Life of Henry Clay/12 The Party Chiefs
|←Chapter XI. Secretary of State.||Life of Henry Clay by
Chapter XII. The Party Chiefs.
|Chapter XIII. The Campaign of 1832→|
THE PARTY CHIEFS.
Under Monroe's presidency the old Federal party had indeed maintained a local organization here and there, and filled a few seats in Congress, but it had even then become extinct as a national organization. The Republicans were in virtually undisputed possession of the government. The "era of good feeling" abounded in personal bickerings, jealousies of cliques, conflicts of ambition, and also controversies on matters of public interest, but there was no gathering of forces in opposite camps on a great scale. In the presidential canvass of 1824 all the candidates were recognized as Republicans. It was the election of John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives that brought about the first lasting schism in the Republican ranks. In its beginning this schism appeared to bear an essentially personal character. The friends of the defeated candidates, of Jackson and Crawford, with the following of Calhoun, banded together against the friends of Adams and Clay. Their original rallying cry was that Jackson had been wronged, and that the Adams-Clay administration must be broken down in any event, whatever policy it might follow. The division was simply between Jackson men on one side, and Adams and Clay men on the other.
The two prominent questions of the time, that of the tariff and that of internal improvements, were not then in issue between them. There were strenuous advocates of a high tariff and of internal improvements on both sides. Jackson himself had in his Coleman letter spoken the language of a protectionist, and he had voted for several internal improvement bills while he was in the Senate. In several states he had been voted for as a firm friend of those two policies. Even during the whole of Adams's administration, while a furious opposition was carried on against it, there continued to be much diversity of opinion among its assailants on these subjects. In fact the tariff of 1828, the "tariff of abominations," was passed by Congress, and the strict construction principles maintained by Madison and Monroe concerning internal improvements suffered one defeat after another, while both Houses were controlled by majorities hostile to Adams and Clay. The question of the National Bank was not touched in the campaign of 1824, nor while Adams was President; nor was there, at the time the opposition started, any other defined principle or public interest conspicuously at issue between him and his opponents; for the inaugural address, and the messages in which Adams took such advanced positions in the direction of paternal government, did not precede, but followed, the break destined to become a lasting one.
But it is also true that, while the Jackson party taken as a whole was, at the beginning, in a chaotic state as to political principles and aims, a large and important Southern fraction of it gradually rallied upon something like a fixed programme. At a former period Southern men had been among the foremost advocates of a protective tariff and internal improvements. We have seen Calhoun almost contesting Clay's leadership as to those objects. The governmental power required, Southerners could at that time contemplate without terror. But a great change of feeling came over many of them. The struggle about the admission of Missouri had produced no open and lasting party divisions, but it had left in the Southern mind a lurking sense of danger. The slave-holding interest gradually came to understand that the whole drift of sentiment outside of the slave-holding communities was decidedly hostile to the peculiar institution; that a wall must be built around slavery for its protection; that state sovereignty and the strictest construction of the Constitution concerning the functions and powers of the general government were the bulwark of its safety; that any sort of interference with the home affairs of the Slave States, even in the way of internal improvement, would tend to undermine that bulwark; that the Slave States, owing to their system of labor, must remain purely agricultural communities; that anything enhancing the price of those things which the agriculturists had to buy would be injurious to the planter, and that, therefore, a protective tariff raising the prices of manufactured goods must be rejected as hostile to the interests of the South.
This was a tangible and consistent policy. The spirit animating it early found an opportunity for asserting itself by a partisan demonstration in the extreme position taken by President Adams in his first official utterances concerning the necessary functions of the national government. These utterances, which gave the Jackson men a welcome occasion for raising against Adams the cry of Federalism, startled many old Republicans of the Jeffersonian school. This was especially the case in the South. The reason was not that the North had been less attached than the South to the cause of local self-government. On the contrary, home rule in its democratic form was more perfectly developed and more heartily cherished in New England, with her town-meeting system, than in the South, where not only a large part of the population, the negroes, were absolutely excluded from all participation in self-government, but where the aristocratic class of slave-holders enjoyed immense advantages of political influence over the rest of the whites. But in New England, and in the North generally, local self-government was felt to be perfectly compatible with a vigorous national authority, while at the South there was constant fear of encroachment, and the assertion of the home rule principle was, therefore, mainly directed against the national power. That the national government had a natural tendency hostile to local self-government was mainly a Southern idea.
The Southern interest, knowing what it wanted, compact, vigilant, and represented by able politicians, was naturally destined to become the leading force in that aggregation of political elements which, beginning in a mere wild opposition to the Adams administration, hardened into a political party. An extensive electioneering machinery, which was skillfully organized, and used with great effect in the four years campaign, beginning with the election of John Quincy Adams and ending with Jackson's election in 1828, continued to form one of its distinguishing features.
The followers of Adams and Clay were, by the necessities of their situation, driven to organize on their side. Having been the regular administration party during Adams's presidency, they became the regular opposition after Jackson's inauguration. A majority of those who favored a liberal construction of the constitutional powers of the general government gathered on that side, interspersed, however, with not a few state-rights men. Among them the protective tariff and the policy of internal improvements found most of their advocates.
Each of these new parties claimed at first to be the genuine, orthodox Republican party, but, by way of distinction, the Jackson men called themselves Democratic Republicans, and the followers of Clay and Adams National Republicans, — appellations which a few years later gave room to the shorter names of Democrats and Whigs.
