Life of Henry Clay/14 The Compromise of 1833

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The election of 1832 seemed to bury Henry Clay in defeat. But it was followed by events which made him again one of the most conspicuous actors on the public stage. The tariff act of 1828 had greatly intensified the dissatisfaction with the protective system long existing in the planting states. They complained that they had to bear all the burdens of that system without enjoying any of its benefits; that the things they had to buy had become dearer, while the things they produced and exported found a less profitable market, and that therefore ruin stared them in the face. This was in a great measure true. They further argued that, in a federative republic which cannot rest upon force alone, the concerns and wishes of any portion of the confederacy, even if that part be only a minority, should be carefully consulted; that laws calculated seriously to affect the material interests of any part of the country should be agreed upon in a spirit of mutual accommodation; and that the majority should not insist upon the execution of measures injurious to the minority simply because it had the power to do so.

Such reasoning would have commended itself at least to the candid and respectful consideration of fair-minded men, had it aimed only at constitutional means for its enforcement. But when it was accompanied with threats of the nullification of laws, and the eventual secession of states from the Union, it assumed the character of aggressive hostility to the Republic.

The excitement on account of the tariff of 1828 was kept under a certain restraint so long as it was expected that Jackson, although at first favoring protection, would, as a Southern man, be mindful of Southern interests. He had, indeed, in his messages gradually abandoned the doctrine advanced in his Coleman letter, and recommended a revision of the tariff to the end of reducing the revenue and of giving up high protective duties as a system. But he signed the tariff act of 1832, which kept the protective system virtually intact. The agitation in the South then received a new impulse, and in South Carolina the nullifiers, for the first time, won complete possession of the state government.

Calhoun, anticipating the acquiescence of Jackson in the continuance of the protective system, had elaborately formulated the doctrine of nullification in an "Address to the People of South Carolina," published in the summer of 1831. It embodied the well known propositions that the Constitution is a mere compact between sovereign states; that the general government is the mere agent of the same sovereign states; that whenever any one of the parties to the compact — any state — considers any law made by the general government to be unconstitutional, it may "nullify" that law, — that is, declare and treat it as void and of no force. This, as Calhoun affirmed, was not inimical to the Union, but rather calculated to promote a good understanding among the states composing it; for, if that right of nullification were recognized, the majority would be more apt to listen to reason, and nullification would really be equivalent only to a suspension of the offensive law in the nullifying state or states, until the mistake committed by the majority should be rectified. If that mistake be not rectified, then the aggrieved state or states should have the constitutional right to secede from the Union.

This doctrine, which in our days would scarcely find a serious advocate in the country, was then argued with a great display of political metaphysics, and sincerely believed in by a very large number of people in South Carolina and other Southern States. In August, 1832, Calhoun put forth another manifesto, developing his constitutional theory to the highest degree of perfection it ever attained, and urging an immediate issue on account of the oppressive tariff legislation under which the South was then suffering.

The legislature of South Carolina was convened by the governor to meet on October 22, for the purpose of calling a convention "to consider the character and extent of the usurpations of the general government." The convention met on November 19, and adopted without delay an "ordinance" declaring that the tariff act of 1828, and the amendments thereto passed in 1832, were null and void; that it should be held unlawful to enforce the payment of duties thereunder within the State of South Carolina; that it should be the duty of the legislature to make laws giving effect to the ordinance; that all officers of the state should take an oath to obey and execute the ordinance and the laws made to enforce it; that no appeal from a state court to the federal Supreme Court should be allowed in any case arising under any law made in pursuance of the ordinance; and that, if the general government should attempt to use force to maintain the authority of the federal law, the State of South Carolina would secede from the Union, — the ordinance to go into full effect on February 1, 1833. The legislature, which met again on November 19, passed the "appropriate" laws. But these enactments were not very fierce; as Webster said, they "limped far behind the ordinance." Some preparation, although little, was made for a conflict of arms.

