Life of Henry Clay/27 The End
At first Clay's expectations as to the pacificatory effect of the compromise seemed to be justified. The strain of popular excitement, which had been long and severe, was followed by a reaction of lassitude, in many cases degenerating into the very fanaticism of repose. In November, 1850, the adjourned Nashville Convention met again, and passed resolutions which, although unfavorable to the compromise, were comparatively temperate in tone. Moreover, the number of states represented, as well as that of the delegates representing them, was small. The governors of South Carolina and of Mississippi carried on an animated correspondence about the steps to be taken to sever their states from the Union, but the friends of the compromise appealed to the people and defeated the disunionists in the elections. In Georgia a state convention adopted a platform which did, indeed, not wholly approve of the compromise, but accepted it as a basis of settlement and pacification, and spoke much of fidelity to the Union, while, at the same time, resolving that either of five things — namely, the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia "without the consent and petition of the slave-holders thereof," any act suppressing the slave-trade between the Slave States, any refusal to admit as a state any territory because of the existence of slavery therein, any act prohibiting the introduction of slaves into New Mexico and Utah, and any act repealing or materially modifying the fugitive-slave law — would be resisted by the State of Georgia, "even, as a last resort, to a disruption of every tie which binds her to the Union." This was indeed Unionism of the conditional species, and a keen observer would easily discern beneath it all a profound distrust and disquietude as to the future, apt to yield in any exciting crisis to the appeals of the determined minority of disunionists, who, after all, judged correctly of the demands which slavery must of necessity ultimately make.
But for the time being a large majority of the Southern people were evidently averse to a violent rupture. Some of the most influential public men of the South, who had vociferously threatened disunion while the compromise measures were pending, such as Alexander H. Stephens, Toombs, Cobb, Clemens, and others, now busied themselves to quiet the fears of their constituents, representing the compromise as a victory of Southern firmness, and as an assurance of future peace and harmony.
At the North, too, the compromise seemed to be acquiesced in by an overwhelming majority of the people as a permanent settlement; and there might have been a possibility for a few years of repose but for the immediate effect of one of the compromise laws. Slave-holders and their agents appeared in the Free States to test the virtue of the new fugitive-slave act. According to trustworthy estimates, there were about twenty thousand escaped slaves living in the Northern country. Many of them had married free colored women, and reared families of children on free soil. The appearance of the "man-hunter" threw them into fearful consternation. Some of them were captured and carried off to the South. In a few cases it turned out that the persons so captured and carried off were not fugitive slaves at all, but freemen, and these had to be released. In several instances the law was executed with a harshness and cruelty which shocked the popular heart. An outcry arose, not only from colored people and anti-slavery men, but from persons who, although they had so far taken little interest in the matter, now felt their human sympathies and their moral sense insulted by the things they witnessed among themselves. The anti-slavery men took advantage of this change of feeling, and meetings were held in Northern cities ringing with denunciations of the fugitive-slave law as an outrage to the dignity of human nature, and as an attempt to carry slavery into the heart of the free North.
As this current of sentiment grew in power, the advocates of the compromise became alarmed lest the efforts at general pacification should be defeated by a revolt of public opinion against the fugitive-slave law. They found it necessary to stir up a public sentiment on their side. A systematic agitation was set on foot. An immense meeting, called by merchants of New York, in which the formation of a "Union party" was foreshadowed, opened the campaign. Similar demonstrations followed in Boston and many other cities. Foremost in that agitation was Daniel Webster, and wherever he appeared he spoke with the zealous bitterness of a recent convert. The measures forming the great compromise were put before the people as no less binding than additions to the Constitution would be. And, as usually the point most sharply attacked is most hotly defended, the binding force of the fugitive-slave law was insisted upon with such exceptional urgency as if the catching of fugitive slaves had become the main constitutional duty of the American citizen. This could not fail to react.
Clay made a speech in response to an invitation from the Kentucky legislature, in which, adhering to his theory that the principal object to be kept in view was to quiet the dangerous excitement at the South, he represented the compromise as "substantially a Southern triumph," inasmuch as California would have been admitted under any circumstances, while the establishment of territorial governments in New Mexico and Utah without the Wilmot Proviso, and the enactment of the fugitive-slave law, were in accordance with the wishes of the South. He roundly berated the Southerners who were not satisfied with the adjustment, and denounced the meeting at Nashville as a second Hartford Convention.
He was not without great anxiety. When the thirty-first Congress reassembled in December, 1850, he availed himself of the earliest opportunity confidently to affirm that general peace and quiet reigned throughout the land, and that this session would remain undisturbed by the slavery question. But in January, 1851, he and forty-four other Senators and Representatives betrayed their nervousness by issuing a very singular manifesto. They declared that sectional controversy upon the subject of slavery could be avoided only by strict adherence to the compromise; that they intended to maintain that settlement inviolate, and that they would not support for the office of President or Vice-President, or Senator or Representative in Congress, or member of a state legislature, any man, of whatever party, who was not known to be opposed to any disturbance of the compromise, and to the renewal of the agitation of the slavery question. Those who thought such a threat of excommunication necessary could not have been very confident that the public opinion of the country would remain strong enough in favor of the compromise to restrain ambitious politicians from interfering with it.