These two new political organizations are commonly assumed to have been mere revivals of the old Federal and Republican parties. This they were, however, only in a limited sense. It certainly cannot be said that the Democrats were all old Republicans, and the Nationals all, or nearly all, old Federalists. John Quincy Adams himself had indeed been a Federalist; but he had joined the Republicans during Jefferson's presidency, when the conflict with England was approaching. Clay had been a Republican leader from the start, and most of his followers came from the same ranks. On the other hand many old Federalists, who hated Adams on account of what they called his desertion, joined the opposition to his administration, and then remained with the Democratic party, in which some of them rose to high places. As to the antecedents of their members, both new parties were, therefore, composed of mixed elements.
They did, indeed, represent two different political tendencies, somewhat corresponding with those which had divided their predecessors, — one favoring a more strict, the other a more latitudinarian, construction of constitutional powers. But this, too, must be taken with a qualification. The old Republican party, before Jefferson's election to the presidency, had been terribly excited at the assumptions of power by the Federalists, such as the alien and sedition laws. But when in possession of the government, they went fully as far in that direction as the Federalists had done. Their leaders admitted that they had exceeded the warrant of the Constitution in the purchase of Louisiana; and their embargoes, and the laws and executive measures enforcing them, were, as encroachments upon local self-government and individual rights, hardly less objectionable in principle than the alien and sedition laws had been. But it must be admitted that these things were not done for the purpose of enlarging the power of the government, and of encroaching upon home rule and individual rights. It was therefore with a self-satisfied sense of consistency that they continued to preach, as a matter of doctrine, the most careful limitation of the central power and the largest scope of local self-government. In this respect the new Democratic party followed in their footsteps.
The old Federalists, on the other hand, had openly declared themselves in favor of a government strong enough to curb the unruly democracy. The National Republicans, or Whigs, having in great part themselves been Jeffersonian Republicans, mostly favored a liberal construction of constitutional powers, not with a view to curbing the unruly democracy, but to other objects, such as internal improvements, a protective tariff, and a national bank.
In practice, indeed, the lines thus more or less distinctly dividing the two new parties were not as strictly observed by the members of each as might have been inferred from the fierce fights occasionally raging between them. Strict constructionists, when in power, would sometimes yield to the temptation of stretching the Constitution freely; while latitudinarians in opposition would, when convenient to themselves, insist upon the narrowest interpretation of the fundamental law. On the whole, however, the new Democratic party, by its advocacy of the largest local self-government and a strict limitation of the central authority, secured to itself the prestige of the apostolic succession to Jefferson. It placed itself before the people as the true representative of the genuine old theory of democratic government, as the popular party, and as the legitimate possessor of power in the nation. This position it maintained until thirty years later, when its entanglement with slavery caused its downfall.
The National Republican, or Whig party, was led by men who recognized the elevated character of John Quincy Adams's administration, and who sustained it against partisan assaults and popular clamor. They dreaded the rule of an ignorant and violent military chieftain such as Jackson was thought to be. They took a lively interest in the industrial developments of the times, and thought that the government, or rather themselves in possession of the government, could give those developments more intelligent impulse, aid, and direction than the people would do if let alone. They felt themselves called upon to take care of the people in a larger sense, in a greater variety of ways, than did statesmen of the Democratic creed. Thus, while the Democratic party found its principal constituency among the agricultural population, including the planters in the Southern States, with all that depended upon them, and among the poorer and more ignorant people of the cities, the National Republicans, or Whigs, recruited themselves — of course not exclusively, but to a conspicuous extent — among the mercantile and industrial classes, and generally among the more educated and stirring in other walks of life. The Democratic party successfully asserting itself as the legitimate administrator of the national power, the Nationals found themselves consigned, for the larger part of the time, to the rôle of a critical opposition, always striving to get into power, but succeeding only occasionally as a temporary corrective. Whenever any members of the majority party were driven into opposition by its fierce discipline, they found a ready welcome among the Nationals, who could offer them brilliant company in an uncommon array of men of talent. The Whig party was thus admirably fitted for the business of criticism, and that criticism was directed not only against the enemy, but not seldom against itself, at the expense of harmonious coöperation. Its victories were mostly fruitless. In point of drill and discipline it was greatly the inferior of its antagonist; nor could it under ordinary circumstances make up for that deficiency by superior enthusiasm. It had a tendency in the direction of selectness, which gave it a distinguished character, challenging the admiration of others as well as exciting its own, but also calculated to limit its popularity.
There were, then, two political parties again, and at the same time two party leaders whose equals — it may be said without exaggeration — the American people had never seen before, and have never seen since, excepting Abraham Lincoln, who, however, was something more than a party leader. They were, indeed, greatly inferior to Hamilton in creative statesmanship, and to Jefferson in the faculty of disseminating ideas, and of organizing, stimulating, and guiding an agitation from the closet. But they were much stronger than either in the power of inspiring great masses of followers with enthusiastic personal devotion, of inflaming them for an idea or a public measure, of marshaling them for a conflict, of leading them to victory, or rallying them after defeat. But while each of them possessed the magic of leadership in the highest degree, it would be difficult to find two men more different in almost all other respects.