There was an anti-nullification movement in South Carolina which caused some demonstrations against these proceedings. But the great families of the state, and with them the strongest influences, were overwhelmingly on the side of nullification. The nullifiers doubtless hoped for active sympathy in other Southern States. Webster, indeed, had as early as December, 1828, become "thoroughly convinced" that "the plan of a Southern Confederacy had been received with favor by a great many of the public men of the South." But when South Carolina actually put forth her nullifying ordinance, there seemed to be little eagerness outside of her borders to coöperate with her. Some Southern legislatures denounced the tariff as unconstitutional, without, however, recommending nullification and resistance. By some nullification was denounced. Virginia favored nullification, but offered to mediate between South Carolina and the general government. What would have happened in case of a conflict of arms between the general government and the nullifying state is a matter of conjecture. It was apprehended by many that several Southern States would have been drawn into the conflict on the Carolinian side.

President Jackson's annual message, which went to Congress on December 4, 1832, was remarkably quiet in tone. He congratulated the country upon the extinction of the public debt. "The protection to manufactures," he said, "should not exceed what may be necessary to counteract the regulations of foreign nations, and to secure a supply of those articles of manufacture essential to the national independence in time of war." Beyond that he recommended a gradual diminution of duties to the revenue standard "as soon as a just regard to the faith of the government and to the preservation of the large capital invested in establishments of domestic industry will permit." He alluded to the discontent created by the high tariff, adding that the people could not be expected to pay high taxes for the benefit of the manufacturers, when the revenue was not required for the administration of the government. He also mentioned the opposition to the collection of the revenue in one quarter of the United States, but hoped that the laws would be found adequate to the suppression thereof.

The message did not foreshadow a strong policy. John Quincy Adams wrote in his Diary: "It goes to dissolve the Union into its original elements, and is in substance a complete surrender to the nullifiers of South Carolina." Neither did it alarm the nullifiers. They saw reason to think that Jackson, who in the case of the Georgia Indians had acquiesced in the most extravagant pretensions of the state, even refusing to enforce a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, did not materially differ from them as to the doctrine of state-rights. But both Mr. Adams and the nullifiers were mistaken.

Six days later, on December 10, came out Jackson's famous proclamation against the nullifiers, which spoke thus: —

"The Constitution of the United States forms a government, not a league; and whether it be formed by compact between the states, or in any other manner, its character is the same. . . . I consider the power to annul a law of the United States incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed. . . . Our Constitution does not contain the absurdity of giving power to make laws, and another power to resist them. To say that any state may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States are not a nation."

He appealed to the people of South Carolina, in the tone of a father, to desist from their ruinous enterprise; but he gave them also clearly to understand that, if they resisted by force, the whole power of the Union would be exerted to maintain its authority.

All over the North, even where Jackson had been least popular, the proclamation was hailed with unbounded enthusiasm. Meetings were held to give voice to the universal feeling. In many Southern States, such as Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland, Delaware, and even Virginia, it was widely approved as to its object, although much exception was taken to the "Federalist" character of its doctrines. Clay was not among those opponents of Jackson who hailed this manifesto with unqualified satisfaction. "One short week," he wrote to Brooke, "produced the message and the proclamation, — the former ultra on the side of state-rights, the latter ultra on the side of consolidation. How they can be reconciled, I leave to our Virginia friends. As to the proclamation, although there are good things in it, especially what relates to the judiciary, there are some entirely too ultra for me, and which I cannot stomach." It was perhaps not unnatural, after so painful a defeat, that Clay should be inclined to find fault with whatever Jackson might do. But there was, in truth, nothing "too ultra" for him in Jackson's proclamation.

The nullifiers in South Carolina received the presidential manifesto apparently with defiance. The governor of the state issued a counter-proclamation. Calhoun resigned the vice-presidency, and was immediately sent to the Senate to fight the battle for nullification there.

Now it was time for Congress to act. On December 27 a tariff bill, substantially in accord with the views expressed by the Secretary of the Treasury in his report, was reported in the House of Representatives from the Committee of Ways and Means, by Mr. Verplanck. It was looked upon as an administration measure. It contemplated a sweeping reduction of tariff duties down to the standard of the tariff of 1816, — "carrying back," as Benton says, "the protective system to the year of its commencement," — the reduction to take place in the course of two years. The protectionists loudly protested against it, but it might have satisfied the nullifiers, as it virtually conceded in that direction all they could hope for.

