unsuitable his acceptance of a place among the President's confidential advisers. This supposition is borne out by his subsequent conduct.
The fifteenth Congress met on December 1, 1817, and Clay was on the same day reëlected Speaker of the House of Representatives by an almost unanimous vote, — 140 to 7. An opportunity for an open disagreement between Clay and the administration was not long in appearing. In his first message to Congress, Monroe, referring to the passage at the preceding session of the act concerning a fund for internal improvements, which Madison vetoed, deemed it proper to make known his sentiments on that subject beforehand, so that there should be no uncertainty as to his prospective action in case such a bill were passed again. He declared it to be his "settled conviction" that Congress did not possess the right of constructing roads and canals. "It is not contained in any of the specified powers granted to Congress; nor can I consider it incidental to, or a necessary means, viewed on the most liberal scale, for carrying into effect any of the powers specifically granted." He then suggested, as Jefferson and Madison had done, the adoption of a constitutional amendment to give to Congress the right in question.
This spontaneous declaration by the President of what he intended to do in certain contingencies was taken as something like a challenge, and the challenge was promptly accepted. Calhoun, next to Clay the foremost champion of internal improvements, having gone into the Cabinet as Secretary of War, Tucker of Virginia reported on December 15, from a select committee, a resolution equivalent to that which Madison had vetoed. Against it Monroe's constitutional objections were marshaled in debate. Clay took up the gauntlet and made two speeches, in which he disclosed his views of policy, as well as his constitutional principles: more pointedly than he had ever done before. He maintained that the Constitution did give the general government the power to construct roads and canals, and that the consent of the states, which had been thought necessary in the case of the Cumberland Road, was not required at all. He spoke as a western man, as a representative of a new country and a pioneer population, needing means of communication, channels of commerce and intelligence, as the breath of life. He spoke as a citizen of the Union, looking forward to a great destiny. Was the Constitution, he asked, giving Congress the power to establish post-offices and post-roads, and to regulate commerce between the states, made for the benefit of the Atlantic margin of the country only? Was the Constitution made only for the few millions then inhabiting this continent? No! "Every man," he exclaimed, "who looks at the Constitution in the spirit to entitle him to the character of a statesman, must elevate his views to the height which this nation is destined to reach in the rank of nations. We are not legislating for this moment only, or for the present generation, or for the present populated limits of the United States; but our acts must embrace a wider scope, — reaching northwestward to the Pacific, and southwardly to the river Del Norte. Imagine this extent of territory covered with sixty, or seventy, or an hundred millions of people. The powers which exist in this government now will exist then; and those which will exist then exist now."
"What was the object of the Convention," he asked, "in framing the Constitution? The leading object was Union. Union, then, peace external and internal, and commerce, but more particularly union and peace, the great objects of the framers of the Constitution, should be kept steadily in view in the interpretation of any clause of it; and where it is susceptible of various interpretations, that construction should be preferred which tends to promote the objects of the framers of the Constitution, to the consolidation of the Union." This he emphasized with still greater force. "I am a friend, a true friend, to state rights, but not in all cases as they are asserted. We should equally avoid that subtile process of argument which dissipates into air the powers of the government, and that spirit of encroachment which would snatch from the states powers not delegated to the general government. We shall then escape both the dangers I have noticed, — that of relapsing into the alarming weakness of the Confederation, which was described as a mere rope of sand; and also that other, perhaps not the greatest, danger, consolidation. No man deprecates more than I do the idea of consolidation; yet between separation and consolidation, painful as would be the alternative, I should greatly prefer the latter."
Here was the well-spring from which Henry Clay drew his political inspirations, — a grand conception of the future destiny of the American Republic, and of a government adapted to the fulfillment of that great destiny; an ardent love for the Union, as the ark of liberty and national grandeur, a Union to be maintained at any price; an imaginative enthusiasm which infused its patriotic glow into his political opinions, but which was also apt to carry him beyond the limits of existing things and conditions, and not seldom unfitted him for the formation of a clear and well-balanced judgment of facts and interests. But this enthusiastic conception of national grandeur, this lofty Unionism constantly appearing as the inspiration of his public conduct, gave to his policies, as they stood forth in the glow of his eloquence, a peculiarly potent charm.