Andrew Jackson, when he became President, was a man of sixty-two. A life of much exposure, hardship, and excitement, and also ill-health, had made him appear older than he was. His great military achievement lay fifteen years back in the past, and made him the "old hero." He was very ignorant. In his youth he had mastered scarcely the rudiments of education, and he did not possess that acquisitive intellectuality which impels men, with or without preparation, to search for knowledge and to store it up. While he had keen intuitions, he never thoroughly understood the merits of any question of politics or economics. But his was in the highest degree the instinct of a superior will, the genius of command. If he had been on board a vessel in extreme danger, he would have thundered out his orders without knowing anything of seamanship, and been indignantly surprised if captain and crew had not obeyed him. At a fire, his voice would have made by-standers as well as firemen promptly do his will. In war, he was of course made a general, and without any knowledge of military science he went out to meet the enemy, made raw militia fight like veterans, and won the most brilliant victory in the war of 1812. He was not only brave himself; his mere presence infused bravery into others.
To his military heroship he owed that popularity which lifted him into the presidential chair, and he carried the spirit of the warrior into the business of the government. His party was to him his army; those who opposed him, the enemy. He knew not how to argue, but how to command; not how to deliberate, but how to act. He had that impulsive energy which always creates dramatic conflicts, and the power of passion he put into them made all his conflicts look tremendous. When he had been defeated in 1825 by the influence of Clay, he made it appear as if he were battling against all the powers of corruption which were threatening the life of the Republic. We shall see him fight Nicholas Biddle, of the United States Bank, as if he had to defend the American people against the combined money power of the world seeking to enslave them. In rising up against nullification, and in threatening France with war to make her pay a debt, we shall see him saving the Union from deadly peril, and humiliating to the dust the insolence of the old world. Thus he appeared like an invincible Hercules constantly meeting terrible monsters dangerous to the American people, and slaying them all with his mighty club.
This fierce energy was his nature. It had a wonderful fascination for the popular fancy, which is fond of strong and bold acts. He became the idol of a large portion of the people to a degree never known before or since. Their belief was that with him defeat was impossible; that all the legions of darkness could not prevail against him; and that, whatever arbitrary powers he might assume, and whatever way he might use them, it would always be for the good of the country, — a belief which he sincerely shared. His ignorance of the science of statesmanship, and the rough manner in which he crossed its rules, seemed to endear him all the more to the great mass of his followers. In numerable anecdotes about his homely and robust sayings and doings were going from mouth to mouth, and with delight the common man felt that this potent ruler was "one of us."
This popularity gave him an immense authority over the politicians of his party. He was a warm friend and a tremendous foe. By a faithful friend he would stand to the last extremity. But one who seriously differed from him on any matter that was near his heart, was in great danger of becoming an object of his wrath. The ordinary patriot is apt to regard the enemies of his country as his personal enemies. But Andrew Jackson was always inclined, with entire sincerity, to regard his personal opponents as the enemies of his country. He honestly believed them capable of any baseness, and it was his solemn conviction that such nuisances must be abated by any power available for that purpose. The statesmen of his party frequently differed from him on matters of public importance; but they knew that they had to choose between submission and his disfavor. His friends would sometimes exercise much influence upon him in starting his mind in a certain direction; but when once started, that mind was beyond their control. His personal integrity was above the reach of corruption. He always meant to do right; indeed, he was always firmly convinced of being right. His idea of right was not seldom obscured by ignorance and prejudice, and in following it he would sometimes do the most unjust or dangerous things. But his friends, and the statesmen of his party, knowing that, when he had made up his mind, especially on a matter that had become a subject of conflict between him and his "enemies," it was absolutely useless to reason with him, accustomed themselves to obeying orders, unless they were prepared to go to the rear or into opposition. It was, therefore, not a mere invention of the enemy, but sober truth, that, when Jackson's administration was attacked, sometimes the only answer left to its defenders, as well as the all-sufficient one with the Democratic masses, was simply a "Hurrah for Jackson!"
Henry Clay was, although in retirement, the recognized chief of the National Republicans. He was then fifty-two years old, and in the full maturity of his powers. He had never been an arduous student; but his uncommonly vivacious and receptive mind had learned much in the practical school of affairs. He possessed that magnificent confidence in himself which extorts confidence from others. He had a full measure of the temper necessary for leadership: the spirit of initiative; but not always the discretion that should accompany it. His leadership was not of that mean order which merely contrives to organize a personal following; it was the leadership of a statesman zealously striving to promote great public interests. Whenever he appeared in a deliberative assembly, or in the councils of his party, he would, as a matter of course, take in his hands what important business was pending, and determine the policy to be followed. His friends, and some even among his opponents, were so accustomed to yield to him, that nothing seemed to them concluded without the mark of his assent; and they involuntarily looked to him for the decisive word as to what was to be done. Thus he grew into a habit of dictation, which occasionally displayed itself in a manner of peremptory command, and an intolerance of adverse opinion apt to provoke resentment.