But another demonstration from the President intervened. The counter-proclamation of the Governor of South Carolina had irritated him. He now uttered emphatic threats against the nullifiers, and sent a message to Congress asking for such an enlargement of the executive powers as would enable him to close ports of entry, remove custom houses that were interfered with, employ military force in holding goods for customs dues, and so on. He recommended also that the jurisdiction of the federal courts be extended over all revenue cases. The bill embodying these objects was currently called the "Force Bill," or, by South Carolinians, the "Bloody Bill."

Thus the administration offered a timely reform with one hand, and a vigorous enforcement of the law with the other. South Carolina, too, less eager than before to bring on the decisive crisis, put off the day when nullification should practically begin. Both sides secretly desired and hoped to escape a conflict. But one day after another passed, and the end of the short session approached without anything being accomplished in the way of legislation. The Senate lost itself in seemingly endless talk about the various theories of the Constitution as applicable to the "Force Bill," while the House appeared to be utterly unable to arrive at any conclusion on the tariff bill reported by Verplanck.

It was then that Clay took the matter into his hands. On February 12, only twenty days before the final adjournment of the twenty-second Congress, he offered in the Senate a tariff bill of his own, avowedly as a compromise measure. As it was finally shaped, it provided that, in all cases where the duties on foreign imports exceeded twenty per cent ad valorem, they should be reduced by one tenth of such excess after September 30, 1833; by another tenth after September 30, 1835; and by another tenth every second year thereafter until September 30, 1841; then one half of the remaining excess should be taken off, and in 1842 the remaining half, which would leave a general rate of twenty per cent on dutiable goods. The free list also was to be much enlarged; the duties were to be paid in cash, the credit system to be abolished. Home valuation — valuation of imported goods at the port of entry — was added by amendment, much against the wish of Calhoun. The introduction of such a bill by the champion of the "American system" was a great surprise to the public. The same Henry Clay who had so violently denounced Albert Gallatin as "an alien at heart," for having suggested a reduction of duties to about twenty-five per cent, himself now proposed a reduction to twenty per cent, and called it a protective measure. Most of the protectionists stood aghast. The faithful Niles cried out in agony: "Mr. Clay's new tariff project will be received like a crash of thunder in the winter season, and some will hardly trust the evidence of their senses on a first examination of it, so radical and sudden is the change of policy proposed." This, no doubt, expressed the feelings of all protectionists except those with whom Clay had confidentially consulted.

The measure proposed was not a sudden contrivance on Clay's part. He himself subsequently said that he had conceived the plan while on a visit in Philadelphia, before the opening of the session, where he had conferences concerning it with several manufacturers, who concurred. It was communicated to Webster, who did not approve of it. Upon his return to Washington, Clay had interviews with Calhoun, who agreed to his scheme. Then and there a singular coalition was formed between the champion of protection and the most absolute free-trader; the chief of the latitudinarians and the strictest of strict constructionists; the emancipationist at heart and the devotee of the divine right of slavery; the most enthusiastic Union man and the apostle of the right of nullification and secession.

The motives avowed by Clay for his course were plausible: that the majority in the next Congress already elected was known to be hostile to the protective system, and likely to resort to an immediate reduction of the tariff to a strict revenue basis; that, if the present Congress should pass a law providing for moderate and gradual reductions as a solemn compromise, which would appeal for its maintenance to the honor and good faith of all parties to it, that would be so much gain to the protected interests; that at the same time the measure would serve to avert the dangers threatening the Union, — for he feared seriously, that if in some way a conflict of arms should take place in South Carolina, other Southern States might, by the contagion of excitement following the shedding of blood, be drawn into revolt and civil war. His biographer, Epes Sargent, who had the advantage of Clay's supervision of his work, mentions in addition a secret and very probable motive: "An invincible repugnance to placing under the command of General Jackson such vast military power as might be necessary to enforce the laws, and put down any resistance to them in South Carolina, and which might extend he knew not where. He could not think, without the most serious apprehensions, of intrusting a man of his vehement passions with such an immense power." These apprehensions became the more intense as he thought "he perceived, with some, a desire to push matters to extremities." Finally his constant inclination to lead in everything naturally pushed him forward.

