Life of Henry Clay/11 Secretary of State
|←Chapter X. President-Maker.|| Life of Henry Clay by
Chapter XI. Secretary of State.
|Chapter XII. The Party Chiefs.→|
SECRETARY OF STATE.
The administration of John Quincy Adams was the last one in which the conduct of the government accorded strictly with the best traditions of the Republic. Nothing was farther from his mind than to use the power of appointment and removal for political ends. At that time the notion that the accession of a new President must necessarily involve a thorough reconstruction of the Cabinet, was not yet invented. Following the example of most of his predecessors, he applied the rule that no unnecessary changes should be made, even in the heads of the executive departments. His election to the presidency and Calhoun's to the vice-presidency had vacated the secretaryships of state and of war, and these vacancies he filled with Henry Clay, and James Barbour of Virginia. As we have seen, he offered to continue Crawford at the head of the Treasury Department, and only after Crawford had declined he summoned to that place Richard Rash of Pennsylvania. Southard of New Jersey remained Secretary of the Navy, and William Wirt of Virginia, Attorney General. The Postmaster General, McLean, was also left in his place, but that officer did not at that time occupy a seat in the Cabinet; and there was no Department of the Interior. The members of the Cabinet all passed as Republicans. But the Federalists, of whom there were scattered remnants here and there, — some of them looked up to as venerable relics, — were by no means excluded from place. When De Witt Clinton had declined the mission to England, Adams urged it upon Rufus King of New York, who then stood in the politics of the country as a fine and reverend monument of ancient Federalism.
The new administration had hardly taken the reins in hand, when that spirit of hostility to it which prevailed among the following of Jackson, Crawford, and Calhoun appeared even among persons in federal office; and the question whether it would not be well to fill the service with friends, or at least to clear it of enemies, presented itself in a very pointed form. Then Adams proved the quality of his principles, as witness, by way of example, this case: The member of the House of Representatives from Louisiana denounced Sterret, the Naval Officer at New Orleans, as a noisy and clamorous reviler of the administration, who had even gone so far as to get up a public demonstration to insult the member of Congress for having voted to make Mr. Adams President. The member of Congress, therefore, demanded Sterret's removal. There seemed to be no doubt about the facts. The insulting demonstration had not actually come off, but Sterret had been active in making preparations for it.
Clay agreed with the member. During the pendency of an election, said he, every man in the service should feel free to "indulge his preference;" but no officer should, after election, "be permitted to hold a conduct in open and continual disparagement of the administration and its head." In the treatment of persons in the service, he thought, the administration "should avoid, on the one hand, political persecution, and on the other an appearance of pusillanimity." Adams came to a different conclusion. He looked upon this as a test case, and it is wholesome to remember what a President of the United States thought upon such a question in the year 1825. He asked Clay in reply why he should remove this man. The insulting demonstration, of which the member of Congress complained, had only been intended, but not practically carried out. Would a mere "intention never carried into effect" justify the removal of a man from office? "Besides," he continued, "should I remove this man for this cause, it must be upon some fixed principle, which would apply to others as well as to him. And where was it possible to draw the line? Of the custom house officers throughout the Union four fifths, in all probability, were opposed to my election. They were all now in my power, and I had been urged very earnestly to sweep away my opponents and provide, with their places, for my friends. I can justify the refusal to adopt this policy only by the steadiness and consistency of my adhesion to my own. If I depart from this in one instance, I shall be called upon by my friends to do the same thing in many. An insidious and inquisitorial scrutiny into the personal dispositions of public officers will creep through the whole Union, and the most selfish and sordid passions will be kindled into activity to distort the conduct and misrepresent the feelings of men whose places may become the prize of slander upon them." This was the President's answer to Clay's suggestions, and, as the Diary tells us, "Mr. Clay did not press the subject any farther." It would have been useless.
What moved Adams, in laying down this rule of action, was not faint-heartedness. He was one of the most courageous of men; he never shrank from a responsibility. He even enjoyed a conflict when he found one necessary to enforce his sense of right. Here he made his stand for the principles upon which the government in its early days had been conducted, and his decision in the Sterret case became the rule by which his administration was governed from beginning to end. He made only two removals during the four years, and these were for bad official conduct. With unbending firmness he resisted every attempt to make him dismiss officers who intrigued against his reëlection, or openly embraced the cause of his opponents. The reappointment of worthy officers upon the expiration of their terms, without regard to politics, was a matter of course. Clay continued to think, not without reason, that the President carried his toleration to a dangerous extreme. He would not have permitted men in office to make their hostility to the administration conspicuous and defiant. But he was far from favoring the use of the appointing and removing power as a political engine. He was opposed to arbitrary removals, as to everything that would give the public offices the character of spoils.
While these were the principles upon which the administration was conducted, the virulent hostility of its opponents continued to crop out in a ceaseless repetition, in speech and press, of the assaults upon its members, which had begun with the election. In May Clay went to Kentucky to meet his family and to take them to Washington. Wherever he passed, his friends greeted him with enthusiastic demonstrations. Public dinners crowded one another, not only in Kentucky, but in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, along his route of travel; but everywhere, in response to expressions of affection and confidence, he felt himself obliged to say something in explanation of his conduct in the last presidential election. The spectre of the "bargain and corruption" charge seemed to pursue him wherever he went.
When he returned to Washington, in August, he was in deep affliction, two of his daughters having died in one month, one of them on her way to the national capital. But as to the state of the public mind he felt somewhat encouraged. He had found many friends to welcome him with great warmth. He had heard the President spoken of with high respect and confidence. Daniel Webster, too, sent him cheering reports as to "an entire and not uneasy acquiescence in the events of last winter," which he had found on his summer excursions. Clay almost persuaded himself that the storm had blown over. But then he was startled again by some stirring manifestation of the bitterness which the last presidential election had left behind it. One day he met a general of the regular army, with his aid-de-camp, in the President's ante-room. The aid-de-camp being introduced to him, Clay politely offered his hand, which the young man, drawing back, refused to take. It turned out that he was a connection of General Jackson. Clay was so shocked by this rude demonstration that he wrote the General a complaining letter about it.
Something far more serious happened in October. The legislature of Tennessee met, and proceeded forthwith to nominate General Jackson as a candidate for President to be elected in 1828. On October 13, more than three years before the period of the election, General Jackson addressed a letter to the legislature, accepting the nomination, and at the same time resigning his seat in the Senate. In this letter he laid down his "platform." He gave the world to understand that there was much corruption at Washington, and that, unless a certain remedy were applied, corruption would "become the order of the day there." The remedy was an amendment to the Constitution declaring "any member of Congress ineligible to office under the general government during the term for which he was elected, and for two years thereafter, except in cases of judicial office." This letter was generally understood. It was hardly taken as the promise of a valuable reform to be carried out if Jackson should become President. Nobody attached much importance to that; certainly Jackson did not, for when he did become President, he, as we shall see, appointed a much larger number of members of Congress to office than had been so appointed by any one of his predecessors. But it was taken as a proclamation by General Jackson that he had been defrauded of the presidency by a corrupt bargain between a sitting member of Congress and a presidential candidate, the member of Congress obtaining a cabinet office as a reward for seating the candidate in the presidential chair. It pointed directly at Adams and Clay. Thus — it being also understood that, according to custom, Adams would be supported by his followers as a candidate for a second term — the campaign of 1828 was opened, not only constructively, but in clue form, with the cry of "bargain and corruption" sanctioned by the standard-bearer of the opposition. It became more lively with the opening of the Nineteenth Congress in December, 1825.
