Life of Henry Clay/23 Clay and Tyler
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Chapter XXIII. Clay and Tyler.
|Chapter XXIV. The Election of 1844.→|
CLAY AND TYLER.
John Tyler had always been a strict-constructionist of the Virginia school. The position he took on the bank question in 1816, and on the admission of Missouri in 1820, was in accord with its doctrines. In 1824 he supported Crawford for the presidency, but preferred Adams to Jackson, and wrote a letter approving Clay's conduct at that memorable period. But, finding fault with the latitudinarian principles of Adams, he joined, with many of Crawford's friends, the opposition camp. Elected to the Senate in 1827, he continued to act on strict-construction principles, approved Jackson's position adverse to internal improvements, and opposed high protection as well as the re-charter of the United States Bank, on constitutional grounds. He disapproved Jackson's attitude with regard to nullification, and voted against the Force Bill. He disapproved also the removal of the deposits, and voted for Clay's resolutions censuring Jackson. He refused to vote for the expunging resolution which the Virginia legislature had instructed him to support, and, recognizing the "power of instruction," he resigned his seat in the Senate. Thus he became a martyr to his convictions. Then he was sacrificed by the Whigs to a competitor for a seat in the Senate, Rives, to attract the "Conservatives," and he acquiesced. This gave him a "claim" upon the consideration of the Whig party. He also tried to promote Clay's interest in the Harrisburg Convention, and was grieved at his defeat.
This was his "record" when the Harrisburg Convention nominated him as the Whig candidate for the vice-presidency, and there is no ground for believing that this record was not known. Clay himself had reason to remember that Tyler was his friend with a mental reservation; for, in a letter written before the Harrisburg Convention, Tyler had said to him that he regarded him as "a Republican of the old school, who had indulged, when the public good seemed to require it, somewhat too much in a broad interpretation to suit our Southern notions." Henry A. Wise says that Tyler "was put into the vice-presidency by the friends of state-rights and strict construction avowedly for the purpose of casting any tie vote in the Senate in their favor." This may have been in the minds of some of the delegates, while the majority, no doubt, voted for him without considering the future beyond the election. He was a Whig only inasmuch as he belonged to one of those heterogeneous elements combined in opposition to the Jackson-Van-Buren party.
Now the unexpected, the unthought-of, happened. For the first time a President died in office, and the Vice-President was called to the head of the government. It was an entirely novel situation, and at first there seemed to be some doubt whether the Vice-President, so promoted, was to be considered a full President at all. The Cabinet ministers, announcing to him President Harrison's death, addressed Tyler as "Vice-President." Clay, in a letter to a friend, called him a mere "regent." John Quincy Adams thought his official title should be, not "President," but "Vice-President acting as President." But Tyler, as soon as he assumed his new station, styled himself "President of the United States," and by common consent the title was at once recognized as legitimate, — fortunately so, for it is important in a republic that the title of the supreme executive power should always be full and unqualified.
This, however, was not the only matter of doubt. Much speculation arose as to what kind of a Whig President this Virginian strict-constructionist would make. As Henry A. Wise reports, immediately upon the news of Harrison's death, Tyler's state-rights friends quickly gathered around him with the advice "at once to form a new Cabinet; to hasten a settlement with Great Britain, and, with that view, to retain Mr. Webster at the head of the new Cabinet; to annex Texas as soon as possible; to veto any re-charter of the United States Bank, any tariff for protection, and any bill for the distribution of the proceeds of the sales of the public lands." As Wise says, "he concurred in every proposition except that of dismissing the then existing Cabinet. His disposition was always for conciliation, and he dreaded to offend anybody." On April 19, Tyler issued an address to the people, in which he freely used the Whig phraseology about the "complete separation between the purse and the sword," about subjecting the power of removal to "just restraint," and ending the "war between the government and the currency." He promised promptly to give his "sanction to any constitutional measure" having in view the securing to industry its just rewards, and the "restoration of a sound constitutional medium;" and as to the question of expediency as well as constitutionality, he would "resort to the fathers of the great Republican school for advice and instruction." This could be interpreted as meaning that he favored a protective tariff, and that he would follow either those Republican fathers who, like Madison and Gallatin, put aside all constitutional scruples on account of public expediency in accepting a United States Bank, or those other Republican fathers who rejected the bank as unconstitutional and dangerous. On the whole, the address was Whiggish in sound, but open to different constructions.