It was his eloquence that had first made him famous, and that throughout his career mainly sustained his leadership. His speeches were not masterpieces of literary art, nor exhaustive dissertations. They do not offer to the student any profound theories of government or expositions of economic science. They will not be quoted as authorities on disputed points. Neither were they strings of witty epigrams. They were the impassioned reasoning of a statesman intensely devoted to his country and to the cause he thought right. There was no appearance of artifice in them. They made every listener feel that the man who uttered them was tremendously in earnest, and that the thoughts he expressed had not only passed through his brain, but also through his heart. They were the speeches of a great debater, and, as may be said of those of Charles James Fox, cold print could never do them justice. To be fully appreciated they had to be heard on the theatre of action, in the hushed senate chamber, or before the eagerly upturned faces of assembled multitudes. To feel the full charm of his lucid explanations, and his winning persuasiveness, or the thrill which was flashed through the nerves of his hearers by the magnificent sunbursts of his enthusiasm, or the fierce thunderstorms of his anger and scorn, one had to hear that musical voice cajoling, flattering, inspiring, overawing, terrifying in turn, — a voice to the cadences of which it was a physical delight to listen; one had to see that face, not handsome, but glowing with the fire of inspiration; that lofty mien, that commanding stature constantly growing under his words, and the grand sweep of his gesture, majestic in its dignity, and full of grace and strength, — the whole man a superior being while he spoke.
Survivors of his time, who heard him at his best, tell us of the effects produced by his great appeals in the House of Representatives or the Senate, the galleries trembling with excitement, and even the members unable to contain themselves; or, in popular assemblies, the multitudes breathlessly listening, and then breaking out in unearthly shouts of enthusiasm and delight, weeping and laughing, and rushing up to him with overwhelming demonstrations of admiring and affectionate rapture.
Clay's oratory sometimes fairly paralyzed his opponents. A story is told that Tom Marshall, himself a speaker of uncommon power, was once selected to answer Clay at a mass meeting, but that he was observed, while Clay was proceeding, slowly to make his way back through the listening crowd, apparently anxious to escape. Some of his friends tried to hold him, saying: "Why, Mr. Marshall, where are you going? You must reply to Mr. Clay. You can easily answer all he has said." "Of course, I can answer every point," said Marshall, "but you must excuse me, gentlemen; I cannot go up there and do it just now, after his speech."
There was a manly, fearless frankness in the avowal of his opinions, and a knightly spirit in his defense of them, as well as in his attacks on his opponents. He was indeed, on the political field, the preux chevalier, marshaling his hosts, sounding his bugle blasts, and plunging first into the fight; and with proud admiration his followers called him "the gallant Harry of the West."
No less brilliant and attractive was he in his social intercourse with men; thoroughly human in his whole being; full of high spirits; fond of enjoying life and of seeing others happy; generous and hearty in his sympathies; always courteous, sometimes studiously and elaborately so, perhaps beyond what the occasion seemed to call for, but never wounding the most sensitive by demonstrative condescension, because there was a truly kind heart behind his courtesy; possessing a natural charm of conversation and manner so captivating that neither scholar nor backwoodsman could withstand its fascination; making friends wherever he appeared, and holding them — and surely to no public man did friends ever cling with more affectionate attachment. It was not a mere political, it was a sentimental devotion, — a devotion abandoning even that criticism which is the duty of friendship, and forgetting or excusing all his weaknesses and faults, intellectual, and moral, — more than was good for him.
Behind him he had also the powerful support of the industrial interests of the country, which saw in him their champion, while the perfect integrity of his character forbade the suspicion that this championship was serving his private gain.
Such were the leaders of the two parties as they then stood before the country, — individualities so pronounced and conspicuous, commanders so faithfully sustained by their followers, that, while they were facing each other, the contests of parties appeared almost like a protracted political duel between two men. It was a struggle of singular dramatic interest.
There was no fiercer hater than Andrew Jackson, and no man whom he hated so fiercely as he did Henry Clay. That hatred was the passion of the last twenty years of his life. He sincerely deemed Clay capable of any villainy, and no sooner had he the executive power in his hands than he used it to open hostilities. His cabinet appointments were determined upon several days before his inauguration as President. Five of the places were filled with men who had made their mark as enemies of Clay. Among these were two Senators, who in 1825 had voted against the nomination of Clay for the secretaryship of state, — Branch of North Carolina, whom Jackson made Secretary of the Navy, and Berrien, who became Attorney General. Eaton of Tennessee, whom Jackson selected as his Secretary of War, was the principal author of the "bargain and corruption" story; and Ingham of Pennsylvania, the elect for the Treasury Department, had distinguished himself in his state by the most zealous propagation of the slander. Barry of Kentucky, chosen for the postmaster generalship, possessed the merit of having turned against Clay in 1825, on account of the "bargain and corruption," and of having contested Kentucky in 1828 as the anti-Clay candidate for Governor.
But the most striking exhibition of animosity took place in the State Department, at the head of which had stood Clay himself so long as John Quincy Adams was President. General Jackson had selected Martin Van Buren for that office; but Van Buren, being then Governor of New York, could not at once come to Washington to enter upon his new position. Jackson was determined that the State Department should not remain in any sense under the Clay influence for so much as an hour after he became President. On March 4, just before he went to the Capitol to take the oath of office, he put into the hands of Colonel James A. Hamilton of New York, his trusted adherent, a letter running thus: "Sir, — You are appointed to take charge of the Department of State, and to perform the duties of that office until Governor Van Buren arrives in this city. Your obedient servant, Andrew Jackson." A strange proceeding! Colonel Hamilton's account of what then took place is characteristic: "He (General Jackson) said, 'Colonel, you don't care to see me inaugurated?' 'Yes, General, I do; I came here for that purpose.' 'No; go to the State House, and as soon as you hear the gun fired, I am President and you are Secretary. Go and take charge of the department.' I do not state the reason he gave for this haste." Colonel Hamilton did as directed, and the moment the gun was fired, the danger that Clay might still exercise any influence in the State Department was averted from the country. The removal of Clay's friends, who were in the public service, began at once.