The result of this debate was the passage, not of the resolution reported by Tucker, but of a substitute declaring that "Congress has power, under the Constitution, to appropriate money for the construction of post-roads, military and other roads, and of canals, and for the improvement of water courses." Other resolutions, asserting the power of Congress not only to appropriate money for such roads and canals, but to construct them, failed by small majorities, so that Clay carried his point only in part.
That Clay would continue to assert the power of Congress to construct internal improvements, President Monroe's message notwithstanding, everybody expected. But when he interspersed that advocacy with keen criticism of Monroe's attitude concerning that subject, — criticism which had a strong flavor of bitterness in it, — the effect was not to his advantage. The unfriendly tone of his remarks was generally attributed to his disappointment in the matter of the secretaryship of state. Not many men like to see personal resentments carried into the discussion of public interests; and in this case, to make the matter worse, the demonstrations of resentment were, in the shape of oratorical flings, darted at a President who was by no means a great man, rather a man of moderate parts, but who was regarded as inoffensive and well-meaning, and as honestly busying himself about his presidential duties, — one of those respectable mediocrities in high public station, with whom people are apt to sympathize in their troubles, especially when unnecessarily attacked and humiliated by persons of greatly superior ability.
But the disappointment of the aspirant for the presidency was so little under his control that he permitted it to appear even in another of his great endeavors, which, in order to succeed, required particularly prudent management. This was his effort in behalf of the Spanish American colonies, which had risen against the mother country, and were struggling to achieve their independence.
It has been said by Clay's opponents that his zeal for the cause of the South American patriots was wholly owing to his desire to annoy the Monroe administration. This is clearly an unjust charge, for he had loudly proclaimed his ardent sympathies with the South American insurgents while Madison was still President. We remember that in his speech on the direct taxes in January, 1816, he seriously put the question whether the United States would not have openly "to take part with the patriots of South America." So on January 24, 1817, before Monroe's inauguration, he had stoutly opposed a bill "more effectually to preserve the neutral relations of the United States," intended to stop the fitting out of armed cruisers in American ports; he had opposed the bill on the ground that it might be advantageous to old Spain in the South American struggle. All this had sprung naturally from his emotional enthusiasm. He was therefore, although imprudent in his propositions, yet only true to himself, when, under Monroe's administration, he continued to demand that the neutrality law of 1817 be repealed; that our neutrality be so arranged as to be as advantageous as possible to the insurgent colonies; and finally that the United States send a minister to the "United Provinces of Rio de la Plata," there by formally recognizing that revolutionized colony as an independent state. This he proposed in March, 1818. Three commissioners had been appointed by the President to go to South America for the purpose of looking into the condition of things; and, to cover the necessary expenses, the President asked for an appropriation. Clay strenuously opposed this on the ground that the commissioners had been appointed without the advice and consent of the Senate. He moved instead an appropriation for a regular minister to be sent there.
The speech with which he supported this proposition was in his grandest style. South America had set his imagination on fire. In gorgeous colors he drew a picture of "the vast region in which we behold the most sublime and interesting objects of creation; the loftiest mountains, the most majestic rivers in the world; the richest mines of the precious metals, the choicest productions of the earth; we behold there a spectacle still more interesting and sublime, — the glorious spectacle of eighteen millions of people struggling to burst their chains and to be free." A burning description followed of their degradation and sufferings, and of the terrible cruelties inflicted upon them by their relentless oppressors. In his imagination they were a people of high mental and moral qualities, notwithstanding their ignorance and their subserviency to the influence of the church. He was sure that, "Spanish America being once independent, whatever may be the form of the governments established in its several parts, these governments will be animated by an American feeling, and guided by an American policy." He affirmed that they had established and for years maintained an independent government on the river La Plata, and that, as the United States always recognized de facto governments, it was a duty to recognize this. He demanded it in the name of a just neutrality. As the United States had received a minister sent by Spain, so they were "bound" to receive a minister of the La Plata republic if they meant to be neutral. "If the royal belligerent is represented and heard at our government, the republican belligerent ought also to be heard." All this, he thought, could be done without any danger of war. Spain herself was too much crippled in her resources to make war on the United States, and no other power would do so.
