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Harper's Weekly Editorials on Carl Schurz/Henry Clay

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HENRY CLAY.


There is no more familiar and interesting figure in our political history than Henry Clay, and no party leader who was more idolized, or followed with more enthusiasm. His political life began with the century and continued until his death in 1852, and his biography therefore includes the political history of that half-century. But until Mr. Schurz's memoir, just published in the “American Statesmen Series,” his life has never been adequately treated. it is mainly in biography that our political history has been written, and in that branch of our literature Mr. Schurz's two volumes take their place at once in the highest rank. His work is the result not only of careful research, but of thorough mastery and due consideration of the results of research, and in his biography of Clay we have both a singularly just and sympathetic estimate of the man, and a lucid and comprehensive summary of the political movement of the half-century. The simplicity of the style is admirable, and the tone of treatment, which is in no sense merely eulogistic, but perfectly appreciative and candid, gives a sincerity to the book which at once commands the entire confidence of the reader.

Such a work necessarily covers most of the interesting events of our politics, except the culmination of the antislavery controversy. Clay died not long after Calhoun, and they both took part in the opening of the final period of the conflict before the war, the period which began with the compromises of 1850. The first great event with which Clay was identified was the war of 1812, in which he was the Congressional leader. Mr. Schurz's account of that war is very clear and satisfactory, and his narrative of the elections of 1824 and of 1828, including the “bargain and corruption” calumny of Clay's relations with Adams, the rise of Jackson and the era of Jacksonism, the instinctive hostility between the arbitrary military chieftain and the constitutional statesman, and the organization of the modern Democratic and Whig parties, is admirable. The contrast between the two leaders, Jackson and Clay, the final emergence of the antislavery question as the absorbing political issue, and the distinctive character and service of the moral abolition agitation, which are curiously misapprehended in the memoir of Benton, lately published in the “Statesmen Series,” are all described with accuracy and force.

But, as becomes a biography, Henry Clay is always the central figure of the story. Mr. Schurz shows, however, much more clearly than has been shown heretofore, Clay's natural and instinctive antislavery tendency. From his first appearance as an emancipationist in the Kentucky Constitutional Convention of 1799 to his last effort as a compromiser in the Senate in 1850, Clay never accepted the Southern view and policy. As a Presidential candidate, indeed, he trimmed and recoiled, and upon the Texas question he played false with himself, and lost his election in 1844. But he was at heart friendly to the Wilmot proviso, and among his latest declarations were those of fidelity to the Union even as against his own State of Kentucky. It was his devotion to the Union which made him an incessant compromiser. To both the great Whig leaders, Webster and Clay, the Union was the ark of national safety, and therefore of human liberty. However they may have found that faith coincident with the aim of their ambition, and however unworthy of such men was their subservience to the base prejudices of the time, the faith was none the less sincere. To the fascinating personality of Clay, to the charm and power of his eloquence, to his thorough Americanism, as to the self-deceptions and weaknesses and follies of “the chronic Presidential candidate,” his biographer is fully just. Not less does he show that much of Clay's policy was a huge mistake, that his measures were often happily defeated, and that in his bank controversy with Jackson and Tyler his failure was not a public misfortune. The reasons for such conclusions are briefly but adequately stated, and the whole story is told so judicially, yet so truthfully, that Clay as a man, and his peculiar eminence in our history, will be more justly appreciated than ever before.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).