Life of Henry Clay/04 Beginnings in Legislation
BEGINNINGS IN LEGISLATION.
Clay took his seat in the Senate of the United States on December 29, 1806. When a man at so early an age is chosen for so high a place, a place, in fact, reserved for the seniors in politics, be it even to "serve out an unexpired term," it shows that he is considered by those who send him there a person forming an exception to ordinary rules. But it is a more remarkable circumstance that Clay, when he entered the Senate, was not yet constitutionally eligible to that body, and that this fact was not noticed at the time. According to the biographers whose dates were verified by him, he was born on April 12, 1777. On December 29, 1806, when he entered the Senate, he therefore lacked three months and seventeen days of the age of thirty years, which the Constitution prescribes as a condition of eligibility to the Senate of the United States. The records of the Senate show no trace of a question having been raised upon this ground when Clay was sworn. It does not seem to have occurred to any member of that body that the man who stood before them might not be old enough to be a Senator. In all probability Clay himself did not think of it. He was sworn in as a matter of course, and, without the bashful hesitation generally expected of young senators, he plunged at once into the current of proceedings as if he had been there all his life. On the fourth day after he had taken his seat, we find him offering a resolution concerning the circuit courts of the United States; a few days later, another concerning an appropriation of land for the improvement of the Ohio rapids; then another touching Indian depredations; and another proposing an amendment to the federal Constitution concerning the judicial power of the United States. We find the young man on a variety of committees, sometimes as chairman, charged with the consideration of important subjects, and making reports to the Senate. We find him taking part in debate with the utmost freedom, and on one occasion astonishing with a piece of very pungent sarcasm an old Senator, who was accustomed to subdue with lofty assumptions of superior wisdom such younger colleagues as ventured to differ from him.
In one important respect Clay's first beginnings in national legislation were characteristic of the natural bent of his mind and the character of his future statesmanship. His first speech was in advocacy of a bill providing for building a bridge across the Potomac; and the measure to which he mainly devoted himself during his first short term in the Senate was an appropriation of land "toward the opening of the canal proposed to be cut at the rapids of the Ohio, on the Kentucky shore." This was in the line of the policy of "internal improvements." Those claim too much for Henry Clay who call him the inventor, the "father," of that policy. It was thought of by others before him, and all he did was to make himself, in this as in other cases, so prominent a champion, so influential and commanding a leader in the advocacy of it, that presently the policy itself began to pass as his own. In fact it was only his child by adoption, not by birth. But at the time of Clay's first appearance in the Senate there were two things giving that policy an especial impulse. One was as a revenue beyond the current needs of the government, and the other was the material growth of the country.
It would be difficult to find in the history of the United States a period of more general contentment and cheerfulness of feeling than the first and the early part of the second term of Jefferson's presidency. Never before, since the establishment of the government, had the country been so free from any harassing foreign complications. The difference with Great Britain about the matter of impressments had not yet taken its threatening form, and the Indians, under the influence of humane treatment, were for a time leaving the frontier settlements in peace. The American people, also, for the first time became fully conscious of the fact that the government really belonged to them, and not to a limited circle of important gentlemen. Jefferson's conciliatory policy, proclaimed in the famous words, "We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists," produced the desired effect of withdrawing from the Federalist leaders a large portion of the rank and file, and of greatly mitigating the acerbity of party contests, which under the preceding administration had been immoderately violent. The Republican majority in Congress and in the country grew so large that the struggle of the minority against it ceased to be very exciting. On the other hand, the Federalists had left the machinery of the government on the whole in so good a condition that the party coming into power, although critically disposed, found not much to change. Those at the head of the government professed to be intent upon carrying on public affairs in the simplest and most economical style. Under such circumstances the popular mind could give itself without restraint to the development of the country in the material sense. The disturbed state of Europe having thrown a large proportion of the carrying trade on the ocean into the hands of the American merchant marine, the foreign commerce of the seaboard cities expanded largely. Agriculture, too, was remarkably prosperous, cotton was rapidly becoming the great staple of the South, and other crops in increasing variety were greatly augmented by the breaking of virgin soils. Manufacturing industry began to take possession of the abundant water-powers of the country, and to produce a constantly growing volume and variety of articles. All these fields of activity were enlivened by a cheerful spirit of enterprise.