It was a brilliant display of oratorical splendors, but the House resisted the fascination. In the discussion which followed, much of the halo, with which Clay's poetic fancy had surrounded the South American people and their struggle, was dissipated by sober statements of fact. Neither was it difficult to show that Clay was much in error in his views of true neutrality, and that neutrality between two belligerents did by no means always require equal diplomatic relations with them. Finally, the contemptuous flings at the President and the Secretary of State, with which Clay seasoned his speech, displeased a large part of the House. It was well known that Monroe and Adams were not at all unfriendly to the insurgent colonies; only they wanted to be sure of the fact that the new government had the necessary element of stability to justify recognition; they hoped to obtain the coöperation of England in that recognition; they desired to avoid the embarrassment which a hasty recognition would cause in the negotiations between the United States and Spain concerning the cession of Florida; and finally, they wanted to be first assured that the public opinion of the country would sustain them in so important a step.
The motion was defeated by a vote of 115 against 45. But Monroe was terribly disturbed at Clay's hostile attitude, so much so indeed that, two or three days after Clay's great speech, Adams wrote in his Diary: —
"The subject which seems to absorb all the faculties of his (Monroe's) mind is the violent systematic opposition that Clay is raising against his administration. . . . Mr. Monroe added, if Mr. Clay had taken the ground that the Executive had gone as far as he could go with propriety towards the acknowledgment of the South Americans, that he was well disposed to go further, if such were the feeling of the nation and of Congress, and had made his motion with that view, to ascertain the real sentiments of Congress, it might have been in perfect harmony with the Executive. But between that and the angry, acrimonious course pursued by Mr. Clay, there was a wide difference."
Monroe was perfectly right. Clay would have served better the cause he had at heart had he maintained friendly relations with the administration. But that strange disturber of impulses and motives, of perceptions and conclusions — the aspiration to the presidency — clouded his discernment.
In the second session of the fifteenth Congress a debate took place which was destined to be of far greater consequence to Clay's political fortunes than anything that had gone before. It was the first clash between Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. This is the story. The Floridas were still in the possession of Spain. They served as a place of refuge for runaway slaves, and a base of operations for raiding Indians. Spain was bound by treaty to prevent hostile excursions on the part of the savages, but too weak or too negligent to do so. There were frequent collisions between whites and Indians on the border, one party being as often the aggressor as the other. General Gaines sent soldiers against the Indians, and an Indian war began. In December, 1817, General Jackson took command. He received authority to pursue the Indians, but, as the administration understood it, he was to respect Spanish rights. This was Jackson's famous Seminole war. He enlisted volunteers in Tennessee by his own proclamation, without waiting for the President to call upon the governor for a levy of militia in the legal, regular way. He broke into Florida in March, 1818, took the Spanish fort of St. Mark's, hung Indian chiefs who had been captured by stratagem; ordered a Scotchman and an Englishman, Arbuthnot and Ambrister, whom he had found with the Indians, to be tried by court-martial for having instigated the savages to hostilities; and when, on very insufficient evidence, they were found guilty, he had them promptly executed, after having changed the sentence in Ambrister's case from mere flogging to the penalty of death by shooting; he took Pensacola on his way home, deposed the Spanish governor, appointed a new one, left a garrison there, and conducted himself throughout as a victorious general with absolute power in a conquered country, like a Roman proconsul in a subjugated province.
When the news arrived in Washington, the President and the Cabinet were astonished and perplexed. Except Adams, who was always inclined to take the highest ground for his country against any foreign power, they all agreed that General Jackson had gone far beyond his instructions and done lawless things. Calhoun, the Secretary of War, thought that the General should promptly be held to a severe account. But they shrunk from affronting the "hero of New Orleans." The administration finally concluded to restore to the Spaniards possession of the forts taken by General Jackson, and to affirm that the capture of those places by Jackson and his conduct generally were justified, on the principle of self-defense, by the hostile attitude of the Spanish governors, thus denying that any warlike step had been taken against Spain, while at the same time making a case against her officers.
