Life of Henry Clay/25 1844-1849
|←Chapter XXIV. The Election of 1844.||Life of Henry Clay by
Chapter XXV. 1844-1849.
|Chapter XXVI. The Compromise of 1850.→|
During the autumn and early part of the winter of 1844, Clay remained at Ashland, receiving and answering a flood of letters from all parts of the United States, and even from Europe, which conveyed to him expressions of condolence and sympathy, — many of them most touching by the evident sincerity of their sorrowful lamentations. The electors of Kentucky, after having cast their votes for him, visited Ashland to assure the defeated man of the affection and faithful attachment of his state.
Private cares had meanwhile gathered in addition to his public disappointments. He had for some time been laboring under great pecuniary embarrassment, owing partly to the drafts which are always made upon the purse of a prominent public man, partly to the business failure of one of his sons. Aside from other pressing debts, there was a heavy mortgage resting on Ashland, and, as an old man of sixty-seven, Clay found himself forced to consider whether, in order to satisfy his creditors, it would not be necessary to part with his beloved home. Relief came to him suddenly, and in an unexpected form. When offering a payment to the bank at Lexington, the president of the institution informed him that sums of money had arrived from different parts of the country to pay off Henry Clay's debts, and that all the notes and the mortgage were cancelled. Clay was deeply moved. "Who did this?" he asked the banker. All the answer he received was that the givers were unknown, but they were presumably "not his enemies." Clay doubted whether he should accept the gift, and consulted some of his friends. They reminded him of the many persons of historic renown who had not refused tokens of admiration and gratitude from their countrymen; and added that, as he could not discover the unknown givers, he could not return the gift; and, as the gift appeared in the shape of a discharged obligation, he could not force the renewal of the debt. At last he consented to accept, and thus was Ashland saved to him.
In January, 1845, Clay attended a meeting of the American Colonization Society at Washington, which was held in the hall of the House of Representatives. "Last night Mr. Clay made a show on the colonization question, and such a show I never saw," wrote Alexander H. Stephens to his brother. "Men came from Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, to say nothing of Alexandria and this city. The house and galleries were jammed and crammed before five o'clock." Stephens then describes how he himself had to scheme and struggle to get in through a side door; how Clay appeared about seven o'clock, and could hardly force his way in; how the vast meeting would cheer him again and again at the top of their voices; how they would not let anybody speak before him; how "whole acres" of people had to go away without getting in at all; and how Shepperd of North Carolina, being "more Whiggish than Clayish," remarked, "rather snappishly," that "Clay could get more men to run after him to hear him speak, and fewer to vote for him, than any man in America."
In the mean time grave events were preparing themselves in Congress. In his annual message of December, 1844, President Tyler stoutly asserted that, through the late presidential election, "a controlling majority of the people and a large majority of the states" had declared in favor of the immediate annexation of Texas, and that both branches of Congress had thus been instructed by their respective constituents to that effect. William Cullen Bryant and his friends, who had made themselves believe that they could vote for Polk and at the same time against the annexation of Texas, might have taken this audacious statement as a personal affront. But the Whigs could hardly repel the doctrine of special instructions to Congress by presidential election, since they had pretended that the election of 1840 was a special instruction to Congress to create a new United States Bank. There was still opposition enough in the Senate to render it doubtful whether another annexation treaty would obtain the necessary two thirds vote. The expedient was therefore adopted of annexing Texas by joint resolution, which required only a simple majority of each house. On January 25 a resolution annexing Texas passed the House of Representatives, with an amendment, championed by Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, that, in such state or states as should be formed out of the Territory of Texas north of the Missouri compromise line of 36°30', slavery should be prohibited, the formation of four Slave States being contemplated south of that line. All the Whigs, with the exception of eight from the South, voted against the resolution.
In the Senate it found opposition from those who insisted that foreign territory could not be constitutionally incorporated with the United States except by treaty. It would probably have been defeated, had not Walker of Mississippi offered, as an amendment, an addition to the resolution giving the President the option between submitting to the Texan government the joint resolution for its acceptance, or beginning new negotiations for an annexation treaty. Five of those who thought the original resolution unconstitutional accepted Walker's amendment, thus authorizing the President to violate the Constitution or not, as he might think most convenient. One of the five was Benton, who afterwards protested that, according to a secret understanding, the option was not to be exercised by Tyler, but to be left to Polk, and that Polk would resume negotiations for a treaty. If there was such an understanding, Benton found himself cheated; for when the joint resolution so amended had passed both houses, and been signed by Tyler, a messenger was dispatched, on March 3, to the Texan government to offer annexation by joint resolution. On March 4 Polk was inaugurated as President. In his inaugural address he said that the enlargement of the Union would be the extension of "the dominions of peace over additional territories and increasing millions." He made James Buchanan Secretary of State. Neither he nor Buchanan thought of recalling the messenger sent to Texas with the joint resolution, and of reopening negotiations for a new treaty.
Texas had, after the failure of the annexation treaty in the Senate, sought her salvation in another direction again, and, with the aid of England and France, negotiated a preliminary peace with Mexico. The peace was signed by the Texan agent on March 29. It contained the recognition of Texan independence, and a promise that Texas should not be annexed to any foreign state. On April 21 the Mexican Congress assented to the treaty. The Texan Congress met on June 16. joint resolution passed by the Congress of the United States was submitted to it, and also the peace with Mexico. The Texan Senate unanimously rejected the peace with Mexico, and two days later the resolution of annexation was adopted by both houses. On July 4 a convention of the people of Texas met and ratified annexation.
Thus Mexico and Texas were still at war; and Clay's prediction, that with the annexation of Texas the United States would inevitably annex that war, seemed to be verified. Indeed, upon the passage of the joint resolution to annex Texas, the Mexican Minister left Washington, and the American Minister the city of Mexico. Still, actual war might have been avoided had the United States been satisfied with Texas as then occupied by Texans, or sought to acquire the line of the Rio Grande as the boundary line by patient negotiation. The joint resolution annexing "the territory properly included within, and rightfully belonging to, the Republic of Texas," and speaking of "an adjustment by this government of all questions of boundary that may arise with other governments," evidently looked to such negotiation. The question of boundary was whether Texas extended only as far as the Texan settlements extended, to the Nueces River, or beyond the Texan settlements to the Rio Grande, the eastern bank of which was dotted with Mexican villages and military posts. The country between the Nueces and the Rio Grande had, indeed, been wildly "claimed" by the Texans, although really looked upon as, at most, disputed territory. But Polk's administration assumed to decide the boundary question by force.