Clay was at Ashland. He had his misgivings, and addressed a letter to Tyler in order to elicit more clearly his views and intentions on the principal subjects. Tyler answered on April 30 that he had no matured plans. The repeal of the sub-treasury law he looked upon as inevitable. The "relief of the treasury" might call for "additional burdens." The state of the military defenses, he thought, "required immediate attention." If Congress attended only to these subjects, great good would be done. But Congress would have to decide whether other measures should claim its attention. He favored the distribution of the proceeds of public land sales only if the annual appropriations for rivers and harbors were abandoned. As to the establishment of a United States Bank, he gave several good reasons — not calculated, however, to convince Clay's mind — why it should not be urged. He asked Clay to consider whether he could not "so frame a bank as to obviate all constitutional objections." But he would leave Congress "to its own action," and in the end resolve his doubts, if he entertained any, "by the character of the measure proposed."
With regard to the bank question, this had a decidedly uncertain sound. The message which Tyler addressed on June 1, 1841, to Congress assembled in extra session, was no clearer. It spoke encouragingly of the distribution of the proceeds of land sales, which were to aid the states in paying their debts, provided, however, they did not oblige Congress to increase tariff duties beyond the level fixed in the compromise of 1883. The President thought a "fiscal agent" desirable to facilitate the collection and disbursement of the revenue, to keep the funds secure, and to aid in the establishment of a safe currency. This might have meant a United States Bank. But the President was sure that Jackson in putting his veto upon the renewal of the charter, and Van Buren in opposing a revival of the United States Bank, had been "sustained by the popular voice." He was equally sure that the pet-bank system and the sub-treasury had been condemned in the same way. But what the "judgment of the American people on that whole subject" was, he did not pretend to know. The representatives of the people should tell him. He only knew that "the late contest, which terminated in the election of General Harrison, was decided upon principles well known and openly declared." What were those principles? He could say only that "the sub-treasury received the most emphatic condemnation," but "no other scheme of finance seemed to be concurred in." He would, therefore, concur with Congress "in the adoption of such a system" as Congress might propose, reserving to himself "the ultimate power of rejecting any measure" which, in his view, should "conflict with the Constitution," or otherwise "jeopard the prosperity of the country;" but he would not believe that the exercise of that power would be called into requisition.
This was by no means lucid. But if Tyler equivocated, Clay did not. The Whigs had in the twenty-seventh Congress a majority of seven in the Senate, and of nearly fifty in the House of Representatives. A majority of the Cabinet, too, were Clay's friends. He felt himself in a position of command. Anticipating the disagreement between himself and the President, he is reported to have said: "Tyler dares not resist. I will drive him before me." He entered the Senate as a captain of a ship would step on deck to give his orders. Forthwith in a resolution he offered, he designated the subjects which at the extra session should be acted upon. They were: 1. The repeal of the sub-treasury law; 2. The incorporation of a bank adapted to the wants of the people and of the government; 3. The provision of an adequate revenue by the imposition of tariff duties, and a temporary loan; 4. The prospective distribution of the proceeds of public land sales; 5. The passage of the necessary appropriations; 6. Some modifications of the banking system of the District of Columbia. This was Clay's general order to Congress. He took for himself the chairmanships of the Committee on Finance and of a special committee on the bank question.
The repeal of the sub-treasury act was the measure first advanced, and urged with Clay's characteristic impetuosity. It passed both houses and Tyler promptly signed it. The incorporation of a new United States Bank was next in order. It was the measure nearest to Clay's heart. Ewing, the Secretary of the Treasury, sent a report to Congress recommending the establishment of a bank as the fiscal agent of the government, with a capital of thirty millions, to be incorporated in the District of Columbia, branches to be established in the several states only with the assent of the states concerned. It was to be called the "Fiscal Bank of the United States." Clay reported a bill from his committee conforming in its main features to the Secretary's plan, with the exception of the requirement that the establishment of branches should depend on the expressed assent of the respective states. But, as it was generally believed that the President would not sign any bill without such a clause, an amendment was adopted providing that such assent should be assumed unless dissent were expressed by the legislature of the state concerned at its session next ensuing. So amended, the bill passed, although it commanded in neither house the full vote of the party.