But beyond all this new perspectives of territorial grandeur and national power had opened themselves to the American people, which raised their self-esteem and stimulated their ambition. The United States had ceased to be a mere string of settlements along the seaboard, with a few inland outposts. The "great West" had risen above the horizon as a living reality. The idea of a "boundless empire" belonging to the American people seized upon the popular imagination, and everything connected with the country and its government began to assume a larger aspect. The young democracy felt its sap, and stretched its limbs. By the Louisiana purchase the Mississippi had become from an outer boundary an American inland river from source to mouth, — the ramification of the sea through American territory. The acquisition of the whole of Florida was only a question of time. The immense country beyond the Mississippi was still a vast mystery, but steps were taking to explore that grand national domain. In the message sent to Congress at the opening of the very session during which Henry Clay entered the Senate, President Jefferson announced that "the expedition of Messrs. Lewis and Clarke, for exploring the river Missouri, and the best communication from that to the Pacific Ocean, had had all the success which could have been expected," and that they had "traced the Missouri nearly to its source, descended the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean, and ascertained with accuracy the geography of that interesting communication across Our Continent."
While only a few daring explorers and adventurous hunters penetrated the immense wilderness beyond the Mississippi, a steady stream of emigration from the Atlantic States, reinforced by new-comers from the old world, poured into the fertile region stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the great river. They found their way either through Pennsylvania across the mountain ridges to Pittsburgh, and then by flat or keel boat down the Ohio, or through northern New York to the Great Lakes, and then on by water. The building of the famous Cumberland Road farther south had then only been just begun. Great were the difficulties and hardships of the journey. While the swift stage-coach reached Pittsburgh in six days from Philadelphia, the heavy carrier cart, or the emigrant wagon, had a jolt of three weeks to traverse the same distance. The roads were indescribable, and the traveler on the river found his course impeded by snags, sand-bars, and dangerous rapids. It was, therefore, not enough to have the great country; it must be made accessible. Nothing could have been more natural than that, as the West hove in sight larger and richer, the cry for better means of communication between the East and the West should have grown louder and more incessant.
At the same time the commercial spirit of the East was busy, planning improved roads and waterways from the interior to the seaports, and from one part of the coast to the other. Canal projects in great variety, large and small, were discussed with great ardor. While some of these, like the New York and Erie Canal, which then as a scheme began to assume a definite shape, were designed to be taken in hand by single states, the general government was looked to for aid with regard to others. The consciousness of common interests grew rapidly among the people of different states and sections, and with it the feeling that the general government was the proper instrumentality by which those common interests should be served, and that it was its legitimate business to aid in making the different parts of this great common domain approachable and useful to the people.
This feeling was the source from which the policy of "internal improvements" sprang. There was scarcely any difference of opinion among the statesmen of the time on the question whether it was desirable that the general government should aid in the construction of roads and canals, and the improvement of navigable rivers. The only trouble in the minds of those who construed the Constitution strictly was, that they could not find in it any grant of power to appropriate public funds to such objects. But the objects themselves seemed to most of them so commendable that they suggested the submission to the state legislatures of an amendment to the Constitution expressly granting this power. This was the advice of Jefferson. While in his private correspondence he frequently expressed the apprehension that the appropriation of public money to such works as roads and canals, and the improvement of rivers, would lead to endless jobbery and all sorts of demoralizing practices, he found the current of popular sentiment in favor of these things too strong for his scruples. In his message of December, 1806, he therefore suggested the adoption of a constitutional amendment to enable Congress to apply the surplus revenue "to the great purposes of the public education, roads, rivers, canals, and such other objects of public improvement as may be thought proper," etc. "By these operations," he said, "new channels of communication will be opened between the states; the lines of separation will disappear; their interests will be identified, and their union cemented by new and indissoluble ties." This certainly looked to an extensive system of public works. No amendment to the Constitution was passed; but even Jefferson was found willing to employ now and then some convenient reason for doing without the expressed power; such as, in the case of the Cumberland Road, the consent of the states within which the work was to be executed.