On July 30 General Taylor was ordered, with the troops concentrated on the Sabine, to occupy, protect, and defend Texas as far as occupied by the Texan's, and to approach the Rio Grande, which was "claimed to be the boundary between the two countries" (Texas and Mexico), but to remain away from Mexican settlements and military posts. In August Taylor camped at Corpus Christi, on the Nueces. On August 23 he was informed that, if a large Mexican army should cross the Rio Grande, the President would regard that act as an invasion of the United States and the beginning of hostilities; and on August 30 he was instructed that an attempt to cross on the part of a large Mexican force should "be regarded in the same light," and that in such case he should consider himself authorized, in his discretion, to defend Texas by crossing the Rio Grande himself, driving the Mexicans from their positions on either bank, and occupying Matamoras. Before receiving this instruction General Taylor reported to the War Department that there were no concentrations of Mexican troops on the Rio Grande, and no expectation of war; he could hear only of small parties to be sent across the river by the Mexicans to prevent Indian depredations and illicit trade. On October 16, however, Taylor was again instructed to approach the Rio Grande, and to repel "any attempted invasion." This instruction was crossed on its way by a despatch from Taylor, who had meanwhile begun to understand what was desired of him, saying that, if the Rio Grande boundary was really the ultimatum of the United States, a prompt advance was indeed advisable; but in that case, as Mexico had neither declared war nor committed any overt act of hostility, he wanted definite authority from the War Department for a forward movement. This seems to have been an unwelcome request. Definite orders did not come for months. Meanwhile operations on another line were going on.
In September Buchanan had inquired of the Mexican government, through the American Consul, whether it would "receive an envoy from the United States intrusted with full powers to adjust all questions in dispute between the two governments." The Mexican government promptly declared itself ready to receive a "commissioner" with full power to settle "the present dispute," meaning the dispute about Texas. Polk then appointed Slidell of Louisiana, as "Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary" to enter into negotiations about a variety of matters. It was not only Texas the administration had in mind, but also the Mexican province, California. While this was going on, Commodore Sloat, commanding the Pacific squadron of the American navy, was under instructions, as soon as he should ascertain with certainty that Mexico had declared war against the United States, at once to possess himself of the port of San Francisco, and to blockade or occupy such other ports as his force would permit; also to maintain friendly relations with the inhabitants. Everything indicates that, in the event of hostilities, California was to be occupied with a view to permanent possession. Thus the army and the navy were ready to seize by force what the administration coveted, in case Slidell did not succeed in buying it. He was instructed to offer the Mexican government the assumption by the United States of the American claims against Mexico, and five million dollars, for the Rio Grande line and New Mexico, or the assumption of the claims and twenty-five millions for New Mexico and California.
When Slidell appeared on Mexican soil, the Mexican President, Herrera, peaceably disposed, but fearing that he could not sustain himself against the popular temper if he opened negotiations forthwith, wished him to delay his arrival in the capital. But Slidell did not delay. He sent at once his letter of credence to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. After some hesitation the minister declared that Slidell's credentials were not according to the understanding; that he was not a special "commissioner" sent to dispose of the Texas dispute only, but a regular minister plenipotentiary; and that therefore the question of his reception must be submitted to the government council. Slidell insisted, but the Mexican government repeated that he could be received only as commissioner to treat about Texas. Slidell replied in a haughty and insulting note, and announced his return to the United States, without, however, being really in haste to go. "In anticipation" of the refusal of the Mexican government to receive Slidell, and before his report had reached Washington, on January 13, 1846, General Taylor was directed, by an instruction which was kept secret, to advance with his whole command to the Rio Grande, and a strong naval force was ordered to the Gulf of Mexico, to give emphasis to Slidell's demands. Meantime Herrera's government was overthrown by a revolution. But on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande no military movements were perceptible. The Mexican government was in a condition of utter bankruptcy and confusion. Slidell was instructed to present his letter of credence to the new Mexican President, Paredes. If he, too, declined to receive him, the matter would then have to be submitted to Congress.
There was great excitement in Congress meanwhile, — not, however, about Mexico, but about another complication threatening war with England. It will be remembered that Oregon and Texas were linked together in the Democratic platform. The Treaty of Ghent had left the conflicting claims of the United States and Great Britain concerning the Columbia or Oregon Valley unsettled. The Convention of 1818 provided for a joint occupation. The value of the country was not known. The Americans had there the trading-post Astoria, and the British Hudson Bay Company its trappers and fur traders. Negotiations to determine the relative right of possession were carried on languidly and without result. In 1818 and 1820 the United States offered, as a compromise, the forty-ninth parallel as the dividing line, the British insisting on the line of the Columbia River down from the point where the forty-ninth parallel intersected its northeastern branch. But they agreed on nothing except to extend the joint occupation indefinitely, subject to notice of termination. In 1832 a small agricultural settlement was established by Americans on the Willamette, an affluent of the Columbia. In 1836 President Jackson ordered an exploration of that region, which attracted much interest. In 1838 the settlers on the Willamette petitioned Congress for the establishment of a territorial government, but without success. New petitions came, together with the report that the Hudson Bay Company, too, were introducing settlers. Oregon grew more important in the eyes of the people and the politicians. Tyler mentioned the subject in his messages, but in the negotiations between Webster and Lord Ashburton it was ignored. Six months after the conclusion of the Ashburton Treaty, a missionary, Dr. Marcus Whitman, coming directly from Oregon, gave valuable information about the magnificent resources of that country. He soon led a caravan of two hundred wagons from the Missouri to the Columbia, demonstrating its accessibility by land. Fremont at the same period made his discoveries of practicable passes through the Rocky Mountains. The project of a trans-continental railway was not long afterwards suggested by Asa Whitney. In the Western States a clamor arose for the enforcement of the American right to Oregon. Western Senators demanded that notice of the termination of the joint occupancy be served on Great Britain. The subject became fit for the manufacture of political capital, and could no longer be ignored.
Negotiations were resumed under Tyler's administration between Calhoun and Pakenham, the British Minister, Calhoun repeating the offer of the forty-ninth parallel, but the British government insisting upon the Columbia as the boundary line. The British Minister suggested arbitration, but Calhoun declined. The Democratic National Convention of 1844 took up the question, demanding the "reoccupation" of the whole of Oregon, which was made to include the country up to 54° 40', a line which had been fixed twenty years before as the southern boundary of the Russian possessions in America. Polk, in his inaugural address, repeating very nearly the language of the Democratic platform, spoke of "the American title to the country of the Oregon" as "clear and unquestionable." Lord John Russell called this a "blustering announcement," and the reply of the American Democrats was "Fifty-four forty or fight!"