Three days after Jackson's inauguration Clay addressed his friends at a dinner given in his honor by citizens of Washington. He deplored the election to the presidency of a military hero, entirely devoid of the elements of fitness for so difficult a civil position. He beheld in it "an awful foreboding of the fate which, at some future day, was to befall this infant Republic." He recounted the military usurpations which had recently taken place in South and Central America, and said: "The thunders from the surrounding forts and the acclamations of the multitude on the Fourth, told us what general was at the head of our affairs." And he added, sadly: "A majority of my fellow-citizens, it would seem, do not perceive the dangers which I apprehend from the example." He also mentioned the "wanton, unprovoked, and unatoned injustice" which General Jackson had done him. Nevertheless, Jackson was now President, and his acts were to be discussed with decorum, and judged with candor.
Clay was mistaken if he thought that the well-used refrain about the military chieftain raised to the presidency without any of the statesman's qualifications, would still produce any effect upon the masses of the American people. They felt, at that period, exceedingly prosperous and hopeful. The improved means of communication — all the accessible inland waters being covered with steamboats — had greatly promoted the material progress of the country. Railroad building had just begun, and opened a vast prospect of further development. In the public mind there was little anxiety and plenty of gorgeous expectation. Under such circumstances the generality of people did not feel the necessity of being taken care of by trained statesmanship. On the contrary, the only alarm of the time — and that an artificial and groundless one — had been that the trained statesmen were in corrupt combination to curtail in some way the people's rights, from which danger the election of General Jackson was supposed to have saved them. The masses saw in him a man who thought as they thought, who talked as they talked, who was believed to be rather fond of treading on the toes of aristocratic pretensions, who was a living proof of the fact that it did not require much learning to make a famous general or to be elected President, and whose example, therefore, assured them that every one of them had a chance at high distinction for himself.
But President Jackson soon furnished a new point of attack. For the first time in the history of the Republic, the accession of a new President was followed by a systematic proscription for opinion's sake in the public service. What we understand by "spoils politics" had, indeed, not been unknown before. It had been practiced largely and with demoralizing effect in the state politics of New York and Pennsylvania. But by the patriotic statesmen who filled the presidential chair from the establishment of the Constitution down to the close of the term of John Quincy Adams, public office had been scrupulously regarded as a public trust. Removals by wholesale for political reasons, or the turning over of the public service to the members of one party as a reward for partisan services rendered, or as an inducement for partisan services to be rendered, would have been thought, during the first half century of the Republic, not only a scandal and a disgrace, but little less than a criminal attempt to overthrow free institutions. Even when, after a fierce struggle, the government passed, by the election of Jefferson, from the Federalists to the Republicans, and the new President found the bulk of the offices in the hands of men whom the victors considered inimical to all they held dear, — even at that period of intense party feeling, Jefferson made only thirty-nine removals in the eight years during which he occupied the presidential chair. Some of these were made for cause; others he justified upon the ground, not that the offices were patronage which the victors could rightly claim, but that there should be members of each party in the service, to show that neither had, even temporarily, a monopoly right to them, and that, this fair distribution being accomplished, appointments should thereafter, regardless of party connection, depend exclusively on the candidate's integrity, business fitness, and fidelity to the Constitution. This sentiment was so firmly rooted in the public mind that even Jackson, at the beginning of Monroe's administration, advised the President against excluding from office members of the opposite party.
When he himself became President he announced in his inaugural address that the popular will had imposed upon him "the task of reform," which would require "particularly the correction of those abuses that have brought the patronage of the federal government into conflict with the freedom of elections." Never was the word "reform" uttered with a more sinister meaning. An immense multitude had assembled in Washington to see their party chief invested with the executive power, and to claim their rewards for the services they had rendered him. It was as if a victorious army had come to take possession of a conquered country, expecting their general to distribute among them the spoil of the land. A spectacle was enacted never before known in the capital of the Republic.
Jackson had not that reason for making partisan changes which had existed in Jefferson's days. For when Jackson became President the civil service was teeming with his adherents, whom John Quincy Adams's scrupulous observance of the traditional principle had left undisturbed in their places. There was, therefore, no party monopoly in the public service to be broken up. Yet now removals and appointments were made with the avowed object of rewarding friends and punishing opponents, to the end of establishing, as to the offices of the government, a monopoly in favor of the President's partisans. Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams had made in all seventy-four removals, all but a few for cause, during the forty years of their aggregate presidential terms. In one year, the first of his administration, Jackson removed four hundred and ninety-one postmasters and two hundred and thirty-nine other officers, and, since the new men appointed new clerks and other subordinates, the sum total of changes in that year was reckoned at more than two thousand. The first arbitrary dismissals of meritorious men indicated what was to come, and threw the service into the utmost consternation. "Among the official corps here," wrote Clay on March 12, the day before his departure from Washington, "there is the greatest solicitude and apprehension. The members of it feel something like the inhabitants of Cairo when the plague breaks out: no one knows who is next to encounter the stroke of death, or, which with many of them is the same thing, to be dismissed from office. You have no conception of the moral tyranny which prevails here over those in employment." Bad as this appeared, it was not the worst of it. The "spoils system," full fledged, had taken possession of the national government, and, as we shall see, its most baneful effects were soon to appear.