Under Monroe, during the "era of good feeling," there had been individual opposition to this or that measure, or to the administration generally, but there had been no opposition party. With the accession of Adams the era of good feeling was well over, and those new groupings began to appear which, in the course of time, developed into new party organizations. Men were driven apart or drawn together by different motives. Of these, the commotion caused by the last presidential election furnished the most potent at that time. A great many of the adherents of the defeated candidates, especially the Jackson men, were bound to make odious and to break down the Adams administration by any means and at any cost. This was a personal opposition, virulent and remorseless. There were rumors, too, of an opposition being systematically organized by Calhoun, who then began to identify his ambition exclusively with the cause of slavery. In the vote against Clay's confirmation Adams saw "the rallying of the South and of Southern interests and prejudices to the men of the South." Not a few Southern men began to feel an instinctive dread of the spirit represented by Adams.
But the hostility to the administration was soon furnished with an opportunity to rally on a question of constitutional principle. Already in his inaugural address, President Adams had brought forth something vigorous on internal improvements. But in his first message to Congress he went beyond what had ever been uttered upon that subject before. After having laid down the far-reaching doctrine that "the great object of the institution of civil government is the improvement of those who are parties to the social compact," he enumerated a vast array of powers granted in the Constitution, and added that, "if these powers may be effectually brought into action by laws promoting the improvement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, the cultivation of the mechanic and of the elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and the progress of the sciences, ornamental and profound, to refrain from exercising them for the benefit of the people themselves would be to hide in the earth the talent committed to our charge, — would be treachery to the most sacred of trusts." He spoke of the establishment of a national university, astronomical observatories, and scientific enterprises, and suggested that, while European nations advanced with such rapid strides, it would be casting away the bounties of Providence if we stood still, confessing that we were "palsied by the will of our constituents." This was opening a perspective of governmental functions much larger than the American mind was accustomed to contemplate. There had been some serious shaking of heads when this part of the message was discussed in the Cabinet, especially on the part of Barbour and Clay. This went a long way beyond the building of roads and the digging of canals, upon which Clay had been so fond of discoursing. But Adams, who was always inclined to express his opinions in the most uncompromising form, insisted upon doing so this time. The doctrine that the Constitution conferred by implication upon the government powers of almost unlimited extent, and also imposed upon it the duty of keeping those powers in constant activity, not only disturbed the political thinkers of the Democratic school, but it was especially apt to alarm the slave-holding interest, which at that period began to see in the strictest construction, and in the maintenance of the extremest states rights principles, its citadel of safety.
The first actual collision between the administration and its opponents occurred upon another question. The President announced in his message that the Spanish-American republics had resolved upon a congress to meet on the Isthmus of Panama, in which they should all be represented; that they had also invited the United States to send plenipotentiaries; that this invitation had been accepted, and that ministers on the part of the United States would be commissioned to "attend at those deliberations." This was the famous Panama mission.
A grand council of the South and Central American republics was planned as early as 1821, Bolivar favoring it, and a series of treaties with regard to it was concluded between them. In April, 1825, Clay was approached by the Mexican and Colombian ministers with the inquiry whether an invitation to the United States to be represented in the Panama Congress would be favorably considered. Nothing could be more apt to strike Clay's fancy than such an undertaking. The Holy Alliance darkly plotting at its conferences and congresses in Europe to reëstablish the odious despotism of Spain over South and Central America, and thus to gain a basis of operations for interference with the North American Republic, had frequently disturbed his dreams. To form against this league of despotism in the old world a league of republics in the new, and thus to make this great continent the ark of human liberty and a higher civilization, was one of those large, generous conceptions well calculated to fascinate his ardent mind. He succeeded even in infusing some of his enthusiasm into Adams's colder nature. The invitation was promptly accepted. But the definition of the objects of the Congress, filtered through Adams's sober mind, appeared somewhat tame by the side of the original South American scheme, and probably of Clay's desires, too. The South Americans had thought of a league for resistance against a common enemy; of a combination of forces, among themselves at least, to be favored by the United States, for the liberation of Cuba and Porto Rico from Spanish power; of some concert of action for the general enforcement of the principles of the American policy proclaimed by President Monroe, and so on. It is very probable that Clay, although not going quite so far, had in his mind some permanent concert among American states looking to expressions of a common will, and to united action when emergency should require.
But the purposes of our participation in the Panama Congress, as they appeared in the President's messages to the Senate and the House, and later in Clay's instructions to the American envoys, were cautiously limited. The Congress was to be looked upon as a good opportunity for giving to the Spanish-American brethren kindly advice, even if it were only as to their own interests; also for ascertaining in what direction their policy was likely to run. Advantageous arrangements of commercial reciprocity might be made; proper definitions of blockade and neutral rights might be agreed upon. The "perpetual abolition of private war on the ocean," as well as a "concert of measures having reference to the more effectual abolition of the slave-trade," should be aimed at. The Congress should also be used as "a fair occasion for urging upon all the new nations of the South the just and liberal principles of religious liberty," not by interference with their concerns, but by claiming for citizens of the United States sojourning in those republics the right of free worship. The Monroe doctrine should be interpreted to them as meaning only that each American nation should resist foreign interference, or attempts to establish new colonies upon its soil, with its own means. The recognition of Hayti as an independent state was to be deprecated, — this against Clay's first impulse, — on the ostensible ground that Hayti, by yielding exclusive commercial advantages to France, had returned to a semi-dependent condition. All enterprises upon Cuba and Porto Rico, such as had been planned by Mexico and Colombia, were by all means to be discouraged.
This, by the way, was an exceedingly ticklish subject. If Cuba and Porto Rico were to be revolutionized, slave insurrections would follow, and the insurrectionary spirit would be likely to communicate itself to the slave population of the Southern States. Cuba and Porto Rico would hardly be able to maintain their independence, and if they should fall into the hands of a great naval power, that power would command the Mexican Gulf and the mouth of the Mississippi. The slave-holding influence, therefore, demanded that Cuba and Porto Rico should not be revolutionized. The general interests of the United States demanded that the two islands should not pass into the hands of a great naval power. It was, therefore, thought best that they should quietly remain in the possession of Spain. That possession was threatened so long as peace was not declared between Spain and her former colonies. It seemed, therefore, especially desirable that the war should come to a final close. To this end the Emperor of Russia, whom American diplomacy had fallen into the habit of regarding as a sort of benevolent uncle, was to be pressed into service. He was asked to persuade Spain, in view of the utter hopelessness of further war, to yield to necessity and recognize the independency of her former colonies on the American continent. Clay's instructions to Middleton, the American Minister at St. Petersburg, setting forth the arguments to be submitted to the Emperor, were, in this respect, a remarkable piece of reasoning and persuasiveness.
At the Panama Congress all was then to be done to prevent the designs of Mexico and Colombia upon Cuba and Porto Rico from being executed. On the whole, that Congress was to be regarded only as a consultative assembly, a mere diplomatic conference, leaving the respective powers represented there perfectly free to accept and act upon the conclusions arrived at, or not, as they might choose. There was to be no alliance of any kind, no entangling engagement, on the part of the United States. This was the character in which the Panama mission was presented to Congress.
