Life of Henry Clay/18 The Exit of President Jackson

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Life of Henry Clay by Carl Schurz
Chapter XVIII. The Exit of President Jackson.



The presidential election of 1836 was to give a successor to President Jackson. He was not a candidate for a third term, but the power of his will in his party was so absolute that the candidate favored by him found no effective opposition. The Democratic party was in admirable drill. It might justly have been called Jackson's own party. The Democratic National Convention, largely composed of office-holders, was held as early as February, 1835. It nominated for the presidency Martin Van Buren, — a mere formality to ratify Jackson's command.

During Jackson's second administration the Whigs had fallen into a cheerless, if not despondent, state of mind. Until then it had been generally understood that the leader of the party should be its candidate. But Henry Clay's defeat in 1832 had changed many men's views in that respect. In the summer of 1835 the leading Whig politicians began to look about for some other "available man." Clay felt this keenly. He wrote in July, 1835: —

"The solicitations of other gentlemen, perhaps more entitled than I am to be chosen chief magistrate, and the discouragement of the use of my name resulting from the issue of the last contest, have led respectable portions of the Whigs, in different states, to direct their views to other candidates than myself. The truth is that I was strongly disinclined to be presented as a candidate in 1832, fearing the issue which took place; but I was overruled by friends, some of whom have since thought it expedient, in consequence of that very event, that another name should be substituted for mine."

Such words revealed the bitterness of soul of the aspirant to the presidency, who discovered that he was no longer the only candidate thought of by his party. It may fairly be doubted whether it was only in yielding to the urgency of his friends that he had taken the nomination in 1832; for then he acted as the recognized leader of his party, and his candidacy was a matter of course. It was so no longer. He still expressed his belief that he could gather more votes than any other Whig, although, as he admitted, probably not enough to win the election. His correspondence of that period leaves the impression that he would have disliked to see the Whig party unite upon any other candidate, as that would have created a rival to him. He discussed competitors in the manner characteristic of presidential candidates, finding reasons why each of them would not answer. He would have been in favor of Webster, had there not been a "general persuasion" that Webster could not succeed. Some Whigs spoke of Senator Hugh L. White of Tennessee, a very estimable man, who had been an intimate friend of General Jackson, and then turned away from him on account of his high-handed proceedings. Clay disliked White's candidacy because he was no Whig, although he would have preferred his election to that of Van Buren.

The Whig party finally went into the campaign of 1836 without holding a national convention, and without uniting upon a ticket. In several states Whig meetings were held which put forward General William H. Harrison, who was also nominated by the convention of Anti-Masons at Harrisburg. Clay favored him in preference to all others. Webster was presented by the legislature of Massachusetts. The legislature of Alabama and popular meetings in Tennessee nominated Hugh L. White. John Tyler and Francis Granger were candidates for the vice-presidency. The Whigs hoped, by putting several candidates of local strength into the field, to throw the election into the House of Representatives. But a party so utterly distracted could not make a vigorous campaign against the well-disciplined Democrats. Of the 294 electoral votes Van Buren obtained 170, — a clear majority of 46 votes over all his competitors. Thus Jackson's choice was ratified by the people.

Clay had been for more than a year in a dejected mood. The apparent fruitlessness of his struggle against Jackson's popularity seriously depressed his spirits. Again and again he spoke of retiring to private life for the rest of his days. "This is the thirtieth year," he wrote to a committee of citizens of Indiana in the spring of 1836, "since I first entered the service of the federal government. My labors for the public have been various and often arduous. I think they give me some title to repose. If I were persuaded that by remaining longer in the public service I could materially aid in arresting our downward progress, I should feel it my duty not to quit it. But I am not sure that my warning voice has not too often been raised. Perhaps that of my successors may be listened to with more effect." He added that he would serve until the end of his term, which was near at hand, but he "could conceive of no probable contingency which would reconcile" him to the acceptance of another.