Then the crisis came. Rumors had long been current that the President would refuse to sign the bill. The excitement caused by the anticipation of a veto was so intense as to interfere with the amenities of official as well as social intercourse. At last, on August 16, the veto appeared. The President reminded Congress of the fact that he had always pronounced himself against the assumption by Congress of the power to create a national bank that would "operate per se over the Union." He thought he had a right to assume that the people had elected him Vice-President "with a full knowledge of the opinions thus entertained." He could not satisfy himself that a bank was necessary for the fiscal operations of the government. He objected to the bill especially because it contemplated a bank of discount, and branches to be established in the several states with or without their assent, — "a principle," he added, "to which I have always heretofore been opposed, and which can never obtain my sanction."
The Whigs were extremely angry. In the evening a crowd assembled before the White House, demonstrating their disapproval of the President's conduct with disorderly noises. But a very different scene was enacted within. Many of the Democratic Senators could not restrain their exultation. In a body they called upon President Tyler to congratulate him upon the "courageous and patriotic" step he had taken, and the congratulations gradually degenerated into convivial hilarity. A few days afterwards, an inquiry into the disorderly demonstrations before the White House having been moved, Clay availed himself of the opportunity to dramatize the congratulatory meeting inside in a very clever satire. He recited the speeches he supposed to have been delivered on that occasion by Democratic Senators to the Whig President, imitating the style of the different orators, especially of Calhoun, Benton, and Buchanan, in so striking and artistic a way as to win the involuntary applause even of some of the victims.
Of a more serious nature was the speech in which he answered Tyler's veto message. There was a forced and somewhat contemptuous moderation in its tone which made the severe thrusts all the more stinging. But the argument was more important. He had, before and during the campaign of 1840, taken the position that the establishment of a new United States Bank would not be safe unless a decided majority of the people recognized it as necessary. Now he asserted, in the most positive tone, that the question of "bank or no bank" had been the main issue of the last presidential canvass, and that a large majority of the people had pronounced in favor of a bank. It was an astounding assertion. During the campaign he himself had said again and again, that, while he considered a bank necessary, a difference of opinion upon that subject was admissible, and people might vote for Harrison without voting for a bank; and there could be no doubt that Harrison had received many votes from anti-bank men. His experiences in Jackson's time should have made him cautious in interpreting the special meanings of presidential elections, but he was, if possible, even more emphatic than Benton had been after the elections of 1832 and 1836.
Equally rash was his assertion that he had come to Washington at the beginning of the session with the full confidence that all the great Whig measures, including the bank, would have Tyler's hearty approval. Tyler's letter to him was certainly not such as to justify that confidence. It might have given him reason to hope, but not to trust. His confidence, if it existed at all, must have been in his own power of persuasion, or his energy of leadership, or the overawing party pressure which Tyler would not be able to withstand, but certainly not in anything Tyler had said to him.
But, upon the assumption of a popular command, Clay argued that Tyler, with all his constitutional scruples, should have obeyed, either by signing the bill, or by permitting it to become a law without his signature, or by following the precedent set by Tyler himself in resigning when he thought he could not do what his constituents demanded. Clay declared, in conclusion, that if, as rumor had it, a bill could be framed to obviate the President's objections, that bill would not be opposed by him, although he could not share the responsibility of bringing it forward.
Indeed, on the very day when Tyler had sent his veto to the Senate, negotiations began between him and members of the Cabinet and members of Congress with a view to the shaping of some measure that would prevent a breach between the President and the Whig majority in Congress. Tyler authorized Webster and Ewing of the Cabinet to confer with Berrien of the Senate and Sergeant of the House about the details of a bill, the principle of which he was understood to have accepted. A bill providing for a "Fiscal Corporation" — the term "bank" being especially offensive to Tyler — was agreed upon between the negotiators, and, with the expectation that it would have the approval of the President, it was rushed through the House in hot haste. But, while it hung in the Senate, rumors were abroad that President Tyler had again changed his mind. It passed the Senate on September 3, and on the 9th came a veto message prepared, as Henry A. Wise says, in a conference with friends outside of the Cabinet, by one of them. It criticised some of the provisions of the bill, indicated that the President would not approve the incorporation of a national bank in any form, and expressed an anxious desire for "harmony."