Indeed, the slavery discussion began again in the House of Representatives with the opening of the session. The members had hardly taken their seats when Giddings of Ohio violently denounced the proceedings which had taken place under the fugitive-slave law. In the Senate it was Clay himself who, presenting petitions for the more effectual suppression of the African slave-trade, spoke eloquently of the abominations of that traffic, and of the beneficent results which would follow if measures were taken to transport free negroes to Liberia. He also introduced a resolution looking to the adoption of more adequate measures to prevent the employment of American vessels in the slave-trade. Hale of New Hampshire replied, on behalf of the Free Soilers, that, while he and his friends were so rudely reproved for agitating the matter of slavery, it ill comported with the position taken by the compromisers, if Clay, their chief, reopened the agitation by expressing such pious and humane sentiments about a cognate subject. This sarcasm had all the more point as just then the manifesto had appeared threatening those who should reopen the agitation with exclusion from office.
Suddenly in February, 1851, the news arrived that in Boston the execution of the fugitive-slave law had been successfully resisted by force. A fugitive slave named Shadrach had been rescued by a crowd of colored people from the hands of a deputy marshal of the United States in the courtroom. In Washington the report created an almost incredible excitement. It could hardly have been greater had Massachusetts made an attempt to secede from the Union. Clay at once introduced a resolution in the Senate calling upon the President for what official information he had of the occurrence, and to inquire what measures he had taken concerning the matter, and whether any further legislation was required. Feeling as if he had staked his character upon the healing effects of the measure, Clay was greatly disturbed. He confessed himself "shocked" and "distressed," even beyond his power of expression, at the "sacrilegious hands" which had "seized the sword of justice." The President issued a formal proclamation, commanding all officers of the government, civil as well as military, and requesting all good citizens, to rally round the law of the land, and to aid in securing its enforcement. He also sent a message to the Senate, communicating the information called for, assuring Congress that he would exert all the powers of the government to enforce the law, and recommending that he be given larger facilities in calling out the militia of the states in case of resistance to the lawful authorities.
The speech with which Clay received that message proved that his wrath at the liberators of Shadrach had been mainly roused by his anxiety lest the occurrence at Boston should rekindle the dangerous excitement at the South which the compromise had just, to some extent, succeeded in quieting. He did, indeed, not spare the abolitionists who aimed at disunion and incited law-breaking, and he was especially severe in his denunciation of the English philanthropist, George Thompson, the "foreign hireling," as Clay called him, who had come to America "in order to propagate his opinions and doctrines with regard to the subversion of one of the institutions of this country." But he evidently made it the main object of his speech to persuade his Southern friends that, after all, the fugitive-slave law was, on the whole, faithfully executed in the Free States, and that, therefore, there was no just reason for complaint or apprehension. He passed in review several cases in which fugitive slaves had been returned without difficulty. In fact, he knew of but this one instance of obstruction. "I heard," said he, "with great regret the remarks made by the Senator from Virginia [who had complained], because I do not coincide with him in the facts upon which his remarks were founded, and I think they may have a tendency to produce ill effects where there is already too much disposition in the public mind to be operated upon disadvantageous to the Union."
Anxiously he admonished his Southern friends not to be too exacting. They could really not expect to recover the runaways without some trouble and expense. As all laws were occasionally evaded, so would this be, especially as it was a law "to recover a human being who owes service as a slave to another," and as, "besides the aid and the sympathy which he will excite from his particular situation, he has his own intellect, his own cunning, and his own means of escape at his command." Indeed, the South should be satisfied. He was sure the President and the Cabinet were "immovably determined" to carry out the law, and to employ all the means in their power to that end; and the people would aid them. In his opinion the "compromise had worked a miracle." The agitation about the Wilmot Proviso had disappeared; also that about California, and about slavery in the District of Columbia. The compromise had "made thousands of converts among the abolitionists themselves." Peace and good feeling had been produced by it surpassing his "most sanguine expectations." Only a few ultraists were still restless, but the people would frown them down. If necessary, however, to quiet the apprehensions of his Southern friends, and to prevent the repetition of such occurrences as the liberation of Shadrach still more effectually, he would willingly see the President authorized to dispense with the proclamation required by existing law, when, in anticipation of a disturbance in connection with the arrest of a fugitive slave, he should call the militia or the army of the United States into service.
A majority of the Southern Senators accepted Clay's sanguine view of things. But those who still insisted that the fugitive-slave law would never be sure of effectual enforcement unless the Northern people themselves enforced it with cordiality and zeal, as they would enforce a law of their own, were, after all, right. The anti-slavery men in the Senate said nothing to encourage Clay's hopes, as, indeed, they could not in justice to their own feelings and those of the people they represented. But when Clay, in the course of the debate, classed them with the abolitionists aiming at disunion, Chase rebuked him with great force and dignity, declaring that, while they would restrict slavery within the limits of the Slave States, and "not allow it within the exclusive jurisdiction of the national government," their fidelity to the Union was immovable. But, on the whole, the sanguine view prevailed. The judiciary committee of the Senate, to which the President's message was referred, reported that no change of the law concerning the President's power to call out the militia was required.
It was the last session of Congress in which Clay was active, and he found opportunity to speak some parting words about the "old Whig policies," which once had been among the great inspirations of his public endeavors. When presenting some petitions he commended to the Senate the consideration of the tariff question in these faltering accents: "I will take occasion to say that I hope that now, when there is apparent calmness upon the surface of public affairs, — which I hope is real, and that it will remain without disturbing the deliberations of Congress during the present session, — for one, I should be extremely delighted if the subject of the tariff of 1846 could be taken up in a liberal, kind, and national spirit; not with any purpose of reviving those high rates of protection which at former periods of our country were established for various causes, — sometimes from sinister causes, — but to look deliberately at the operation of the tariff of 1846; and, without disturbing its essential provisions, I should like a consideration to be given to the question of the prevention of frauds and great abuses, of the existence of which there is no earthly doubt. We should see whether we cannot, without injury, without prejudice to the general interests of the country, give some better protection to the manufacturing interests than is now afforded." From the great champion of the "American system" this request had a diffident, melancholy sound. It was a very faint echo of past struggles.