On January 16, 1819, the House of Representatives began the discussion of a resolution reported by its military committee, "disapproving the proceedings in the trial of Arbuthnot and Ambrister," to which three further resolutions were added, declaring the seizure of Pensacola and Fort Barrancas to have been contrary to the Constitution of the United States, and calling for appropriate legislation. A debate of three weeks followed, in which Clay was the most prominent figure on the anti-Jackson side. He had no personal feeling against General Jackson. On the contrary he was sincerely and profoundly grateful to the man who, after all the disgraceful failures of the war of 1812, had so brilliantly restored the lustre of the American arms, and enabled him to "go to England without mortification." But as a friend of constitutional government he felt that he could not possibly approve of the General's lawless conduct in Florida. There is no reason to attribute the position he took to any but conscientious motives. But he was an aspirant to the presidency, and known to be such, while Jackson, too, was beginning to be whispered about as a possible candidate for that honor. Would not a frank expression of his views on Jackson's conduct appear like an attempt to injure a dreaded rival? It dawned upon him that his unnecessary flings at the Monroe administration had subjected his motives to suspicion, and thus, while attacking, he felt himself on the defensive. He began with an almost painful effort to retrieve the ground which he feared that he had lost in the confidence of the House and the country: —
"In rising to address you, sir, I must be allowed to say, that all inferences, drawn from the course which it will be my painful duty to take in this discussion, of unfriendliness either to the chief magistrate of the country, or to the illustrious military chieftain whose operations are under investigation, will be wholly unfounded. Toward that distinguished captain who shed so much glory on our country, whose renown constitutes so great a portion of its moral property, I never had, I never can have, any other feelings than those of the most profound respect and of the utmost kindness. I know the motives which have been, and will again be, attributed to me in regard to the other exalted personage alluded to. They have been and they will be unfounded. I have no interest other than that of seeing the concerns of my country well and happily administered. Rather than throw obstructions in the way of the President, I would precede him and pick out those, if I could, which might jostle him in his progress. I may be again reluctantly compelled to differ from him, but I will with the utmost sincerity assure the committee that I have formed no resolution, come under no engagements, and that I never will form any resolution, or contract any engagements, for systematic opposition to his administration, or to that of any other chief magistrate."
This might have been sufficient to disarm suspicion, had he not been believed to have an eye toward the presidency.
He arraigned General Jackson's conduct with dignity and a certain degree of moderation. He emphatically acquitted him of "any intention to violate the laws of his country, or the obligations of humanity." He declared himself far from wishing to intimate that "General Jackson cherished any design inimical to the liberties of the people." He believed the General's "intentions to be pure and patriotic." But he denounced the hanging of Indian chiefs without trial, "under color of retaliation," as utterly unjustifiable and disgraceful. He admitted retaliation as justifiable only when "calculated to produce an effect in the war," but never on the motive of mere vengeance. As to Arbuthnot and Ambrister, whether they were innocent or guilty, he utterly rejected the argument by which Jackson tried to justify their execution, namely, "that it is an established principle of the law of nations, that any individual of a nation, making war against the citizens of any other nation, they being at peace, forfeits his allegiance, and becomes an outlaw and a pirate." He maintained that, "whatever may be the character of individuals making private war, the principle is totally erroneous when applied to such individuals associated with a power, whether Indian or civilized, capable of maintaining the relations of peace or war." He showed that Jackson's doctrine would make every foreign subject serving in an American army an outlaw and a pirate; he might have cited La Fayette and Steuben. This was the moral he drew: —
"However guilty these men were, they should not have been condemned or executed without the authority of law. I will not dwell on the effect of these precedents in foreign countries, but I shall not pass unnoticed their dangerous influence in our own. Bad examples are generally set in the case of bad men, and often remote from the central government. It was in the provinces that were laid the seeds of the ambitious projects which overturned the liberties of Rome."