There is no reason for doubting that he meant all he said at the time. Sanguine temperaments like his are subject to fits of despondency and a profound yearning for repose, — an overpowering desire to be done forever with all that tries and annoys them. But such fits seldom last long. When Clay was reëlected to the Senate the succeeding winter, the "improbable contingency" which reconciled him to the acceptance of another term of service, had arrived. He did not decline.

The last session of Congress under Jackson's presidency opened on December 5, 1836. A large part of its time was given to discussions called forth by the famous "specie circular," which Jackson had issued during the last recess of Congress, and of which more will be said when we reach the story of the great business crisis of 1837.

Clay once more introduced his land bill, which again failed to pass. Presenting some memorials from living British authors, he earnestly declared himself in favor of the enactment of a law tendering to all foreign nations reciprocal security for literary property by granting copyrights.

The great political duel between Clay and Jackson came to a dramatic close. When Clay's resolution censuring President Jackson for assumptions of power "not conferred by the Constitution and laws, but in derogation of both," had passed the Senate on March 28, 1834, Benton forthwith announced his intention to move that this resolution be formally expunged from the records of the Senate. He repeated the motion session after session. Several state legislatures, in which the Jackson party was dominant, taking up the cry, sent memorials to the Senate pressing the measure, and passed resolutions instructing the Senators from their states to support it. When the Virginia legislature had passed such a resolution, John Tyler, recognizing the "doctrine of instruction," but unwilling to vote for a mutilation of the official records, resigned his seat in the Senate. But not until the winter of 1836-1837 had there been a majority in the Senate obedient to Jackson's will. Now at last that majority was there.

The resolution offered by Benton contemplated that the record on the official journal of the vote of censure passed upon the President be encircled with large black lines, and crossed with the inscription, "Expunged by order of the Senate." If it had been intended merely to counteract whatever mischievous influence the vote of censure might have had as a precedent, some resolution simply rescinding it, or some declaration censuring the censor, would have served the purpose. But it was desired to make the Senators, who by their votes had pronounced the censure upon Jackson, feel all the bitterness of humiliation. They were to be presented to the country as having done a thing too infamous to have a place on the records of the government. It was one of those coarse parades of the brutal power which, not satisfied with victory, delights in mortifying the defeated.

On January 12, 1837, Benton opened the debate with a highly characteristic speech. He presented himself as the voice of the popular will. The people had decided that the resolution censuring President Jackson must be expunged. He found conclusive proof of the popular will in the fact that many state legislatures had so instructed their Senators; that a large majority of the states had elected Democratic Senators and Representatives favorable to the measure; that the Bank of the United States had become odious to the public mind; and that Jackson's friend, Martin Van Buren, who had openly approved the expunging resolution, had been elected President by a large majority. The popular will so manifested, Benton affirmed, was, "upon the principle of representative government, binding and obligatory" on the Senate, — one of those doctrines which Jacksonian orators were peculiarly fond of dwelling upon. After a fulsome panegyric on Jackson's public career, Benton wound up with a display of that frank and ingenuous egotism which distinguished him, saying: "Solitary and alone, and amidst the jeers and taunts of my opponents, I put this ball in motion. The people have taken it up and rolled it forward. I am no longer anything but a unit in the vast mass which now propels it. In the name of that mass I speak. I demand the execution of the edict of the people."

A great oratorical tournament followed, in which all the distinguished men of the Senate took part. Against the expunging resolution were Calhoun, Crittenden, Bayard, Clayton, Southard, Preston, White, Ewing of Ohio, Kent, Clay, and Webster; and for it spoke Benton, Buchanan, and Rives. The debate ranged once more over all the constitutional and legal questions bearing upon the removal of the deposits. The opposition proved to the satisfaction of all unbiased men that to expunge any recorded proceeding of the Senate would be a clear violation of the Constitution, which provided that "each house shall keep a record of its proceedings:" if the record was to be "kept," it could not be expunged. The evident superiority of the argument on the side of the opposition was felt so keenly, even by some of the supporters of the resolution, that Ewing of Ohio, speaking of the expungers as the servants of a superior will, "compelled to go onward, against all those feelings and motives which should direct the actions of the legislator and the man," could add: "Why do I see around me so many pale features and downcast eyes, unless it be that repentance and remorse go hand in hand with the perpetration of the deed?"