On July 12, 1845, Buchanan, while affirming the American right to "the whole of Oregon," admitted, in a note to the British Minister, that the President felt himself "embarrassed by the acts of his predecessors," and offered once more the forty-ninth parallel as a compromise. When the British Minister again declined, Buchanan withdrew the offer, and announced that the President would now insist on "the whole of Oregon." Polk, in his annual message of December, 1845, confirmed this, and recommended that one year's notice be given to Great Britain of the termination of the joint occupancy, and that provision be made for the protection of American settlers in Oregon. He declared himself convinced that no acceptable compromise could be effected, and threw the responsibility on England. This foreboded war. The business community became alarmed; stocks fell in Wall Street. On December 9 Cass moved in the Senate an inquiry into the condition of the army and navy. The "notice" to be served on Great Britain became the subject of exciting debates. The British Minister once more proposed arbitration, which Polk again declined, affirming that he would not accept anything less than the whole territory, "unless the Senate should otherwise determine." The administration, having its eye on Mexico, desired no war with England, but tried to shift the responsibility for a compromise on the Senate.
The extremists, the "fifty-four forties," clamored for immediate "notice." They would not leave the matter to the Senate, quoting Clay's utterance in the debate on the Florida Treaty in 1820, that no territory belonging to the United States could be ceded to a foreign power, or "alienated," without the assent of both houses of Congress. But the Southern leaders, Calhoun foremost, who on account of slavery dreaded a war with England, and did not very warmly favor territorial expansion northward, began to advocate a pacific course. The Western Democrats did not fail to accuse the Southerners of bad faith because, having acquired Texas to strengthen their peculiar interests, they would not go to extremes in carrying out the Northern part of the Democratic platform. But this did not prevent the confidential spokesmen of the President in the Senate from familiarizing the public mind with the abandonment of 54°40'. It became apparent that the administration wished to avoid extremities. The popular temper sobered down. The cry of "54°40' or fight" gradually died away. On April 16, 1846, "notice" in a very conciliatory form passed the Senate. Public opinion in England was favorably affected. The British government itself then proposed the forty-ninth parallel. Polk, still desirous of shifting the responsibility, would not directly accept. Resuming a practice of the early times of the Republic, he consulted the Senate in advance about a treaty yet to be made, submitting a mere draft of it, and announced that, according to the advice of the Senate, he would either accept or reject the British proposition. The Senate, by a majority of three to one, the Whigs voting with the majority, advised the President to accept, and the treaty was promptly concluded and ratified. Thus the Oregon question, which produced so much noisy excitement, was put out of the way, while the cloud on the southern horizon silently rose and grew blacker.
The American Minister in London reported that the British government would hardly have been so forward in proposing the forty-ninth parallel had it known what at that period was passing on the Rio Grande.
On March 1 Slidell demanded that the new Mexican President, Paredes, should declare whether he would receive him in the character of a minister plenipotentiary or not. Paredes replied that the threatening attitude of the United States made the reception impossible. On March 11 General Taylor began his movement from Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande. On the 28th he arrived opposite Matamoras, and planted a battery commanding the public square of that town. With some vessels of the United States near at hand he blockaded the mouth of the Rio Grande to cut off all supplies from Matamoras, to the end of forcing the Mexican troops stationed there either to withdraw or to take the offensive. On April 24 the Mexican General, Arista, declared that he considered hostilities thus begun, and the following day a detachment of American dragoons became engaged on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande with a superior force of Mexicans, and lost sixteen men. General Taylor reported to the government that hostilities might now be deemed opened, and that he was going to carry the war into the enemy's country.
Taylor's dispatch arrived in Washington on May 9, a Saturday, and on Monday, the 11th, Polk sent a message to Congress accusing Mexico of having invaded the territory of the United States, and announcing that war existed, notwithstanding the efforts of the government of the United States to avoid it. The same day the House of Representatives, without taking time to have the reports and dispatches read, and almost without debate, passed a bill declaring that war existed "by the act of Mexico," authorizing the President to call out fifty thousand volunteers, and appropriating $10,000,000. Only fourteen votes were cast against the bill, at their head that of John Quincy Adams. The Senate passed the bill on the 12th by a vote of forty to two. The contrast between the treatment of the Oregon question and that of the difficulty with Mexico could not have been more glaring.
At the same session of Congress the famous tariff of 1846 was passed, substantially stripping duties on imports of their high-protective character. The cries of the Pennsylvanians who had voted for "Polk, Dallas, and the tariff of 1842" were pitiable in the extreme, but of no avail. Also the sub-treasury system was reëstablished, to remain; and Polk put his veto upon a river and harbor bill.
On the Rio Grande events progressed rapidly. Before his dispatch reached Washington, on May 8, General Taylor with his small force defeated the Mexicans at Palo Alto, and on the 9th he won a still more important success at Resaca de la Palma. On the 18th he crossed the Rio Grande and occupied Matamoras. General Kearney was ordered to conquer New Mexico, which he did without firing a gun. He was to push forward to California. But there his services were not needed. Captain Fremont, engaged in an exploring expedition, with the aid of his companions and of American settlers, and with the coöperation of American men-of-war on the Pacific coast, set up a provisional government in California, and brought the country under the control of the United States.
During the summer of 1846 there was a pause in the war and an "intrigue for peace." The administration had put itself in communication with Santa Anna, who, banished from Mexico, lived at the Havana. He created the impression that, if returned to power in his country, he would favor peace. The blockading squadron of the United States off Vera Cruz was instructed to let him pass into Mexico, which it did on August 8. President Polk asked of Congress an appropriation of $2,000,000 for purposes of negotiation, the intended result of which was understood to consist in territorial cessions by Mexico to the United States. Then something happened which marked the beginning of the final struggle about slavery in the United States. David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, a Democrat, moved in the House of Representatives an amendment to the $2,000,000 bill, providing that in all territories to be acquired from Mexico slavery should be forever prohibited. This was the renowned "Wilmot Proviso." The bill, with the proviso, passed the House, but failed in the Senate.
