Life of Henry Clay/10 President-Maker
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Instead of being made President, Clay found himself invested with the dangerous power of choosing one among his rivals for the great office. It was generally admitted that his influence commanded in the House of Representatives a sufficient number of votes to decide the contest between Adams, Jackson, and Crawford. He was, therefore, so long as his preference remained unknown, a much-sought, much-courted man. In a letter written on January 8 to Francis P. Blair, whom he then counted among his friends in Kentucky, he humorously described the situation: "I am sometimes touched gently on the shoulder by a friend, for example, of General Jackson, who will thus address me: 'My dear sir, all my dependence is upon you; don't disappoint us; you know our partiality was for you next to the hero, and how much we want a Western President.' Immediately after a friend of Mr. Crawford will accost me: 'The hopes of the Republican party are concentrated on you; for God's sake preserve it. If you had been returned instead of Mr. Crawford, every man of us would have supported you to the last hour. We consider you and him as the only genuine Republican candidates.' Next a friend of Mr. Adams comes with tears in his eyes [an allusion to Adams's watering eyes]: 'Sir, Mr. Adams has always had the greatest respect for you, and admiration of your talents. There is no station to which you are not equal. Most undoubtedly you are the second choice of New England, and I pray you to consider seriously whether the public good and your own future interests do not point most distinctly to the choice which you ought to make?' How can one withstand all this disinterested homage and kindness?"
General Jackson himself thought it good policy now to be on pleasant terms with Clay. There had been "non-intercourse" between them ever since that memorable debate in which Clay found fault with the General's conduct in the Florida war. Jackson had left Clay's visit of courtesy unreturned, and when accidentally meeting Clay at a Kentucky village inn, in the summer of 1819, he had hardly deigned to notice Clay's polite salutation. But now, having become an anxious candidate for the presidency while Clay was believed to control the decisive vote in the House of Representatives, Jackson took a less haughty view of things. Several members of Congress from Tennessee approached Clay to bring about an accommodation. They declared in General Jackson's behalf, that when treating Clay's courtesy with apparent contempt, he was "laboring under some indisposition," and meant no offence. Clay in response said that in censuring General Jackson's official conduct he had merely "expressed opinions in respect to public acts," without any feeling of personal enmity. The Tennessee delegation then arranged a dinner to which both Clay and Jackson were invited, and at which both appeared. They exchanged salutations and dined together. When Clay retired from the table, Jackson and his friend Eaton followed him to the door and insisted that he should take a seat with them in their carriage. Clay, dismissing his own coach, rode with them and was set down at his door. Jackson then invited him to dinner and he accepted. Soon afterwards Jackson with several members of Congress dined at Clay's lodgings, and then they "frequently met in the course of the winter, always respectfully addressing each other." Thus the "non-intercourse" was laboriously raised.
But all the while Clay was firmly resolved to give his vote and influence to Adams. He had made this declaration to J. J. Crittenden before he left Kentucky for Washington, and he informed Benton of his determination early in December. The legislature of Kentucky passed a resolution requesting the members of Congress from that state to vote for Jackson, but even that could not swerve Clay from his purpose. His conclusion was, for him, the only possible one. Crawford was a paralytic. For months he had been unable, as Secretary of the Treasury, to sign his official papers with his own hand. It was extremely doubtful whether, if elected President, he would ever be able to discharge the duties of the office. For this reason, aside from other considerations, Clay could not vote for him. Could he vote for Jackson? We remember Clay's speech on Jackson's lawless conduct in the Seminole War. He had not since changed his opinion. "As a friend of liberty, and to the permanence of our institutions," he wrote to Francis Brooke, "I cannot consent, in this early stage of their existence, by contributing to the election of a military chieftain, to give the strongest guaranty that the Republic will march in the fatal road which has conducted every other republic to ruin." So again he wrote to Blair: "Mr. Adams, you know well, I should never have selected, if at liberty to draw from the whole mass of our citizens, for a President. But there is no danger in his elevation now, or in time to come. Not so of his competitor, of whom I cannot believe that killing two thousand five hundred Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various difficult and complicated duties of the chief magistracy." These were his honest opinions. How could he vote to make Jackson President?