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Clay's speech was in his loftiest style. As the author of the resolution which was to be treated as unworthy of forming a part of the record, he once more summed up the whole case, and then with irresistible force, he drove home the argument against the assumed power of blotting out any thing from the official journals of the national legislature. He rose to his grandest tone in drawing a picture of Jackson's power, and in pouring out his contempt upon the slavish spirit of the expungers: —

"He is felt from one extremity to the other of this vast Republic," he exclaimed. "By means of principles which he has introduced, and innovations which he has made in our institutions, alas but too much countenanced by Congress and a confiding people, he exercises uncontrolled the power of the state. In one hand he holds the purse, and in the other he brandishes the sword of the country. Myriads of dependents and partisans, scattered over the land, are ever ready to sing hosannas to him, and to laud to the skies whatever he does. He has swept over the government during the last eight years like a tropical tornado. Every department exhibits traces of the ravages of the storm. What object of his ambition is unsatisfied? When disabled from age any longer to hold the sceptre of power, he designates his successor, and transmits it to his favorite. What more does he want? Must we blot, deface, and mutilate the records of the country to punish the presumptuousness of expressing an opinion contrary to his own? What patriotic purpose is to be accomplished by this expunging resolution? Can you make that not to be which has been? Is it to appease the wrath and to heal the wounded pride of the chief magistrate? If he really be the hero that his friends represent him, he must despise all mean condescension, all groveling sycophancy, all self-degradation and self-abasement. He would reject with scorn and contempt, as unworthy of his fame, your black scratches and your baby lines in the fair records of his country."

Benton himself admitted Clay's speech to have "lacked nothing but verisimilitude" to render it "grand and affecting."

But such attacks had "verisimilitude" enough to make the leaders of the expunging movement feel somewhat uncomfortable as to the firmness of their followers. Jackson imposed upon his friends tasks which not all of them found it consistent with their self-respect to perform. Some had already dropped away from him, and others were inclined to do so. Benton confessed that "members of the party were in the process of separating from it and would require conciliation." The "pale features and downcast eyes" among the Democrats in the Senate seem to have alarmed him, for on Saturday, January 14, according to his own story, the Democratic senators had a night meeting at a restaurant, "giving the assemblage the air of a convivial entertainment," which "continued until midnight." On that occasion it "required all the moderation, tact, and skill of the prime movers to obtain and maintain the union upon details, on the success of which the fate of the [expunging] movement depended." The weak brethren were worked upon until they "severally pledged" themselves "that there should be no adjournment of the Senate, after the resolution was called, until it was passed;" and, as this might make a protracted session necessary, and "knowing the difficulty of keeping men steady to their work and in good humor when tired and hungry, the mover of the proceeding gave orders that night to have an ample supply of cold hams, turkeys, rounds of beef, pickles, wines, and cups of hot coffee ready in a certain committee-room near the Senate chamber."

