Life of Henry Clay/09 Candidate for the Presidency
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Chapter IX. Candidate for the Presidency.
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CANDIDATE FOR THE PRESIDENCY.
Clay's retirement was not of long duration. The people of Kentucky were then passing through the last stages of a confused excitement caused by a popular delusion that riches can be created and happiness acquired by a plentiful issue of paper money and an artificial inflation of prices. The consequence was what it always is. The more plenty the paper money became, the more people ran into debt. They then sought "relief" by legislative contrivances in favor of debtors, which caused a political division into the "relief" and the "anti-relief" parties. The "relief measures" came before the highest state court, which declared them unconstitutional; whereupon the court was abolished and a new one created, and this brought forth the "old court" and the "new court" parties in Kentucky. The whole story is told with admirable clearness in Professor Sumner's biography of Andrew Jackson. In these fierce controversies, Clay took position as an advocate of good sense, honesty, and sound principles of finance, sometimes against a current of popular feeling which seemed to be overwhelming. He made enemies in that way from whom he was to hear in later years; but, on the whole, his popularity weathered the storm. Without opposition, he was elected to represent his faithful Lexington district in the House of Representatives of the eighteenth Congress, which met on the first Monday in December, 1823. During his absence from the House there had been contest enough about the speakership. But as soon as he appeared again, an overwhelming majority of the members gathered around him, and he was elected Speaker by 139 to 42, the minority voting for Philip P. Barbour of Virginia, who had been Speaker during the seventeenth Congress.
This was the session preceding the presidential election of 1824, and Clay was a confessed candidate for the succession to Monroe. His friends in Kentucky — or, as many would have it, the people of Kentucky — were warm and loud in their advocacy of his "claims." His achievement as "the great pacificator" had much increased his popularity in other states. His conduct in the House was likely to have some effect upon his chances, and to be observed with extraordinary interest. The first thing he did was to take the unpopular side of a question appealing in an unusual degree to patriotic emotion and human sympathy. He opposed a bill granting a pension to the mother of Commodore Perry, the hero of Lake Erie. The death of her illustrious son had left the old matron in needy circumstances. The debate ran largely upon the great services rendered to the country by Commodore Perry in the days of great public danger and distress; and, by way of contrast, on the sorrows and cares of the bereft mother. The eloquence expended upon these points had been formidable, threatening with the contempt of the American people those who dared to "go back to their constituents" to tell them "that they had turned from their door, in the evening of a long life, the aged and venerable mother of the gallant Perry, and doomed her to the charity of the world." It looked like a serious matter for any presidential candidate who naturally desired to be popular with people of tender sensibilities and patriotic feelings, and who had also to look after the soldier and sailor vote. Of this aspect of the case, however, Clay did not seem to think. He calmly argued that this case, however great the sympathy it deserved, did not fall within the principles of the pension laws, since Commodore Perry had not died of injuries received in the service; that the principle of the law had already been overstepped in granting a pension to his widow and children; that there must be a limit to gratitude at the public expense for military and naval service; that he saw no reason why the services of the warrior should be held in so much higher esteem than the sometimes even more valuable services of the civil officer of the Republic, and so on. His apprehension concerning the superiority in popular favor of military glory over civil merit, he was to find strikingly confirmed by his own experience. Evidently this candidate for the presidency still had opinions of his own and courage to express them. It was not by the small tricks of the demagogue, but rather by a strong advocacy of the policies he believed in, that he hoped to commend himself to the confidence of the people. So we find him soon engaged in a hot debate on internal improvements.