He affirmed that Jackson, going far beyond the spirit of his instructions, had not only assumed, by an unauthorized construction of his own, to determine what Spain was bound by treaty to do, but had "also assumed the power, belonging to Congress alone, of determining what should be the effect and consequence of her breach of engagement;" that then he had seized the Spanish forts and thus usurped the power of making war, which the Constitution had "expressly and exclusively" vested in Congress, "to guard our country against precisely that species of rashness which has been manifested in Florida." A glowing peroration followed, protesting against "the alarming doctrine of unlimited discretion in our military commanders," and pointing out how other free nations, from antiquity down, had lost their liberties, and how we might lose ours. "Are former services," he exclaimed, "however eminent, to preclude even inquiry into recent conduct? Is there to be no limit, no prudential bounds to the national gratitude? I hope gentlemen will deliberately survey the awful isthmus on which we stand. They may bear down all opposition; they may even vote the General the public thanks; they may carry him triumphantly through this House. But if they do so, it will be a triumph of the principle of insubordination, a triumph of the military over the civil authority, a triumph over the powers of this House, a triumph over the Constitution of the land. And I pray most devoutly to Heaven that it may not prove, in its ultimate effects and consequences, a triumph over the liberties of the people."
It was a fine speech and much admired; brilliant in diction; statesmanlike in reasoning; full of stirring appeals; also undoubtedly right in its general drift of argument. But it had some very weak points. Clay had again gone a little beyond what the occasion required; he had attacked, aside from Jackson's conduct in Florida, certain Indian treaties which Jackson had made, and this attack was based upon an imperfect knowledge of facts. Such flaws were exposed, and thus the impression was created that he had been rather quick in making his assault without having taken the trouble of thoroughly studying his case. In fact, he had not exactly measured the power which in this instance he had to deal with. It was the popularity of a victorious soldier.
A military "hero" has an immense advantage over ordinary mortals, especially in a country where the military hero is a rare character. The achievements of statesmen usually remain subject to differences of opinion. A victory on the field of battle won for the country is a title to public gratitude, seldom to be questioned by anybody. It is a matter of common pride. It lives in the imagination of the people. That imagination is apt to attribute to the hero of such a victory an abundance of other good qualities. His failings are judged with leniency. To many it appears almost sacrilegious to think that a man who has rendered his country service so valuable in the crisis of war should ever be able to act upon any but the most patriotic motives. It will require an extraordinary degree of wrong-doing on his part to make suspicion and criticism with regard to him acceptable to the popular mind; and even then he is apt to be easily forgiven.
General Jackson enjoyed this advantage in the highest degree. He had given the American people a brilliant victory when it was most needed to soothe the popular pride. Would he disgrace and endanger the Republic after having so magnificently fought for it? To convince the people, and to make Congress declare, that he had done so, would have required a very calm and careful presentation of the case, moving from point to point of the allegation, and proving every position with evidence so conclusive as to extort a verdict of guilty from ever so unwilling a jury. Even then the result would not have been certain. But any argument not absolutely irrefutable; any arraignment having in it the smallest flaw; any appeal proceeding in the slightest degree upon a mere assumption of fact, was sure to be drowned by a cry far more powerful than any oratorical declamation, — the battle of New Orleans. So it was in this instance. The hero of New Orleans could not have intended, he could not have done, any wrong. At any rate, he had full absolution for what he had done, perhaps also for what he might do in the future, and the resolutions disapproving his conduct were voted down by heavy majorities.
Thus was Henry Clay defeated in his first encounter with Andrew Jackson. The great duel had begun which was to embitter the best part of Clay's life. His war of 1812 had put the military hero into his way, and a military hero, too, of the most exasperating kind; a hero who would not be conciliated by a mere recognition of his good intentions; who demanded absolute compliance with his will, and who treated any one finding fault with him as little better than "an outlaw and a pirate;" a hero who not seldom made Clay almost despair of the Republic. The case was indeed not as desperate as Clay sometimes feared. Victorious generals begin to become really dangerous to republican institutions when a large portion of the people are tired of popular liberty. It is true, however, that their peculiarly privileged position before the popular mind may put those institutions at all times to temporary strain, and facilitate the establishment of precedents prolific of evil.