During the last days of the session he broke a lance for a river and harbor bill, appropriating $2,300,000, which had come up from the House, and was in danger of being defeated by a determined minority in the Senate. The interests of the great West, the necessity of improving the Mississippi, and the rights of the majority, were the texts of his arguments. But his appeals were in vain. The subject of the tariff was not taken up for consideration, and the river and harbor bill succumbed to parliamentary tactics. Clay's last official act was a refusal to accept the "constructive mileage," a "called session" of the Senate beginning immediately after the adjournment of Congress for the consideration of executive business, and Senators holding themselves entitled to compensation for traveling expenses as if between the adjournment of Congress on March 4th and the opening of the "called session" on the 5th they had journeyed to their homes and returned to Washington.
Clay's health was seriously impaired. A severe cough tormented him, of which his physicians did not seem to know the cause. "I have finally concluded," he wrote to his wife, "to return by Cuba and New Orleans. The great difficulty I have felt in coming to the conclusion has been my long absence from you, and my desire to be with you. But my cough continues; although I do not lay up, my health is bad, and the weather has been the worst of March weather. I hope that I may be benefited by the softer climate of Cuba. I expect to go on the 11th from New York in the steamer Georgia. And I think my absence from home will not be prolonged beyond a month; that is, the middle of April."
But the climate of Cuba did not meet his hopes. His cough continued to distress him. During the summer of 1851 he remained at Ashland, watching the course of events and corresponding with his friends. Again he was addressed by over-zealous admirers who desired to bring him forward as a candidate for the presidency in 1852. The ambition of others pursued him when his own was dead. He declined absolutely. "Considering my age," he wrote to Daniel Ullmann, "the delicate state of my health, the frequency and the unsuccessful presentation of my name on former occasions, I feel an unconquerable repugnance to such a use of it again. I cannot, therefore, consent to it."
But another call came which could not be wholly declined. Late in the summer Clay received from a committee of citizens of New York an urgent invitation to visit that state for the purpose of repelling the attacks to which the compromise was exposed. "We have a well-founded conviction," they said, "that the great body of the American people are in favor of maintaining and enforcing the compromises of the Constitution; nevertheless, in the resolutions and addresses adopted at conventions lately assembled around us, we have seen with regret, as well as alarm, that the question of adherence to the compromise measures is avoided or evaded, that modification and amendment are declared to be requisite, and repeal itself admissible. It is evident, therefore, that there requires to be more generally diffused a spirit that will not hold communion with those who advance and support doctrines in relation to the great national adjustment fatal to the future peace and harmony of the Union." In other words, the people were to be persuaded no longer to read the resolutions and addresses of Free Soilers or anti-slavery Whigs, and no longer to listen to the speeches of men who disliked the fugitive-slave law. So delicate and fragile, then, was the compromise of 1850 in the opinion of its friends that it must be carefully sheltered against any breeze of a hostile public opinion. To this end Clay was called upon to address meetings in the State of New York. Webster had already been in the field for months. In May, 1851, going from Buffalo to Albany, he delivered a series of speeches, in which he called the anti-slavery men insane people actuated by selfish motives, and denounced the violation of the fugitive-slave law as treason. He also spoke at Capon Springs, in Virginia, where he amused the Southern people by deriding the "higher law." Although these efforts were by no means without effect, they could not cure the trouble. The charm of Clay's presence, too, was wanted; but the exertion would have been beyond his power. On October 3d he responded to the invitation in a long letter, which was his last appeal to the American people.
He expressed his regret that his impaired health would not permit him to address his fellow-citizens of New York in person. He had hoped, not that the compromise measures would have the unanimous concurrence of the people, but that they would be supported by a commanding majority. That hope, he thought, had not been disappointed. There was still local dissatisfaction, but it gradually yielded to patriotic considerations. He recognized that the fugitive-slave law was the sore point. But, with two exceptions, it had been everywhere enforced; and he confidently anticipated that the opposition to it in the North would cease. What was the reason of his solicitude concerning that law?
"The necessity [he wrote] of maintaining and enforcing that law must be admitted by the impartial judgment of all candid men. Many of the slave-holding states, and many public meetings of the people in them, have deliberately declared that their adherence to the Union depended upon the preservation of that law, and that its abandonment would be the signal of the dissolution of the Union. I know that the abolitionists (some of whom openly avow a desire to produce that calamitous event) and their partisans deride and deny the existence of any such danger; but men who will not perceive and own it, must be blind to the signs of the times, to the sectional strife which has unhappily arisen, to the embittered feelings which have been excited, as well as to the solemn resolutions of deliberative assemblies unanimously adopted. Their disregard of the danger, I am apprehensive, proceeds more from their desire to continue agitation than from their love of the Union itself."
Of the "resolutions and addresses adopted at conventions lately assembled," which had so much disturbed the gentlemen inviting him, he had only to say that "we must make some allowance for human frailty and inordinate pride of opinion;" that "many persons at the North had avowed an invincible hostility to the fugitive-slave law;" that they might become gradually convinced of the necessity of accepting it for the sake of the Union, only looking for a decent line of retreat; but that if the agitation should be actually continued, his confidence was unshaken in the great body of the Northern people that they would "in due time, and in the right manner, apply an appropriate and effectual corrective."
In the South, too, he saw much "to encourage the friends of the Union." But it was there, after all, that he discovered the real source of the danger threatening the Republic. The main part of his letter he devoted to an elaborate review and refutation of the arguments with which nullification and secession were sought to be justified, exposing the absurdity of the theory underlying them, and the criminality of any attempt to carry that theory into practice. If such an attempt were made, he insisted, then "the power, the authority, and the dignity of the government ought to be maintained, and resistance put down at every hazard." He closed with a glowing eulogy on the glories and the benign effects of the Union.