Clay took up the advocacy of this policy with all his natural vigor. He was a Western man. He had witnessed the toil and trouble with which the emigrant coming from the East worked his way to the fertile western fields. The necessity of making the navigation of the Ohio safe and easy came home to his neighbors and constituents. But he did not confine his efforts to that one measure. He earnestly supported the project of government aid for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which, in the language of the report, was to serve "as the basis of a vast scheme of interior navigation, connecting the waters of the Lakes with those of the most southern states;" and if he was not, as some of his biographers assert, the mover, — for as such the annals of Congress name Senator Worthington, from Ohio, — he was at least the zealous advocate of a resolution, "that the Secretary of the Treasury be directed to prepare and report to the Senate at their next session, a plan for the application of such means as are within the power of Congress, to the purposes of opening roads and making canals, together with a statement of undertakings of that nature, which, as objects of public improvement, may require and deserve the aid of government," etc., a direction to which Gallatin, then Secretary of the Treasury, responded in an elaborate report. Thus Clay marched in large company, but ahead of a part of it; for while Jefferson and his immediate followers, admitting the desirability of a large system of public improvements, asserted the necessity of a constitutional amendment to give the government the appropriate power, Clay became the recognized leader of those who insisted upon the existence of that power under the Constitution as it was.
The senatorial term, for a fraction of which Clay had been appointed, ended on March 4, 1807. He had enjoyed it heartily. "My reception in this place," he wrote to Colonel Hart on February 1st, "has been equal, nay, superior to my expectations. I have experienced the civility and attention of all I was desirous of obtaining. Those who are disposed to flatter me say that I have acquitted myself with great credit in several debates in the Senate. But after all that I have seen, Kentucky is still my favorite country. There amidst my dear family I shall find happiness in a degree to be met with nowhere else." We have, also, contemporaneous testimony, showing how others saw him at that period. William Plumer, a Senator from New Hampshire, a Federalist, wrote in his diary: —
"December 29, 1806. This day Henry Clay, the successor of John Adair, was qualified, and took his seat in the Senate. He is a young lawyer. His stature is tall and slender. I had much conversation with him, and it afforded me much pleasure. He is intelligent and appears frank and candid. His address is good, and his manners easy."
And later: —
"Mr. Clay is a young lawyer of considerable eminence. He came here as senator for this session only. His clients, who have suits depending in the Supreme Court, gave him a purse of three thousand dollars to attend to their suits here. He would not be a candidate for the next Congress, as it would materially injure his business. On the second reading of the bill to erect a bridge over the Potomac, Henry Clay made an eloquent and forcible speech against the postponement. He animadverted with great severity on Tracy's observations. As a speaker Clay is animated, his language bold and flowery. He is prompt and ready at reply, but he does not reason with the force and precision of Bayard."
And finally: —
"February 13. Henry Clay is a man of pleasure; fond of amusements. He is a great favorite with the ladies; is in all parties of pleasure; out almost every evening; reads but little; indeed, he said he meant this session should be a tour of pleasure. He is a man of talents; is eloquent; but not nice or accurate in his distinctions. He declaims more than he reasons. He is a gentlemanly and pleasant companion; a man of honor and integrity."
The reports of Clay's speeches delivered at this session, which have been preserved, do not bear out Mr. Plumer's description of them. His oratory seldom was what might properly be called "flowery." While his appeals rose not unfrequently to somewhat lofty flights of rhetoric, he used figurative language sparingly. His speeches, occasional passages excepted, consisted of argumentative reasoning, which, in print, appears not seldom somewhat dry and heavy. But the dramatic fire of delivery peculiar to him gave that reasoning a vivacity to which the Senate, then a very small and quiet body, was not accustomed, and which the good Mr. Plumer probably considered too dashing for the place and the occasion.