When Congress met in December, 1846, the American forces virtually controlled the larger part of the Mexican dominions. General Taylor had on September 22 and 23 assaulted Monterey, and on the 24th accepted the capitulation of General Ampudia. A great enterprise against Vera Cruz under General Scott was preparing. Polk, having received no money for his peace intrigue at the previous session, repeated the attempt. A bill appropriating $3,000,000 for purposes of negotiation was introduced in the House. Again the Wilmot Proviso was added to it. The contest grew warmer. Pro-slavery men in Congress, and Southern legislatures, proclaimed that this was a "Southern war;" that it was made to acquire more territory for slavery, and that they wanted the war to stop if, by the restriction of slavery, its object was to be defeated. Free State legislatures, on the other hand, one after another, men of both parties uniting, instructed their Senators and requested their Representatives to sustain the Wilmot Proviso. The Senate again struck out the proviso, and the House finally adopted the bill without it, many Northern members, however, with the mental reservation that the proviso should be revived at a later stage of the proceedings. Thus the question was only adjourned.
Victories came thick and fast on the theatre of war. While great preparations were made by General Scott for an attack on Vera Cruz, and an expedition from that point on the City of Mexico, Santa Anna became provisional president of Mexico, and, instead of making peace, put himself at the head of the army for a supreme effort. In February, 1847, he fell with a greatly superior force upon General Taylor at Buena Vista, but was defeated. General Scott occupied Vera Cruz on March 29, beat Santa Anna at Cerro Gordo on April 18, and after a series of successes at Pueblo, Contreras, Churubusco, Molino del Rey, and Chapultepec, entered the city of Mexico on September 14.
While these great events were taking place, Clay spent his days in retirement at Ashland, or visiting his friends here and there, especially at New Orleans. He continued to receive testimonials of popular esteem and attachment. The Whig ladies of Virginia provided the means for erecting his statue at Richmond. Those of Tennessee presented him with a costly vase. Wherever he went he was greeted with warm demonstrations of friendship. But the war brought him a profound sorrow. His son, Colonel Henry Clay, the most gifted of all his children, and his favorite, who had joined Taylor's command with a regiment of Kentucky volunteers, fell at Buena Vista. This blow struck him very deeply. "My life has been full of domestic afflictions," he wrote to a friend, alluding to the loss of all his daughters by death, "but this last is the severest among them." Not long after the arrival of these sad tidings Clay became a member of the Episcopal Church, and was baptized according to its rites in the presence of his family. He never pretended to be a pious man, but always showed much respect for religious beliefs and observances. With advancing age he grew more meditative, and also more regular in his attendance upon Sunday services.
The political situation during that period could not be cheering to him. All the Whig principles and policies had been overthrown, and in the great crisis the conduct of the Whigs in Congress had lacked courage and dignity. They had denounced the war policy as unjust and dishonorable before the war was begun; afterward only fourteen of them in the House and two in the Senate voted firmly to the last against the declaration that war existed by the act of Mexico, which they believed to be a lie; and then, the war having been made its own by Congress, they denounced it as "Polk's war," and sought to belittle and discredit it as an unrighteous, partisan enterprise. It was Polk's war until Congress had assumed Polk's responsibility. Then it was the war of the American people, made so with the concurrence of a large majority of the Whig votes in Congress. To oppose the war policy until war was declared; in good faith to support the war as soon as it had become the war of the American people; and to strive for a just and beneficent peace as the contest was decided, — that was the course, if frankly and faithfully followed by the Whigs, to secure to the opposition party a consistent, patriotic, and strong position.
In spite of the vacillation and weakness of their conduct, the Whigs won a remarkable success in the congressional elections of 1846. In the twenty-ninth Congress the Democrats had a majority exceeding sixty votes in the House of Representatives. The elections of 1846 transformed that majority into a minority of eight; and this while the party in power was carrying on a victorious war. It was strange, but not inexplicable. Although the bulletins from the theatre of operations reported victory after victory, the popular conscience, at least in the North, was uneasy, and the shouts of triumph could not silence its voice, which said that the war was unjust in its origin, and that slavery was its object. Moreover, the shuffling character of Polk's diplomacy, and his apparent consciousness of guilt, urging him incessantly in his public utterances to defend the government as to the causes of the war, repelled the popular heart; and thus an administration victorious in the field was defeated at the ballot-box. There were among the new members elected in 1846 two men destined to fame, — Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, a Whig; and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, a Democrat.
Late in the autumn of 1847, before the thirtieth Congress met, Clay's voice was heard again. Scott was then in the city of Mexico. There were no more Mexican armies to combat. Neither was there a generally recognized Mexican government with which to conclude a peace of binding force, and sure to command general acceptance. Democratic meetings pronounced in favor of the permanent occupation and eventual annexation of the whole of the Mexican Republic. Men of standing and influence countenanced the same idea. The "manifest destiny" cry stirred up the wildest schemes of aggrandizement. While this agitation was going on Clay addressed a public meeting at Lexington, hoping to be heard by the whole American people. He traced the origin of the war to the annexation of Texas, but showed how hostilities might after all have been avoided by prudence, moderation, and wise statesmanship. As to the action of Congress, he would not discredit the motives of any one, but, referring to the declaration that "war existed by the act of Mexico," he added "that no earthly consideration would ever have tempted or provoked him to vote for a bill with a palpable falsehood stamped upon its face." Solemnly he warned the American people of the dangers which would inevitably follow if they abandoned themselves to the ambition of conquest, pictured in glowing colors the evils which necessarily must come if such a country and such a people as Mexico and the Mexicans were incorporated with the political system of the United States, and admonished his countrymen to beware of trifling with the national honor. "I am afraid," he said, "that we do not now stand well in the opinion of other parts of Christendom. Repudiation has brought upon us much reproach. All the nations, I apprehend, look upon us, in the prosecution of the present war, as being actuated by a spirit of rapacity, and an inordinate desire for territorial aggrandizement."
He summed up his argument in a series of resolutions. They set forth that the war had been brought on by an unrighteous policy, but that, "Congress having, by subsequent acts, recognized the war thus brought into existence, the prosecution of it thereby became national;" that it was the right of Congress to declare, by some authoritative act, for what purposes and objects the existing war ought to be further prosecuted; that it was the duty of the President to conform to such a declaration of Congress; that the purpose of annexing Mexico to the United States in any mode, and especially by conquest, could not be contemplated without the most serious alarm; that a union of Mexico with the United States should be deprecated, because it could not be effected and carried on in peace, but would lead to despotic sway in the one and then in both countries; that there should be a generous peace, requiring no dismemberment of the Mexican Republic, but "only a just and proper fixation of the limits of Texas;" and then "that we do positively and emphatically disclaim and disavow any wish or desire on our part to acquire any foreign territory whatever for the purpose of propagating slavery, or of introducing slaves from the United States into such foreign territory."
This speech found an immediate response. Public meetings were held in various quarters adopting Clay's resolutions. In New York great demonstrations took place, one at the Tabernacle and another at Castle Garden, one of the largest meetings ever assembled, which passed resolves and issued addresses echoing Clay's sentiments, and praising him to the skies.