The gentlemen from New York had probably desired a paper of a different character, for almost its whole argument was addressed, not to the North, but to the South. The discussion of the secession doctrines preached at the South occupied four fifths of its space. It was one more of his characteristic efforts to disarm the disunion tendency at the South, to that end opposing the anti-slavery tendency at the North not seldom at a sacrifice of his own feelings.
Such anti-slavery leaders as Seward and Chase undoubtedly understood far better than Clay what the ultimate result of the conflict between slavery and free labor must be. But he saw more clearly than they did the immediate seriousness of the disunion movement at the South. A majority of the Southern people, and even of Southern public men, while determined to maintain slavery, still sincerely wished to avoid the disruption of the Union, and eagerly clutched at all sorts of delusive hopes. But a very active minority, undeceived by the temporary appearance of harmony, stood always ready to take advantage of any failure of the vaunted adjustments, and they were sure ultimately to exercise the strongest influence, because they had the logic of the situation on their side. They, however, underestimated the moral power of the Northern anti-slavery sentiment in case of a crisis. In fact, the compromise itself had encouraged the two extremes to underestimate each other as to their decision and courage. Many Southerners had vociferously threatened that they would rather dissolve the Union than permit the admission of California as a Free State, and then quietly accepted the compromise. Northern anti-slavery men, therefore, concluded that the Southern threats of disunion were, after all, mere bluster without any real determination behind it. Every Northern legislature had passed fierce resolutions insisting upon the Wilmot Proviso, and when Southern men then saw the North accept the compromise, which did not exclude slavery from the territories, in order to pacify the South, they concluded that the South might have obtained much more if it had threatened more, and that the North, for the purpose of preserving peace and of making money, would yield anything and everything if the South only put on a bolder front.
Clay had gradually learned to understand the South well. He knew that the hotspurs were terribly in earnest, and that, in spite of the old attachment to the Union still existing, "the bold, the daring, and the violent," as he wrote to S. A. Allibone in June, 1851, might eventually "get the control and push their measures to a fatal extreme." What he did not appreciate was the character of that "sentiment" which he had asked the Northern people to sacrifice in order to soothe the feelings of the South. He failed to feel that the natural impulses of generosity and the moral pride of the Northern people would inevitably rebel against the fugitive-slave law; and he did not see that, by leaving the question of slavery in the territories unsettled, the compromise had only for a short time adjourned the final struggle which he endeavored to avert.
Although his health was not perceptibly improved when the opening session of the thirty-second Congress approached, he went to Washington hoping to take an active part in its deliberations. But it was not to be. Only once did he feel strong enough to go to the Senate Chamber. Then he remained confined to his rooms at the National Hotel, a very ill man. But public affairs did not cease to break his repose. Early in the winter he received a visit from Horace Greeley, who informed him of the disturbing effect produced by the fugitive-slave law upon the people of the Northern States. Clay deplored that in framing that act no greater care had been taken so to shape its provisions as to spare the feelings of the citizens of the Free States, but he thought it unadvisable now to attempt a change of the law.
From his sick-chamber, Clay also gave his last warning counsel to the American people. It was when he spoke to Louis Kossuth.
The revolutionary movements in Europe, beginning in the early spring of 1848, had awakened the heartiest sympathies in America, none more than the struggle of the Hungarian people for national independence. In 1849 President Taylor had dispatched a special agent to Hungary to inquire whether the situation of that country would justify its recognition as an independent state. But when that agent arrived there, the intervention of Russia had already rendered the Hungarian armies unable to hold the field. The Austrian Minister at Washington, Chevalier Huelsemann, made the sending of the special emissary the subject of formal complaint. Webster, then Secretary of State, replied with the famous "Huelsemann letter," which electrified the national pride of the American people. Kossuth, the late "governor" of revolutionary Hungary, escaped into the Turkish dominions, and the Sultan refused to surrender the fugitive to the Austrian government. The President of the United States was authorized by a joint resolution of the two houses of Congress, in March, 1851, to send an American man-of-war to the Mediterranean for the purpose of bringing Kossuth to America. Kossuth, accompanied by other Hungarian exiles, embarked on the United States Frigate Mississippi on September 10. He spent a short time in England, where he was received with very great enthusiasm, and, early in December, he arrived at New York. The cause he represented appealed powerfully to the sympathies of a free people; and his own romantic history, his picturesque and impressive presence, and the intellectual richness of his oratory, gorgeous with Oriental luxuriance of phrase, and poured forth with the most melodious of voices and peculiarly captivating accents in a language not his own, fascinated all who saw and heard him. At once he confessed that he had come to enlist the government and the people of the American Republic in the cause of his country. He hoped to renew the struggle of Hungary for national independence, and to find in the United States not only sentimental, but "operative," sympathy in the shape of "financial, material, and political aid."
The warm interest which the President and Congress had manifested in his fate, as well as the demonstrations of enthusiasm with which the people greeted him everywhere on his triumphal progress from place to place, were well calculated to encourage in him the hope that the American Republic might abandon her traditional policy of non-entanglement, and take an active part in the struggles of his country. In fact, however, scarcely anybody thought soberly and seriously of casting aside the principles so impressively taught in Washington's Farewell Address, to embroil this Republic in the turmoils and vicissitudes of the struggles disturbing the Old World. But this secret conviction found little expression among those with whom Kossuth came into personal contact. Even at a banquet given in his honor at Washington, where Webster, the Secretary of State, and several of the most prominent Senators spoke, many of the speeches might have been interpreted as meaning that, if the American Republic were not ready at once to throw overboard the principles of foreign policy faithfully adhered to from the beginning, it was only watching for a proper occasion to do so.