The first thing at which the Senate took offence was that the President in his message had spoken of "commissioning" ministers at his own pleasure. A practical issue on this point was avoided when Adams sent to the Senate the nominations of the ministers to be appointed. Then the policy of the mission itself became the subject of most virulent attack. The opposition was composed of two distinct elements. One consisted of the slave-holding interest, which feared every contact with the new republics that had abolished slavery; which scorned the thought of envoys of the United States sitting in the same assembly with the representatives of republics that had negroes and mulattoes among their generals and legislators; which dreaded the possible recognition of the independence of Hayti as a demonstration showing the negro slaves in the Union what they might gain by rising in insurrection and killing their masters. This element of opposition was thoroughly in earnest. It had an unbending logic on its side. If slavery was to exist in the United States, it had to demand that not only the home policy, but also the foreign policy, of the Republic must be accommodated to the conditions of its existence.
The other element of the opposition consisted mainly of those who were determined to break down the administration in any event and at any cost. Their principal argument was that, notwithstanding the assurances given by the President, participation in the Panama Congress would lead the United States into entangling alliances; and if it did not do so at first, it would do so in its consequences. In the country, however, the Panama mission was popular. A grand Amphictyonic council of the American republics, held on the great isthmus of the continent, to proclaim the glories of free government to the world, pleased the fancy of the people. When public opinion seemed to become impatient at the interminable wrangle in Congress, the Senate voted down an adverse report of its Committee on Foreign Relations by twenty-four to nineteen, and confirmed the nominations for the Panama mission. In the House of Representatives another debate sprang up on the bill making the necessary appropriation, which passed by more than two to one. The spirit of the "opposition in any event" betrayed itself in unguarded utterances, such as the following, ascribed to Van Buren, the anti-administration leader in the Senate: "Yes, they have beaten us by a few votes, after a hard battle; but if they had only taken the other side and refused the mission, we should have had them."
But that was not the end of the debate in the Senate. The attack on the administration was continued in the discussion on a resolution offered by Branch, of North Carolina, denying the competency of the President to send ministers to the Panama Congress without the previous advice and consent of the Senate, which competency the President had originally claimed in his message to Congress. This presented to John Randolph an opportunity for a display of his peculiar power of vituperation. In a long, rambling harangue he insinuated that the invitations to the Panama Congress addressed by the ministers of the Southern republics to the government of the United States had been written, or at least inspired, by the State Department, and were therefore fraudulent. It was in this speech that he characterized the administration, alluding to Adams and Clay, as "the coalition of Blifil and Black George, — the combination, unheard of till then, of the Puritan with the blackleg."
When Clay heard of this, he boiled over with rage. Only a few months before he had, in the address to his constituents, spoken of the duel as a relic of barbarism, much to be discountenanced. The same Clay now promptly sent a challenge to Randolph. The explanation, which might have averted the duel, Randolph refused to give. On April 8 they "met," Randolph not intending to harm Clay, but Clay in terrible earnest. They exchanged shots, and both missed; only Randolph's coat was touched. At the second fire Clay put another bullet through Randolph's coat, but Randolph emptied his pistol into the air, and said: "I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay." Thereupon they shook hands, and all was over. Randolph's pistol had failed to prove that Clay was a "blackleg," and Clay's pistol had also failed to prove that Randolph was a calumniator; but, according to the mysterious process of reasoning which makes the pistol the arbiter of honor, the honor of each was satisfied. Webster wrote to Judge Story: "You will have heard of the bloodless duel. I regret it very much, but the conduct of Mr. Randolph has been such that I suppose it was thought that it could no longer be tolerated." Benton looked at the matter from a different point of view. With the keen relish of a connoisseur, he describes the whole affair down to the minutest detail in his "Thirty Years View," devoting nearly eight of its large pages to it, and sums up: "It was about the last high-toned duel that I have witnessed, and among the highest toned I have ever witnessed, and so happily conducted to a fortunate issue, — a result due to the noble character of the seconds, as well as to the generous and heroic spirit of the principals."
The net result was that Randolph's epigram about "the combination of the Puritan and the blackleg" received all the more currency, and that Clay, by his example, had given new sanction to the practice he had denounced as barbarous. He was by no means a professional duelist. His hand was in fact so unused to the pistol that on this occasion he feared he would not be able to fire it within the time given him. He simply did not possess that courage which is higher than the courage to face death.
The debates on the Panama mission served as a first general drill of the opposition. It went on harassing the Adams administration to its last hour, some of the most virulent attacks being directed against Clay. Every measure which was suspected of being specially favored by the administration had to meet bitter resistance. In the Senate an amendment to the Constitution was introduced, in accordance with Jackson's recommendation, to exclude members of Congress from executive appointments; another to circumscribe the power of the general government with regard to internal improvements; also a bill to limit the executive patronage. However much good there may have been in these propositions, it became apparent that they were brought forward mainly for the purpose of giving point to the opposition and to keep its spirit hot. Not one of them led to any practical result.
The confinement of office life, the anxieties of his position, and probably a feeling of regret that he had put himself into a situation in which he could only with difficulty defend himself against the virulent hostility assailing him without cessation, began to tell upon Clay's health. He felt weary and ill, so seriously sometimes that he thought of giving up his place in the administration. After the adjournment of Congress he visited his home in Kentucky. Again he was cheered and feasted on the way, as well as by his old constituents at home, and again he had, at dinners and receptions, to tell the story of the last presidential election over and over, in order to prove that the "bargain and corruption" charge was false. Again he returned to Washington, encouraged by the enthusiastic affection of his friends, and their assurance that there were large masses of people believing in the honorable character of the President and the Secretary of State.
The elections for the twentieth Congress which took place that summer and autumn began to show new lines of party division. In many districts the struggle was avowedly between those friendly and those hostile to the administration. The forming groups were not yet divided by clearly defined differences of principle or policy, but the air was full of charges, insinuations, and personal detraction. General Jackson's voice, too, was heard again in characteristic tones. He took good care to keep his grievance before the people. Having been invited by some of his friends in Kentucky to visit that state "for the purpose of counteracting the intrigue and management of certain prominent individuals against him," he wrote a long letter declining the invitation.
"But [he added] if it be true that the administration have gone into power contrary to the voice of the nation, and are now expecting, by means of this power, thus acquired, to mould the public will into an acquiescence with their authority, then is the issue fairly made out — shall the government or the people rule? And it becomes the man whom the people shall indicate as their rightful representative in this solemn issue, so to have acquitted himself that, while he displaces these enemies of liberty, there will be nothing in his own example to operate against the strength and durability of the government."
No candidate for the presidency had ever held such language. Here he plainly denounced the constitutionally elected chief magistrate as a usurper, and arraigned him and the members of his administration as "these enemies of liberty" who were using the power of the government to dragoon the public will into acquiescence. This fierce denunciation was hurled against a President so conscientious in the exercise of his power that, among the public officers, his most virulent enemies and the most enthusiastic supporters of his opponent were as safe in their places as were his friends. The last session of the Nineteenth Congress, which opened in December, 1826, passed over without any event of importance, but not without many demonstrations of "the bitter and rancorous spirit of the opposition," which, as Adams recorded, "produced during the late session of Congress four or five challenges to duels, all of which, however, happily ended in smoke;" and, he added, "at a public dinner given last week to John Randolph of Roanoke, a toast was given directly instigating assassination." No opportunity was lost for defaming the administration. A fierce attack was made on Clay for having, in the exercise of his power as Secretary of State, made some changes in the selection of newspapers for the publication of the laws.