This programme was faithfully carried out the following Monday. Late in the night, after a long debate and a solemn protest against the proceeding read by Daniel Webster, the expunging resolution was carried by a vote of 24 to 19. The Secretary of the Senate executed at once the order to draw the required black lines and other marks on the Senate journal of March 28, 1834, whereupon the galleries broke out in groans and hisses; and, after a furious denunciation of the "bank ruffians" by Benton, the Senate adjourned. Thus "the deed was done," as the current saying was at the time. General Jackson did not act the hero depicted by Clay, who would "despise all sycophancy and self-abasement," and "reject with scorn, as unworthy of his fame, the black scratches." On the contrary, as Benton recorded, "the gratification of General Jackson was extreme," and "he gave a grand dinner to the expungers and their wives." Nothing could have imparted greater sweetness to his triumph than the reflection that the man whose work had been stamped by the act of the Senate with such unprecedented ignominy was Henry Clay, whom he hated more fiercely than any other human being. Indeed, that triumph could scarcely have been more complete. Incessantly attacked by Clay at the head of the most brilliant array of talent ever marshaled by any parliamentary leader in American history, Jackson had carried every one of his favorite measures, and been sustained by a most emphatic popular majority in a presidential election. Clay had only been able in two instances — in the nullification trouble and the French difficulty — to put Jackson's violent impulses under some restraint. But of his own favorite objects he had lost everything, — the bank, internal improvements, the protective tariff, the land bill; and finally, when so wanton a measure as the expunging resolution was forced through, Jackson celebrated his victory by trampling upon the prostrate bodies of his foes. Clay felt the humiliation so keenly that he wrote to one of his friends: "I shall hail with the greatest pleasure the occurrence of circumstances which will admit of my resignation without dishonor to myself. The Senate is no longer a place for a decent man. Yesterday Benton's expunging resolution passed, 24 to 19." And to another: "I shall escape from it [the Senate] as soon as I decently can, with the same pleasure that one would fly from a charnel-house."

On March 4, 1837, the "reign of Andrew Jackson," as Von Holst has very appropriately called it, came to an end. There had never been before, and fortunately there has never been since, so powerful and autocratic a will at the head of the government, and so phenomenal a popularity to support it. The passions excited by the vociferous contests of those days were so fierce and enduring that in Jackson's own time, and through a decade or two following, a large majority of American citizens might have been divided into two classes, — those who sincerely and inflexibly believed that Jackson was one of the greatest statesmen of all centuries, and certainly the greatest benefactor of the American people; and those who believed with equally inflexible sincerity that he was little better than a fiend in human shape. It required a new generation to do justice to him as well as to his opponents.

It is generally conceded now that he was a man of incorruptible integrity and aggressive patriotism, and that he always meant to do right, always firmly believing himself to be in the right. It is also conceded that, as President, he rendered the country very valuable services. He obtained more satisfaction from foreign powers for American claims and grievances, and did more to enforce respect for the American flag abroad, than many other Presidents. He asserted the national authority against attempts at nullification and the pretended right of secession, and proclaimed that the Union would be maintained at all hazards, with a patriotic fervor which electrified the popular heart, and gave national loyalty its battle-cry for all coming contests. Nor will any one now find fault with him for having been opposed to a great central bank as the fiscal agent of the government, or for having vetoed Clay's land bill with its distribution scheme, or for trying to keep questionable bank paper out of the public treasury.

But his opponents were certainly right in censuring him for pursuing some of these objects with a recklessness most hurtful to the public welfare, and in utter disregard of those principles which are the soul of constitutional republicanism. His autocratic nature saw only the end he was bent upon accomplishing, and he employed whatever means appeared available for putting down all obstacles in his path. Honestly believing his ends to be right, he felt as if no means that would serve them could be wrong. He never understood that, if constitutional government is to be preserved, the legality of the means used must be looked upon as no less important than the rightfulness of the ends pursued. His conception of the executive power, at least while he wielded it, was extravagant in the extreme. There is a constitutional theory growing up now — if it is not formulated, it is at least some times acted upon — that the general government possesses, not only the powers granted and those incidental thereto, but all powers not expressly withheld from it by the Constitution. Jackson anticipated that doctrine as applied to the Executive. He sincerely believed that as President he was authorized to do whatever the Constitution did not expressly forbid. The "original executive powers" mentioned in his "protest" contained an undefined fund upon which he could draw as occasion required. He held himself to be the sole "direct representative of the people," and in that character he found a source of authority for doing almost anything in the people's name. After his reëlection in 1832 he felt that the people had formally set the seal of their approval upon all his acts and thoughts, past, present, and future, so that his will was equivalent to a popular edict.