Clay had scarcely returned to Kentucky when the citizens of his county sent him again to the state legislature as their representative, and he was elected Speaker of the Assembly. The debates which occurred gave him welcome opportunity for taking position on the questions of the time. The comfortable, calm, and joyous prosperity of the country, which had prevailed under Jefferson's first and at the beginning of his second administration, had meanwhile been darkly overclouded by foreign complications. The tremendous struggle between Napoleonic France and the rest of Europe, led by England, was raging more furiously than ever. The profitable neutral trade of the American merchant marine was rudely interrupted by arbitrary measures adopted by the belligerents to cripple each other, in utter disregard of neutral rights. The impressment and blockade policy of Great Britain struck the American mind as particularly offensive. Of this more hereafter. The old animosity against England, which had somewhat cooled during the short period of repose and general cheerfulness, was fanned again into flame. Especially in the South and West it burst out in angry manifestations. In the Kentucky legislature its explosion was highly characteristic of the lingering backwoods spirit. It was moved that in no court of Kentucky should any decision of a British court, or any British elementary work on law, be read as an authority. The proposition was immensely popular among the members of the Assembly. More than four fifths of them declared their determination to vote for it. Clay was as fiery a patriot as any of them; but he would not permit his state to make itself ridiculous by a puerile and barbarous demonstration. He was young and ambitious, but he would not seek popularity by joining, or even acquiescing, in a cry which offended his good sense. Without hesitation he left the Speaker's chair to arrest this absurd clamor. He began by moving as an amendment that the exclusion of British decisions and opinions from the courts of Kentucky should apply only to those which had been promulgated after July 4, 1776, as before that date the American colonies were a part of the British dominion, and Americans and English were virtually one nation, living substantially under the same laws. Then he launched into a splendid panegyric upon the English common law, and an impassioned attack upon the barbarous spirit which would "wantonly make wreck of a system fraught with the intellectual wealth of centuries." His speech was not reported, but it was described in the press of the time as one of extraordinary power and beauty, and it succeeded in saving for Kentucky the treasures of English jurisprudence.
Other demonstrations of patriotism on his part were not wanting. In December, 1808, when the cloud had grown darker still, he introduced a series of resolutions expressing approval of the embargo, denouncing the British Orders in Council by which the rights of neutral ships were arbitrarily overruled, pledging to the general government the active aid of Kentucky in anything it might determine upon to resist British exactions, and declaring that President Jefferson was entitled to the gratitude of the country "for the ability, uprightness, and intelligence which he had displayed in the management both of our foreign relations and domestic concerns." This brought to his feet the Federalist Humphrey Marshall, a man of ability and standing, — he had been a Senator of the United States, — but who was also noted for the bitterness of his animosities and the violence of his temper. Looking down upon Clay as a young upstart, he opposed the resolutions with extraordinary virulence, but commanded only his own vote against them.
Clay then offered another resolution, recommending that the members of the legislature should wear only such clothes as were the product of domestic manufacture. The avowed object was the encouragement of home industry, to the end of making the country industrially independent of a hated foreign power. This was Henry Clay's first effort in favor of a protective policy, evidently designed to be a mere demonstration. Humphrey Marshall at once denounced the resolution as the clap-trap of a demagogue. A fierce altercation followed, and then came the customary challenge and the "hostile encounter," in which both combatants were slightly wounded, whereupon the seconds interfered to prevent more serious mischief. Henry Clay may, therefore, be said to have fought and bled for the cause of protection when he first championed it, by a demonstration in favor of home manufactures as against those of a foreign enemy.