But why did Calhoun assent to Clay's compromise measure rather than wait for the much more thorough tariff bill of Verplanck? Although as earnest in his nullification movement as ever, Calhoun had begun to be seriously troubled as to the outcome of it in case things were carried to extremes. The story that Jackson had threatened to cause Calhoun to be arrested and hung for treason as soon as the authority of the United States should be resisted by force in South Carolina, and that Calhoun, hearing this, was thrown into a paroxysm of fear, was mere gossip. But the enthusiastic reception of Jackson's proclamation by the people convinced Calhoun that nullification, as well as secession, would be met by force. He grew anxious to end the trouble on the best terms he could obtain. But did not Verplanck's bill offer the best terms? In one respect, yes; in another respect, no. Verplanck's bill, although aiming at the greatest and speediest reduction of tariff duties, was not offered as a compromise measure. It was introduced as a simple fiscal scheme to reduce the revenue, as foreshadowed by Jackson's message, and as recommended in the report of the Secretary of the Treasury. It was represented to be an administration measure. It would probably have been introduced if the nullification ordinance had never been adopted in South Carolina. Its passage, therefore, would not have been ostensibly a concession to the nullifiers. Moreover, it was by no means certain to pass.

On the other hand, Clay's bill, although not carrying the reduction of tariff duties so far, was professedly a compromise. It was offered by the foremost champion of that protective system against which South Carolina had risen up, for the avowed purpose of conciliating the nullifiers by concession. Its enactment might therefore be looked upon as something extorted from Congress by the nullification movement, and thus as a victory by nullification. Calhoun, for this reason, was willing, and even eager, to sacrifice the possibility of some material advantage for the honor and the future of his cause.

To quiet the alarm of the frightened manufacturers, Clay, when introducing his bill, labored hard to prove that it was a protection measure. Some of the arguments he employed to this end were very curious.

"There are four modes [he said] by which the industry of the country can be protected: First, the absolute prohibition of rival foreign articles; second, the imposition of duties in such a manner as to have no reference to any object but revenue; third, the raising as much revenue as is wanted for the use of the government and no more, but raising it from the protected and not from the unprotected articles; and, fourth, the admission, free of duty, of every article which aided the operations of the manufacturers."

"These," he said, "are the four modes for protecting our industry; and to those who say that the bill abandons the power of protection, I reply that it does not touch that power, and that the fourth mode, so far from being abandoned, is extended and upheld by the bill." He would, as he said, have preferred the third mode as a general policy, but he recognized that the manufacturing industries could be protected by putting the raw material on the free list while reducing duties on everything else. He further set forth that what the manufacturers needed was stability in legislation, certainty at least for a fixed period of time. Such certainty, he argued, was given by his bill for the period of nine years; for, although the present Congress could not bind its successors, yet every honorable man would consider himself in conscience bound to respect as inviolable the terms of a compromise.

He felt the awkwardness of his position in offering a compromise to a party standing in an attitude of defiance to the authority of the United States. He confessed to have felt "a strong repugnance to any legislation at the commencement of the session," principally because he had "misconceived, as he found from subsequent observation, the purposes which South Carolina had in view." He had supposed that the state had "arrogantly required the immediate abandonment of a system which had long been the settled policy of the country." Supposing this, he had "felt a disposition to hurl defiance back again." But since his arrival at Washington he had found that South Carolina "did not contemplate force," for she disclaimed it, and asserted that she was merely making an experiment, namely, "by a change in her fundamental laws, by a course of state legislation, and by her civil tribunals to prevent the general government from carrying the laws of the United States into operation within her limits." This, he admitted, was indeed rash and unjustifiable enough, but it was not so wicked as a direct appeal to force would have been. South Carolina was still open to reason, and it would therefore be wrong to precipitate a conflict.