In May, 1822, Monroe had vetoed a bill to establish tollgates on the Cumberland Road, and on the same occasion submitted to Congress an elaborate statement supporting his belief that the practical execution of works of internal improvement by the general government was unwarranted by the Constitution, admitting however the power of Congress under the Constitution to grant and appropriate money in aid of works of internal improvement to be executed by others. In January, 1824, a bill was reported authorizing the President to cause the necessary surveys, plans, and estimates to be made for such a system of roads and canals as he might deem of national importance in a postal, commercial, or military point of view. For this purpose the bill proposed an appropriation of $30,000. The debate turned mainly on the point of constitutional power, and in his most dashing style Clay attacked Monroe's constitutional doctrines, stopping but little short of ridicule, and pronounced himself again in favor of the most liberal construction of the fundamental law. In the power "to establish" post roads, he easily found the power to build roads and to keep them in repair. The power to "regulate commerce among the several states" had to his mind little meaning, if it did not imply "authority to foster" inter-state commerce, "to promote it, to bestow on it facilities similar to those which had been conceded to our foreign trade." To him, this involved unquestionably the power to build canals. "All the powers of this government," he argued, "should be interpreted in reference to its first, its best, its greatest object, the Union of these states. And is not that Union best invigorated by an intimate social and commercial connection between all the parts of the confederacy?" He described the unsatisfied needs of the great West in stirring terms, and then opened once more that glorious perspective of the great ocean-bound Republic which his ardent mind was so fond of contemplating. "Sir," he exclaimed, "it is a subject of peculiar delight to me to look forward to the proud and happy period, distant as it may be, when circulation and association between the Atlantic and the Pacific and the Mexican Gulf shall be as free and perfect as they are at this moment in England, and in any other, the most highly improved country on the globe. Sir, a new world has come into being since the Constitution was adopted. Are the narrow, limited necessities of the old thirteen States, indeed of parts only of the old thirteen States as they existed at the formation of the Constitution, forever to remain a rule of its interpretation? Are we to forget the wants of our country? Are we to neglect and refuse the redemption of that vast wilderness which once stretched unbroken beyond the Alleghany? I hope for better and nobler things!"
These were captivating appeals, but they involved the largest of latitudinarian doctrines, — namely, that the powers granted by the Constitution must grow with the size of the country. The bill passed the House by a handsome majority; it passed the Senate too, and Monroe signed it on the ground that it provided merely for the collection of information. It resulted in nothing beyond the making of surveys for some roads and canals. However, Clay had on the occasion of this debate not only put the internal-improvement part of his programme once more in the strongest form before Congress and the people, but he had also managed to revive the memory of his opposition to the Monroe administration.
Next came a plunge into the domain of foreign politics. The rising of the Greeks against the Turks was at that time occupying the attention of civilized mankind. The Philhellenic fever, fed partly by a genuine sympathy with a nation fighting for its freedom, partly by a classical interest in the country of Leonidas, Phidias, and Plato, swept over all Europe and America alike. In the United States meetings were held, speeches made, and resolutions passed, boiling over with enthusiasm for the struggling Greeks. It is curious to find even the cool-headed Gallatin, at that period Minister of the United States in Paris, proposing in a despatch ("as if he was serious," writes Adams) that the government of the United States should assist the Greeks with its naval force then in the Mediterranean. Monroe expressed his sympathy with the Greeks in his message; and Daniel Webster, in January, 1824, in the House of Representatives presented a resolution to provide for the sending of an agent or commissioner to Greece, whenever the President should find it expedient. This resolution he introduced by a speech not only eulogizing the Greek cause, but also gravely and elaborately arraigning the "Holy Alliance" as a league of despotic governments against all popular aspirations towards constitutional liberty.
A nation fighting for its freedom naturally called Clay to the front. He not only supported Webster's motion, but remembering that the "Holy Alliance," while it hung like a dark cloud over Europe, also threatened to cast its shadow upon these shores, he flung down the gauntlet by offering a resolution of his own to be called up at some future time. It declared that the American people "would not see without serious inquietude any forcible interposition of the allied powers of Europe in behalf of Spain, to reduce to their former subjection those parts of America which have proclaimed and established for themselves, respectively, independent governments, and which have been solemnly recognized by the United States."
This was essentially in the spirit of the utterances which had appeared at the opening of the session in Monroe's message to Congress, and which have since become celebrated as the Monroe doctrine. The message had been even a little stronger in language. Referring to the difference existing between the political system of the "allied powers" in Europe, and that of the American republics, it declared that "we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." Further, with regard to schemes supposed to be contemplated by the allied powers, for interfering with the independence of the newly established Spanish American republics, it said that the American people could not view such interposition "in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States." Here, then, Clay found himself in thorough accord with the Monroe administration, whose master spirit in all that concerned foreign affairs was John Quincy Adams. Moreover, although his resolution did not touch it, Clay certainly agreed with the other point of the Monroe doctrine, "that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European power."
But when he thrust his resolution into the de bate on the Greek question, though with no intention of having it discussed immediately, there was an evident flutter in the House. It was darkly, shyly hinted at in several speeches as something "extraordinary," something peculiarly calculated to involve the United States in dangerous complications with foreign powers. The consequence was that Clay, irritated, broke out with a speech full of fire but rather loose in argument. He predicted that a "tremendous storm was ready to burst upon our happy country," meaning a design on the part of the "Holy Alliance" to subvert free institutions in America; he denounced as "low and debased" those who did not "dare" to express their sympathies with suffering Greece; and finally he defied them to go home, if they "dared," to their constituents, to tell them that their representatives had "shrunk from the declaration of their own sentiments," just as he had been "dared" when opposing the pension to Commodore Perry's mother.