In the winter of 1809-10 Clay was again sent to the Senate of the United States to fill an unexpired term of two years, Mr. Buckner Thurston having resigned his seat. In April, 1810, he found an opportunity for expressing his opinions on the "encouragement of home industry" in a more tangible and elaborate form. To a bill appropriating money for procuring munitions of war and for other purposes, an amendment was moved instructing the Secretary of the Navy to purchase supplies of hemp, cordage, sail-cloth, etc., and to give preference to articles raised or manufactured on American soil. The discussion ranged over the general policy of encouraging home manufactures. Clay's line of argument was remarkable. A large conception of industrial development as the result of a systematic tariff policy was entirely foreign to his mind. He looked at the whole subject from the point of view of a Kentucky farmer, who found it most economical to clothe himself and his family in homespun, and who desired to secure a sure and profitable market for his hemp. Besides this, he thought it wise that the American people should, in case of war, not be dependent upon any foreign country for the things necessary to their sustenance and defense. "A judicious American farmer," said he, "in his household way manufactures whatever is requisite for his family. He squanders but little in the gewgaws of Europe. He presents, in epitome, what the nation ought to be in extenso. Their manufactories should bear the same proportion, and effect the same object in relation to the whole community, which the part of his household employed in domestic manufacturing bears to the whole family. It is certainly desirable that the exports of the country should continue to be the surplus production of tillage, and not be come those of manufacturing establishments. But it is important to diminish our imports; to furnish ourselves with clothing, made by our own industry; and to cease to be dependent, for the very coats we wear, upon a foreign, and perhaps inimical, country. The nation that imports its clothing from abroad is but little less dependent than if it imported its bread."
He was especially anxious not to be understood as favoring a large development of manufacturing industries with a numerous population of operatives. Referring to the indigence and wretchedness which had been reported to prevail among the laboring people of Manchester and Birmingham, he said: "Were we to become the manufacturers of other countries, effects of the same kind might result. But if we limit our efforts by our own wants, the evils apprehended would be found to be chimerical." He had no doubt "that the domestic manufactories of the United States, fostered by government, and aided by household exertions, were fully competent to supply us with at least every necessary article of clothing." He was, therefore, "in favor of encouraging them, not to the extent to which they are carried in Europe, but to such an extent as will redeem us entirely from all dependence on foreign countries." And, aside from clothing, he did not forget to mention that "our maritime operations ought not to depend upon the casualties of foreign supply;" that "with very little encouragement from government he believed we should not want a pound of Russia hemp;" that "the increase of the article in Kentucky had been rapidly great," there having been but two rope manufactories in Kentucky ten years ago, and there being about twenty now, and about ten or fifteen of cotton-bagging.
Thus what he had in view at that time was not the building up of large industries by a protective system, but just a little manufacturing to run along with agriculture, enough to keep the people in clothes and the navy well supplied with hemp, and so to relieve the country of its dependence on foreign countries in case of war. For this home industry he wanted encouragement. What kind of encouragement? In his speech he briefly referred to two means of encouraging manufactures: bounties, against which, as he was aware, it was urged that the whole community was taxed for the benefit of only a part of it; and protective duties, in opposition to which it was, as he said, "alleged that you make the interest of one part, the consumer, bend to the interest of the other part, the manufacturer." He merely stated these points, together with the "not always admitted" answer that "the sacrifice is only temporary, being ultimately compensated by the greater abundance and superiority of the article produced by the stimulus." He did not, however, commit himself clearly in favor of either proposition. But he thought of all "practical forms of encouragement," the one under discussion, providing merely for a preference to be given to home products in the purchase of naval supplies, whenever it could be done without material detriment to the service, was certainly innocent enough and should escape opposition. He was also in favor of making advances, under proper security, to manufacturers undertaking government contracts, believing "that this kind of assistance, bestowed with prudence, will be productive of the best results."