The clamor of the opposition grew, indeed, so loud that people not specially engaged in politics wondered in amazement whether the Republic really was on the brink of destruction. The sedate Niles, immediately after the adjournment of Congress, expressed in the "Register" his fear that the coming presidential election, which was still a year and a half ahead, would "cause as much heat, if not violence, as any other event that ever happened in this country; that father would be arrayed against son, and son against father, old friends become enemies, and social intercourse be cruelly interrupted;" and all this because "the resolution to put up or put down individuals swallowed up every consideration of right and of wrong."
The frenzy to which politicians wrought themselves up was sometimes grotesque in its manifestations. In Virginia it became known that John Tyler had written a letter to Clay approving his conduct in the last presidential election; where upon the "Virginia Jackson Republican," a newspaper published at Richmond, broke out in these exclamations: "John Tyler identified with Henry Clay! We are all amazement! heartsick!! chop-fallen!! dumb!!! Mourn, Virginia, mourn!! for you, too, have your time-serving aspirants who press forward from round to round on the ladder of political promotion, under the disguises of republican orthodoxy, while they conceal in their bosoms the lurking dagger, with which, upon the mature conjuncture, to plunge the Goddess of Liberty to the heart." So John Tyler found himself obliged to explain, in a letter several columns long, that he might have approved of Clay's vote for Adams without supporting the Adams administration.
General Floyd, a member of Congress from Virginia, in a speech to his constituents, spoke of "times like these, when great political revolutions are in progress," and told his hearers that they were "now engaged in a great war, — a war of patronage and power against patriotism and the people." He fiercely denounced the "coalition" which had put Mr. Adams in power, and now made "the upper part of Virginia the great theatre of its intrigues;" but at the same time he informed his friends that "the combinations for the elevation of General Jackson were nearly complete." Martin Van Buren, who in the last presidential election had been the great leader of the Crawford forces in New York, but now, discerning in General Jackson the coming man, was traveling through the Southern States in the interest of this candidate, wrote mysteriously to some gentlemen at Raleigh, who had invited him to a public dinner: "The spirit of encroachment has assumed a new and far more seductive aspect, and can only be resisted by the exercise of uncommon virtues."
Thus the leaders of the Jackson movement worked busily to excite the popular mind with spectral visions of unprecedented corruption prevailing, and of terrible dangers hanging over the country; and their newspapers, led by a central organ which they had established at Washington, the "Telegraph," edited by Duff Green, day after day hurled the most reckless charges of profligacy and abuse of power at the administration. They also brought the organization of local committees as electioneering machinery to a perfection never known until then, and these committees were kept constantly active in feeding the agitation. Repeating, by the press and in speech, without cessation, the cry of bargain and corruption, and usurpation of power; never withdrawing a charge, even if ever so conclusively refuted, but answering only with new accusations equally terrific, — they gradually succeeded in making a great many well-meaning people believe that the administration of John Quincy Adams, one of the purest and most conscientious this Republic has ever had, was really a sink of iniquity, and an abomination in the sight of all just men; and that, if such a dreadful event as the reëlection of Adams should happen, it would inevitably be the end of liberty and republican institutions in America. Such a calamity could be prevented only by the election of the "old hero," who, having once been "cheated out of the presidency by bargain and corruption," was now "justly entitled to the office."
On the other hand, the friends of the administration were not entirely idle. The President did not, indeed, give them any encouragement in the way of opening places for them. While being constantly accused of employing the power and patronage of the government to corrupt public opinion, and to dragoon the people into "acquiescence," John Quincy Adams kept the even tenor of his way. The public service was full of his enemies, but he did not remove one of them. Even when well persuaded that McLean, the Postmaster-General, had been intriguing against him and using the patronage of his department in the interest of the opposition, and Clay with other members of the Cabinet urged McLean's dismissal, the President refused, because he thought the Post Office Department was on the whole well conducted. That he did not exclude his friends from place, was perhaps all that could be truthfully said. The administration had, however, some well-written newspapers and able speakers on its side. They vigorously denounced the recklessness of the attacks made upon the government, and spoke of General Jackson as an illiterate "military chieftain." But that phrase was a two-edged weapon; for, while thinking men were moved to the reflection that military chieftains were not the safest chiefs of republics, the masses would see in the military chieftain only the "old hero" who had right gallantly "whipped the Britishers at New Orleans." The Jackson movement thus remained greatly superior in aggressive force and in unscrupulousness of denunciation.
On one occasion, however, this was carried to a very dangerous length by Jackson himself, and Clay apparently scored a great advantage. It is a strange story. In May, 1827, there appeared in a North Carolina newspaper a letter from Carter Beverly of Virginia, concerning a visit made by him to General Jackson at the Hermitage. The General had then said, before a large company, as the letter stated, that, before the election of Mr. Adams, "Mr. Clay's friends made a proposition to Jackson's friends that, if they would promise on his behalf not to put Mr. Adams in the seat of Secretary of State, Mr. Clay and his friends would in one hour make Jackson the President," but that General Jackson had indignantly repelled the proposition. Beverly's letter created much excitement. His veracity being challenged, he fell back upon General Jackson, and the General wrote a long reply, telling the story somewhat differently. According to his account, "a respectable member of Congress" had told him that, as he had been informed by Mr. Clay's friends, Mr. Adams's friends had held out the secretaryship of state to Mr. Clay as a price for his influence, saying that, if General Jackson were elected President, Adams would be continued as Secretary of State, that then "there would be no room for Kentucky," and that, if General Jackson would promise not to continue Mr. Adams as Secretary of State, they would put an end to the presidential contest in one hour. Then he, General Jackson, had contemptuously repelled this "bargain and corruption."
When this letter of General Jackson appeared in the newspapers, Clay thought he had at last what he had long been looking for, — a responsible sponsor for the wretched gossip. He forthwith, in an address to the public, made an unqualified and indignant denial of General Jackson's statements, and called for Jackson's proof. In a very spirited speech delivered at a dinner given him by his old constituents at Lexington, he once more went over the whole dreary story, and in the most pointed language he defied General Jackson to produce his "respectable member of Congress," or, in default thereof, to stand before the American people as a wilful defamer. The General could not evade this, and named James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, as his authority. Now Buchanan had to rise and explain. Accordingly, in a public letter, he denied having spoken to General Jackson on behalf of Mr. Clay or his friends; he had said nothing that General Jackson could have so understood; had he seen reason for suspecting that the General had so understood him at the time, he would have set himself right immediately. He even suggested that the whole story of the attempted bargain might have been an afterthought on the part of the General. Thus Jackson's only witness utterly failed him. Not only that, but Buchanan's letter, together with the correspondence which followed, left ample room for the suspicion that, if bargaining was thought of and attempted, it was rather in the Jackson camp than among Clay's friends.
Clay now felt as if he had the slander under his heel. To make its annihilation quite complete, he called all his friends upon the witness stand. If their votes in Congress had been transferred to Mr. Adams by a corrupt bargain, many persons must have known of it. One after another they came forward in public letters, declaring that, while the election was pending, they had never heard of any attempt at bargaining to control their votes in favor of Mr. Adams, and that, had the attempt been made, they would have refused to be controlled. All these things were elaborately summed up and set forth in another address to the people published by Clay in December.