For the present General Jackson, "vindicated" by the House of Representatives, was received wherever he went with great enthusiasm, and was "thought of in connection with the presidency," not only as a hero, but as a persecuted hero. At the same time Clay's star seemed to be somewhat obscured. The impression that his disappointment with regard to the secretaryship of state had led him to make a factious opposition to the administration, had lowered him in the estimation of many men. This impression had become so general as to make his reasons for permitting now and then an administration measure to pass unchallenged a matter of gossiping speculation. A striking instance of this is found in Mr. Adams's Diary, where Mr. Middleton, of South Carolina, is introduced as telling the story, that Clay neglected to oppose a certain bill because "the last fortnight of the session Clay spent almost every night at the card table, and one night Poindexter had won of him eight thousand dollars. This discomposed him to such a degree that he paid no attention to the business of the House the remainder of the session. Before it closed, however, he had won back from Poindexter all that he had lost, except about nine hundred dollars." Whether this story in all its details was true or not, certain it is that Clay at that period spent far more time at the card table than was good for his reputation. Indeed, Nathan Sargent says in his recollections ("Public Men and Events"): "When a candidate for the presidency, Mr. Clay was denounced as a gambler. He was no more a gambler than was almost every Southern and Southwestern gentleman of that day. Play was a passion with them; it was a social enjoyment; they loved its excitement, and they played whenever and wherever they met; not for the purpose of winning money of one another, which is the gambler's motive, but for the pleasure it gave them. They bet high as a matter of pride and to give interest to the game." But Clay himself felt that his habits in that respect had been unfavorably noticed. Soon afterwards, in a speech in the House, he referred by way of illustration to games of chance, as "an amusement which in early life he had sometimes indulged in, but which years and experience had determined him to renounce." To a man of Clay's standing before the country there was a keen self-humiliation in a remark like this, and he would hardly have made it, had he not thought something like a promise of better conduct urgently called for. The promise referred, however, only to "games of chance," for whist seemed to maintain an almost irresistible charm over him, except in his own house at Ashland, where no card playing was allowed.
Clay's political standing was so much shaken that about the time of the opening of the sixteenth Congress, in December, 1819, several members of the House went to President Monroe to consult with him as to whether it would be advisable to displace Clay as Speaker. Adams says in his Diary that Monroe advised against it, partly because such a movement would increase Clay's importance, partly because Clay's course had injured his own influence more than that of the administration, and partly because, as there was no western man in the Cabinet, it was a matter of pride with that part of the country to have a western man in the Speaker's chair, and there was no western man of sufficient eminence to be put in competition with Clay. "In all this," wrote Adams, "I think the President has acted and spoken wisely." It was indeed wisely spoken, for, had a contest been made, it would after all have appeared that most of the members of the House, although they voted against Clay time and again in his opposition to the administration, were proud of the lustre his brilliant abilities shed upon the House, believed in his patriotism, and liked the gay, spirited, dashing Kentuckian as a man. So he was, on the first day of the session, December 6, 1819, reëlected Speaker virtually without opposition.
Before long he was up in arms against the administration again. After long and arduous negotiation, Mr. Adams had, in February, 1819, concluded a treaty with the Spanish Minister, which provided for the cession of the whole of Florida to this Republic, fixed the southwestern boundary line of the United States along the Sabine River (thus excluding Texas), expunged the claims of Spanish subjects against the United States, and provided that the United States, as a compensation for the cession of Florida, should undertake to settle the claims of American citizens against Spain to an amount not exceeding $5,000,000. The treaty was unanimously approved by the Senate; but the King of Spain, faithlessly it was thought, withheld his ratification of it, which ratification should have taken place within six months. This conduct produced an irritating effect in the United States. Many were in favor of treating the whole matter again as an open one. The proposition to take forcible possession of Florida was freely discussed and widely approved, and a bill to that effect was introduced in Congress. Then the news arrived that the Spanish government had sent a new minister. Under these circumstances Monroe addressed a special message to Congress, on March 27, 1820, mentioning the friendly interest taken in the matter by the great powers of Europe, — England, Russia, and France; expressing the hope that, in response to their solicitations, the King of Spain would soon ratify the treaty, and suggesting that Congress for the time being should postpone action on the matter.