The verdict of impartial history will probably be that John Tyler, when preventing by his veto the incorporation of another United States Bank, rendered his country a valuable service. Had Clay's bill become a law, the new bank would at once have been attacked by the Democratic opposition seeking to compass the repeal of its charter, — a purpose openly avowed by them. It is very doubtful whether, with such a prospect, capitalists would have been found willing to venture their means in such an enterprise. In any event, the existence of the greatest financial institution in the country would have depended on the fortunes of a political party, and with it, in a great measure, the currency and the credit system. Being the subject of party struggles, the bank would have been driven by the force of circumstances to become a political agency, and thus a hotbed of corruption, financially unsafe and politically dangerous. Something like this idea was probably in Clay's mind when, before the election of 1840, he declared that a United States Bank should not again be incorporated unless emphatically demanded by a majority of the people. In that case it was all the more unstatesmanlike to assume in 1841 that a majority did demand it, and to forget that a strong and determined minority would ordinarily be sufficient to endanger the credit and stability of a financial institution. The only excuse the Whig statesmen of that period had for thinking at all of the establishment of a new United States Bank was that they knew of no other means to secure to the country a well regulated currency of uniform value. Even that was hardly an excuse, for, under the circumstances then existing, an uncertain bank experiment would only have produced new commotions and disorders. It is a significant fact that, after Tyler's bank vetoes, the scheme of a great United States Bank never regained vitality, and that the Whig party itself treated it in subsequent campaigns as an "obsolete idea."
Tyler would have rendered another service to the country had he put his veto upon another of Clay's measures, — the distribution of the proceeds of the public land sales, which at the extra session of 1841 passed both houses, and became a law on September 4. This time Clay had pressed his bill especially on the ground that many of the states were grievously in debt, and that the distribution urged by him would to some extent relieve them. The several states had run into debt to the amount of nearly two hundred millions. Mississippi was the first to pronounce the word "repudiation." Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, and even Pennsylvania, were staggering under the consequences of their improvidence. The credit of the country abroad was profoundly shaken. Foreign creditors asked whether the national government was not bound to protect American honor by seeing the state debts paid. The question of "assumption" was gravely considered; but Congress adopted an adverse resolution. Under such circumstances, the plan of relieving the distress by a distribution of funds had more than ordinary plausibility. But it was nevertheless fundamentally vicious. Several of the states had increased their indebtedness under the stimulus administered by the distribution of the treasury surplus. Another distribution, far from freeing them from debt, would only have been calculated to make them more reckless in spending, for it would have deadened their sense of responsibility by holding up before them the picture of an immensely rich uncle ever ready to pay their bills.
A distribution of any sort of public funds seemed especially absurd at a time when the government was obliged to borrow money for its running expenses, and could raise a loan only with difficulty. This absurdity was indirectly recognized by the adoption, against Clay's opposition, of an amendment to his bill, providing that the distribution should be suspended whenever the necessities of the treasury required an increase of the tariff duties above the twenty per cent fixed by the compromise of 1833. Even in this shape the bill would probably have failed had it not been coupled, by a skillful piece of log-rolling, with a general bankruptcy law — a measure for the relief of insolvent debtors — which was not in Clay's original programme, but which he supported. As the tariff rates were raised above twenty per cent before the time when, according to the terms of the compromise of 1833, the twenty per cent level was reached, the distribution measure remained a dead letter.