The case appeared perfect. Clay and his friends were jubilant. Letters of congratulation came pouring in upon him. Webster was lavish in his praise of Clay's dinner speech at Lexington, and thought General Jackson would never recover from the blow he had received. Was it possible that, in the face of this overwhelming evidence, General Jackson should refuse to retract his charges, or that anybody in the United States should still believe them to be true, and have the hardihood to repeat them? It was. General Jackson did not retract. His whole moral sense was subjugated by the dogged belief that a man who seriously disagreed with him must necessarily be a very bad man, capable of any villainy, and must be put down. He attempted no reply to Buchanan's letter and Clay's addresses, but, as we shall see, seventeen years later, at a most critical period in Clay's public life, when Carter Beverly, in a regretful letter to Clay, had retracted all aspersions upon him, Jackson repeated the slander and reaffirmed his belief in it. Neither did General Jackson's friends remain silent; on the contrary, they lustily proclaimed that Buchanan's letter had proved Jackson's charge, and that now there could be no further doubt about it. Among the masses of the people, too, who did not read long explanations and sift evidence, especially in Pennsylvania and in the West and South, the bargain and corruption cry remained as powerful as ever. It became with them a sort of religious belief that, in the year 1824, General Jackson, a guileless soldier, the hero of New Orleans, and the savior of his country, had been cheated out of his rights by two rascally politicians, Clay and Adams, who had corruptly usurped the highest offices of the government, and plotted to destroy the liberties of the American people.
The twentieth Congress, which had been elected while all this was going on, and which assembled in December, 1827, had a majority hostile to the administration in both branches, — a thing which, as Adams dolefully remarked, had never occurred during the existence of the government. Moreover, that opposition was determined, if it could, not only to harass the administration, but utterly to destroy it in the opinion of the country. The only important measure of general legislation passed at this session was the famous tariff of 1828, called the "tariff of abominations," on account of its peculiarly incongruous and monstrous provisions. Members of Congress from New England, where, since 1824, much capital had been turned into manufacturing industry, from the Middle States, and from the West, no matter whether Republicans or Federalists, Jackson men or Adams men, vied with one another in raising protective duties, by a wild log-rolling process, on the different articles in which their constituents were respectively interested. It created great dissatisfaction in the planting states, and more will be said of it when we reach the nullification movement.
The time not occupied by the tariff debate was largely employed in defaming the administration. In the House of Representatives, the struggle between the Jackson men and the adherents of the administration grew almost ludicrously passionate. The opposition were agreed as to the general charge that the administration was most damnable, but they were somewhat embarrassed as to the specifications. One drag-net investigation after another was ordered to help them out. These inquiries brought forth nothing of consequence, but that circumstance served only as a reason for repeating the charges all the louder. The noise of the conflict was prodigious. It increased in volume, and the mutual criminations and recriminations grew in rancor and unscrupulousness as the presidential canvass proceeded after the adjournment of Congress.
Until then the friends of Adams and Clay had mostly contented themselves with the defense of the administration from the accusations which were hurled at it with bewildering violence and profusion. But gradually they, too, warmed up to their work, and it may be said that the campaign of 1828 became one of the most furious and disgusting which the American people has ever witnessed. The passions were excited to fever heat, and all the flood-gates of scurrility opened. The detractors of John Quincy Adams not only assailed his public acts, but they traduced this most scrupulously correct of men as the procurer to the Emperor of Russia of a beautiful American girl. With frantic energy the speakers and newspapers of the Jackson party rang the changes upon the "bargain and corruption" charge, and Clay, although not himself a candidate, was glibly reviled as a professional gambler, a swindling bankrupt, an abandoned profligate, and an accomplice of Aaron Burr. On the other hand, not only the vulnerable points of Jackson's public career were denounced, but also his private character, and even the good name of his wife, were ruthlessly dragged in the dust. Such was the vile war of detraction which raged till the closing of the polls.
Some of Mr. Adams's friends, among them Webster, were hopeful to the last. But Adams himself, and with him the cooler heads on his side, did not delude themselves with flattering expectations. When the votes were counted, it turned out that Adams had carried all New England, with the exception of one electoral vote in Maine; also New Jersey, Delaware, four ninths of the vote of New York, and six of the eleven Maryland votes. South of the Potomac, and west of the Alleghanies, Jackson had swept everything before him. In Pennsylvania he had a popular majority of fifty thousand. The electoral vote for Jackson was one hundred and seventy-eight, that for Adams eighty-three. All the Clay states of 1824 had gone to Jackson. Calhoun was elected Vice-President.
The overwhelming defeat of John Quincy Adams has by some been attributed to the stubborn consistency with which he refused to build up a party for himself by removing his enemies, and distributing the offices of the government among his political friends. This is a mistake. The civil service reformer of our days would say that President Adams did not act wisely, nor according to correct principles, in permitting public servants to take part in the warfare of political parties with as little restraint as if they had been private citizens; for whenever public officers do so, their official power and opportunities are almost always taken advantage of for the benefit of the party, endangering the freedom of elections as well as the integrity of the service. But this is a conclusion formed in our time, when the abuses growing out of a partisan service have fully developed themselves and demand a remedy, which was not then the case. Adams simply followed the traditions of the first administrations. Had he silenced his enemies together with his friends in office, it would have benefited him in the canvass very little. Neither could the use of patronage as a weapon in the struggle have saved him, had he been capable of resorting to it. Patronage so used is always demoralizing, but it can have decisive effect only in quiet times, while the popular mind is languid and indifferent. When there are strong currents of popular feeling and the passions are aroused, a shrewd management of patronage, although it may indeed control the nomination of candidates by packing conventions, will not decide elections. In 1828 there were such elementary forces to encounter. Not only had the Jackson party the more efficient organization and the shrewder managers, but they were favored by a peculiar development in the condition of the popular mind.
In the early times of the Republic the masses of the American people were, owing to their circumstances, uneducated and ignorant, and, owing to traditional habit, they had a reverential respect for superiority of talent and breeding, and yielded readily to its leadership. Their growing prosperity, the material successes achieved by them in the development of the country, strengthened their confidence in themselves; and the result of this widening self-consciousness was the triumph of the democratic theory of government in the election of Jefferson. Still the old habit of readily accepting the leadership of superior intelligence and education remained sufficiently strong to permit the succession of several presidents taken from the ranks of professional statesmen. But there always comes a time in the life of a democracy — and it is a critical period — when the masses grow impatient of all pretensions or admissions of superiority; when a vague distrust of professional statesmanship, of trained skill in the conduct of the government, seizes upon them, and makes them easily believe that those who possess such trained skill will, if constantly intrusted with the management of public affairs, take some sort of advantage of those less trained; that, after all, the business of governing is no more difficult than other business; and that it would be safer to put into the highest places men more like themselves, not skilled statesmen, but "men of the people."
By the time the revolutionary generation of presidents had run out, — that is to say, with the close of Monroe's second administration, — large numbers of voters in the United States had reached that state of mind. Its development was wonderfully favored by the "bargain and corruption" cry, which, after the election of Adams in 1825, represented "the people's candidate" as cheated out of his right to the presidency by a conspiracy of selfish and tricky professional politicians. As this cry was kept resounding all over the country, accompanied with stories of other dreadful encroachments and intrigues, the masses were impressed with the feeling not only that a great wrong had been done, but that some darkly lurking danger was threatening their own rights and liberties, and that nothing but the election of a man of the people, such as "the old hero," could surely save the Republic. This was the real strength of the Jackson movement. It is a significant fact that it was weakest where there were the most schools, and that it gathered its greatest momentum where the people were least accustomed to reading and study, and therefore most apt to be swayed by unreasoning impressions.