A few days after Clay had made this speech, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, presented to Congress a report on the manufacturing industries of the United States, in which he showed that several of them were already "adequate to the consumption of the country," — among them manufactures of wood, leather, and manufactures of leather, soap, and candles, etc., — and that others were supplying either the greater, or at least a considerable, part of the consumption of the country, such as iron and manufactures of iron; manufactures of cotton, wool, and flax; hats, paper, several manufactures of hemp, gunpowder, window glass, several manufactures of lead, etc. Home industry was, therefore, practically not far from the point of development indicated by Clay as the goal to be reached. In response to the request of Congress, to suggest methods by which the manufacturing industries might be encouraged, Gallatin suggested that "occasional premiums might be beneficial;" that "a general system of bounties was more applicable to articles exported than to those manufactured for home consumption;" that prohibitory duties were "liable to the treble objection of destroying competition, of taxing the consumer, and of diverting capital and industry into channels generally less profitable than those which would have naturally been pursued by individual interest left to itself." A moderate increase of duties would be less dangerous, he thought; but, if adopted, it should be continued during a certain period to avoid the injury to business arising from frequent change. But, he added, "since the comparative want of capital is the principal obstacle to the introduction and advancement of manufactures," and since the banks were not able to give sufficient assistance, "the United States might create a circulating stock bearing a low rate of interest, and lend it at par to manufacturers."
It will strike any reader conversant with the history of that period, that Clay's argument, if taken as a plea for protection, was far less decided in tone and strong in reasoning than many speeches which had been made in Congress on that side of the question before; and also that the methods of encouraging manufacturing industries suggested by him were, although less clearly stated, not materially different from those suggested by Gallatin, who was on principle a free trader.
This topic was, in fact, only one of a great variety of subjects to which he devoted his attention. He evidently endeavored to become not only a brilliant speaker, but a useful, working legislator. During the same session he made a report on a bill granting a right of preëmption to settlers on public land in certain cases, which was passed without amendment. Indian affairs, too, received his intelligent attention. A bill supplementary to "an Act to regulate trade and intercourse with the Indian tribes and to preserve peace on the frontier," was introduced by him and referred to a committee of which he was made chairman; and his report displayed sentiments as wise as they were humane. More conspicuous and important was the part he took during the session of 1810-11 in the debates on the occupation of West Florida, and on a bill to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States.
The West Florida case gave him his first introduction to the field of foreign affairs, and at once he struck the key-note of that national feeling which carried the American people into the War of 1812. Florida was at that time in the possession of Spain. The boundaries of Louisiana, as that territory had passed from France to the United States in 1803, were ill defined. According to a plausible construction the Louisiana purchase included that part of Florida to the west of the Perdido River, which was commonly called West Florida. But the United States had failed to occupy it, leaving the Spanish garrisons quietly in possession of their posts. Negotiations for the purchase of the whole of Florida from Spain had meanwhile been carried on, but without success. When Napoleon invaded Spain and that kingdom appeared doomed to fall into his hands, insurrectionary movements broke out in several of the Spanish American provinces. West Florida, too, was violently agitated. The revolutionists there, among whom were many persons of English and of American birth, set up an independent government and applied for recognition by the United States. There were rumors of British intrigues for the object of getting West Florida into the hands of England. The revolutionary excitement in the territory moreover threatened seriously to disturb the peace of the frontier. President Madison thought this an opportune moment to settle the boundary question. He issued a proclamation on October 27, 1810, asserting the claim of the United States to West Florida, the delay in the occupation of which "was not the result of any distrust of their title, but was occasioned by their conciliatory views," and announcing that "possession should be taken of the said territory in the name and behalf of the United States." A bill was then introduced in the Senate December 18, 1810, providing that the Territory of Orleans, one of the two territories into which Louisiana was divided, "shall be deemed, and is hereby declared, to extend to the river Perdido," and that the laws in force in the Territory of Orleans should extend over the district in question.