It was indeed argued that, as Jackson had received, not a majority of the electoral votes (for he had only ninety-nine out of two hundred and sixty one), but more votes than any one of his competitors, the members of the House of Representatives were bound, in obedience to the popular will, to ratify that verdict. Not to do so was, as Benton expressed it with a desperate plunge into Greek, "a violation of the demos krateo principle." This was equivalent to saying that a mere plurality of the electoral vote should be sufficient to elect a President; for if the House of Representatives were in duty bound to ratify that plurality as if it were a majority, then the plurality would practically elect. But the Constitution expressly provides that a President shall not be elected by a plurality of the electoral votes, and that, when no clear majority is obtained, the House of Representatives shall freely choose from those three candidates who shall have received the highest numbers. Moreover, the electors having in six states been appointed by the legislatures, it was a mere matter of conjecture whether General Jackson would have had a plurality of the popular vote, had the electors in all the states been chosen by the people. Finally, there was nothing to prove that Adams would not have been the second choice of the friends of Crawford and Clay, in a sufficient number of cases to insure him a clear majority in an election confined to him and Jackson. The presumption may be said to have been in favor of this, if, as proved to be the fact, the House of Representatives was inclined to give him that majority. There was, therefore, nothing in such an argument to limit the freedom of Clay's choice.
Benton himself admitted that his "demos krateo principle" was in conflict with the theory of the Constitution. Indeed, if carried to its logical consequences, it would have demanded that a candidate receiving an absolute majority of the electoral vote, but a smaller popular vote than another candidate, could not legitimately be President. Nobody could have gone this length. But in 1825 a great cry was raised because a mere plurality was not regarded as a majority, and it had much effect.
When the friends of Jackson and of Crawford began to suspect that Clay favored Adams, their conduct towards him changed abruptly. As they could not persuade him, they sought to drive and even to frighten him. He received anonymous letters full of abuse and menace. Some of them contained threats of personal violence. In others he was informed that, unless Jackson were elected, there would be insurrection and bloodshed. A peculiar kind of fanaticism seems to have been blazing up among Jackson's friends. Their newspapers opened furiously on Clay, and denounced his unwillingness to vote for Jackson as a sort of high treason. But Clay could not be moved. "I shall risk," he said in a letter to his friend Brooke, "I shall risk without emotion these effusions of malice, and remain unshaken in my purpose. What is a public man worth if he will not expose himself, on fit occasions, for the good of the country?"
At last the Jackson party resorted to a desperate expedient. The election in the House was to take place on February 9. On January 28 a letter dated at Washington appeared in a Philadelphia newspaper pointedly accusing Clay of having struck a corrupt bargain with Adams. Clay, the writer said, was to transfer his friends to Adams for the purpose of making Adams President, and Adams was then to make Clay Secretary of State. "And the friends of Mr. Clay," so the letter continued, "gave the information to the friends of Jackson that, if the friends of Jackson would offer the same price, they would close with them. But none of the friends of Jackson would descend to such mean barter and sale." The letter pretended to come from a member of Congress, who, however, did not give his name. A copy of the paper was mailed to Clay. This stung him to the quick. On February 1 he published "a card" in the "National Intelligencer," in which he expressed his belief that the letter purporting to come from a member of the House was a forgery; "but," he added, "if it be genuine, I pronounce the member, whoever he may be, a base and infamous calumniator, a dastard and liar; and if he dare unveil himself and avow his name, I will hold him responsible, as I here admit myself to be, to all the laws which govern and regulate men of honor." Clay's hot blood had run away with his judgment. He himself felt it as soon as he saw his "card" in print. But a high-spirited man, conscious of his rectitude, should not be judged too harshly if the first charge of corruption publicly brought against him does not find him cool enough to determine whether the silence of contempt or the angry cry of insulted honor will better comport with his dignity.