On the evening of the day that brought Tyler's second bank veto, the members of the Cabinet were invited to meet at the house of Badger, the Secretary of the Navy, to consult among themselves and with Clay. Webster absented himself when he heard that Clay was to be there. Four of the Cabinet ministers being devoted to him, Clay again took command. It was agreed that the members of the Cabinet should, one after another, resign their places on Saturday, September 11, Congress having resolved to adjourn on Monday the 13th. It has been charged that this was artfully contrived to embarrass the President by obliging him to find a new Cabinet between Saturday and Monday. But there is no doubt that, if they had not resigned, they would soon have been dismissed. Webster was an exception. Having consulted the members of Congress from Massachusetts, he resolved to remain in his place if he could. He was with the President when Ewing's letter of resignation was brought in. John Tyler, Jr., who acted as the President's private secretary, gives the following account of what happened: —
"He (Webster) then, in his deep-toned voice, asked: 'Where am I to go, Mr. President?' The President's reply was only in these words: 'You must decide that for yourself, Mr. Webster.' At this Mr. Webster instantly caught, and said: 'If you leave it to me, Mr. President, I will stay where I am.' Whereupon President Tyler, rising from his seat and extending his hand to Mr. Webster, warmly rejoined: 'Give me your hand on that, and now I will say to you that Henry Clay is a doomed man from this hour.'"
What he meant was that the alliance between Webster and himself would serve to detach the Northern Whigs from Clay's following, and leave him in a hopeless minority. John Tyler forgot that Clay was what Webster was not, — a leader. When Clay cut loose from the administration, he resolved to take the whole Whig party with him.
The quarrel between Tyler and his party created the intensest excitement at the time, and has remained one of the sensational chapters of our political history. It was wrong to accuse Tyler of breaking his pledges in disapproving the bank bills. He had never promised to aid in establishing a national bank, and there were very good reasons for refusing to do so. But his conduct, when the disagreement between him and his party became critical, was that of a small, if not a tricky, man. He dealt in equivocations which seemed to mean one thing and turned out to mean the opposite. He appeared to accept and then rejected the same propositions in rapid succession. He authorized members of his Cabinet to confer with members of Congress about measures which he had permitted them to consider and to represent as acceptable to him, and then turned his back upon them. This is the way in which a public man easily makes himself contemptible. He was surrounded by a Kitchen Cabinet mainly composed of Virginians, and led by Henry A. Wise, a man of ability, but in a high degree flighty and erratic, who interfered in everything, and constantly pulled him back whenever an approach between him and leading Whigs in Congress seemed to be in progress. That coterie inflamed Tyler's brain, which was never one of the strongest, and easily turned by flattery, with gorgeous visions of future greatness, promising to gather a party around him strong enough to keep him in the presidential chair for a second term or more. Few things are more hateful to men interested in public affairs, than to see the head of the state controlled by secret influence. On the whole, there was in the spectacle of "Captain" Tyler, as he was derisively called, and his little personal party, dubbed by Clay "the corporal's guard," much that provoked disdain and ridicule.
It is by no means probable, as some partisans of John Tyler have asserted, that the leading Whigs were bound to quarrel with him in any event. Had he approved their favorite measures, there would probably have been no outbreak of ill-feeling. But when he refused to do so, and a breach became certain, it was Clay's instinct as a leader to save the party by making that breach so wide and so irreparable that no Whig could safely stay with the President and remain a Whig. The prompt resignation of the Cabinet, excepting Webster, was no doubt Clay's work. Webster was indeed right when, in publicly announcing his continuance in office, he said that, even if he had seen reasons for resigning, he would not have done so without giving the President due notice, affording him time to select a successor. It would have been proper for the other Cabinet ministers to do so, but it would have impaired the dramatic effect which was thought necessary to startle the Whig masses; and, besides, they had to anticipate their removal. The formation of a new Cabinet had evidently been considered by Tyler and his political body-guard while the old one was still in office. Tyler promptly nominated five men who, like himself, had been Jackson Democrats once, and left the Democratic party for the same reasons for which he had left it. "Like myself," he wrote to a friend, "they are all original Jackson men, and mean to act upon Republican principles." Webster, remaining as Secretary of State, found himself, therefore, in somewhat unaccustomed company.
This change in the political character of the Cabinet could only aid the rallying of the Whigs on Clay's side. Nothing was left undone to drive Tyler away as far as possible. The members of the old Cabinet published their reasons for resigning in elaborate letters addressed to President Tyler, mercilessly exposing his tricky conduct to the contempt of the people. Even that was not enough. After the second veto, a general meeting of the Whig Senators and Representatives was held, which issued a solemn address to the people denouncing Tyler as having betrayed the just expectations of the Whig party for selfish purposes, and as being unworthy of its confidence. A chorus of Whig papers all over the country echoed and reëchoed these denunciations, and attacked Tyler with a fury unheard of except during the hottest excitement of a presidential campaign. Indignation meetings and burnings in effigy were the order of the day.