This was very light reasoning; the only ground he had for it was that South Carolina had permitted the 1st of February to pass by without executing her threats.

The compromise bill found much opposition in the Senate. Webster, especially, would not admit that it was a measure in accord with the principle of protection. Neither would he admit that this was an occasion for compromise. He thought it was time to test the strength of the government; and he therefore stood sturdily by the President, their party differences notwithstanding. To reconcile discordant opinions, the compromise bill was referred to a select committee, of which Clay was chairman. The manufacturers had assembled a powerful lobby at Washington to oppose the bill as first framed. They insisted upon several amendments, upon which, however, the committee could not agree. One of these, the provision for home valuation, was especially distasteful to Calhoun. But the manufacturing interest, which was strongly represented in the Senate, would not consent to the passage of the bill without it. Clay, therefore, undertook to move and support it in the Senate. This he did. Still Calhoun opposed the amendment as unconstitutional, and oppressive to the South. Then Clayton of Delaware, an earnest protectionist, and so far a warm advocate of the compromise, moved to lay the bill on the table; giving Calhoun and his friends to understand that, unless they all voted for that amendment, and finally for the bill with the amendment added to it, he would defeat the measure. Calhoun's friends begged for themselves and their chief to be spared the humiliation of such a vote. Even Clay generously interceded for them. But Clayton remained firm, saying, "If they cannot vote for a bill to save their necks from a halter, their necks may stretch." He insisted especially that Calhoun himself should vote for it, not without reason; for Calhoun, as it was proved beyond doubt by several circumstances, desired the compromise to pass without his own vote, so that he might be at liberty afterwards to repudiate such parts of it as did not suit his doctrines and aims. At last, when he saw that the compromise was doomed unless he consented to vote for the amendment, he promised to do so. Clayton with drew his motion to lay on the table, and the amendment passed with the support of the nullifiers.

Meanwhile the Force Bill, vigorously advocated by Webster, had, after a long discussion, passed the Senate, — John Tyler having made himself its conspicuous opponent. On February 25th Clay made a final appeal to the Senate for his measure of peace. Once more he assured the manufacturers that his compromise was their only salvation; that "the true theory of protection supposed, too, that after a certain time the protected arts would have acquired such strength and protection as would enable them subsequently to stand up against foreign competition." Then, in his most captivating, heart-winning strains, he sought to persuade the Senate that the Force Bill and the bill of peace should go together for the good of the country: the one to "demonstrate the power and the disposition to vindicate the authority and supremacy of the laws of the Union;" the other, to "offer that which, accepted in the fraternal spirit in which it was tendered, would supersede the necessity of the employment of all force." He closed with a remarkable outburst of personal feeling. "I have been accused of ambition in presenting this measure. Ambition! inordinate ambition! Low, groveling souls, who are utterly incapable of elevating themselves to the higher and nobler duties of pure patriotism, — beings who, forever keeping their own selfish aims in view, decide all public measures by their presumed influence on their aggrandizement, — judge me by the venal rule which they prescribe for themselves. I am no candidate for any office in the gift of these states, united or separated. I never wish, never expect, to be. Pass this bill, tranquilize the country, restore confidence and affection in the Union, and I am willing to go to Ashland and renounce public service forever. Yes, I have ambition. But it is the ambition of being the humble instrument, in the hands of Providence, to reconcile a divided people, once more to revive concord and harmony in a distracted land, — the pleasing ambition of contemplating the glorious spectacle of a free, united, prosperous, and fraternal people." It was the chronic candidate for the presidency who found it necessary to assure his hearers that his measure was in truth an inspiration of patriotism, and not a mere electioneering trick.