He treated the legislative power with a contempt almost revolutionary. Not only did he, in the absence of Congress, set on foot measures, especially of financial policy, which Congress had already disapproved beforehand, and which he was sure would be rejected if submitted to Congress; but he lost no opportunity to denounce, in his public utterances, especially the Senate, but also his opponents in the House, as a set of conspirators against popular rights and the public welfare. Nothing, certainly, could have been farther from Jackson's mind than the desire to overthrow republican government, and to put a personal despotism in its place. But if a President of the United States ever should conceive such a scheme, he would probably resort to the same tactics which Jackson employed. He would assume the character of the sole representative of all the people; he would tell the people that their laws, their rights, their liberties, were endangered by the unscrupulous usurpations of the other constituted authorities; he would try to excite popular distrust and resentment, especially against the legislative bodies; he would exhibit himself as unjustly and cruelly persecuted by those bodies for having vigilantly and fearlessly watched over the rights and interests of the people; he would assure the people that he would protect them if they would stand by him in his struggle with the conspirators, and so forth. These are the true Napoleonic tactics, in part employed by the first, and followed to the letter by the second, usurper of that name.

General Jackson, indeed, delivered the presidency to his constitutionally elected successor, and then retired to the Hermitage. But before he retired he had violently interrupted the good constitutional traditions, and infused into the government and into the whole body politic a spirit of lawlessness which lived after him, and of which the demoralizing influence is felt to this day. Our public life has not yet recovered from the example, which he was the first American President to set, of a chief magistrate breaking, without remorse, some of his most explicit pledges given when he was an aspirant, — thus encouraging that most baleful popular belief that in politics there is no conscience, and that in political jugglery and deceit the highest are no better than the lowest. The present generation has still to struggle with the barbarous habits he introduced on the field of national affairs, when his political followers, taking possession of the government as "spoil," presented the spectacle of a victorious soldiery looting a conquered town. There can be nothing of a more lawless tendency than the "spoils system" in politics, for it makes the coarsest instincts of selfishness the ruling motives of conduct, and inevitably brutalizes public life. It brought forth at once a crop of corruption which startled the country.

It is a remarkable fact that, during the latter part of Jackson's presidency, the general condition of society corresponded strikingly with the style in which the popular idol used to "take responsibilities," to disregard legal restraint, and to unchain his furious passions against his "enemies." Lawless ruffianism has perhaps never been as rampant in this country as in those days. "Many of the people of the United States are out of joint," wrote Niles in August, 1835. "A spirit of riot, and a disposition to take the law in their own hands, prevails in every quarter." Mobs, riots, burnings, lynchings, shootings, tarrings, duels, and all sorts of violent excesses, perpetrated by all sorts of persons upon all sorts of occasions, seemed to be the order of the day. They occurred not only in the frontier districts of the West and South, but were reported from all quarters, mainly from the cities. Alarmingly great was the number of people who appeared to believe that they had a right to put down by force and violence all who displeased them by act or speech or belief, in politics, or religion, or business, or social life. It can unfortunately not be said that Jackson discountenanced this spirit of violence when it appeared in his immediate surroundings. Several members of Congress were, on the streets of Washington, "cruelly assaulted" and shot at for "words spoken in debate." Such proceedings, when the victims were anti-Jackson men, found no disapproval at Jackson's hands, who, on one occasion in 1832, said that, "after a few more examples of the same kind, members of Congress would learn to keep civil tongues in their heads;" and who on another occasion, when the assailant was fined by a court, promptly pardoned him. The excitement in Washington was at one time so great that a committee of citizens waited upon the President, asking him to order out the troops for the purpose of putting down the rioters, — a request which he answered with an emphatic "No."

Scarcely had General Jackson left the presidential chair when that apparent prosperity, which for a long period had kept the people in high spirits, and which by his friends had been attributed to the wisdom of his financial policy, broke down with a tremendous crash in the great crisis of 1837.