Tyler was utterly disappointed in his expectation that Webster's remaining in the Cabinet would isolate Clay. It did indeed produce the effect of causing a few Northern Whigs to protest against what they called "the dictatorship of the caucus," meaning Clay, and a few more to observe a cautious moderation in their utterances. But the principal effect was to excite the suspicions of the great mass of Whigs as to Webster's motives for not resigning with his colleagues. The concerted withdrawal of the Cabinet being Clay's work, Webster was naturally disinclined to fall into line. That motive could not well be avowed. But he had another and a very proper and patriotic reason for his conduct. He was, as Secretary of State, engaged in very important negotiations with the British government concerning the northeastern boundary line, and the complications on the northern frontier caused by the Canadian troubles. These negotiations, which finally resulted in the Ashburton Treaty, were at that time in a precarious condition, and Webster very properly resolved not to abandon them. But his position was one of great difficulty in two respects. He was neither liked nor trusted by Tyler's Kitchen Cabinet. As early as the 29th of August, Henry A. Wise wrote to Beverly Tucker: "We can part friendly with Webster by sending him to England. Let us, for God's sake, get rid of him the best way we can." When such influences surrounded him, Webster's situation in the Cabinet would necessarily become very uncomfortable. On the other hand, the current of sentiment in the Whig ranks was set. Webster's plea as to his duty to continue the British negotiations was sullenly accepted. As a martyr to duty, he could stand before the Whigs; but when he took Tyler's part in any other respect, he found himself in a hopeless defensive. Only a few Whigs in New England stood by him in his isolation. Wrath against John Tyler seemed to be the great inspiration of the Whig party in those days of disappointment following so closely upon the thoughtless enthusiasm of 1840. Clay remained the idol of the Whig masses, and it was then already generally taken for granted that he would be, without competition, the Whig candidate for the presidency in 1844.
Clay's parliamentary leadership during that famous extra session proved that, with advancing age, his imperious temper grew more and more impatient. As he had at the beginning of the session prescribed to Congress its business by a sort of general order, so he tried to govern in detail the action of both houses by words of command. When the Democratic opposition sought to obstruct the progress of his measures, he thought at once of interfering with the freedom of debate. It was during this extra session that the rule limiting the speeches of members to one hour was adopted in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, too, Clay threatened repeatedly to propose "the adoption of a rule which would place the business of the Senate under the control of a majority of the Senate," that is, enable the majority to stop debate and muzzle the minority. But the resistance he met was so indignant and formidable that he gave up the attempt. And it is well that he failed. However tedious and useless, and however obstructive to the expedition of business, unrestrained debate in the Senate may sometimes appear, yet infinitely more important than the expedition of business is it that there should be one deliberative body in the government in which every question may receive the fullest discussion, and the smallest minority can make itself heard without restraint.
How far Clay was carried by the impetuosity of his temper appeared most strikingly in his attempt to treat petitions and memorials against his measures as the extreme pro-slavery men were in the habit of treating anti-slavery petitions, — laying them on the table unprinted, unreferred, and unconsidered. But again he soon saw his mistake, and retreated. Notwithstanding all the fascinations of his manner, the dictatorial spirit of his leadership became not seldom so demonstrative that his followers had not a little to suffer for their submissiveness from the taunts and jeers of the opposition.