This brought Clay to his feet. He took the ground that, as the King of Spain had not ratified it within the prescribed time, the whole treaty had fallen, and that it ought not to be renewed, mainly because it had, by accepting the Sabine as the southwestern boundary line, instead of insisting upon the Rio Grande del Norte, surrendered to Spain a large and valuable territory belonging to the United States, namely Texas. It had indeed been a disputed question whether the limits of Louisiana did not embrace Texas. If so, Texas belonged by purchase to the United States; if not, it was considered part of the Spanish American territory. Adams, in making his treaty, had only reluctantly given up the line of the Rio Grande del Norte, and accepted that of the Sabine; he might have carried his point, had not Monroe, with the concurrence of the rest of the Cabinet, desired the Sabine as a boundary for peculiar reasons. In a letter to General Jackson he said: "Having long known the repugnance with which the eastern portion of our Union have seen its aggrandizement to the West and South, I have been decidedly of opinion that we ought to be content with Florida for the present." It was, therefore, in deference to what Monroe understood to be northeastern sentiment that Texas was given up, and it was the abandonment of Texas which Clay put forward as a decisive reason for not renewing the Spanish treaty.
He introduced two resolutions in the House: one asserting that no treaty making a cession of territory was valid without the concurrence of Congress; and the other, substantially, that the cession of Florida to the United States was not an "adequate equivalent" for the "transfer" of Texas by the United States to Spain. In support of these resolutions he made a fiery speech, fiercely castigating the administration for truckling to foreign powers, and extolling the value of Texas, which he stoutly assumed to belong to the United States under the Louisiana purchase. Texas was, in his opinion, much more valuable than Florida. Even if the treaty were not renewed, Florida would surely drop into our lap at last, but Texas might escape us. Lowndes answered, as to the first resolution, that, if the principle asserted by Clay were admitted in its whole breadth, the treaty-making power under the Constitution (the President and the Senate) would no longer have authority to make a treaty for a boundary rectification, which almost always involved a cession of territory on one side or the other; and, as to the second resolution, that Texas had always been considered by the United States as a debatable territory, and it had been given up as such, not as a territory clearly belonging to this Republic.
Clay's resolutions failed. The King of Spain finally ratified the treaty, the Senate reaffirmed it by all except four votes, and it was proclaimed by Monroe, February 22, 1821. But Clay had made his mark as maintaining the right of the United States to Texas. How little could he then foresee what a fateful part the acquisition of Texas was to play twenty-four years later in his public career!
The miscarriage of his opposition to the Spanish treaty did not deter him from renewing his efforts for the South American colonies. On May 20, 1820, he spoke to a resolution he had moved, declaring it expedient to provide outfits and salaries for a minister or ministers to be sent to "any of the governments in South America which have established and are maintaining their independence of Spain." His attacks became more virulent. For instance: "If Lord Castlereagh says we may recognize, we do; if not, we do not. A single expression of the British Minister to the present Secretary of State, then our minister abroad, I am ashamed to say, has moulded the policy of our government toward South America." In the same speech he furnished a picture of the character of the South American people and their future relations with the people of the United States, as his imagination painted it. "That country has now a population of eighteen millions. The same activity in the principle of population would exist in that country as here. Twenty-five years hence, it might be estimated at thirty-six millions; fifty years hence at seventy-two. We have now a population of ten millions. From the character of our population we must always take the lead in commerce and manufactures. Imagine the vast power of the two countries, and the value of the intercourse between them, when we shall have a population of forty, and they of seventy millions!" The fifty years are over, and we have had ample opportunity to appreciate this forecast. As to their political capabilities, too, he entertained glowing expectations. "Some gentlemen," he said, "had intimated that the people of the South were unfit for freedom. In some particulars, he ventured to say, the people of South America were in advance of us. Grenada, Venezuela, and Buenos Ayres had all emancipated their slaves; — [recollecting himself] he did not say that we ought to do so, or that they ought to have done so under different circumstances, but he rejoiced that the circumstances were such as to permit them to do it."