Unfortunately, the threat of a challenge, which would have been wrong under any circumstances, in this case turned out to be even ludicrous. Two days afterwards another "card" appeared in the "National Intelligencer," in which George Kremer, a Representative from Pennsylvania, avowed himself as the author of the letter. George Kremer was one of those men in high political station of whom people wonder "how they ever got there;" an insignificant, ordinarily inoffensive, simple soul, uneducated, ignorant, and eccentric, attracting attention in Washington mainly by a leopard-skin overcoat of curious cut which he was in the habit of wearing. This man now revealed himself as the great Henry Clay's antagonist, declaring himself "ready to prove, to the satisfaction of unprejudiced minds, enough to satisfy them of the accuracy of the statements which were contained in that letter." The thought of a duel with George Kremer in his leopard-skin overcoat appeared at once so farcical that the most passionate duelist would not have seriously entertained it. As Daniel Webster wrote to his excellent brother Ezekiel, who lived on a farm in New Hampshire, "Mr. Kremer is a man with whom one would think of having a shot about as soon as with your neighbor, Mr. Simeon Atkinson, whom he somewhat resembles."
The rashness of Clay's fierce proclamation was thus well punished. He had now to retrieve the dignity of his character. On the day of the appearance of Kremer's card, Clay rose solemnly in the House to ask for a special committee to inquire into the charges made by that gentleman, "in order that if he [Clay] were guilty, here the proper punishment might be applied, or, if innocent, here his character and conduct might be vindicated." He expressed the anxious hope that his request for an investigation of the charges would be granted. "Emanating from such a source," he said, "this was the only notice he could take of them." The challenge to mortal combat, Henry Clay against George Kremer, was thus withdrawn. A motion was made by Forsyth of Georgia that the committee asked for be appointed. This unexpected turn of affairs threw poor Kremer into a great flutter. He followed Forsyth, saying that, if it should appear that he had not sufficient reason to justify his statements, he trusted he should receive proper reprobation. He was willing to meet the inquiry and abide the result, but he desired to have the honorable Speaker's "card" referred to the committee too. He was restless and bustled about, saying to one member that the letter in question was not really of his own making; to others, that he had not intended at all to make any charge against Mr. Clay. Then he put a sort of disclaimer on a piece of paper and sent it to Clay, asking whether this would be satisfactory; but he received the answer that the matter was now in the hands of the House. After two days debate the committee was elected by ballot, not one member being on it who had supported Clay for the presidency.
On February 9, the very day when the electoral vote was to be counted and the election by the House was to take place, the committee reported. And what was the report? George Kremer, who at first had promised to "meet the inquiry and abide the result," had reconsidered over night; instead of giving the testimony the committee asked of him, he sent to that tribunal a long letter, refusing to testify. He would not, he wrote, appear before the committee either as an accuser or a witness, as there was no constitutional authority by which the House could assume jurisdiction over the case; such an assumption would threaten a dangerous invasion of the liberty of speech and of the press; he therefore protested against the whole proceeding, and preferred to communicate to his constituents the proofs of his statements with regard to the corrupt bargain charged.
This letter the committee laid before the House, and that was all the report they made. In the course of time, much light has been thrown upon this remarkable transaction. It has now become clear that, instead of a bargain being struck between Adams and Clay, overtures were made by Jackson's friends to Clay's friends; that George Kremer, a simple-minded man and a fanatical adherent of Jackson, was used as a tool by the Jackson managers, especially Senator Eaton from Tennessee; that they were the real authors of Kremer's first letter to the Philadelphia newspaper; that Clay's demand for an inquiry by the House into the charge made by Kremer was an unwelcome surprise to them; that Kremer, having been told by them that the charge would be substantiated, blunderingly assented to the inquiry when the motion was made; that they, knowing the charge to be false, wanted to avoid an investigation of it by the House; that, when the committee called upon Kremer for proofs, he was taken in hand by the Jackson managers, who wrote for him the letter protesting against the Congressional proceeding; that, in avoiding an investigation by the House and a report on the merits of the case, their purpose was to keep the charge without any authoritative refutation before the people; that they first hoped to terrorize Clay into supporting Jackson, or at least to separate his friends from him, while, in the event of Jackson's defeat, the cry of his having been defrauded of his rights by a corrupt bargain would help in securing his election the next time. This was the famous "bargain and corruption" affair, which during a long period excited the minds of men all over the United States. It was an infamous intrigue against the good name of two honorable men, designed to promote the political fortunes of a third.