Clay succeeded in isolating Tyler, and in holding the bulk of the Whig party together. But he could not lead it to victory in the autumn elections of 1841. The Democrats recovered several states which in 1840 had given large Whig majorities, and were in high spirits. Clay, in his letters to his friends, attributed this result to the discouraging effect of Tyler's conduct. But it was not that alone. The outcome of the great Whig victory had been disappointing in all respects. The business interests of the country were still lamentably depressed. The manufacturing industries had not yet risen from their paralysis. The government found itself in a pitiable condition. During the year the public debt increased from $6,700,000 to $15,000,000. The public credit was so bad that a loan of twelve millions, authorized by Congress, could be placed only slowly and with great difficulty. The treasury had sometimes not money enough for the pay of the army and navy, and the salaries of the civil service. The expenditures were constantly and largely outrunning the regular revenues. This was the situation the twenty-seventh Congress had to deal with when it met in December, 1841, for its second session. President Tyler in his message recommended a revision of the tariff "with a view to discriminate as to the articles on which the duty shall be laid, as well as the amount," the rates of duty not to exceed the amount fixed in the compromise act of 1833. As to the regulation of the currency and of domestic exchanges, he proposed an "exchequer system," which, however, did not find serious consideration in Congress. The Secretary of the Treasury, Walter Forward of Pennsylvania, suggested in his report that the public interest would, as to the tariff, scarcely permit a strict adherence to the terms of the compromise act of 1833.
It was no longer as the leader of a majority party, hopeful of carrying all his favorite measures, that Clay stepped upon the scene in December, 1841. He was now fully determined to retire from the Senate. "I want rest, and my private affairs want attention," he wrote to Brooke. "Nevertheless, I would make any personal sacrifice, if, by remaining here, I could do any good; but my belief is I can effect nothing, and perhaps my absence may remove an obstacle to something being done by others. I shall, therefore, go home in the spring." His retirement from the Senate was, however, by no means to be an abandonment of public life; it was simply the withdrawal of a candidate for the presidency from a position beset with extraordinary difficulties. This resolution being fixed, his speeches in the Senate began to bear the character, not of efforts for the accomplishment of immediate results, but of admonitions for the future guidance of his followers.
He made a plea against the repeal of the bankrupt act, but in vain. That act was destined to be revoked by the same Congress which had made it. He then offered three amendments to the Constitution, all designed to reduce the authority of the Executive. One embodied his old proposition that the veto of the President — which, with singular infatuation, he called in a letter "that parent and fruitful source of all our ills" — should be subject to be overruled by a simple majority of all the members of each house of Congress. The second provided that the Secretary of the Treasury and the Treasurer of the United States should be appointed by Congress; and the third prohibited the appointment to office of any member of Congress during the term for which he was elected. These amendments formed an important part of the programme laid down by Clay in his principal speech in the campaign of 1840. They illustrate the dangerous tendency of that impulsive statesmanship which will resort to permanent changes in the Constitution of the state in order to accomplish temporary objects. It is more than probable that the same Clay who saw in the veto power "the parent of all ills," when his favorite measures were defeated by Jackson's and Tyler's vetoes, would have thought very differently had he himself been put into the executive chair and confronted by a hostile Congress. Neither has the experience of the American people in any manner justified Clay's apprehensions as to the danger which the veto power without further restriction would bring upon the country. That power has, on the whole, been exercised with remarkable discretion and with salutary effect, especially as regards the financial concerns of the government, which throughout have been treated by the Executive with better judgment and a higher sense of honor than by Congress. The proposition to confer the power of appointing the Secretary of the Treasury and the Treasurer upon Congress, instead of the President, is hardly intelligible in our days. Neither can we understand why a President should not be permitted to take proper men from the two houses of Congress into his Cabinet. Clay had become so completely preoccupied by fears of executive encroachment that he was utterly unmindful of the dangers which might arise from arrogations of power by the legislature. But, as he himself admitted, there was no immediate prospect of the adoption of such constitutional amendments, and he only commended the questions involved in them to the consideration of his countrymen.
On March 1, 1842, he introduced with an elaborate argument a series of resolutions laying down certain rules for the reduction of current expenses, and for the raising of a revenue sufficient to meet them. June 30, 1842, the day upon which, according to his compromise act of 1833, all tariff duties should be reduced to twenty per cent ad valorem, was near at hand. Clay had to recognize the fact that, even without that final reduction, the tariff as it was then arranged did not yield sufficient revenue; and the manufacturers told him that it did not afford sufficient protection. He was thus obliged to admit that in these respects his compromise measure had not fulfilled his predictions. He recommended, therefore, that the duties, which on June 30 should have been reduced to twenty, be raised to thirty per cent on the ground of necessity. But at the same time, while struggling for revenue, he insisted that the provision of law, which suspended the distribution of the proceeds of land sales while the tariff duties were above twenty per cent be repealed. His resolutions were referred to the appropriate committee, to come to light again after he should have left the scene of action.