Some members of the House resented such language, and a bitter altercation followed, especially undesirable in the case of a candidate for the presidency. Indeed, ambitious statesmen gifted with oratorical temperaments, whose perorations are apt to run away with their judgment, may study this debate with profit, to observe some things which it is well to avoid. Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, at the time one of Clay's most ardent friends and backers for the presidency, dolefully remarked after this debate that "Clay was the most imprudent man in the world."
The resolution on the Greek cause was never acted upon, and Clay's resolution concerning the Spanish American republics never called up. We shall see him return to that subject as the head of the department of foreign affairs in the government of the United States.
Clay's most important oratorical effort at this session, and indeed one of the most important of his life, was brought forth by a debate on the tariff. The country had gone through trying experiences during the last eight years. As we remember, the tariff of 1816 had been enacted to ward off the flood of cheap English goods which, immediately after the close of the war of 1812, were pouring into the country and underselling American fabrics. That object, however, was not accomplished, except in the case of cheap cotton goods, which had the advantage of a "minimum" provision: that all cotton fabrics invoiced at less than twenty-five cents should be taken to have cost that price at the place of exportation, and should be taxed accordingly. The tariff did not prevent the reaction naturally following the abnormally stimulated business and the inflated values of war times. When prices rose, people ran into debt in the hope of a still greater rise. Those who made money became accustomed to more expensive living. With the return of peace, the expenditures of the government were contracted. There was less demand for breadstuffs. Then came currency troubles. The return to specie payments in England, and the raising of the French indemnity, created an unusual demand for the precious metals in Europe, which rendered more difficult the reëstablishment of specie payments in America. The notes of the state banks outside of New England were depreciated, and these banks resisted the efforts of the Bank of the United States toward general resumption. A great tightness of money ensued. Times became pinching. Prices went down. A crisis broke out in 1819. Many business failures followed. The necessity of returning to more frugal ways of living was painfully felt. "Cheap money" theories sprung up. The distress was greatest where the local bank currency was most uncertain in its value. The manufacturing interest suffered heavily, but the difficulties under which it labored were only a part of those troubles always occurring when the business enterprise of a country has, by abnormal circumstances or artificial means, been overstimulated in certain directions, and then has to accommodate itself to entirely different conditions. The process of natural recuperation had, however, already begun, and that too on a solid basis, after the elimination of the unsound elements of business. But the cry for "relief" was still kept up, and a demand for "more protection" arose.
In 1818 the duty on iron was raised. In 1820 an attempt was made, and supported by Clay in an eloquent speech, for a general revision of the tariff, with a view to higher rates. The bill passed the House, but failed in the Senate. Now, in January, 1824, the Committee on Manufactures reported to the House a bill which, in the way of protecting the manufacturing industries, was to accomplish what the tariff of 1816 had so signally failed to do. The duties proposed were: 1, on articles the importation of which would not interfere with home manufactures, such as silks, linens, cutlery, spices, and some others, these being mere revenue duties; and 2, on iron, hemp, glass, lead, wool and woolen goods, cotton goods, etc., these being high protective duties.
Clay soon assumed the championship of the bill in committee of the whole. The debate began with a skirmish on details; but then the friends of the bill forced a discussion on its general principles, which lasted two months. This gave Clay one of his great opportunities. He was now no longer the Kentucky farmer pleading for hemp and homespun, nor the cautious citizen anxious to have his country make its own clothes and blankets in time of war. He had developed into the full-blown protectionist, intent upon using the power of the government, so far as it would go, to multiply and foster manufactures, not with commerce, but rather in preference to commerce. His speech, one of the most elaborate and effective he ever made, presented in brilliant array the arguments which were current among high-tariff men then, and which remain so still. He opened with a harrowing description of the prevailing distress, and among the most significant symptoms of the dreadful condition of things he counted "the ravenous pursuit after public situations, not for the sake of their honors and the performance of their public duties, but as a means of private subsistence." "The pulse of incumbents," he said in his picturesque style, "who happen to be taken ill, is not marked with more anxiety by the attending physicians than by those who desire to succeed them, though with very opposite feelings." (To "make room" for one man simply by removing another was at that time not yet readily thought of.) The cause of the prevailing distress he found in the dependence of this country on the foreign market, which was at the mercy of foreign interests, and which might for an indefinite time be unable to absorb our surplus of agricultural products; and in too great a dependence on foreign sources of supply. It seemed to him necessary to provide a home market for our products, the superiority of which would consist in its greater steadiness, in the creation of reciprocal interests, in greater security, and in an ultimate increase of consumption, and consequently of comfort, owing to an increased quantity of the product, and a reduction of prices by home competition. To this end the development of manufacturing industries was required, which could not be accomplished without high protective, in some cases not without prohibitory, tariff duties. No country had ever flourished without such a policy, and England especially was a shining example of its wisdom. British statesmanship had therefore strictly adhered to it. A member of Parliament remonstrating against the passage of the corn-laws in favor of foreign production would, he thought, make a poor figure.