The Federalists, who always had a deep-seated jealousy of the growing West, attacked the steps taken by President Madison as acts of spoliation perpetrated upon an unoffending and at the time helpless power, and their spokesmen in the Senate, Timothy Pickering of Massachusetts, and Horsey of Delaware, strenuously denied that the United States had any title to West Florida. Clay took up the gauntlet as the champion not merely of the administration, but of his country. For the first time in the Senate he put forth the fullness of his peculiar power. "Allow me, sir," said he, with severe irony, "to express my admiration at the more than Aristidean justice which, in a question of territorial title between the United States and a foreign nation, induces certain gentlemen to espouse the pretensions of the foreign nation. Doubtless, in any future negotiations, she will have too much magnanimity to avail herself of these spontaneous concessions in her favor, made on the floor of the Senate of the United States." He then went into an elaborate historical examination of the question, giving evidence of much research, and set forth with great clearness and force of statement. The case he made out for the American claim was indeed plausible. Accepting his patriotic assumptions, his defense of the President's conduct seemed complete. The plea that the Spanish government was sorely pressed and helpless furnished him only an opportunity for holding up his opponents as the sympathizers of kings. "I shall leave the honorable gentleman from Delaware," he exclaimed, "to mourn over the fortunes of the fallen Charles. I have no commiseration for princes. My sympathies are reserved for the great mass of mankind, and I own that the people of Spain have them most sincerely." But he had a still sharper arrow in his quiver. Mr. Horsey had been so unfortunate as to speak of the displeasure which the steps taken by the President might give to Great Britain. Clay turned upon him with an outburst which resounded through the whole country: —
"The gentleman reminds us that Great Britain, the ally of Spain, may be obliged, by her connection with that country, to take part with her against us, and to consider this measure of the President as justifying an appeal to arms. Sir, is the time never to arrive, when we may manage our own affairs without the fear of insulting his Britannic majesty? Is the rod of the British power to be forever suspended over our heads? Does Congress put an embargo to shelter our rightful commerce against the piratical depredations committed upon it on the ocean? We are immediately warned of the indignation of offended England. Is a law of non-intercourse proposed? The whole navy of the haughty mistress of the seas is made to thunder into our ears. Does the President refuse to continue a correspondence with a minister who violates the decorum belonging to his diplomatic character, by giving and repeating a deliberate affront to the whole nation? We are instantly menaced with the chastisement which English pride will not fail to inflict. Whether we assert our rights by sea, or attempt their maintenance by land, whithersoever we turn ourselves, this phantom incessantly pursues us. Already it has too much influence on the councils of the nation. Mr. President, I most sincerely desire peace and amity with England; I even prefer an adjustment of differences with her before one with any other nation. But if she persists in a denial of justice to us, or if she avails herself of the occupation of West Florida to commence war upon us, I trust and hope that all hearts will unite in a bold and vigorous vindication of our rights."
This was an appeal to that national pride which he himself of all the statesmen of his time felt most strongly, and therefore represented most effectively. Although he was the youngest man in the Senate, he had already acquired a position of leadership among the members of the Republican majority. He won it in his characteristic fashion; that is to say, he straightway seized it, and in deference to his boldness and ability it was conceded to him. In the debate on the West Florida question he was decidedly the most conspicuous and important figure; and when the veteran Timothy Pickering, in a speech in reply to Clay, quoted a document which years before had been communicated to the Senate in confidence, it was the young Kentuckian who promptly stepped forward as the leader of the majority, offering a resolution to censure Pickering for having committed a breach of the rules, and the majority obediently followed.
From this debate he came forth the most striking embodiment of the rising spirit of Young America. But the manner in which he opposed the re-charter of the Bank of the United States was calculated to bring serious embarrassment upon him in his subsequent career; for he furnished arguments to his bitterest enemy. The first Bank of the United States was chartered by Congress in 1791, the charter to run for twenty years. Its establishment formed an important part of Hamilton's scheme of national finance. It was to aid in the collection of the revenue; to secure to the country a safe and uniform currency; to serve as a trustworthy depository of public funds; to facilitate the transmission of money from one part of the country to another; to assist the government in making loans, funding bond issues, and other financial operations. These offices it had on the whole so well performed that the Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin, although belonging to the political school which had originally opposed the Bank, strongly favored the renewal of its charter. He was especially anxious to preserve the powerful working force of this financial agency in view of necessities which the impending war with Great Britain would inevitably bring upon the government.