Henry Clay's Farewell
On March 31, at last he took leave of the Senate, and his farewell again became one of those dramatic incidents in which his life abounded. A rumor had spread that he intended to deliver a valedictory speech when presenting the credentials of his successor. An eager audience crowded the galleries as well as the floor of the Senate. In a flow of stately sentences he pictured the grandeur of the Senate of the United States; he spoke of his long career of public service, of his unselfish endeavors, of the enmities to which he had been exposed, and of the fidelity of his friends. In touching words he expressed his gratitude to the state that had been so faithful to him. He could not refrain from defending himself against the most recent charge brought against him, that he had played the dictator. He owned that his nature was warm and his temper ardent; and if he had ever, in the heat of debate, wounded the feelings of any of his brother Senators, he offered them the sincerest apology, and the assurance that he carried not a single resentment with him. After a few words of warm and graceful tribute to his successor, John J. Crittenden, he invoked Heaven's blessings upon them all, and closed. The Senate sat silent for a moment, when Preston of South Carolina rose and said that what had just taken place was an epoch in their legislative history, and from the feeling which was evinced, he saw that there was little disposition to attend to business. He therefore moved an adjournment, which was unanimously agreed to. The Senators pressed around Clay to respond to his touching words. In leaving the chamber he met Calhoun, and the two aged statesmen shook hands for the first time after many years of estrangement. This valedictory, says Benton, in his "Thirty Years," was "the first occasion of the kind, and, thus far, has been the last; and it might not be recommendable for any one except another Henry Clay — if another should ever appear — to attempt its imitation."
"Clay's leaving Congress was something like the soul's quitting the body," wrote Crittenden to Governor Letcher. "His departure has had (at least I feel it so) an enervating effect." But the Whig majority in Congress endeavored to follow his precepts, although it made slow progress. The 30th of June, with its reduction of the tariff under the compromise act, was rapidly approaching; and on June 7 only a provisional tariff bill was reported in the House to tide the country over the 30th, and thus to give time for further deliberation. But that provisional bill provided also that, while the distribution of the proceeds of the public land sales should be suspended for the month of July, they should go into force on August 1. Tyler returned the bill with his veto, mainly for the avowed reason that it provided for the distribution of the proceeds of land sales while the tariff rate exceeded twenty per cent. After a violent explosion of wrath, the Whig majority passed a tariff bill of a permanent character, which contained the same clause providing for the distribution of the proceeds of land sales. On August 9 this too came back with the President's disapproval. The veto was referred to a special committee, with John Quincy Adams as chairman, who made a report lashing Tyler with terrible severity.
But now the Whig majority stood before the clear alternative of either giving up the distribution scheme, or adjourning without provision for the necessary revenue, as well as for the protective duties which their friends, the manufacturers, urgently demanded. What should they do? Clay had written to Crittenden on July 16, after the first veto: —
"I think you cannot give up distribution without a disgraceful sacrifice of independence. The moral prejudice of such a surrender upon the character of the party, and upon our institutions, would be worse than the disorder and confusion incident to the failure to pass a tariff. It would be to give up the legislative power into the hands of the President, and would expose you to the scorn, contempt, and derision of the people, and of our opponents. Do not apprehend that the people will desert you and take part with Mr. Tyler. In my view of it, I think our friends ought to stand firmly and resolutely for distribution. The more vetoes the better now! — assuming that the measures vetoed are right."
John Quincy Adams, whose passions were fully roused, was of the same opinion. It is difficult to understand how patriotic and experienced statesmen, unless under the influence of blinding excitement, could have advised their party to commit so foolish and grave a blunder as to adjourn without passing a revenue measure which they themselves thought absolutely necessary.
Fortunately for them, the advice was not heeded by all their party friends. The business community grew restless and urgent. At last a sufficient number of Whigs, alarmed at the consequences of "standing firm," united with a sufficient number of Democrats in passing a tariff bill not containing the provision concerning the proceeds of land sales objected to by Tyler's veto. Thus Clay's distribution scheme was irretrievably defeated. Of all his great measures, nothing was saved but a moderate tariff, and that at the sacrifice of the compromise of 1833.