This policy Clay now christened "the American system." The opposite policy he denounced as "the foreign policy." He then reviewed elaborately one after another the objections urged against the "American system," and closed with a glowing appeal to the people of the planting states to submit to the temporary loss which this policy would bring upon them, since that loss would be small in comparison with the distress which the rest of the country would suffer without it.
This speech on the "American system" exhibited conspicuously Clay's strong as well as his weak points: his skill of statement; his ingenuity in the grouping of facts and principles; his plausibility of reasoning; his brilliant imagination; the fervor of his diction; the warm patriotic tone of his appeals: and on the other hand, his superficial research; his habit of satisfying himself with half-knowledge; his disinclination to reason out propositions logically in all their consequences. We find there statements like this: —
"The measure of the wealth of a nation is indicated by the measure of its protection of its industry. Great Britain most protects her industry, and the wealth of Great Britain is consequently the greatest. France is next in the degree of protection, and France is next in the order of wealth. Spain most neglects the duty of protecting the industry of her subjects, and Spain is one of the poorest of European nations. Unfortunate Ireland, disinherited, or rendered in her industry subservient to England, is exactly in the same state of poverty with Spain, measured by the rule of taxation. And the United States are still poorer than either."
And this still more startling remark: —
"No man pays the duty assessed on the foreign article by compulsion, but voluntarily; and this voluntary duty, if paid, goes into the common exchequer, for the common benefit of all. Consumption has four objects of choice: First, it may abstain from the use of the foreign article, and thus avoid the payment of the tax; second, it may employ the rival American fabric; third, it may engage in the business of manufacturing, which this bill is designed to foster; fourth, it may supply itself from the household manufactures."
By the side of this amazing revelation of the means by which the consumer can for himself neutralize the effects of a high tariff, we find strikingly wise sayings, which, however, sometimes fit economic theories different from his own. He observed, for instance, that: —
"The great desideratum in political economy is the same as in private pursuits; that is, what is the best application of the aggregate industry of a nation that can be made honestly to produce the largest sum of national wealth?"
Notwithstanding its weak points the speech made a great impression. The immediate effect may be judged from the extent to which it monopolized the attention of speakers on the other side. Among these stood forth as the strongest Daniel Webster. A remarkable contrast it was when, against the flashing oratory of the gay, spirited Kentuckian, there rose up the dark-browed New Englander with his slow, well-measured, massive utterances. These two speeches together are as interesting an economic study as can be found in our parliamentary history. The student can scarcely fail to be struck with Webster's superiority in keenness of analysis, in logical reasoning, in extent and accuracy of knowledge, in reach of thought and mastery of fundamental principles. Not only the calm precision with which Webster's speech exposed some of Clay's reckless statements and conclusions, but the bright flashes of light which it threw upon a variety of important economic questions, — such as the relation of currency to the production of wealth, the balance of trade, the principles of exchange, the necessary limits of protection, — give it a high and lasting value in our literature. It is a remarkable fact that Webster although four years afterwards he became an advocate of high tariffs on the ground that New England had taken protection as the settled policy of the country, had therefore engaged its capital in manufactures, and should not be left in the lurch — never could deny or reason away the principles laid down in his great argument of 1824. It stands to-day as his strongest utterance upon economic subjects.