That Lexington speech, with its vigorous reproof of the national ambition of aggrandizement, and especially with its uncompromising declaration against the acquisition of territory for the spread of slavery, little resembled the prudent style of utterance usual with aspirants to the presidency. But Clay was again an aspirant to the presidency at that time. It was not only the inveterate ambition that gave him no rest, but he had friends who constantly stimulated that ambition with flattering perspectives of success. Immediately after his defeat in 1844 he was "spoken of" again for "the next time;" and, when the Whig triumphs in the congressional elections of 1846 had infused new spirit into the party, he was, as appears from his correspondence, "often addressed" on the subject of the presidency; but he thought it was "too soon to agitate the question." He had suffered disappointments enough to make him cautious, and for that caution there was now peculiar reason. The number of Whigs who, while still loving and admiring him, had grown tired of being defeated with him, had increased rapidly since 1844. Among them were, no doubt, many who looked for their own preferment, who to that end desired party success at any price, and who were impatient with the old chief for standing in the way of their interests. But there were also others who, remaining his faithful friends, would not expose him, and at the same time their party, to more disasters. John J. Crittenden, a most honorable man, and Clay's lifelong brother-in-arms in all his struggles, was one of these. "I prefer Mr. Clay to all men for the presidency," he wrote to a friend; "but my conviction, my involuntary conviction, is that he cannot be elected." He was undoubtedly right. No man in public life was more idolized by his admirers, but no one had more unrelenting and active enemies, to whom his long career presented an abundance of vulnerable points. Moreover, he had grown stale as a presidential candidate. All the ingenuity of defense, and all the ardor of panegyric, had time and again been exhausted for him, and always in vain. There were no fresh resources to draw upon for a new campaign. The spokesmen of the party were naturally reluctant to undertake the same task again, and many of them therefore joined in the quiet protest against his renomination. This feeling had grown to especial strength where Clay had least expected it, and where it was most painful to him, — in Kentucky. Many of the Whigs of that state had reached the conclusion that Kentucky, after the experiences of the past, ought not to impose upon the Whig party Clay's candidacy for the presidency as a permanent burden. They were, therefore, among the first to look for a new man around whom to rally. They found that man in the person of a military chieftain.
Immediately after the news of the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma had arrived in the United States, in May, 1846, some Whig politicians, Thurlow Weed among others, cast their eyes upon the victorious captain as a presidential possibility. Thurlow Weed learned from General Taylor's brother that the General had always been an admirer of Henry Clay, and preferred home-made goods to foreign importations. This was sufficient in his eyes to qualify the General as a good enough Whig for a presidential candidate. The General had never voted. He had spent the best part of his life in camps and at frontier posts, and never expressed, nor even entertained, a very decided preference for either of the two political parties. When the proposition of making him a candidate for the highest civil office was first broached to him, he promptly pronounced it as too absurd to be thought of for a moment. But there are very few American citizens, however prudent and modest, who, when repeatedly told that the people insist upon putting them into the presidential chair, will not finally believe that the people are right and must be obeyed. General Taylor, too, gradually came to that conclusion. On November 4, 1847, he wrote to Clay that he should be glad if his (Clay's) nomination, or the nomination of some other Whig by the party, would permit him (Taylor) to stand aside. But these sentiments gradually suffered a decided change. There was, indeed, something like a popular demand for him. As early as June, 1846, meetings had been held in Trenton, N. J., and in New York, recommending Taylor's nomination for the presidency. The movement spread rapidly, and became especially active in Kentucky, Clay's formerly faithful state.
These demonstrations were by no means confined to the Whig party. "People's" meetings, "Native American" meetings, and even some Democratic meetings, expressed the opinion that General Taylor was the man of the hour. The honest and simple-minded old soldier, once persuaded that the talk of making him President was serious, thought it but natural that, as he had never been a partisan, and as the call upon him was not confined to any political organization, he should consider himself as the people's candidate, and, if elected, as the people's President. He put forth these sentiments, at the same time confessing that he had only "crude impressions on matters of policy," in several letters which became public and astonished the politicians. His sponsors among the Whig leaders grew alarmed lest his unguarded utterances should endanger his nomination by a regular Whig party convention. They, therefore, took him in training, and composed a letter for him which should soothe the partisan mind. But they could not make him say more than that he was a Whig, "although not an ultra one;" that "he would not be President of a party," but "would endeavor to act independent of party domination," and "untrammeled by party schemes;" that he would not use the veto power "except in cases of clear violation of the Constitution, or manifest haste or want of consideration by Congress;" that, as to the tariff, the currency, and internal improvements, "the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives in Congress, ought to be respected and carried out by the Executive;" and that he was in favor of peace, and opposed "to the subjugation of other nations and the dismemberment of other countries by conquest." With this the Whig politicians had to be satisfied.
Clay observed this movement in favor of General Taylor with extreme displeasure, which found vent in his letters to his friends. Up to the battle of Buena Vista he thought the Whig masses were determined to stand by him. He insisted that the Whig party had always been committed against mere military officers for the presidency, and that, if a man like General Taylor, absolutely without experience in civil affairs, were elected, the presidency would fall to a succession of military chieftains. At the same time he told his friends that he would be a candidate only if there was a general popular call for him, and in the mean time he would maintain a passive attitude. But of sustaining that passive attitude he seems not to have been capable. In the winter of 1847-48 he visited Washington to appear in a case before the Supreme Court, and to take part in a meeting of the Colonization Society. But that was not all. "The only news is," wrote Alexander H. Stephens, "that Mr. Clay has produced a great impression here. I expect he will give the Whigs some trouble. I think he will be flattered into the belief that he can be elected." A few days later he wrote: "I am now well satisfied that Mr. Clay will not allow his name to be used in the convention." Clay did not understand it so. He wrote to his friends that the strongest appeals were made to him against the withdrawal of his name. He complained bitterly of the Taylor movement in Kentucky. "Why is it?" he wrote. "After the long period of time during which I have had the happiness to enjoy the friendship and confidence of that state, what have I done, it is inquired, to lose it?" The opposition to him, and especially the circumstance that General Taylor, a man whom he thought utterly unfit for the presidency, was his competitor, seems to have sharpened his desire. A series of ovations elsewhere was in store for him, to test the popular temper. But before Clay left Washington he had to witness a solemn scene which might have sobered his ambition. On February 25 John Quincy Adams was stricken down by paralysis in the House of Representatives. The grand old hero of duty, the grim warrior of conscience, fell, as he had hoped to fall, in the service of his country. When he lay in the Speaker's room unconscious, Clay was taken to him: he held the hand of the dying man in his, and the tears streamed down his face. From the scene of death he went forth, himself an old man of nearly seventy-one, to the last struggle for that which, as an object of ambition, as he might well have learned from Adams's life, was valueless. At Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York he was received with great demonstrations of enthusiasm which filled the newspapers with gorgeous descriptions. At New York, where the city authorities took him in charge, the festivities lasted several days. There was no end of hand-shaking and cheers. The people seemed to think of nothing but Henry Clay.