Kossuth had in his orations frequently mentioned Clay's name as that of the great advocate of South American independence and of the Greek cause. He solicited an interview with the old statesman, and Clay received him in his sick-chamber. Clay spoke to the distinguished visitor with cordial kindness and respect, but also with a frankness which excluded all misunderstanding. He assured Kossuth that Hungary, in her struggle for liberty and independence, had his liveliest sympathies. "But, sir," he added, "for the sake of my country you must allow me to protest against the policy you propose to her." As to the practical results of giving "material aid" to the Hungarian people in their struggle, he explained that war would probably be the consequence; that the United States could not carry on a land war on the European continent; that a maritime war would "result in mutual annoyance to commerce, but probably in little else;" that, "after effecting nothing in such a war, and after abandoning our ancient policy of amity and non-intervention in the affairs of other nations," the American Republic would have justified European powers "in abandoning the terms of forbearance and non-interference" which they had so far preserved toward the United States; that, "after the downfall, perhaps, of the friends of liberal institutions in Europe, her despots, imitating and provoked by our fatal example," might turn upon us in the hour of our weakness and exhaustion; and that, while "the indomitable spirit of the American people would be equal to the emergency," yet the consequences might be terrible enough.
"You must allow me, sir [he continued], to speak thus freely, as I feel deeply, though my opinion may be of but little import as the expression of a dying man. Sir, the recent subversion of the republican government of France (by Louis Napoleon's coup d'état of the 2d of December, 1851), and that enlightened nation voluntarily placing its neck under the yoke of despotism, teach us to despair of any present success for liberal institutions in Europe. They give us an impressive warning not to rely upon others for the vindication of our principles, but to look to ourselves, and to cherish with more care than ever the security of our institutions and the preservation of our policy and principles. Far better is it for ourselves, for Hungary, and for the cause of liberty, that, adhering to our wise, pacific system, and avoiding the distant wars of Europe, we should keep our lamp burning brightly on this Western shore, as a light to all nations, than to hazard its utter extinction amid the ruins of fallen and falling republics in Europe."
This was not what Kossuth had come to hear. But it was what the American people really thought when sobered from the fascination of Kossuth's presence, and what other American statesmen would have said to him had they frankly expressed their sentiments.
The excitements preceding the presidential election, too, invaded the sick-chamber to draw from the dying man an expression of opinion which might be used in the contest then going on between various aspirants to the Whig nomination for the presidency. Clay's views as to the prospects of the Whig party were not sanguine. In June, 1851, he had written to Ullmann: "I think it quite clear that a Democrat will be elected, unless that result be prevented by divisions in the Democratic party. On these divisions the Whigs might advantageously count, if it were not for those which exist in their own party. It is, perhaps, safest to conclude that the divisions existing in the two parties will counterbalance each other. Party ties have no doubt been greatly weakened generally, and in particular localities have been almost entirely destroyed."
What he said about party disintegration was undoubtedly true. But that disintegration was far more advanced among the Whigs than among the Democrats. The Whigs had substantially lost their old programme, without uniting upon a substitute. The question of the day was to them only an element of division. The Northern anti-slavery Whigs, under the leadership of such men as Seward, remained in the party hoping to win the mastery of it. But that would have driven away the Southern Whigs, and thus rendered the existence of the party as a "national organization" in the geographical sense of the term impossible. Under the circumstances then existing, an anti-slavery party could only be a sectional party. To retain the Southern Whigs in the organization required concessions to slavery of which the compromise of 1850 might be regarded as the minimum. As to the vitality of the Whig party in its national character, the question was whether the Northern Whigs would accept and support the compromise in good faith. No doubt, Clay's prestige at the North as well as at the South, Webster's authority with his followers, and still more the desire of peace among the business community, prevailed upon many Northern Whigs, who might otherwise have strayed away, to acquiesce in the compromise. But the tendency adverse to it was, with a great many other Northern Whigs, too strong to yield to management.
When the thirty-second Congress assembled in December, 1851, an effort was made to unite the Whig members of the House in declaring the compromise a "finality;" but of the eighty-six Whig members only forty or fifty attended the caucus, and of these one third voted to lay the resolution on the table. Although it was adopted, only a minority of the members committed themselves in its favor. Similar efforts were made in the Senate and the House of Representatives, the principal effect of which consisted in a revival of the slavery discussion. The Southern Whigs were willing to accept the compromise as a "finality" until it should be found that slavery needed more protective legislation, while a large portion of the Northern Whigs refused to see in the compromise any adjustment at all. When on the 9th of April the Whig members of Congress held a caucus to fix upon time and place for the National Convention, and a "finality" resolution was laid upon the table, several members seceded from the meeting; and on the next day eleven Southern Whigs published an address declaring that no candidate for the presidency could have their support whose principles were not plainly defined, and who did not openly accept the compromise as they accepted it.