Clay foresaw the consequences clearly, and, at a great public feast given to him by his neighbors upon his arrival at his home, he promptly raised his voice against the noxious innovation. This principle he laid down as his starting-point: "Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people." In solemn words of prophecy he painted the effects which the systematic violation of this principle, inaugurated by Jackson, must inevitably bring about: political contests turned into scrambles for plunder; a "system of universal rapacity" substituted for a system of responsibility; favoritism for fitness; "Congress corrupted, the press corrupted, general corruption; until, the substance of free government having disappeared, some pretorian band would arise, and, with the general concurrence of a distracted people, put an end to useless forms." This was the protest of the good old order of things against the new disorder. Such warnings, however, were in vain. They might move impartially thinking men to serious reflections. But Jackson was convinced that the political opponents he dismissed from office were really very dangerous persons, whom it was a patriotic duty to render harmless; and the Democratic masses thought that Jackson could do no wrong. Many of them found something peculiarly flattering in this new conception of democratic government, that neither high character nor special ability, but only political opinions of the right kind, should be required to fit an American citizen for the service of his country; that, while none but a good accountant would be accepted to keep the books of a dry-goods shop, anybody might keep the books of the United States Treasury; that, while nobody would think of taking as manager of an importing business a man who did not know something of merchandise, anybody was good enough to be an appraiser in a custom-house.
Indeed, the manner in which Jackson selected his cabinet was characteristic of the ruling idea. Colonel James A. Hamilton, one of his confidential advisers at that time, tells us in his "Reminiscences": "In this important work by President Jackson, no thought appeared to be given as to the fitness of the persons for their places. I am sure I never heard one word in relation thereto, and I certainly had repeated conversations with him in regard to these appointments." To be a good hater of Henry Clay was considered a greater requisite for a cabinet place than statesmanlike ability and experience. In this way Jackson collected in his executive council, with the exception of one or two, a rare assortment of mediocrities; and nothing could have been more characteristic than that the matter which most distracted this high council of statesmen was a difference of opinion concerning — not some important public question, but the virtue of Secretary Eaton's wife. The principle that the fitness of a man for a place, in point of character and acquirements, had nothing to do with his appointment to that place, was at once recognized and exemplified above and below; and thus a virus was infused into the politics of the nation, destined to test to the utmost the native robustness of the American character.
Clay was nominally in retirement. When, after his return from Washington, the representative of his district in Congress offered to vacate the seat in order that he might succeed to it, he declined. Neither would he accept a place in the legislature of Kentucky. For a while he heartily enjoyed the quiet life of the farmer. He delighted in raising fine animals, — horses, blood cattle, mules, pigs, and sheep. He corresponded with his friends about a lot of "fifty full-blooded merino ewes," which he had bought in Pennsylvania. His dairy was profitably managed by his excellent wife. He raised good crops of hemp and corn. But, after all, the larger part of his correspondence ran on congressional elections, the prospects of his party, and the doings of President Jackson. He thought that Jackson could not possibly hold his following together. Jackson's friends in Congress "must decide on certain leading measures of policy;" if he came out for the tariff, the South would leave him; if against the tariff, there would be "such an opposition to him in the tariff states as must prevent his reëlection," — in all which prophesyings the prophet proved mistaken. He also believed that the great majority at the last election was directed rather against Mr. Adams than against himself, and that his own public position was improving from day to day.
After the great defeat of 1828 the plaudits of the multitude were especially sweet to him. On his way from Washington to Lexington in March, he had been received everywhere by crowds of enthusiastic admirers. With profound complacency he wrote to a friend: "My journey has been marked by every token of attachment and heartfelt demonstrations. I never experienced more testimonies of respect and confidence, nor more enthusiasm, — dinners, suppers, balls, etc. I have had literally a free passage. Taverns, stages, tollgates, have been generally thrown open to me, free from all charge. Monarchs might be proud of the reception with which I have everywhere been honored."
After a short period of rest at Ashland, he could not withhold himself from fresh contact with the people. During the autumn of 1829 he visited several places in Kentucky; and in January, 1830, he went to New Orleans and the principal towns on the Mississippi, where he had one ovation after another. In the spring he wrote to his friends again about the delights of his rural occupations, — how he was almost "prepared to renounce for ever the strifes of public life," and how he thought he would make "a better farmer than statesman." But in the summer of the same year we find him at Columbus, Cincinnati, and other places in Ohio, being "received" and feasted, and speaking as he went. It was "private business" that led him there, but private business well seasoned with politics, and accompanied with brass bands and thundering cannon. In an elaborate speech on the questions of the day, which he delivered at Cincinnati in August, 1830, he could not refrain from describing his experiences.
"Throughout my journey (he said), undertaken solely for private purposes, there has been a constant effort on my side to repress, and on that of my fellow-citizens of Ohio to exhibit, public manifestations of their affection and confidence. It has been marked by a succession of civil triumphs. I have been escorted from village to village, and have everywhere found myself surrounded by large concourses of my fellow-citizens, often of both sexes, greeting and welcoming me."
No wonder that his sanguine nature was inspired with new hope, and that he felt himself to be the man who could rally the defeated hosts, and overthrow the "military chieftain" with all his "pretorian bands."