Until then he had maintained what he called a passive attitude, — weighing chances with apparent coolness of judgment, but always ready to be deceived when the truth did not accord with his wishes. The assurances of friends in New York that, if nominated, he would triumphantly carry that state, and information equally flattering from influential Whigs in Ohio, the most prominent and urgent among whom was Governor Bebb, finally decided him to proclaim what he had probably long before determined in his heart. Early in April he published a letter assenting to the "use of his name" in the Whig National Convention. And then he had to learn a piece of startling news from General Taylor himself. Clay had expected that, if he were nominated by the Whig Convention, General Taylor, as a matter of course, would quietly leave the field. He had carried on some secret hope, perhaps, of dissuading him from being a candidate at all. But now the General, in a public letter of April 20, 1848, declared, and in a letter addressed to Clay himself on April 30, affirmed, that, having been nominated by "the people called together in primary assemblies in several of the states," he considered himself "in the hands of the people," and was determined to remain a candidate, whoever else might be in the field. Such a declaration would, under ordinary circumstances, have provoked the resentment of a party conscious of its strength, and thus defeated the pretensions of the man making it. It produced a different effect upon the Whigs of 1848. Those who desired a party victory at any price calculated that, if Taylor remained a candidate under any circumstances, the Whigs could win only by accepting, but would surely lose by opposing him. There was also another class who actually preferred him because he was not a party man. This was not surprising at a time when the question which most engaged people's minds and feelings did not form a clear issue between the political parties, but rather divided the parties within themselves.
Clay did not appreciate this. In a letter of August 4, 1847, to Daniel Ullmann he had still expressed the opinion that, with the exception of the United States Bank, — which he, too, by that time had dropped as no longer available, — the old issues would still be good for another campaign, such as the principle of protection, and internal improvements, and the "alarming increase of the vetoes," and, added to these subjects, "the Mexican war, its causes, the manner of conducting it, and the great national debt" fastened by it on the country. But he was mistaken. The "free-trade" tariff of 1846 had not produced the destruction of prosperity which its opponents had predicted. The hard times, beginning with the crash of 1837, had at last been followed by a revival of business. This was, indeed, ascribed by many to the effect of the famine in Europe; but, whatever the cause, there was in point of fact no distress in America that would have justified a cry for a reversal of economic policy. Neither would the people excite themselves about a veto killing a river and harbor bill. Nor would the distribution of the proceeds of sales of public land stir the popular heart. As to the Mexican war, the unrighteousness of its cause, and the conduct of the administration in managing it, might, indeed, furnish material for discussion; but the main point, the decision of the question what should be the outcome of it, was before the country in the shape of an accomplished fact before the presidential campaign opened.
In February, 1848, the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo was concluded. By its terms Mexico recognized the Rio Grande as the western boundary of Texas, and ceded to the United States New Mexico and California, in consideration of which the United States were to pay to Mexico fifteen millions, and assume the payment of the claims of American citizens to a limited amount. Whatever their feelings about the origin of the war might have been, a large majority of the American people were well enough satisfied with the acquisition of New Mexico and California. The only question which seriously troubled them was whether, in the newly acquired territories, slavery should exist or not. That question loomed up in a portentous shape, and with regard to it neither party was at peace within itself. The main force of the Democratic party was in the South, and therefore leaned toward the interests of slavery; but, in order to win in presidential elections the Northern States necessary for party success, it had to make occasional concession to the anti-slavery spirit prevailing there. The main force of the Whig party was in the North, and therefore leaned toward general freedom; but, in order to secure the Southern States necessary for success, it had to make occasional concession to the demands of slavery. Thus both found the slavery question an exceedingly troublesome and dangerous one, and both were afraid of it. But, whatever might be done to hold it back, it pressed irresistibly forward.
The Wilmot Proviso, aiming at the total exclusion of slavery from the newly acquired territories, although defeated in the Senate, was certain to rise up again. It served as a rallying cry all over the North, and profoundly alarmed the South. Southern statesmen, and, more clearly than any of them, Calhoun saw the greatness of their danger, and resolved to make a final stand against it. In February, 1847, Calhoun, true to his method of fighting fate with constitutional theories, introduced a set of resolutions declaring that the territories belonged to the several states in common; that any law depriving any citizen of a state of the right to emigrate with his property (slaves included) into any of the territories, would be a violation of the Constitution; and that no condition could be imposed upon new states to be admitted, other than that they should have a republican form of government. In other words, Calhoun, who advanced his positions step by step as the dangers to slavery increased, affirmed now substantially that the Constitution by its own force carried slavery into the territories of the United States. These resolutions were never voted upon in the Senate. But Southern legislatures adopted them as their doctrine, and an attempt was made in Congress to establish that doctrine by practical application.
In the last session of the twenty-ninth Congress, the House passed a bill giving Oregon a territorial government, with a provision excluding slavery, but the Senate laid the bill on the table. When in the succeeding session the subject reappeared, the exclusion of slavery was resisted by Southern Senators and Representatives with the utmost energy. Practically to establish slavery in Oregon, whose inhabitants, in giving themselves a provisional government, had already voted against its admission, might have seemed hopeless. But the assertion of the principle with regard to Oregon would facilitate its future application to California and New Mexico; or, perhaps, a final yielding as to Oregon might become a valuable consideration in a compromise touching the other more promising territories. It was then that Daniel S. Dickinson of New York addressed a long speech to the Senate, in which he endeavored to prove that it would be according to the principles of self-government and the spirit of the Constitution to leave the question, whether slavery should be admitted or excluded, to the territorial legislatures for decision. This was the principle of "squatter sovereignty," which reappeared again six years later in a new application. Calhoun and his followers rejected it unhesitatingly, on the ground that, if Congress could not legislate on slavery in the territories, the territorial legislatures, which derived their authority from Congress, certainly could not. They insisted emphatically on the right of the slave-holder under the Constitution to take his slaves into the territories.
It is a remarkable fact that the same Congress, which thus discussed the right of slavery in the great American Republic to go where it had not been before, passed eloquent resolutions congratulating the nations of Europe upon the triumphs of freedom achieved by the uprisings of 1848.