His resolution passed by 80 yeas to 75 nays, but the administration, which was then still occupied with the Spanish treaty, did not stir. Clay returned to the charge in February, 1821, when he moved directly an appropriation for the sending of a minister or ministers to South America, which was defeated by a small majority, owing probably to the arrival at that time of the ratification of the Spanish treaty by the king. But, nothing daunted, he was up again shortly afterwards with a resolution "that the House of Representatives participates with the people of the United States in the deep interest which they feel for the Spanish provinces of South America, which are struggling to establish their liberty and independence, and that it will give its constitutional support to the President of the United States whenever he may deem it expedient to recognize the sovereignty and independence of any of the said provinces." This resolution, being mainly a declaration of mere sentiment, passed, the first clause by 134 yeas to 12 nays, and the second by 87 to 68. A committee was appointed, at the head of which was Clay himself, to present this resolution to the President. Still the administration would not move until a year later, when the ability of the South American republics to maintain their independence was as a matter of fact beyond reasonable doubt. On March 8, 1822, Monroe sent a message to Congress recommending the recognition of the independent South American governments, which was promptly responded to.
Clay's efforts in behalf of this cause gave him great renown in South America. Some of his speeches were translated into Spanish and read at the head of the revolutionary armies. His name was a household word among the patriots. In the United States, too, his fervid appeals in behalf of an oppressed people fighting for their liberty awakened the memories of the North American war for independence, and called forth strong emotions of sympathy. There is no doubt that those appeals were on his part not a mere manœuvre of opposition, but came straight from his generous impulses. The idea of the whole American continent being occupied by a great family of republics naturally flattered his imagination. That imagination supplied the struggling brethren with all the excellent qualities he desired them to possess, and his chivalrous nature was impatient to rush to their aid. This tendency was reinforced by his general aptness to take a somewhat superficial view of things, and, as is often the case with men of the oratorical temperament, to persuade himself with the gorgeous flow of his own rhetoric. That his own thoughts appear to him originally in the seductive garb of sonorous phrase, is a source of serious danger to the oratorical statesman. The influence which his embittered feeling towards the administration had on Clay's conduct, was simply to make him more inaccessible to the prudential reasons which the administration had for its dilatory policy. There was indeed a fundamental difference of views between them. The administration had the Spanish treaty much at heart, and would not permit the recognition of the Spanish American republics to complicate that transaction. Clay wanted his country to possess all it could obtain, and as he thought that Florida would some time drop into the lap of the United States in any event, and as the Spanish treaty relinquished the claim to Texas, it was from his point of view the correct thing to hasten the recognition of the South American republics and thereby to defeat the Spanish treaty.
There was also a great difference of opinion as to the character of the South American revolution. Adams gives in his Diary an account of an interview between him and Clay in March, 1821, at which an interesting conversation took place.
"I regretted (he wrote) the difference between his [Clay's] views and those of the administration upon South American affairs. That the final issue of their present struggle would be their entire independence of Spain I had never doubted. That it was our true policy and duty to take no part in the contest was equally clear. The principle of neutrality in all foreign wars was, in my opinion, fundamental to the continuance of our liberties and our Union. So far as they were contending for independence I wished well to their cause; but I had seen, and yet see, no prospect that they would establish free or liberal institutions of government. They are not likely to promote the spirit either of freedom or order by their example. They have not the first elements of free or good government. Arbitrary power, military and ecclesiastical, was stamped upon their education, upon their habits, and upon all their institutions. Civil dissension was infused into all their seminal principles. War and mutual destruction was in every member of their organization, moral, political, and physical. I had little expectation of any beneficial result to this country from any future connection with them, political or commercial. We should derive no improvement to our own institutions by any communion with theirs. Nor was there any appearance of any disposition in them to take any political lesson from us. As to the commercial connection, there was no basis for much traffic between us. They want none of our productions, and we could afford to purchase very few of theirs. Of these opinions, both his and mine, time must be the test."
This kind of reasoning appeared painfully cold by the side of Clay's glowing periods. But it must be confessed that Adams's prognostications have in the main stood the test of time far better than Clay's. It seems that Clay then did not command sufficient information to answer such arguments, for we find it recorded that when Adams had finished his lecture, Clay "did not pursue the discussion." Neither would he, at that moment, have believed the prediction, if anybody had made it, that only four years later he and Adams, as members of the same administration, would bear a common responsibility and suffer the same reproach for a common policy friendly to the Spanish American republics.
At any rate a popular vein had been struck by his speeches in behalf of a foreign people. But he strengthened his reputation and political standing more substantially by his efforts to avert a danger which threatened the disruption of his own country.