The discussion of the question whether the compromise was to be a finality, had a strong flavor of the absurd, for the very character of the discussion afforded the strongest proof that it was not, and could not be, an irreversible adjustment. Also the effort to unite the Whigs upon the basis of the compromise, made manifest that the party could not be so united. There were in it too many men who had opinions of their own and clung to them. The task of the managers, who had to put the party in array for a presidential campaign, could not have been more perplexing. There seemed to be but one way to hold it together with the least prospect of success, — to find a candidate who possessed the confidence of both wings in a sufficient degree to harmonize them for a common effort. They tried another expedient, with disastrous result. The most prominent aspirants in the field were Daniel Webster and General Scott. By his seventh-of-March speech, and the bitter attacks upon the anti-slavery men which followed, Webster hoped to have won the confidence and support of the South. He also counted upon the active support of the administration, it being understood that Fillmore would under no circumstances himself be a candidate, and that Webster was his favorite. In both respects Webster was disappointed. The South did not trust him. His seventh-of-March speech had generally been looked upon as a change of attitude on his part, as an abandonment of his original principles. As he had thus changed once, so he might change again; and Webster appeared too large a man to be easily controlled. Moreover, while Webster still had many admiring followers in the North, it was thought that his change of attitude had only exasperated the more determined anti-slavery Whigs, and that, therefore, the great "fallen arch-angel" would by no means be a strong candidate in his own section. General Scott was the favorite of the anti-slavery Whigs, and, as such, suspicious to the Whigs of the South. Indeed, it was feared that, if Webster and Scott remained the only candidates in the field, the party might fall to pieces even before the time for the convention arrived.
The Southern Whigs, and those who consulted their tastes, therefore looked for a more available man, and found him in Fillmore, who had not only, as President, won the confidence of the Southern Whigs by zealously employing his whole power to enforce the compromise measures, but who possessed also a certain popularity with the mercantile element at the North. Neither did the anti-slavery Whigs dislike to see Fillmore brought forward as a candidate, for they thought that the efforts made for him would serve to hold the party together, while at the same time dividing the opposition to their own favorite, General Scott. Thus Fillmore was persuaded to enter the list of candidates, — much to Webster's disgust, who would have given vent to the bitterness of his disappointment had not party friends interposed. But the friendship between President and Secretary of State was blighted, especially since Webster saw some reason to believe that Fillmore used the patronage of the government for the furtherance of his own candidacy.
While this war of ambitions was raging, Clay, from his sick-bed, advised his friends to support Fillmore. This advice was interpreted as an unkind thrust at Webster, prompted by motives of personal unfriendliness. The past relations of the two old statesmen were eagerly harrowed up to find the reason for what was called Clay's vindictive spirit. But those who attributed his conduct to such causes undoubtedly wronged him. Mean vindictiveness was not in his nature. His very enemies would hardly have charged him with a want of magnanimity. Whenever he had said or done anything that looked otherwise, it was in the heat of a conflict. The ambition, too, which in younger years might have excited his jealousy of a rival, had ceased to warp his feelings. He was now at peace with the world, expecting soon to leave it; and there could be none but reasons of the public good to inspire his mind. His motives for recommending Fillmore lay on the surface. Fillmore had from the beginning approved, and then as President faithfully executed, the compromise measures. His administration was fully identified with them. If elected he would simply continue in the old course. Clay considered him a man of national principles, who, not by mere promises, but by acts, had won the confidence of the South, and who would, therefore, disarm the disunion feeling still active there; and, as a Northern man, too, enjoying in a large measure the respect of his own section, perhaps the only candidate capable of saving the Whig party. These expectations were disappointed, but nothing could have been more natural than that he should entertain them.
The Democratic National Convention met at Baltimore on June 1. In the Democratic ranks also there had been much dissension on the "finality" question, but it was more easily subdued by party discipline; and as the Southern interest was predominant in the Democratic organization, and the enforcement of the fugitive-slave law was insisted upon by the South, for the time being, as the principal part of the compromise not yet assured, the Democratic party, as the irony of fate would have it, gradually assumed the position of the special representative and champion of Clay's compromise. After a long struggle, the Democratic Convention nominated for the presidency Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, a Northern man with Southern principles, and declared in its platform that the Democratic party would "abide by and adhere to a faithful execution of the acts known as the compromise measures settled by the last Congress, — the act for reclaiming fugitives from service or labor included."
The Whigs held their National Convention at the same place on June 10. It first adopted a platform declaring "that the series of acts of the thirty-first Congress — the act known as the fugitive-slave law included — are received and acquiesced in by the Whig party of the United States as a settlement, in principle and substance, of the dangerous and exciting questions which they embrace; and, so far as they are concerned, we will maintain them, and insist on their strict enforcement, until time and experience shall demonstrate the necessity of further legislation, to guard against the evasion of the laws on the one hand, and the abuse of their powers on the other, not impairing their efficiency;" and, further, to frown down "all further agitation of the question thus settled, as dangerous to our peace," etc. This was the platform as the Southern Whigs desired it; and then, after many ballots, the results of which were peculiarly humiliating to Webster, who never received more than thirty-two votes, and among them not one from the South, the convention nominated for the presidency General Scott, the favorite of the anti-slavery Whigs. Thus the South had the platform, and the North the candidate; and by such means the party was to be held together. But no sooner was the result known than several Southern delegates declared that they would not agree to support the candidate unless he unequivocally accepted the platform together with the nomination.
While these things were going on, Clay was on his death-bed, growing weaker and weaker from day to day, the end coming fast. He still took interest enough in the affairs of the world to receive reports from the convention, and to express his satisfaction with what had been done.
In one respect he won the greatest triumph of his life at the close of it. Both political parties, his opponents as well as his friends, adopted his measures as the very foundation of their policy. The genius of statesmanship, it would seem, could hardly have achieved a triumph more complete.