He was certainly not alone in thinking so. It began to be looked upon as a matter of course among the National Republicans that Clay would be their candidate against Jackson in 1832. On May 29, 1830, Daniel Webster wrote to him: "You are necessarily at the head of one party, and General Jackson will be, if he is not already, identified with the other. The question will be put to the country. Let the country decide it." But in the mean time a curious movement had sprung up, dividing the opposition of which Clay was the head. It was the Anti-Masonic movement. In 1826 one Captain William Morgan, a brick layer living at Batavia, in western New York, undertook to write a book revealing the secrets of Freemasonry. Some Freemasons of the neighborhood sought to persuade and then to force him, by all sorts of chicanery, to give up his design, but without success. He was then abducted, and, as was widely believed, murdered. The crime was charged upon some fanatical Freemasons; but the whole order was accused of countenancing it, and was held responsible for obstructing the course of justice on the occasion of the investigations and trials which followed. The excitement springing from these occurrences, at first confined to one or two counties in western New York, gradually spread, and grew into a crusade against secret societies bound together by oaths. In spite of the efforts of leading politicians to restrain it — for they feared its disorganizing influence — it soon assumed a political character, and then some of them vigorously turned it to their advantage. Beginning with a few country towns where the citizens organized for the exclusion of all Freemasons from office, the "Anti-Masons" rapidly extended their organizations over the western half of the state. Committees were formed, conventions were held, and not a few men of standing and influence took an active part in the movement. In 1828, when Adams and Jackson were the presidential candidates, the Anti-Masons were mostly on the side of Adams; while the Masons generally rallied under Jackson's flag, who was himself a Mason. The Anti-Masons, however, refusing to support the candidate of the National Republicans for the governorship of New York, made a nomination of their own for that office. The result was the election of the Jackson candidate, Martin Van Buren. But from the large vote polled by the Anti-Masons it appeared that in the state election the balance of power had been in their hands. They also elected many members of the legislature, and secured a representation in Congress. Thus encouraged, the movement invaded the Western Reserve of Ohio, and won many adherents in Vermont, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Indiana. It had its newspaper organs and a "Review," and presently it was prepared to contest a presidential election as a "party."
Clay had many friends among the Anti-Masons who would have been glad to obtain from him some declaration of sentiment favorable to their cause, in order to make possible a union of forces. But he gave them no encouragement. To the many private entreaties addressed to him he uniformly replied that he did not desire to make himself a party to that dispute; that, although he had been initiated in the order, he had long ceased to be a member of any lodge; that he had never acted, either in private or in public life, under any Masonic influence, but that Masonry or Anti-Masonry had in his opinion nothing to do with politics.
He believed that, if the Anti-Masons were seriously thinking of nominating a candidate of their own for the presidency, they would not find a man of weight willing to stand, and that the bulk of the Anti-Masonic forces would drift over to himself. In this expectation he was disappointed. The Anti-Masons held a national convention at Baltimore in September, 1831, which nominated for the presidency William Wirt, late Attorney General under Monroe and John Quincy Adams; and for the vice-presidency, Amos Ellmaker of Pennsylvania. Wirt was at heart in favor of Clay's election, but, having once accepted the Anti-Masonic nomination, he found it impossible to withdraw from the field. Some of the leading Anti-Masons indulged in the hope that Clay himself might be prevailed upon to give up his candidacy, and permit the whole opposition to the Jackson régime to be united under Anti-Masonic auspices. Far from entertaining such a proposition, he declared, with sharp emphasis, in a public letter to a committee of citizens of Indiana, that the Constitution did not give the general government the slightest power to interfere with the subject of Freemasonry, and that he thought the presidential office should be filled by one who was capable, "unswayed by sectarian feelings or passions, of administering its high duties impartially towards the whole people, however divided into religious, social, benevolent, or literary associations."
He felt so strongly on this point that he wrote to his friend Brooke: "If the alternative be between Andrew Jackson and an Anti-Masonic candidate, with his exclusive prescriptive principles, I should be embarrassed in the choice. I am not sure that the old tyranny is not better than the new." It is not surprising that he, with many others, should have under-estimated the strength of the movement. We find it now hard to believe that men of good sense should have seriously thought of making the question of Freemasonry the principal issue of a national contest upon which the American people were to divide. But we meet among those who were prominently engaged in that enterprise such names as William H. Seward, Thurlow Weed, Francis Granger, Thaddeus Stevens, Richard Rush and William Wirt, two of Clay's colleagues in Adams's Cabinet, and even John Quincy Adams himself. Indeed, while Clay would have been loath to choose between Jackson and an Anti-Masonic candidate, Adams gravely wrote in his Diary: "The dissolution of the Masonic institution in the United States I believe to be really more important to us and our posterity than the question whether Mr. Clay or General Jackson shall be the President chosen at the next election." The Anti-Masonic movement furnished a curious example of mental contagion. But odd as it was, it kept the opposition to Jackson divided.