But Clay carried the day. After a long struggle the tariff bill passed the House by a majority of five, and after being slightly amended was also passed in the Senate by a majority of four. The vote in the House was significant in its geographical distribution. It was thus classed by Niles: The "navigating and fishing states" of New England — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine — gave twenty-two votes against and only three for the bill. Of the "manufacturing states," Rhode Island and Connecticut, seven votes went for and one against it. Of the "grain-growing states," Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, ninety-two votes were given for and nine against it. The "tobacco-planting and grain-growing state" of Maryland gave six against and three for it. The "cotton and grain growing state," Tennessee, gave seven against and two for it. The "tobacco and cotton planting states," Virginia. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama, threw fifty-four votes against and one for it. All the three votes of the "sugar and cotton planting state," Louisiana, went against it. Since the time when Calhoun had eloquently argued for the fostering of manufacturing industries and internal improvements, a significant change had taken place in the current of Southern sentiment. The planting interest, most closely identified with slavery, began to present an almost solid front not only against the tariff, but against everything not in harmony with its system of labor. Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire opposed the tariff because it would be injurious to commerce. But they soon accommodated themselves to it. It was a combination of the grain-growing with the manufacturing interest, the idea of the "home market," that carried the day.
Clay achieved a great triumph for himself. He had not only far outshone all others by his championship of the successful measure, but he had given to the protective policy a new name, the "American system," which became inseparably identified with his own. This appellation was indeed not without its ludicrous side, which Webster did not fail promptly to perceive and to exhibit with keen sarcasm. "If names are thought necessary," said he, "it would be well enough, one would think, that the name should be in some measure descriptive of the thing: and since Mr. Speaker denominates the policy which he recommends, 'a new policy in this country;' since he speaks of the present measure as a new era in our legislation; since he professes to invite us to depart from our accustomed course, to instruct ourselves by the wisdom of others, and to adopt the policy of the most distinguished foreign states, — one is a little curious to know with what propriety of speech this imitation of other nations is denominated an 'American policy,' while, on the contrary, a preference for our own established system, as it now actually exists and always has existed, is called a 'foreign policy.' This favorite American policy is what America has never tried; and this odious foreign policy is what, as we are told, foreign states have never pursued." But although the "American system" had nothing peculiarly American about it, the name was adroitly chosen and served its purpose. It proved a well-sounding cry which to many minds was as good as an argument.
Thus Clay had put his opinions on internal improvements, on the tariff, and on the foreign policy of the country, as conspicuously as possible before the people; his platform left nothing to desire as to completeness and precision. He was ready for the presidential campaign.
The "era of good feeling" under Monroe left the country without national parties; for when there is only one, there is practically none. The Federal party had disappeared as a national organization; it had only a local existence. There were differences of opinion on matters of public interest within the Republican party — about the tariff, for instance, and about internal improvements, which had some effect in the campaign, but which did not yet produce well-defined and lasting divisions. The violent and threatening excitement on slavery called forth by the Missouri trouble had come and gone like a thunderstorm. In the planting states the question was sometimes quietly asked, when a public man was discussed, whether he had been for or against "slavery restriction;" but in the rest of the country the antagonists of an hour had, after the compromise was passed, silently agreed to say no more about it, — at least for the time being. Under these circumstances the personal question became the most important one. Hitherto candidates for the presidency had been formally nominated by the party caucus of members of Congress. But in the course of time the Congressional caucus had become odious, there being a popular impression that it was too much subject to intrigue. Recommendations of candidates had always been made by state legislatures, or even by meetings of citizens, but they had been looked upon merely as more or less respectable demonstrations of public sentiment. These, however, as the Congressional caucus fell into discredit, gained in importance. National conventions of political parties had not yet been invented. A suggestion to call one was made in Pennsylvania, but it remained unheeded. In the breaking up of old political habits, the traditional notion that the secretaryship of state should be regarded as the stepping stone to the presidency, had also become very much weakened. There opened itself, then, a free field for what might irreverently be called a "scramble."
The consequence was that no less than six candidates for the presidency presented themselves to the people: Crawford of Georgia, Jackson of Tennessee, Adams of Massachusetts, Clay of Kentucky, Calhoun of South Carolina, and Clinton of New York. The two last named were soon withdrawn. All belonged to the ruling party. Crawford was Secretary of the Treasury. He was a man of imposing presence. He had filled several public stations of importance creditably enough, but in none of them had he rendered services so eminent as to entitle him to rank among the first order of statesmen. Still he had managed to pass in those days as a great man. His was that temporary sort of greatness which appears in history as the reputation of a reputation. He had much of the intriguing politician in him. He was strongly and not unjustly suspected of manipulating the patronage of his department for his own political benefit. It was he who in 1820 had caused the four-years-term law to be enacted, — that law which has done so much to develop the "spoils system." He insisted upon holding a "regular" Congressional caucus, having made his arrangements to control it. It was accordingly called to meet on February 14, 1824; but of two hundred and sixteen Republicans, only sixty-six appeared, and two more sent their proxies. Of these sixty-eight votes, Crawford received sixty-four. Thus he had the "regular" nomination; but as it had been made only by a majority of a minority, all but his friends having refused to attend the caucus, it lacked authoritative weight. Moreover, his health was seriously impaired by a paralytic attack, which naturally injured him much as a candidate.