This the eyes of the dying man were still permitted to see. But what they did not see was that this triumph would be speedily followed by the complete collapse of the policy he had advocated; that the peace effected by his "adjustment" would prove only a hollow truce, bearing in itself the germs of conflicts more terrible than his imagination had ever conceived; that the fugitive-slave law would be the greatest propagator of abolitionism which Machiavelian ingenuity could have devised; that his non-intervention with regard to slavery in New Mexico and Utah would soon serve as sponsor for Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and thus bring slavery and free labor face to face, musket in hand, for a deadly conflict on the plains of the West; that a new school of statesmanship was rising up which, to save the Republic and its free institutions, would throw compromise to the winds; and a new generation of statesmen, who, with tremendous effect, would lead into battle for liberty and Union that very "sentiment" which he, appreciating neither its character nor its force, had asked the people of the North to sacrifice for the sake of the Union. There they were already when he, tottering with age and bowed down by illness, cast his last look into the Senate Chamber, — in Daniel Webster's chair Charles Sumner, the champion of the anti-slavery conscience, joining hands with Seward, the philosophical anti-slavery politician; and Benjamin F. Wade, the very embodiment of defiant courage, sent by Ohio as the colleague of Salmon P. Chase.
Some portentous things Clay might have seen even before he closed his eyes: his party hopelessly divided in sentiment, and doomed to destruction in consequence of the very measures of peace with which he had sought to save the Union, vainly trying to prolong its existence by giving the South the platform, and the North the candidate; Southern Whigs, in spite of the platform, repudiating its action because of the candidate, and Northern Whigs uselessly striving to save the candidate by repudiating the platform. He might have foreseen how the people would spurn the whole nauseous bargain by giving the Democrats, who had at least the merit of greater straight-forwardness, an overwhelming majority of electoral votes; how the Whig party would suffer not only defeat, but annihilation, and how appropriate would be the epitaph suggested for it by a grim popular humor: "Here lies the Whig party, which died of an effort to swallow the fugitive-slave law." Clay, although terribly exhausted by his tormenting cough, lingered on longer than his physicians and attendants expected. Devoted friends surrounded him, and in his last days two of his sons were at his bedside. While he was still able to write or dictate letters, he repeatedly said that, as the world receded from him, he felt his affections more than ever centred on his children and theirs, and that he would be glad to get home once more. He professed himself perfectly composed and resigned to his fate. On May 8 his son Thomas wrote to his wife: "Had you seen, as I have, the evidences of attachment and interest displayed by my father's friends, you could not help exclaiming, as he has frequently done: 'Was there ever man had such friends!' The best and first in the land are daily and hourly offering tokens of their love and esteem for him." He remained a winner of hearts to his last day. He died on June 29, 1852, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. On July 1 the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives, together with the city authorities, militia companies, and civic associations, accompanied his remains from the National Hotel to the Senate Chamber, where, attended by the President of the United States, the Cabinet, and the officers of the army and navy, the funeral services took place. The remains were then taken to his beloved Kentucky, the funeral cortege passing through Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, the principal places in New Jersey, New York, Albany, Ithaca, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, everywhere the people assembling by thousands to do the last honor to Henry Clay. On July 10 his ashes were laid to rest at Lexington, where now an imposing monument marks his tomb.
Not only the halls of Congress, but the whole country resounded with obituary eulogy of the dead statesman. It was more than ordinarily the voice of genuine feeling that spoke. The bereaved affection of his personal friends broke out in loud lament. Even among his opponents the brilliancy of his talents, coupled with so knightly a character, had won a warm-hearted admiration, which found ample utterance. Every patriotic man in the land proudly called him a great American. Nobody wished to remember his faults, or to be over-critical in the praise of his virtues and in the estimation of his public services. It was not at all surprising that, as his enthusiastic nature had always appealed to the emotions, the most generous impulses of the popular heart should have followed him to the grave.
Henry Clay himself had by no means been indifferent to the fame he would leave behind him. In his correspondence there are frequent symptoms of his solicitude as to his place in the history of his country. Nine months before his death, in a letter to Daniel Ullmann, he made some suggestions concerning the inscription to be put upon a large gold medal which his friends in New York caused to be struck in commemoration of his public services. The inscription, as amended by him, read thus: —
War of 1812 with Great Britain.
Spanish America, 1822.
Missouri Compromise, 1821.
American System, 1824.
Secretary of State, 1825.
Panama Instructions, 1826.
Tariff Compromise, 1833.
Public Domain, 1833-1841.
Peace with France Preserved, 1835.
These were the salient points of his career which Clay himself desired most to be remembered. Singularly enough, the policy of internal improvements was not named in this enumeration, and it is a significant fact that the longest and bitterest of his political struggles — that for the Bank of the United States against Jackson — could not be mentioned in the list of his public services; nor would his efforts to be made President of the United States, which had so intensely engaged his mind and heart, fit a record of the things he was proud of.
But, however incomplete, that record showed how large a place Henry Clay had filled in the public affairs of the Republic during almost half a century of its existence. His most potent faculty has left the most imperfect monuments behind it. He was without question the greatest parliamentary orator, and one of the greatest popular speakers, America has ever had. Webster excelled him in breadth of knowledge, in keenness of reasoning, in weight of argument, and in purity of diction. But Clay possessed in a far higher degree the true oratorical temperament, — that force of nervous exaltation which makes the orator feel himself, and appear to others, a superior being, and almost irresistibly transfuses his thoughts, his passions, and his will into the mind and heart of the listener. Webster would instruct and convince and elevate, but Clay would overcome his audience. There could scarcely be a more striking proof of his power than the immediate effect we know his speeches to have produced upon those who heard them, compared with the impression of heavy tameness we receive when merely reading the printed reports.
In the elements, too, which make a man a leader, Clay was greatly the superior of Webster, as well as of all other contemporaries, excepting Andrew Jackson. He had not only in rare development the faculty of winning the affectionate devotion of men, but his personality imposed itself without an effort so forcibly upon others that they involuntarily looked to him for direction, waited for his decisive word before making up their minds, and not seldom yielded their better judgment to his willpower.