No patronage, no machine work, could have stemmed this tide. No man endowed with all the charms of personal popularity could have turned it back. But of all men John Quincy Adams was the least fitted for such a task. We can learn from him how to act upon lofty principles, and also how to make their enforcement thoroughly disagreeable. He possessed in the highest degree that uprightness which leans backward. He had a horror of demagogy, and, lest he should render himself guilty of anything akin to it, he would but rarely condescend to those innocent amenities by which the good-will of others may be conciliated. His virtue was freezing cold of touch, and forbidding in its looks. Not only he did not court, but he repelled popularity. When convinced of being right in an opinion, he would make its expression as uncompromising and aggressive as if he desired rather to irritate than to persuade. His friends esteemed, and many of them admired him, but their devotion and zeal were measured by a cold sense of duty. To the eye of the people he seemed so distant that they were all the more willing to believe ill of him. With such a standard-bearer such a contest was lost as soon as it was begun.
Clay tried to bear the defeat with composure. "The inauspicious issue of the election," he wrote to Niles, "has shocked me less than I feared it would. My health and my spirits, too, have been better since the event was known than they were many weeks before." The hardest blow was that even his beloved Kentucky had refused to follow his leadership, and had joined the triumphal procession of the military chieftain.
On the day before General Jackson's inauguration Clay put his resignation into the hands of Mr. Adams, and thus ended his career as Secretary of State. It may, on the whole, be called a very creditable one, although its failures were more conspicuous than its successes. His greatest affair, that of the Panama Congress, had entirely miscarried. This, however, was not the fault of his management. He had desired to confide the mission to the best diplomatic mind in America, Albert Gallatin, but Gallatin, after some consideration, declined. John Sergeant of Pennsylvania, of whom we have already heard as an anti-slavery man in the Missouri struggle, and Richard C. Anderson of Kentucky, were then selected. Owing to the long delays in Congress, the envoys did not start on their mission until early in the summer of 1826. Anderson died on the way. In his place Joel R. Poinsett, American Minister in Mexico, was instructed to attend the Congress. When Sergeant arrived at Panama, the Congress had adjourned with a resolution to meet again at Tacubaya, in Mexico. But by the time that meeting was to be held, the attention of our southern sister republics was already fully engaged by internal discords and conflicts. The meeting, therefore, never took place, and Sergeant returned without ever having seen the Congress. To Clay this was a deep disappointment. His zeal in behalf of the Spanish American republics had been generous and ardent. He had sincerely believed that national independence and the practice of free institutions would lift those populations out of their ignorance, superstition, and sloth, and develop in them the moral qualities of true freemen. He had battled for their cause, and clung to his hopes even against the light of better information. He had infused some of his enthusiasm into Mr. Adams himself, although the cooler judgment of the President, even in his warmest recommendations to Congress, always kept the contingency of failure in view. Clay had seen his gorgeous conception of a grand brotherhood of free peoples on American soil almost realized, as he thought, by the convocation of the Panama Council. Then the pleasing picture vanished. He was obliged to admit to himself that in the conversation of 1821, concerning the southern republics, Adams, after all, had been right; that free government cannot be established by mere revolutionary decrees; that written constitutions, in order to last, must embody the ways of thinking and the character of the people; that the people of the thirteen North American colonies (to whom revolution and national independence meant not the creation of freedom, but the maintenance of liberties already possessed, enjoyed, and practiced, the defense of principles which had been to them like mother's milk) were an essentially different people from the Spanish Americans, who had grown up under despotic rule, to whom liberty was a new thing they did not know what to do with, and who lived mostly in a tropical climate where the sustenance of animal man requires but little ingenuity and exertion, and where all the influences of nature favor the development of indolence and of the passions rather than the government of thrift, reason, and law.
The disappointment was indeed painful, and he could not refrain from expressing his feelings on a notable occasion. In 1827 Bolivar wrote him a formal letter complimenting him "upon his brilliant talents and ardent love of liberty," adding: "All America, Colombia, and myself owe your Excellency our purest gratitude for the incomparable services you have rendered to us by sustaining our cause with a sublime enthusiasm." Clay answered, nearly a year later, in chilling phrase, that the interest of the people of the United States in the struggles of South America had been inspired by the hope that "along with its independence would be established free institutions, insuring all the blessings of civil liberty," an object to the accomplishment of which the people of the United States were still anxiously looking. But, lest Bolivar might fail in making a practical application of these words, Clay added: "I should be unworthy of the consideration with which your Excellency honors me, if I did not on this occasion state that ambitious designs have been attributed by your enemies to your Excellency, which have created in my mind great solicitude. They have cited late events in Colombia as proofs of these designs. But I cannot allow myself to believe that your Excellency will abandon the bright and glorious path which lies plainly before you, for the bloody road on which the vulgar crowd of tyrants and military despots have so often trodden. I will not doubt that your Excellency will in due time render a satisfactory explanation to Colombia and to the world of the parts of your public conduct which have excited any distrust," and so on. The lecture thus administered by the American statesman to the South American dictator was the voice of sadly disappointed expectations. Clay was probably aware that Bolivar's ambitions were by no means the greatest difficulty threatening the Spanish American republics.
Another disappointment he suffered in the failure of an effort to remedy what he considered the great defect in the Spanish treaty of 1819. In March, 1827, he instructed Poinsett, the American Minister to Mexico, to propose the purchase of Texas. But the attempt came to nothing.
In his commercial diplomacy Clay followed the ideas of reciprocity generally accepted at the time, which not only awarded favor for favor, but also set restriction against restriction. This practice of fighting restriction with equal or greater restriction was apt to work well enough when the opposite party was the one less able to endure the restriction, and therefore obliged by its necessities to give up the fight quickly. But when the restrictions were long maintained, the effect was simply that each party punished its own commerce in seeking to retaliate upon the other. This practice played a great part in the transactions taking place in and between Great Britain and the United States concerning the colonial trade. The traditional policy of Great Britain was to keep the trade with the colonies as exclusively as possible in the hands of the mother country. The United States, of course, desired to have the greatest possible freedom of trade with the British colonies, especially those in America, including the West India islands. Various attempts were made in that direction, but without success. The commercial conventions of 1815 and 1818 between the United States and Great Britain had concluded nothing in this respect, leaving the matter to be regulated by legislation on either side. The result was a confusion of privileges, conditions, and restrictions most perplexing and troublesome. The desirability of a clear mutual understanding being keenly felt, negotiations were resumed. In July, 1825, Parliament passed an act offering large privileges with regard to the colonial trade on condition of complete reciprocity, the acceptance of the conditional offer to be notified to the British government within one year. Congress neglected to take action on the offer. Meanwhile Gallatin, upon whom the government was apt to fall back for difficult diplomatic service, had been appointed Minister to England in the place of Rufus King, whose health had failed. When Gallatin arrived in London he was met by an Order in Council issued on July 27, 1826, prohibiting all commercial intercourse between the United States and the British West Indies. At the same time Canning, the Foreign Secretary, who was fond of treating the United States cavalierly, informed him that all further negotiation upon this subject was declined. A lively exchange of notes followed, in which Gallatin and Clay not only had the best of the argument, but excelled by pointed retorts given in excellent temper. Another session of Congress having passed without action, the President, in accordance with an act passed in 1823, issued a proclamation on March 17, 1827, declaring, on the part of the United States, the prohibition of all trade and intercourse with the ports from which the commerce of the United States was excluded. Soon afterwards Canning died. Lord Goderich rose to the post of Prime Minister, and Gallatin succeeded in making a treaty keeping the convention of 1815 indefinitely in force subject to one year's notice. Thus, while the controversy had not been brought to the desired conclusion, at least nothing was lost; the dignity of the United States was maintained; more dangerous complications were avoided; and the way was prepared for more satisfactory arrangements in the future. But it was, in popular opinion, a failure after all, and, the temporary cutting off of the West India trade being severely felt, naturally told against the administration. It was with regard to this transaction that, as we shall see, Martin Van Buren, when General Jackson's Secretary of State, gave those famous instructions which cost him the consent of the Senate to his nomination as Minister to England.