The candidacy of General Andrew Jackson was an innovation in American politics. From Washington down, no man had been elected to the presidency, nor indeed been a candidate for it, who had not grown up to eminence in civil station. Every President had been known as a statesman. Now, for the first time, a candidate was presented for the highest office whose reputation had been won entirely on a different field. General Jackson had indeed held civil positions. As a young man of thirty, he had for a short time represented Tennessee in Congress. But there he had shown no sign of capacity as a legislator, and had attracted attention in debate, as Jefferson said, only because "he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings," for as often as he attempted it he would "choke with rage." Next he had become a judge, but nothing was heard of his decisions. It was only as a soldier that he won brilliant successes, and in the field indeed achieved great renown by his energy, his intrepid spirit, and the natural gift of command. But whenever the general had to exercise any function of authority beyond the handling of troops on the march or in action, he distinguished himself by an impatience of restraint, a reckless disregard of the laws, an uncontrollable violence of temper, and a daring assumption of power, not seldom seriously compromising the character as well as the peace of the country. His private life too, while it was that of a man of integrity and generous impulses, abounded in tumultuous broils and bloody encounters. Thus his military achievements had given him his only prestige, while at the same time he had shown in their strongest development those qualities sometimes found in the successful man of war, which render him peculiarly unfit for responsible position and the delicate tasks of statesmanship in time of peace.
But his candidacy, although a complete abandonment of the good old tradition and made possible only by the battle of New Orleans, was "worked up" with consummate skill by one of his friends in Tennessee, Major Lewis, who thus earned a place in the very front rank of political managers. Some letters deprecating the spirit of partisan proscription in filling public offices, which General Jackson had written to Monroe years before, were brought before the public to propitiate the remnants of the Federal party. He was made to write another letter, to Dr. L. H. Coleman, pronouncing in a vague way in favor of a protective tariff. In order to keep a man of ability and character, but unfriendly to him, out of the Senate of the United States, and also to give the General an opportunity to renew friendly relations with public men with whom he had quarreled, Jackson himself was elected a senator from Tennessee, and took his seat in December, 1823. The Tennessee legislature had expressed its preference for him as a candidate for the presidency in 1822. A convention of Federalists at Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, a state in which the Federalists still maintained an organization, likewise nominated him in February, 1824, and a month later a Democratic convention at the same place followed their example. Thus Jackson was fairly started as a "man of the people," and presently many began to see in him not only the greatest military hero in history, but also a political sage.
The candidate who most completely answered the traditional requirements was unquestionably John Quincy Adams, the candidate of New England. He had been longest in public duty. He had won eminence by conspicuous service. His experience and knowledge as a statesman were unexcelled by any American of his time. His private life was spotless, and his public character above reproach. Austere, cold and distant in his manners, he lacked altogether those qualities which "make friends." He was the embodied sense of duty, commanding respect but not kindling affection. Although full of ambition to be President, he would owe his elevation solely to the recognition of his merits. His election was to signify the popular approval of his public conduct. He would not "work" to obtain it, nor countenance his friends in "working" for him. He would gratefully and proudly take the presidency from the hands of the people, but not be obliged to any person for procuring it. A letter which he wrote in reply to a suggestion that he should ask and encourage others to promote his interests as a candidate, portrays his ideal of public virtue: —
"Detur digniori is the inscription upon the prize, The principle of the Constitution in its purity is, that the duty shall be assigned to the most able and the most worthy. Politicians and newspapers may bestir themselves to point out who that is; and the only question between us is, whether it be consistent with the duties of a citizen, who is supposed to desire that the choice should fall upon himself, to assist, countenance, and encourage those who are disposed to befriend him in the pursuit. The law of friendship is a reciprocation of good offices. He who asks or accepts the offer of friendly service contracts the obligation of meeting it with a suitable return. If he seeks or accepts the aid of one, he must ask or accept the aid of multitudes. Between the principle of which much has been said in the newspapers, that a President of the United States must remember those to whom he owes his elevation, and the principle of accepting no aid on the score of friendship or personal kindness to him, there is no alternative. The former, as it has been announced and urged, I deem to be essentially and vitally corrupt. The latter is the only principle to which no exception can be taken."