Henry Clay's Ashland.png

One objection to the compromise bill — that a bill to raise revenue could not originate in the Senate — was overcome, at the very moment he made this moving appeal, by a stroke of shrewd management. The House of Representatives had been long and drearily wrangling over the Verplanck bill, when suddenly, on February 25th, Letcher of Kentucky, Clay's intimate friend and ally, moved to amend the Verplanck bill by striking out all after the enacting clause, and inserting a new set of provisions agreeing literally with Clay's compromise bill as then shaped in the Senate. Clay's and Calhoun's friends in the House having been secretly instructed as to what was to come, and the opposition being taken by surprise, the amendment was adopted, and the bill so amended passed to a third reading the same day, "while members were putting on their overcoats to go to their dinners." The next day the bill passed the House by 119 to 85, and thus Clay's compromise was sent to the Senate in the shape of a House bill. The last objection being thus removed, the bill was adopted in the Senate by 29 to 16. President Jackson signed it on the same day with the Force Bill, which had meanwhile passed the House, and thus the compromise of 1833 was consummated.

The first object of the measure was attained: South Carolina repealed her nullification ordinance. The manufacturers, too, gradually persuaded themselves that Clay, in view of the anti-protection character of the next Congress, had averted from them a more unwelcome fate. The compromise was received by the country, on the whole, with great favor; as Benton expresses it, "it was received as a deliverance, and the ostensible authors of it greeted as benefactors, and their work declared by legislatures to be sacred and inviolable, and every citizen doomed to political outlawry that did not give in his adhesion and bind himself to the perfecting of the act." Clay had once more won the proud title of "pacificator."

But before long it became clear that, beyond the repeal of the nullification ordinance, the compromise had settled nothing. The nullifiers strenuously denied that they had in any sense given up their peculiar doctrine. They denounced the Force Bill as a flagrant act of usurpation, which must be wiped from the statute-book. While at heart they were glad of their escape from a perilous situation, they assumed the attitude of having only graciously accepted the terms of capitulation proposed by a distressed foe. Even the postponement of the day when nullification was practically to begin was, in appearance, yielded only to the friendly anxiety of Virginia, which had sent a "commissioner" to South Carolina to ask that favor. They treated the assertion, that the compromise act was a protection measure, as little better than a joke. They represented the reduction of the tariff duties as a concession extorted by a threat, — as a palpable triumph of the nullification movement. In one word, not only the compromise did not include the abandonment of the doctrine that a state could constitutionally nullify a law of the United States, but it rather served to give the believers in that doctrine a higher opinion of its efficacy. In fact, attempts to terrorize the rest of the Union into compliance with the behests of the South became a settled policy when the slavery question came to the foreground; and this was owing in a large measure to the encouragement given to the spirit of resistance in 1833.

Clay evidently failed to understand at the time that there was something more potent and imperious than mere discontent with a tariff at the bottom of the chronic trouble, — the necessities of slavery; and that a mere tariff compromise could only adjourn, but by no means avert, the coming crisis, nor touch the true cause of it. In later years, however, he is reported to have often said to his friends, when speaking of the events of 1833, that, "in looking back upon the whole case, he had come seriously to doubt the policy of his interference."

One thing was, indeed, gained for the Union. Jackson by his proclamation, and Congress by passing the Force Bill, had strongly asserted the supremacy of the general government in all national concerns, and the principle that the Republic cannot be dissolved in a constitutional way, or by anything short of a revolutionary act; and the popular mind had familiarized itself with the idea that the Union was to be maintained by all the power at the command of the general government. Clay also, in his compromise speeches, had affirmed this principle in emphatic language; but the stronger impulse was given by those who, like Jackson and Webster, declared themselves ready to test the strength of the government, rather than by him who sought to preserve the Union by concession under a threat.

It was during the debate on the compromise bill that Clay and John Randolph met for the last time. Randolph, in the last stage of consumption, was on his way to Philadelphia, seeking medical aid. Passing through Washington, he desired to be carried to the Senate chamber. At the moment he arrived there, Clay obtained the floor to speak for conciliation. Randolph, stretched on a lounge, raised his head and said, "I came here to hear that voice once more." When Clay had finished his remarks he approached his old antagonist, who was soon to die, and they shook hands.

Immediately before the adjournment Clay's Land Bill, providing for the distribution of the proceeds of land sales among the states, passed both houses. Jackson neither signed it, nor did he return it with his veto. Taking advantage of the shortness of the time before the adjournment, he permitted the bill to die unsigned, by a so-called pocket veto; and then he sent to Congress at its next session his reasons for disapproving it.