On the whole, there was evidence of a liberal, progressive spirit in Clay's diplomatic transactions; and it gave him much pleasure to say that, during the period when he was Secretary of State, "more treaties between the United States and foreign nations had been actually signed than had been during the thirty-six years of the existence of the present Constitution." He concluded treaties of amity, commerce, and navigation with Central America, Prussia, Denmark, the Hanseatic Republics, Sweden and Norway, and Brazil, and a boundary treaty with Mexico. With Great Britain he was least successful in bringing matters in controversy to a definite and quite satisfactory conclusion. So a treaty concerning the disputed territory on the northwest coast, the Columbia country, provided only for an extension of the joint occupation agreed upon in the treaty of 1818, thus merely adjourning a difficulty, while by another treaty the northeastern boundary question was referred to a friendly sovereign or state, to be agreed upon, for arbitration.
The one disputed question between Great Britain and the United States which he did bring to a conclusion was one left behind by the treaty of Ghent, — the indemnity for slaves carried off by the British forces in the war of 1812. After seven years of fruitless negotiation, the matter had been referred to the Emperor Alexander of Russia. He decided in favor of the claim. But the British government raised new objections, and a second negotiation followed. Great Britain finally agreed to pay a lump sum for the value of the slaves, and payment was made in 1827. Thus the administration of John Quincy Adams achieved, diplomatically, one of its most decided successes in a matter in which its sympathies were least enlisted. But a kindred question turned up in another form still more unsympathetic. On May 10, 1828, the House of Representatives passed a resolution asking the President to open negotiations with the British government concerning the surrender of slaves taking refuge in Canada. Clay accordingly instructed Gallatin to propose to the British government a stipulation, first, "for the mutual surrender of deserters from the military and naval service and from the merchant service of the two countries;" and, second, "for a mutual surrender of all persons held to service or labor under the laws of one party who escape into the territories of the other." The first proposition was evidently to serve only as a prop to the second; for, as the instruction argued, while Great Britain had little interest in the mutual surrender of fugitive slaves, she had much interest in the mutual surrender of military or naval deserters. The British government, however, as was to be expected, replied promptly that it "was utterly impossible for them to agree to a stipulation for the surrender of fugitive slaves."
The negotiation presents a melancholy spectacle: a republic offering to surrender deserters from the army or navy of a monarchical power, if that power would agree to surrender slaves escaped from their owners in that republic! And this happened under the administration of John Quincy Adams; the instructions were signed by Henry Clay, and the proposition was laid before the British government by Albert Gallatin! It is true that in Clay's despatches on this subject we find nothing of his accustomed strength of statement and fervor of reasoning. Neither did there appear anything like zeal in Gallatin's presentation of the matter. It was a mere perfunctory "going through the motions," as if in expectation of a not unwelcome failure. But even as such, it is a sorry page of history which we should gladly miss. Slavery was a hard taskmaster to the government of this proud American Republic.
It would not be just to assume that a man who had grown up in the anti-slavery school of the revolutionary period, and whose first effort on the political field was made in behalf of emancipation, would lend himself without reluctance to such transactions, unless his conscience had become completely debauched or his opinions thoroughly changed. Clay had remained essentially different, in his ways of thinking and feeling, from the ordinary pro-slavery man. That nervous, sleepless, instinctive watchfulness for the safety of the peculiar institution, which characterized the orthodox slave-holder, was entirely foreign to him. He had to be told what the interests of slavery demanded, in order to see and feel its needs. The original anti-slavery spirit would again and again inspire his impulses and break out in his utterances. We remember how he praised the Spanish American republics for having abolished slavery. In his great "American System" speech he had argued for the superior claims of free labor as against those of "servile labor." He was scarcely seated in the office of Secretary of State, when, in April, 1825, as Mr. Adams recorded, he expressed the opinion that "the independence of Hayti must shortly be recognized," — an idea most horrible to the American slave-holder. When he eagerly accepted the invitation to the Panama Congress, the association with new states that had liberated their slaves, and counted negroes and mulattoes among their generals and legislators, had nothing alarming to him. Little more than a year before he instructed Gallatin to ask of Great Britain the surrender of fugitive slaves from Canada, he had made one of the most striking demonstrations of his genuine feeling at a meeting of the African Colonization Society, which is worthy of special attention.
That society had been organized in 1816, with the object of transporting free negroes to Africa and of colonizing them there. It was in the main composed of two elements, — pro-slavery men, even of the extreme type of John Randolph, who favored the removal of free negroes from this country, because they considered them a dangerous element, a "pest," in slave-holding communities; and philanthropists, some of whom sincerely believed that the exportation of colored people on a grand scale was possible, and would ultimately result in the extinguishment of slavery, while others contented themselves with a vague impression that some good might be done by it, and used it as a convenient excuse for not doing anything more efficacious.
Clay was one of the sincere believers in the colonization scheme as practicable on a grand scale, and as an aid to gradual emancipation. In his speech before the Colonization Society in January, 1827, he tried to prove — and he had armed himself for the task with an arsenal of figures — that it was "not beyond the ability of the country" to export and colonize a sufficient number of negroes to effect a gradual reduction of the colored population in this country, and thus by degrees to eradicate slavery, or at least to neutralize its dangerous effects. We know now that these sanguine calculations were entirely delusive; neither did his prediction come true, that the free negro "pests," when colonized in Africa, would prove the most effective missionaries of civilization on that continent. But he believed in all this; to his mind the colonization scheme was an anti-slavery agency, and it was characteristic of his feelings when he exclaimed: —
"If I could be instrumental in eradicating this deepest stain upon the character of our country, and removing all cause of reproach on account of it by foreign nations; if I could only be instrumental in ridding of this foul blot that revered state which gave me birth, or that not less beloved state which kindly adopted me as her son, I would not exchange the proud satisfaction which I should enjoy for the honor of all the triumphs ever decreed to the most successful conqueror."