This principle he not only professed, but he acted upon it. Compared with what the political usages of our days have accustomed us to consider admissible, such a principle may appear to be an exaggerated refinement of feeling, fitted only for an ideal state of society. It may be said that a statesman so conscientious will throw away his chance of rising into power, and thus set narrow limits to his own usefulness. But, after all, a conscientious public man, in order to remain perfectly true to his public duty, will either have to accept the principle insisted upon by John Quincy Adams, or at least he must make the friends, who promote his interests, clearly understand that there may be circumstances under which he will consider it a virtue to forget the obligations of friendship, and that, whenever the public interest demands it, he will always have the courage of ingratitude.
Clay was first nominated as a candidate for the presidency by the members of the Kentucky legislature in November, 1822. Similar demonstrations followed in Louisiana, Missouri, and Ohio. Of his anxiety to be elected President he made no secret. He conducted a large correspondence with friends all over the country, from whom he received reports, and to whom he sent his suggestions in return. One of his most active canvassers was Thomas H. Benton, who represented the young State of Missouri in the Senate. Benton travelled through Tennessee, Ohio, and Missouri advocating Clay's interest and reporting progress from time to time. Before long we shall find these two men engaged in a very different sort of conversation. A part of Clay's correspondence about the canvass with General Peter B. Porter and W. B. Rochester of New York, Senator J. S. Johnston of Louisiana, and his old friend Francis Brooke of Virginia, is still preserved. It reveals a very warm and active interest on his part in the conduct of his campaign — sometimes quite urgent as to things to be done. He was very much chagrined not to see a vigorous movement in his favor in Virginia, his native state, and he pressed his friends repeatedly, with evident impatience, to take some demonstrative step. Thus he did not, as a candidate for the presidency, adopt the lofty standard of John Quincy Adams's principles for the guidance of his conduct. He did accept and encourage the aid of friends, and was quite active in spurring and directing their zeal. But beyond that he did not go. He kept rigidly clear of promises and bargains. As early as January 31, 1823, he wrote to Francis Brooke: —
"On one resolution my friends may rest assured I will firmly rely, and that is, to participate in no intrigues, to enter into no arrangements, to make no promises or pledges; but that, whether I am elected or not, I will have nothing to reproach myself with. If elected I will go into the office with a pure conscience, to promote with my utmost exertions the common good of our country, and free to select the most able and faithful public servants. If not elected, acquiescing most cheerfully in the better selection which will thus have been made, I will at least have the satisfaction of preserving my honor unsullied and my heart uncorrupted."
And when in the heat of the canvass a proposition was made to him which looked like a bargain, he wrote (to J. S. Johnston, June 15, 1824): —
"If the communication from Mr. —— is to be considered in the nature of an overture, there can be but one answer given. I can make no promises of office of any sort, to any one, upon any condition whatever. Whatever support shall be given to me must be spontaneous and unsought."
When in the course of the campaign Martin Van Buren, then a leading manager for Crawford, becoming alarmed at the unexpected strength of the Jackson movement, caused Clay to be approached with the suggestion of a coalition between the Crawford and Clay forces to make Crawford President and Clay Vice-President, Clay replied that he was resolved neither to offer nor to accept any arrangement with regard to himself or to office for others, and that he would not decline the Vice-Presidency, provided it were offered to him "by the public having the right to tender it." Neither can it be said that Clay, in the House of Representatives or in his public utterances elsewhere, had tried, as a candidate for the presidency, to trim his sail to the wind, to truckle to the opinions of others, to carry water on both shoulders. In the advocacy of his principles and policies he was as outspoken and straightforward as he ever had been, perhaps even more dashing and combative than he had occasion to be. It would hardly have been predicted then that twenty years later he would lose the presidency by an equivocation.