The "inside view" of the relations between Adams and Clay came, long after this period, to public knowledge through the publication of Adams's Diary. The most unfavorable inference which can be drawn from the revelations therein made is, that some of Clay's friends very urgently desired his appointment as Secretary of State; and that one of them, Letcher of Kentucky, a good-natured but not very strong-headed man, had said to Adams that Clay's friends, in supporting Adams, would expect Clay to have an influential place in the administration, disclaiming, however, all authority from Clay, and receiving no assurance from Adams. Those who have any experience of public life know that the adherents of a prominent public man are almost always extremely anxious to see him in positions of power, and very apt to go ahead of his wishes in endeavoring to put him there, thus not seldom compromising him without his fault. Adams received a good many visits of men who wished to sound his disposition, among them Webster, who desired to obtain a promise that the Federalists would not be excluded from office, and who himself hoped to be appointed minister to England, though he did not express such a wish at the time. Clay too visited Adams, to tell him that he would have the vote of Kentucky, and to converse with him upon the general situation. It would be absurd to see in these occurrences anything to support the charge that Clay's vote and influence were thrown for Adams in execution of a bargain securing him a place in the Cabinet; for by the testimony of Crittenden and Benton, the fact stands conclusively proven that, before all these conversations with Adams happened, Clay had already declared his firm determination to vote for Adams, upon the grounds then and afterwards avowed. The "bargain and corruption" charge remains, therefore, simply a calumny.
The effect produced at the time upon Clay's mind by these things appears in his correspondence. They aroused in him the indignant pride of one who feels himself high above the venal crowd. Just before the appearance of Kremer's letter he wrote to Blair: "The knaves cannot comprehend how a man can be honest. They cannot conceive that I should have solemnly interrogated my conscience, and asked it to tell me seriously what I ought to do." And to Francis Brooke on February 4: "The object now is, on the part of Mr. Crawford and General Jackson, to drive me from the course which my deliberate judgment points out. They all have yet to learn my character if they suppose it possible to make me swerve from my duty by any species of intimidation or denunciation." When the election came on, Clay's whole influence went in favor of Adams, who, on the first ballot in the House of Representatives, received the votes of a majority of the states, and was declared to be elected President.
But Clay's trials were not over. When Adams began to make up his Cabinet, he actually did offer to Clay the secretaryship of state. After what had happened, should Adams have made the offer, and should Clay have accepted it? These questions have been discussed probably with more interest than anything connected with a cabinet appointment in our political history.
Under ordinary circumstances, the offer would have been regarded as a perfectly proper and even natural one. Clay was by far the most brilliant leader of the ruling party. His influence was large and his ability equal to his influence. It was desirable to have a Western man in the Cabinet. Clay towered so high above all the public characters in that region that it would have looked almost grotesque to pass him by, exalting somebody else. It is true that Adams had differed from Clay on important things, and had expressed some unfavorable opinions of him, as, indeed, he had of almost all other public men of note. But the subjects on which they had differed were disposed of; and as to personal feelings, it was one of the remarkable features of Adams's character that, strong as his prejudices and resentments were, he put them resolutely aside when they stood in the way of the fulfillment of a public duty. So, to the end of conciliating the Crawford element, he sufficiently overcame a feeling of strong personal dislike to offer to Crawford himself, in spite of that gentleman's physical disabilities, to continue him as the head of the Treasury Department, — an offer which Crawford promptly declined. Adams had even conceived the idea of tendering the War Department to General Jackson, but learned that Jackson would take such an offer "in ill part." In an administration thus designed to be constructed upon the principle that the leaders of the ruling party should form part of it, Clay was of course a necessary man; and to offer him a place in the Cabinet appeared not only in itself proper, but unavoidable. Clay would therefore undoubtedly have been invited into the Cabinet whether he had or had not exercised any influence favorable to Mr. Adams's election.