The struggle about the admission of slavery in Oregon was still going on, and the more portentous struggle about New Mexico and California was impending, when the two parties held their national conventions to nominate candidates for the presidency. The Democratic Convention met first on May 22 at Baltimore. The first business it had to deal with was a contest of two rival delegations from New York, one representing the "Hunkers," whose principal chiefs were Marcy, then Secretary of War, and Daniel S. Dickinson, the Senator; and the other the "Barnburners," who counted among their leading men such Democrats as John A. Dix and Preston King, with Martin Van Buren in the background. The State Convention which sent the Hunker delegation had laid on the table a resolution approving the Wilmot Proviso. The Barnburner Convention had declared itself warmly against the admission of slavery in the territories. The Hunkers pledged themselves to support the Democratic nominees, whoever they might be. The Barnburners refused to give such a pledge. The National Convention resolved to admit both delegations upon an equal footing, but the Barnburners withdrew, while the Hunkers also declined to take any further part in the proceedings, maintaining, however, their pledge to support the nominees. The Convention nominated Lewis Cass of Michigan for the presidency, a Northern man with Southern principles, who at first had favored the Wilmot Proviso and then solemnly recanted. To spare the feelings of the North, the Convention refused to adopt a resolution offered by Yancey of Alabama, which substantially indorsed Calhoun's doctrine that slavery could not constitutionally be excluded from the territories. A delegate from Georgia desired to offer a resolution condemning the Wilmot Proviso, but was persuaded to desist. The platform denounced the abolitionists, but expressed itself on the slavery question in generalities conveniently vague.
The National Convention of the Whigs met on June 7 at Philadelphia. Many of Clay's supporters were still full of hope. A majority of the Whigs being in favor of the Wilmot Proviso, it was believed that Clay's speech and resolutions on the Mexican war would naturally have attracted them. It was found, too, that, while General Taylor had among the delegates many warm friends, there was also a very determined, and even bitter, opposition to a candidate who did not represent any principles or policies. But on the first ballot Clay not only failed to receive the vote of Ohio, of whose enthusiastic support he had been assured, but even a majority of the Kentucky delegation voted for Taylor. That was a fatal blow. Taylor had 111 votes, Clay 97; the rest were divided between General Scott, who received the vote of Ohio, and Webster. On the fourth ballot Taylor had 171, a majority over all, and Clay only 32. The bulk of his votes had gone over to his successful rival. Millard Fillmore was nominated for the vice-presidency.
Many delegates were greatly dissatisfied with Taylor's nomination. Some of them offered resolution after resolution to make it mean something, — that the candidate should declare himself as the exponent of Whig principles; that one of those principles was: No extension of slavery by conquest, etc. But all these resolutions were shouted down amid the wildest excitement. Charles Allen and Henry Wilson, of Massachusetts, then left the Convention, declaring that they ceased to be members of the Whig party, and would do all in their power to defeat its candidates. Upon Wilson's call, a meeting of dissatisfied delegates and others was held, to consider steps to be taken for the purpose of organizing the anti-slavery element for action. A convention to be held in August at Buffalo was resolved upon. The National Convention of the Whigs adjourned in great confusion, without having adopted any platform.
Thus both parties avoided taking any clear position on the one great question which most concerned the future of the Republic. The Democratic Convention had rejected strong pro-slavery resolutions in order to save its chances at the North. The Whig Convention had shouted down anti-slavery resolutions to save its chances in the South. The Democratic party, which contained the bulk of the pro-slavery element, tried to deceive the North by the nomination of a Northern man with Southern principles. The Whig party, whose ruling tendencies were unfriendly to slavery, tried to deceive the South by silencing the anti-slavery sentiment for the moment, and by nominating a Southern man who had not professed any principles at all.
Clay was deeply mortified. Some of his friends had cruelly deceived him, especially those who had promised him the enthusiastic support of Ohio. Neither had he thought it possible that in a crisis the vote of the delegates from Kentucky would fail him. He felt keenly that, in a defeat in which he had been abandoned by his own state, his prestige had suffered. But more than that. The party which he had built up, of which he had been proud, and which had always professed to be proud of him, had thrown him aside for a man who had only at the eleventh hour called himself a Whig, and who did not profess to know anything of Whig principles. He saw in the conduct of his party a confession of moral bankruptcy. He could not persuade himself that the Whig principles of old were not the things in which the country just then took great interest, and that, as to the great question of the day, the Whig party was sharply divided in itself. The old chief retired to his tent. One of the seats for Kentucky in the Senate of the United States having become vacant before the expiration of the term, the governor offered him the executive appointment to the place. Clay promptly declined. Without hesitation he informed his friends, who expressed anxiety as to his attitude, that he would do nothing against, nor anything to support, General Taylor's candidacy.
"I have been much importuned from various quarters," he wrote to a committee of Whigs at Louisville, "to indorse General Taylor as a good Whig, who will, if elected, act on Whig principles and carry out Whig measures. But how can I do that? Can I say that in his hands Whig measures will be safe and secure, when he refuses to pledge himself to their support? When some of his most active friends say they are obsolete? When he is presented as a no-party candidate? When the Whig Convention at Philadelphia refused to recognize or proclaim its attachment to any principles or measures, and actually laid on the table resolutions having that object in view?"
He did not conceal the personal feelings aroused in him by the treatment he had received: "Ought I to come out as a warm and partisan supporter of a candidate who, in a reversal of our conditions, announced his purpose to remain a candidate, and consequently to oppose me, so far as it depended upon himself? Tell me, what reciprocity is this? Magnanimity is a noble virtue, and I have always endeavored to practice it; but it has its limits, and the line of demarkation between it and meanness is not always discernible." If any great principles were at stake, he said, he would, in spite of it all, engage in the contest. But he feared that the Whig party was dissolved, and had given way to a mere personal party, having that character as much as the Jackson party had it twenty years before. There was something pathetic in this appeal of the old leader: "I think my friends ought to leave me quiet and undisturbed in my retirement. I have served the country faithfully and to the utmost of my poor ability. If I have not done more, it has not been for want of heart and inclination. My race is run. During the short time which remains to me in this world, I desire to preserve untarnished that character which so many have done me the honor to respect and esteem."
He remained true to his resolution not to take part in the canvass on either side. At a late period of the campaign, General Taylor formally accepted a nomination for the presidency from a Democratic Convention in South Carolina, which preferred him to the Democratic candidate, avowedly because Cass, as a Northern man, could not be trusted with regard to slavery, while General Taylor, as a Southern man, was undoubtedly safe. Then many indignant Northern Whigs, especially in New York, attempted to organize a movement against Taylor with Clay at its head. But Clay peremptorily forbade the use of his name.