We might almost imagine we heard the voice of an apostle of "abolition" in his reply to the charge that the Colonization Society was "doing mischief by the agitation of this question." These were his words, spoken in his most solemn tone: —
"What would they who thus reproach us have done? If they would repress all tendency toward liberty and ultimate emancipation, they must do more than put down the benevolent efforts of this society. They must go back to the era of our liberty and independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunder its annual joyous return. They must revive the slave-trade with all its train of atrocities. They must suppress the workings of British philanthropy, seeking to meliorate the condition of the unfortunate West Indian slaves. They must arrest the career of South American deliverance from thraldom. They must blow out the moral lights around us, and extinguish that greatest torch of all, which America presents to a benighted world, pointing the way to their rights, their liberties, and their happiness. And when they have achieved all these purposes, the work will yet be incomplete. They must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate the light of reason and the love of liberty. Then, and not till then, when universal darkness and despair prevail, can you perpetuate slavery, and repress all sympathies, and all human and benevolent efforts among freemen, in behalf of the unhappy portion of our race doomed to bondage."
This, no doubt, was Henry Clay the man, speaking the language of his heart, and he spoke it, too, at a time when he must have known that the slave-holding interest was growing very sensitive, and that its distrust and disfavor might become fatal to all his ambitions as a candidate for the presidency. Knowing this, he said things which might have come from the most uncompromising and defiant enemy of slavery. Yet this was the same man who had helped to strengthen the law for the recovery of fugitive slaves; who had opposed the exclusion of slavery from new states; who at the beginning of the Adams administration had given the British government to understand that further negotiations for common action for the suppression of the slave-trade would be useless, as the Senate would not confirm such treaties; who, after having made that anti-slavery speech, would lend himself to a negotiation with a foreign government for the mutual surrender of fugitive slaves and military and naval deserters; who would, at a later period, vehemently denounce the abolitionists, again oppose the exclusion of slavery from new territories, again strengthen the fugitive-slave law, while in the intervals repeating his denunciations of slavery, and again declaring himself in favor of gradual emancipation.
This contrast between expression of feeling on the one side, and action on the other, was incomprehensible to the abolitionists, who, after the Missouri struggle, began to make themselves felt by agitating, with constantly increasing zeal, the duty of instantly overthrowing slavery on moral grounds. It is not easily understood by our generation, who look back upon slavery as a moral abnormity in this age, and as the easily discernible cause of great conflicts and calamities, which it would have been best to attack and extinguish, the earlier the better. We can only with difficulty imagine the thoughts and emotions of men of that period, who, while at heart recognizing slavery as a wrong and a curse, yet had some of that feeling expressed by Patrick Henry, in his remarkable letter of 1773, — who thought that the abolition of the great evil, while sure finally to come, would still be impossible for a considerable period, and that in the mean time, while slavery legally existed, it must be protected in its rights and interests against outside interference, and especially against all commotions which might disturb the peace of the community. We can now scarcely appreciate the dread of the consequences of sudden emancipation, the constitutional scruples, the nervous anxiety about the threatened Union, and the vague belief in the efficacy of compromises and palliatives, which animated statesmen of Clay's way of thinking and feeling. It is characteristic of that period, that even a man of John Quincy Adams's stamp, who was not under any pro-slavery influence at home, and all whose instincts and impulses were against slavery, permitted that negotiation with Great Britain about the surrender of fugitive slaves to go on under his presidential responsibility, without mentioning it by a single word in his journal as a matter of importance. Less surprising appears such conduct in Clay, who was constantly worked upon by the interests and anxieties of the slave-holding community in which he had his home, and who was a natural compromiser, because his very nature was a compromise.
His four years service as Secretary of State formed on the whole an unhappy period in Clay's life. Although many of his state papers testify by their vigor and brilliancy to the zest with which they were worked out, — even the cool-headed Gallatin recognized that Clay had "vastly improved since 1814," — yet the office labor, with its constant confinement, grew irksome to him. Here was a lion in a cage. His health suffered seriously. He seemed to be in danger of paralysis, and several times he himself became so alarmed that he could only with difficulty be persuaded by President Adams to remain in office. It was believed by his friends, and it is very probable, that the war of vilification waged against him had something to do with his physical ailment. There is abundance of evidence to prove that he felt deeply the assaults upon his character. The mere fact that anybody dare to represent him as capable of dishonorable practices is a stinging humiliation to a proud man. There is refuge in contempt, but also the necessity of despising any one is painful to a generous nature.
Moreover the feeling grew upon him that he had after all made a great mistake in accepting the secretaryship of state in the Adams administration. He became painfully aware that this acceptance had given color to the "bargain and corruption" charge. It kept him busy year after year, in dreary iteration, at the humiliating task of proving that he was an honest man; while, had he not accepted, he might have remained in Congress, the most formidable power in debate, leading a host of enthusiastic friends, and defying his enemies to meet him face to face. Thus for the secretaryship of state he felt that he had given up his active leadership on the field where he was strongest; and that secretaryship, far from being to him a stepping-stone to the presidency, had become the most serious stumbling-block in his way.
The most agreeable feature of Clay's official life, aside from his uncommon popularity with the diplomatic corps, consisted in his personal relations with Mr. Adams. Their daily intercourse supplanted the prejudices, which formerly had prevailed between them, with a constantly growing esteem and something like friendship. In 1828 Clay said of Adams, in a letter to Crawford: "I had fears of Mr. Adams's temper and disposition, but I must say that they have not been realized, and I have found in him, since I have been associated with him in the executive government, as little to censure or condemn as I could have expected in any man." With chivalrous loyalty Clay stood by his chief, and Adams gave him his full confidence. Adams's Diary does not mention a single serious difference of opinion as having in any manner clouded his relationship with the Secretary during the four years of their official connection. On several occasions, when Clay's ill health seemed to make his resignation necessary, Adams with unusual warmth of feeling expressed the high value he put upon Clay's services, assuring him that it would be extremely difficult to fill his place, and earnestly trying to dissuade him from his purpose. Toward the close of his presidential term, Adams offered Clay a place on the bench of the Supreme Court, which Clay declined. John Quincy Adams probably never spoke with more fervor of any public man than he spoke of Clay shortly after the close of his administration, in answer to an address of a committee of citizens of New Jersey: —
"Upon him the foulest slanders have been showered. The department of state itself was a station which, by its bestowal, could confer neither profit nor honor upon him, but upon which he has shed unfading honor by the manner in which he has discharged its duties. Prejudice and passion have charged him with obtaining that office by bargain and corruption. Before you, my fellow-citizens, in the presence of our country and Heaven, I pronounce that charge totally unfounded. As to my motives for tendering him the Department of State when I did, let the man who questions them come forward. Let him look around among the statesmen and legislators of the nation and of that day. Let him then select and name the man whom, by his preëminent talents, by his splendid services, by his ardent patriotism, by his all-embracing public spirit, by his fervid eloquence in behalf of the rights and liberties of mankind, by his long experience in the affairs of the Union, foreign and domestic, a President of the United States, intent only upon the honor and welfare of his country, ought to have preferred to Henry Clay."
These warm words did honor to the man who spoke them, but the "bargain and corruption" cry went on nevertheless.
John Quincy Adams, after his crushing defeat, took leave of the presidency with the feeling that "the sun of his public life had set in the deepest gloom." He thought of nothing but final retirement, not anticipating that the most glorious part of his career was still in store for him. Clay, too, spoke of retirement. But at the same time he asked Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, whether he thought that, at the next presidential election, in 1832, the Eastern States could be counted upon for him, Henry Clay; he would then feel sure of the Western. Here was the old ambition, ever dominant and restless, bound to drive him into new struggles, and to bring upon him new disappointments.