Neither would there have been any question as to the propriety of Clay's accepting any place in the new administration under ordinary circumstances. But that the actual circumstances were not of the ordinary kind, Clay himself felt. When Adams, a few days after the election by the House, offered him at a personal interview the secretaryship of state, he replied that he "would take it into consideration," and answer "as soon as he should have time to consult his friends." It was an anxious consultation. At first some of his friends were opposed to acceptance. Would not his taking the secretaryship of state be treated as conclusive evidence proving the justice of the imputations which had been made against him? It was known that Clay and Adams had not been on terms of cordial friendship. They had seriously differed on important points at Ghent. Clay had made opposition to Monroe's administration, and especially had criticised Adams as Secretary of State. Less than two years before, Adams had been attacked by one of the Ghent Commissioners, Jonathan Russell; he had published an elaborate defense, in which he referred, with regard to some points of fact, to Clay as a witness, and Clay had, in a public and somewhat uncalled-for letter, questioned the correctness of Adams's recollections, — an act which was generally looked upon as an indication of an unfriendly spirit. Would not this sudden reconciliation, accompanied with an exchange of political favors, look suspicious, and render much more plausible the charge of a corrupt bargain? Besides, was not the House of Representatives Clay's true field? Would not the administration want his support there more than in the Cabinet? Would not the Western people rather see him there than in an executive department?
These were weighty questions. On the other hand, it was urged, whether he accepted or not, he would be subject to animadversion. If he declined, it would be said that the patriotic Kremer, by bravely exposing the corrupt bargain, had actually succeeded in preventing its consummation. Conscious of his own rectitude, should he attach such importance to an accusation coming from so insignificant a person? Indeed, would not either of the other candidates, had he been elected, have made him the same offer? Moreover, there was a consideration of duty. It might be difficult to form the administration without him. Could he permit it to be said or suspected that, after having contributed so much to the election of Adams as President, he thought too ill of him to accept the first place in his Cabinet? As Adams was now the constitutional head of the government, ought not Clay to regard him as such, dismissing any personal objections which he might have had to him? These arguments, as we know from Clay's correspondence, finally changed the opinions of those of his friends who had at first been averse to his taking office. The friends of Adams in New England were especially urgent. Some of Crawford's adherents too, and even some of those of General Jackson, expressed to Clay their conviction that he should accept. He had declared that he would follow the advice of his friends, and so he did. To Brooke he wrote: "I have an unaffected repugnance to any executive employment, and my rejection of the offer, if it were in conformity to their deliberate judgment, would have been more compatible with my feelings than its acceptance."
In spite of that "repugnance," it is not probable that much persuasion was required to make him accept. He was a high-spirited, proud man. When George Kremer made a charge, should Henry Clay run away? Not he. He would not appear to be afraid. This may not have been all. Clay's ambition for the presidency was ardent and impatient. He would forget it for a moment when discussing public questions. But it was not likely to be absent from his mind when considering whether he should not take the place offered him. He had looked upon the secretaryship of state as the stepping-stone to the presidency before; he probably continued to do so. The presidential fever is a merciless disease. It renders its victims blind and deaf. So now Clay misjudged the situation altogether. "An opposition is talked of here," he wrote to Brooke; "but I regard that as the ebullition of the moment. There are elements for faction, none for opposition. Opposition to what? To measures and principles which are yet to be developed!" He believed the new administration would be judged on its merits. He did not know the spirit it was to meet. When he declared himself resolved to accept the secretaryship of state, six days after the offer had been made, he was very far from having counted the cost.