Many things had in the mean time occurred which created a loud demand for Clay's personal presence and leadership on the theatre of action at the national capital. President Jackson, treating the members of his Cabinet more as executive clerks than as political advisers, and dispensing with regular cabinet meetings, had surrounded himself with the famous "Kitchen Cabinet," a little coterie of intimates, from whom he largely received his political inspirations and advice, — a secret council of state, withdrawn entirely from public responsibility, consisting of able, crafty, personally honest men, skillful politicians, courageous to audacity, and thoroughly devoted to General Jackson. The members of this secret council were William B. Lewis from Tennessee, one of Jackson's warmest home friends; Isaac Hill of New Hampshire; Amos Kendall, who was employed in the Treasury; and Duff Green, the editor of Jackson's first newspaper organ. He fell from grace as being a friend of Calhoun, and was supplanted by Francis P. Blair. Kendall and Blair had been journalists in Kentucky, and near friends of Henry Clay, but had turned against him mainly in consequence of the so-called "relief" movement in that state, which, as already mentioned, was one of those epidemic infatuations which make people believe that they can get rid of their debts and become rich by legislative tricks and the issue of promises to pay. The movement developed intense hostility to the Bank of the United States. There had been personal disputes, too, between Clay and Kendall, engendering much ill feeling. The existence and known influence of the Kitchen Cabinet kept the political world in constantly strained expectation as to what would turn up next.
The "Globe" newspaper had been established, with Francis P. Blair in the editorial chair, as President Jackson's organ, to direct and discipline his own party, and to castigate its opponents.
In his first message to Congress, in December, 1829, President Jackson had thrown out threatening hints as to the policy of rechartering the Bank of the United States, the charter of which would expire in 1836; and in the message of 1830 those threats were repeated. The approaching extinction of the national debt rendering a reduction of the revenue necessary, there was much apprehension as to what the fate of the protective tariff would be. Large meetings of free-traders as well as of protectionists were held to influence legislation.
President Jackson had vetoed the "Marysville Road Bill," and thereby declared his hostility to the policy of internal improvements. With regard to the proceedings of the State of Georgia against the Cherokees, President Jackson had submitted to the extreme state-sovereignty pretensions of the state, in disregard — it might be said, in defiance — of the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States.
A great commotion had arisen in South Carolina against the tariff laws, leading to the promulgation of the doctrine that any single state had the power to declare a law of the United States unconstitutional, void, and not binding, — the so-called nullification theory. Webster had thrilled the country with his celebrated plea for Liberty and Union in his reply to Hayne, winning a "noble triumph," as Clay called it in a letter. Jackson had, at a banquet on Jefferson's birthday, in April 1830, given an indication of the spirit aroused in him, by offering the famous toast, "Our Federal Union: it must be preserved."
Jackson had declared hostilities against Vice-President Calhoun in consequence of the discovery that Calhoun, as a member of Monroe's Cabinet, had condemned Jackson's proceedings in the Seminole war of 1818. In June, 1831, the whole Cabinet had resigned, or rather been compelled to resign, mainly for the purpose of eliminating from the administration Calhoun's friends, and a new Cabinet had been appointed, in which Edward Livingston was Secretary of State; Louis McLane of Delaware, Secretary of the Treasury; Roger B. Taney, Attorney General; and Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Navy; the Post Office Department remaining in Barry's hands.
The Kitchen Cabinet had elicited demonstrations from the legislature of Pennsylvania, subsequently indorsed by that of New York, calling upon General Jackson to stand for a second term, notwithstanding his previous declarations in favor of the one-term principle, and it was generally understood that he would do so.
All these occurrences, added to the impression that in the President and his confidential advisers there was to be dealt with a force yet undefined and beyond the ordinary rules of calculation, produced among the opposition party a singular feeling of insecurity. They looked for a strong man to lead them; they wanted to hear Clay's voice in Congress; and it is characteristic that Daniel Webster, who had just then reached the zenith of his glory, and was by far the first man in the Senate, should have given the most emphatic expression to that anxiety for energetic leadership. "You must be aware," he wrote to Clay from Boston on October 5, 1831, "of the strong desire manifested in many parts of the country that you should come into the Senate: the wish is entertained here as earnestly as anywhere. We are to have an interesting and arduous session. Everything is to be attacked. An array is preparing much more formidable than has ever yet assaulted what we think the leading and important public interests. Not only the tariff, but the Constitution itself, in its elementary and fundamental provisions, will be assailed with talent, vigor, and union. Everything is to be debated as if nothing had ever been settled. It would be an infinite gratification to me to have your aid, or rather your lead. I know nothing so likely to be useful. Everything valuable in the government is to be fought for, and we need your arm in the fight."
Clay was reluctant to yield to these entreaties. His instinct probably told him that for a presidential candidate the Senate is not a safe place, especially while the canvass is going on. But he obeyed the call of his friends, which at the same time appeared to be the call of the public interest. When it became known that he would be a candidate for the Senate of the United States before the Kentucky legislature, the Washington "Globe," President Jackson's organ, opened its batteries with characteristic fury. Commenting upon the fact that Clay attended the legislature in person, and forgetting that his competitor, Richard M. Johnson, the Jackson candidate, did the same, the "Globe" spoke thus: —
"If under these circumstances Mr. Clay should come to the Senate, he will but consummate his ruin. He will stand in that body, not as the representative of Kentucky, but of a few base men rendered infamous in electing him. He will no longer represent his countrymen, but, like an Irish patriot become an English pensioner, he will represent an odious oligarchy, and, owing his station altogether to chicane and management, he will be stripped of the dignity of his character, and gradually sink into insignificance."
Nevertheless Clay was elected, but only by a small majority. Thus he entered upon his senatorial career, more heartily welcomed by his friends, and more bitterly hated by his enemies, than ever before.