In the course of the canvass it became obvious that no one of the four candidates could obtain a majority of the electoral vote, and that the election would devolve upon the House of Representatives. This, however, did not prevent the campaign from becoming very animated. There being no marked difference of principle or opinion between the competitors, the effusions of stump orators and of newspapers turned mainly on personalities. Adams wrote in August: "The bitterness and violence of presidential electioneering increase as the time advances. It seems as if every liar and calumniator in the country was at work day and night to destroy my character. It is impossible to be wholly insensible to this process while it is in operation. It distracts my attention from public business and consumes precious time." But the other candidates fared no better than he. Against Crawford charges of corruption were brought. Jackson was denounced as a murderer; and Clay's well known fondness for the card-table came home to him in giving him the name of a gambler. His adherents in Ohio resolved at a meeting that, as "all the gentlemen named as candidates for the presidency were honorable and intelligent men, and to degrade and vilify them was discreditable to the moral sense and sound judgment of the country," the friends of Mr. Clay would "not indulge in the unworthy practice of vilifying the candidates whom they did not support." This, however, did not have the effect of improving the temper of his opponents. As the day of election approached, the Jackson managers started a report that Clay, seeing no chance for himself, would withdraw from the contest and throw his influence for Crawford; whereupon his friends issued another proclamation, declaring that Clay "would not be withdrawn from the contest except by the fiat of his Maker." There were demonstrations of enthusiasm, too, — not, indeed, by uniformed campaign organizations and great torchlight parades; but splendors of a different kind were not lacking. Niles records, for instance: "Presidential vests! A large parcel of silk vestings have been received at New York, from France, stamped with pretty good likenesses of Washington and of the presidential candidates, Adams, Clay, and Jackson." There was great confusion at the beginning of the campaign as to the vice-presidency. The Jackson men rallied on Calhoun. The friends of Adams tried to "run" Jackson for the second office. Indeed, such a combination had long been in the mind of Adams himself. Gallatin was at first on the Crawford ticket, but then withdrew entirely from the contest. The Clay men selected Sanford of New York.
The result of the election did not become fully known before December. It turned out that Jackson had won ninety-nine electoral votes, Adams eighty-four, Crawford forty-one and Clay thirty-seven. No one having received a clear majority, the election devolved upon the House of Representatives; and as, according to the Constitution, the choice by the House was confined to the three candidates having the highest number of votes, Clay's chance was gone. He received the whole electoral vote of only three states, Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri, and four votes from New York. For the vice-presidency, Calhoun had a decided majority, one hundred and eighty-two out of two hundred and sixty one.
Clay was deeply disappointed. He had hoped to be at least among the three eligible by the House of Representatives. He had counted upon a majority of the electoral vote of Illinois; he had not despaired of Virginia, his native state. It was said that the five votes of Louisiana had been taken from Clay by a trick in the legislature, and that if he had received them, which would have put him ahead of Crawford, his personal popularity in the House would have given him the presidency. What "might have been" only sharpened the sting of the disappointment he suffered. In his letters he spoke philosophically enough: "As it is, I shall yield a cheerful acquiescence in the public decision. We must not despair of the Republic. Our institutions, if they have the value which we believe them to possess and are worth preserving, will sustain themselves, and will yet do well." But Martin Van Buren wrote on December 31, 1824, to a friend: "He (Clay) appears to me not to sustain his defeat with as much composure and fortitude as I should have expected, and evinces a degree of despondency not called for by the actual state of things." This is not improbable, for a man of Clay's sanguine, impulsive temperament feels misfortune as keenly as he enjoys success.
His greatest trial, however, was still to come. But before it came, he had as Speaker of the House a ceremonial act to perform, which at the same time was an act of friendship, and which, by the emotions it awakened, may for a moment have made him forget the humiliation of defeat and the anxieties besetting him. Lafayette was visiting the United States, and wherever he went, all the bitter quarrels of the presidential struggle were silenced by the transports of enthusiasm with which he was received. He appeared among the American people as the impersonation of their heroic ancestry to whom they owed everything they were proudest of. Only Washington himself, had he risen from the grave, could have called forth deeper feelings of reverence and affection. As the guest of the nation, he was invited to the Capitol, and Clay had to welcome him in the House of Representatives. It was a solemn and touching scene. Clay delivered an address full of feeling. With delicate instinct, the orator seized upon the poetic side of Lafayette's visit. "The vain wish has been sometimes indulged," said he, "that Providence would allow the patriot, after death, to return to his country, and to contemplate the intermediate changes which had taken place, to view the forests felled, the cities built, the mountains leveled, the canals cut, the highways constructed, the progress of the arts, the advancement of learning, and the increase of population. General, your present visit to the United States is a realization of the consoling object of that wish. You are in the midst of posterity."
The relations between Clay and Lafayette were of the friendliest character. They had long been in correspondence, which continued for years after this meeting at Washington. Lafayette's letters to Clay, many of which have been preserved, abound in expressions not only of regard, but of affection. It seems that the heart of the old patriot was completely captured by the brilliant, frank, and generous American, and he was repeatedly heard to speak of Clay as the man he wished to see made President of the United States.