While this made him a very strong leader, he was not a safe guide. The rare brightness of his intellect and his fertile fancy served, indeed, to make himself and others forget his lack of accurate knowledge and studious thought; but these brilliant qualities could not compensate for his deficiency in that prudence and forecast which are required for the successful direction of political forces. His impulses were vehement, and his mind not well fitted for the patient analysis of complicated problems and of difficult political situations. His imagination frequently ran away with his understanding. His statesmanship had occasionally something of the oratorical character. Now and then he appeared to consider it as important whether a conception or a measure would sound well, as whether, if put into practice, it would work well. He disliked advice which differed from his preconceived opinions; and with his imperious temper and ardent combativeness he was apt, as in the struggle about the United States Bank, to put himself, and to hurry his party, into positions of great disadvantage. It is a remarkable fact that during his long career in Congress he was in more or less pronounced opposition to all administrations, even those of his own party, save that of Jefferson, under which he served only one short session in the Senate, and that of John Quincy Adams, of which he was a member. During Madison's first term, Clay helped in defeating the recharter of the United States Bank recommended by Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury; and he became a firm supporter of Madison's administration only when, as to the war against Great Britain, it had yielded to his pressure. No fault can be found with him for asserting in all important things the freedom of his opinion; but a less impetuous statesman would have found it possible to avoid a conflict with Monroe, and to maintain harmonious relations with General Taylor.
On the other hand, he never sought to organize or strengthen his following by the arts of the patronage-monger. The thought that a political party should be held together by the public plunder, or that the party leader should be something like a paymaster of a body of henchmen at the public expense, or that a party contest should be a mere scramble for spoils, was entirely foreign to his mind, and far below the level of his patriotic aspirations.
It has been said that Clay was surrounded by a crowd of jobbers and speculators eager to turn his internal improvement and tariff policies to their private advantage. No doubt those policies attracted such persons to him. But there is no reason for suspecting that he was ever in the slightest degree pecuniarily interested in any scheme which might have been advanced by his political position or influence. In no sense was he a money-maker in politics. His integrity as a public man remained without blemish throughout his long career. He preserved an equally intact name in the conduct of his private affairs. In money matters he was always a man of honor, maintaining the principles and the pride of a gentleman. The financial embarrassments which troubled his declining days were caused, not by reckless extravagance, nor by questionable speculations, but by the expenses inseparable from high public station and great renown, and by engagements undertaken for others, especially his sons. He was a kind husband, and an indulgent father. There is ample evidence of his warm solicitude as to the welfare of his children, of his constant readiness to assist them with his counsel, and of his self-sacrificing liberality in providing for their needs and in aiding them in their troubles. The attacks made upon his private character touched mainly his occasional looseness in his social intercourse and his fondness for card-playing, which, although in his early years he had given up games of chance, still led him to squander but too much time upon whist. Such attacks injured his character because they were not unfounded; and it appears by no means improbable that charges of this kind, striking a vulnerable point, may, in spite of the enthusiastic devotion of many of his friends, which was ready to overlook or forgive any shortcoming, have had something to do with what was called his ill luck as a candidate for the presidency.
The desire of so distinguished a political leader to be President was natural and legitimate. Even had he cherished it less ardently, his followers would have more than once pushed him forward. But no one can study Clay's career without feeling that he would have been a happier and a greater man if he had never coveted the glittering prize. When such an ambition becomes chronic, it will be but too apt to unsettle the character and darken the existence of those afflicted with it by confusing their appreciation of all else. As Cæsar said that the kind of death most to be desired was "a sudden one," so the American statesman may think himself fortunate to whom a nomination for the presidency comes, if at all, without a long agony of hope and fear. During a period of thirty years, from the time when he first aspired to be Monroe's successor until 1848, Clay unceasingly hunted the shadow whose capture would probably have added nothing either to his usefulness or his fame, but the pursuit of which made his public life singularly restless and unsatisfactory to himself. Nor did he escape from the suspicion of having occasionally modified the expression of his opinions according to supposed exigencies of availability. The peculiar tone of his speech against the abolitionists before the campaign of 1840, his various letters on the annexation of Texas in 1844, and some equivocations on other subjects during the same period, illustrated the weakening influence of the presidential candidate upon the man; and even his oft-quoted word that he would "rather be right than be President" was spoken at a time when he was more desirous of being President than sure of being right.
But, on the whole, save his early change of position on the subject of the United States Bank, Clay's public career appears remarkably consistent in its main feature. It was ruled by the idea that, as the binding together of the states in the Union and the formation of a constitutional government had been accomplished by the compromising of diverse interests, this Union and this constitutional government had to be maintained in the same way; and that every good citizen should consider it his duty, whenever circumstances required it, to sacrifice something, not only of his material advantages, but even of his sentiments and convictions, for the peace and welfare of the common Republic.
Whatever Clay's weaknesses of character and errors in statesmanship may have been, almost everything he said or did was illumined by a grand conception of the destinies of his country, a glowing national spirit, a lofty patriotism. Whether he thundered against British tyranny on the seas, or urged the recognition of the South American sister republics, or attacked the high-handed conduct of the military chieftain in the Florida war, or advocated protection and internal improvements, or assailed the one-man power and spoils politics in the person of Andrew Jackson, or entreated for compromise and conciliation regarding the tariff or slavery; whether what he advocated was wise or unwise, right or wrong, — there was always ringing through his words a fervid plea for his country, a zealous appeal in behalf of the honor and the future greatness and glory of the Republic, or an anxious warning lest the Union, and with it the greatness and glory of the American people, be put in jeopardy. It was a just judgment which he pronounced upon himself when he wrote: "If any one desires to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of this Union will furnish him the key."