Immediately before the final adjournment of the Eighteenth Congress, on March 3, 1825, the House of Representatives passed a resolution thanking "the Honorable Henry Clay for the able, impartial, and dignified manner in which he had presided over its deliberations," etc. In response, "retiring, perhaps forever," from the office of Speaker, Clay was able to say that, in the fourteen years during which he had, with short intervals, occupied that difficult and responsible position, not one of his decisions had ever been reversed by the House. Indeed, Henry Clay stands in the traditions of the House of Representatives as the greatest of its Speakers. His perfect mastery of parliamentary law, his quickness of decision in applying it, his unfailing presence of mind and power of command in moments of excitement and confusion, the courteous dignity of his bearing, are remembered as unequaled by any one of those who had preceded or who have followed him. The thanks of the House were voted to him with zest. Yet many of those who felt themselves obliged to assent to this vote were then already his bitter enemies.
The next day John Quincy Adams was inaugurated as President of the United States. As soon as the nomination of Henry Clay for the office of Secretary of State came before the Senate, the war against him began in due form. An address by George Kremer to his constituents, in which all conceivable gossip was retailed to give color to the "bargain and corruption" cry, was freely used in Washington to prevent Clay's nomination from being confirmed. General Jackson himself expressed his hope of its rejection. A letter written, evidently for publication, by Jackson to his friend Samuel Swartwout, in New York, which bristled with insidious insinuations against Clay, was circulated in Washington on the eve of the day when Clay's nomination was to be acted upon.
Still trying to obtain an authoritative investigation of his conduct, Clay asked a Senator to move a formal inquiry by a senate committee, if any charge should be made against him in that body. But no tangible charge was brought forward; only one Senator indulged in some vague animadversions, presenting no ground for an inquiry. General Jackson, then still a member of the Senate, said nothing; but he, together with fourteen other Senators, among them the leading Southerners, voted against consenting to the nomination. It was, however, confirmed by a majority of twelve, seven Senators being absent.
On the day of the inauguration, General Jackson had been one of the earliest of those who "took the hand" of President Adams, congratulating him upon his accession to power. The newspapers highly praised the magnanimity of the defeated candidate. But after the adjournment of the Senate, when Jackson was on his way to his home in Tennessee, his tone changed. Everywhere he was cordially received; and to every one willing to hear it, at public receptions, in hotels, on steamboats, he was ready to say that the will of the people had been fraudulently defeated, and that the presidential office had virtually been stolen from its rightful owner by a corrupt combination. This foreshadowed the presidential campaign of 1828. The cry was to be: "The rights of the people against bargain and corruption."
Not having had the benefit of an official inquiry, Clay now tried to put down the calumny once and forever by an explicit statement of the case over his own signature. On March 26, not many days after he had become a member of the new administration, he published an address to his old constituents in Kentucky, in which he elaborately reviewed the whole story, conclusively refuted the charges brought against him, and fully explained and defended his conduct. It was an exceedingly able document, temperate in tone, complete and lucid in the presentation of facts, and unanswerable in argument. One of its notable passages may be mentioned as characteristic. Clay was very much ashamed of having threatened to challenge George Kremer. Expressing his regret therefor, he added: "I owe it to the community to say that, whatever I may have done, or by inevitable circumstances might be forced to do, no man in it holds in deeper abhorrence than I do that pernicious practice [of dueling]. Condemned as it must be by the judgment and the philosophy, to say nothing of the religion, of every thinking man, it is an affair of feeling, about which we cannot, although we should, reason. Its true correction will be found when all shall unite, as all ought to unite, in its unqualified proscription." But until that comes to pass, shall we go on challenging and fighting, the slaves of false notions of honor? At any rate, we shall soon see the Honorable Henry Clay again with pistol in hand.
Clay may have thought that his address would make an end of the "bargain and corruption" charge for all time, and so it should have done. Indeed, he received letters from such men as Chief Justice Marshall, John Tyler, Justice Story, Daniel Webster, Lewis Cass, and others, congratulating him upon the completeness of his vindication and triumph. But he lived to appreciate the wonderful vitality of a well-managed political lie. Nobody believes that lie now. But it defeated his dearest ambitions, and darkened the rest of his public life. It kept him refuting and explaining, explaining and refuting, year after year; yet still thousands of simple-minded citizens would continue honestly to believe that Henry Clay was a great knave, who had defeated the will of the people by bargain and corruption, and cheated the old hero of New Orleans out of his rights.