Clay was by no means alone dissatisfied with Taylor's nomination. The Whig politicians, who expected to make for Taylor an easy "star-and-stripe campaign," found unforeseen difficulties in their way. Many of the old Whigs continued to believe that their party should remain the representative of certain principles; that it still had a mission to perform; and that it should be led by statesmen. The bestowal of its highest trust and honor upon one who, whatever his merits as a soldier and a gentleman, frankly confessed himself ignorant of the great duties to the discharge of which he was to be commissioned, provoked their anger and contempt. Not only a large number of Clay's friends were so affected, but of Webster's too. Webster himself declared that Taylor's nomination was "one not fit to be made," and only at a late period of the campaign he was moved by unceasing party pressure to make a few speeches for the Whig candidate.
Of greater significance was the defection of a portion of the anti-slavery element in the Whig party, who in Massachusetts went by the name of "Conscience Whigs," and who counted strongly also in New York and Ohio. But, while this defection was avowedly intended to punish the Whig party and to defeat Taylor, the turn which the anti-slavery movement took in the campaign served to save him. The Liberty party had held a convention in October, 1847, and nominated for the presidency John P. Hale, an anti-slavery Democrat representing New Hampshire in the Senate of the United States. But, in order to unite the anti-slavery elements for a common effort, they were willing to attend the general anti-slavery convention at Buffalo in August, which had been planned immediately after Taylor's nomination. In June large mass meetings of those opposed to the extension of slavery took place, without distinction of party, at Worcester in Massachusetts, and Columbus in Ohio, which passed resolutions protesting against the spread of slavery, and appointed delegates to the Buffalo convention. Meanwhile the Barnburner wing of the Democratic party of New York, whose delegates had withdrawn from the Democratic National Convention at Baltimore, met at Utica, and nominated Martin Van Buren as their candidate for the presidency, upon a platform vigorously condemning the extension of slavery into the territories. But, while this sentiment was sincerely cherished by many of those taking part in that movement, there is no doubt that by many others the anti-slavery current of the time was merely used as a convenient weapon, in the war of Democratic factions, to avenge Martin Van Buren and his following upon the Democratic party for the "wrong" he had suffered by his defeat in the Democratic National Convention of 1844. However, the Barnburners counted in their ranks the best talent of the Democratic party in New York, — such men as John A. Dix, Sanford E. Church, Samuel J. Tilden, Dean Richmond, C. C. Cambreleng, Azariah Flagg, Benjamin F. Butler, John Van Buren, Preston King, William Cullen Bryant, James S. Wadsworth, Abijah Mann, Ward Hunt, George Opdyke, and others. The Barnburners, too, resolved to be represented at the anti-slavery convention at Buffalo on August 9.
That meeting was a great event. Many thousands attended it. The moralist, profoundly convinced of the righteousness of his cause, met there with the practical politician. Benjamin F. Butler, of New York, reported a platform which declared that slavery was a mere state institution; that Congress had no more power to make a slave than to make a king; that the national government should relieve itself of all responsibility for slavery; that Congress should exclude slavery from all free territory; that the answer to the issue forced upon the country by the slave power should be: No more slave states; no more slave territory; no more compromises with slavery; freedom for Oregon, California, and New Mexico. The great battle-cry, "Free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men!" was hailed with shouts and tears of enthusiasm. The names of John P. Hale and of Martin Van Buren were submitted to the convention for nomination as candidates for the presidency. Martin Van Buren received a large majority on the first ballot. Charles Francis Adams was nominated for the vice-presidency. The old anti-slavery men present accepted the result. The enthusiasm of the convention had in it a glow of religious fervor quite uncommon before in political gatherings.
But there was after all something grotesque, if not repulsive, in the selection of Martin Van Buren for the leadership of an anti-slavery movement. It no doubt attracted many Democrats whose feelings on slavery would, without it, not have been strong enough to take them out of their party line. But, as soon as the first excitement was over, many anti-slavery Whigs, who had been inclined to favor the Buffalo nominations, began to remember Martin Van Buren's career with regard to the subject of slavery; and they quietly dropped off and rejoined their old party, finding a ready excuse in the fact that anti-slavery men so earnest and able as William H. Seward vigorously supported Taylor, and represented him as a man who, although a slave-holder himself, was by no means disposed to propagate slavery. The Buffalo movement, therefore, making serious inroads into the Democratic party in New York, while drawing comparatively little of its force from the Whigs, redounded to Taylor's benefit.
It produced an important effect in another direction: it frightened members of Congress. The Oregon bill, involving the right of the slave-holder to take his property into that territory, had agitated Congress for months. At last, on August 13, under the fresh impression made by the great demonstration of Northern anti-slavery sentiment at Buffalo, a bill was passed in effect excluding slavery from Oregon.
Both parties during the presidential campaign denounced the Free Soilers with extreme bitterness as renegades and traitors. A new moral power, which exposes and puts to shame current insincerities, is always treated with contumely by those whose consciences are uneasy. The Whigs, who derived the greatest benefit from the Buffalo movement, seemed to be even more incensed at it than the Democrats, probably because their canvass was the more insincere. The Southern Whigs pictured General Taylor as a better pro-slavery man than Cass, while the Northern Whigs pretended that their candidate was in favor of the Wilmot Proviso. Such a trick may succeed, as it did succeed in 1848; but a party which constantly needs such tricks to achieve success, or to maintain its existence, cannot last. The Whigs carried the presidential election. General Taylor had the electoral votes of fifteen states, among which were eight of the South. But it was the last triumph of the Whig party. As soon as the slavery question became the absorbing issue, the Whig party could not remain together if the Southern Whigs were for and the Northern Whigs against slavery. The next presidential election left it a mere wreck, and a few years more buried even its name.
The Free Soil party, too, as organized at Buffalo, was short-lived. It did not carry any state, but received nearly three hundred thousand votes. In New York Van Buren had more votes than Cass. The Democratic faction opposed to him suffered a disastrous overthrow. That accomplished, a large number of the Van Buren Democrats, and among them some of their leading men, renewed their allegiance to their old party, looking upon the revolt of 1848 as a mere political episode. Many of the Whigs, who had voted for Van Buren to avenge Clay, also returned to the fold. But, while the coalition fell to pieces, the vital principle of the Free Soil movement survived, to be obscured by a temporary reaction, and then to rise up again in final triumph.