The opposition which the re-charter met in Congress sprang from a variety of sources. Although for twenty years the constitutionality of the charter had been practically recognized by every department of the government, the constitutional question was raised again. As the Bank had been organized while the Federalists were in power, and many of its officers and directors belonged to that party, its management was accused of political partiality in the distribution of its favors and accommodations. Some of its stock was owned by British subjects; hence the charge that its operations were conducted under too strong a foreign influence. All these things were used to inflame the popular mind, and the opponents of the Bank actually succeeded in creating so strong a current of feeling against it, that several state legislatures passed resolves calling upon members of Congress to refuse the renewal of the charter.
Gallatin, the ablest public financier of his time, and indeed one of the few great finance ministers in our history, ranking second only to Hamilton, knew the importance of the Bank as a fiscal agent of the government at that time too well not to make every honorable effort to sustain it. Without difficulty he refuted the charges with which it was assailed. But his very solicitude told against the measure he advocated. A very influential coterie, represented in the Cabinet by the Secretary of the Navy, Smith, and especially strong in the Senate, entertained a deadly hostility to the Secretary of the Treasury, and sought to drive him out of the administration by defeating everything he thought important to his success as a public financier. There is no reason to suspect that Clay was a party to this political intrigue. Nevertheless, he espoused the anti-Bank cause with the whole fervor of his nature. One reason was that the legislature of his state had instructed him to do so. But he did not rest his opposition upon that ground. He sincerely believed in many of the accusations that had been brought against the Bank; to his imagination it appeared as the embodiment of a great money power that might become dangerous to free institutions. But his principal objection was the unconstitutionality of the Bank, and this he urged with arguments drawn so deeply from his conception of the nature of the federal government, and in language so emphatic, as to make it seem impossible for him ever to escape from the principles then laid down.
"What is the nature of this government? (he said.) It is emphatically federal, vested with an aggregate of specified powers for general purposes, conceded by existing sovereignties, who have themselves retained what is not so conceded. It is said there are cases in which it must act on implied powers. This is not controverted, but the implication must be necessary, and obviously flow from the enumerated power with which it is allied. The power to charter companies is not specified in the grant, and I contend it is not transferable by mere implication. It is one of the most exalted attributes of sovereignty. In the exercise of this gigantic power we have seen an East India Company created, which is in itself a sovereignty, which has subverted empires and set up new dynasties, and has not only made war, but war against its legitimate sovereign! Under the influence of this power we have seen arise a South Sea Company, and a Mississippi Company, that distracted and convulsed all Europe, and menaced a total overthrow of all credit and confidence, and universal bankruptcy! Is it to be imagined that a power so vast would have been left by the wisdom of the Constitution to doubtful inference? In all cases where incidental powers are acted upon, the principal and incidental ought to be congenial with each other, and partake of a common nature. The incidental power ought to be strictly subordinate and limited to the end proposed to be attained by the specific power. In other words, under the name of accomplishing one object which is specified, the power implied ought not to be made to embrace other objects which are not specified in the Constitution. If, then, you could establish a bank to collect and distribute the revenue, it ought to be expressly restricted to the purpose of such collection and distribution. It is mockery worse than usurpation to establish it for a lawful object, and then to extend it to other objects which are not lawful. In deducing the power to create corporations, such as I have described it, from the power to collect taxes, the relation and condition of principal and incidental are prostrated and destroyed. The accessory is exalted above the principal."
The strictest of strict constructionists could not have put the matter more strongly. The reader should remember this argument, to compare it with the reasons given by Henry Clay a few years later for his vote in favor of chartering a new Bank of the United States, illustrating the change which was taking place not only in his, but also in other men's minds as to the constitutional functions of the government.
The bill to re-charter the Bank was defeated in the House of Representatives by a majority of one, and in the Senate by the casting vote of the Vice-President. It is not unfair to assume that, had Clay cast his vote in the Senate, and also employed his influence with his friends in the House in favor of the bill, he would have saved it, and that, in this sense, his opposition made him responsible for its defeat.