Life of Henry Clay/21 Slavery Again

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The anti-slavery agitation continued, and grew in strength. The petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, presented in the session of 1835-1836, had borne 34,000 signatures. Those presented in 1837-1838 bore 300,000. The number of anti-slavery societies in the Northern States had increased to 2,000. The movement was no longer confined to little conventicles. In fact, some of the original abolitionists, as is often the case with men who give themselves to an idea far ahead of the common ways of thinking, began to run into abstract speculations, — in this case, a variety of theories concerning woman's rights, non-resistance, the wrongfulness of all government, and similar theories; and, drifting into polemics among themselves, they lost much of their immediate influence. But their cause now moved forward by its own impulse. The legislatures of Massachusetts and Vermont passed, by enormous majorities, resolutions censuring the action of Congress in refusing to receive, or to treat with respect, anti-slavery petitions, as hostile to the Constitution, and affirming the power of Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. Vermont also protested against the annexation of Texas. The legislature of Connecticut repealed the "black laws." The anti-slavery movement began to make itself felt as a power on the political field.

At the same time the South became painfully sensible of the growing superiority of the North in population and wealth. In 1838 a "commercial convention" of the Southern States was held, which, after instituting some gloomy historical and statistical comparisons, formed the conclusion that the South was becoming impoverished and "tributary" to the North; that this was owing to the tariff, internal improvements, and abuses of government; and that, as a remedy, the South should "open a direct trade between Southern and foreign ports." The convention did not seem to suspect that slavery was at the bottom of it all, and that they pronounced the doom of slavery by their very complaints. On the contrary, the more fatal the evil became, the more blindly and passionately they hugged it.

In December, 1837, when petitions for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia were presented in the Senate, Clay, whose democratic instinct was keenly stirred, inquired of the Senator presenting them "whether the feeling of abolition in the abstract was extending itself" in the states from which the petitions were arriving, "or whether it was not becoming mixed up with other matters, such, for instance, as the belief that the sacred right of petition had been assailed?" The answer was that there had been such a mixture of causes. Clay then, advancing a step from the position he had formerly taken, moved that the petitions be not only received, but that they be referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia, "to act on them as they pleased." When it was objected that such a course would provoke that most undesirable thing, argument on the slavery question, Clay answered: —

"It has been said that this is not a case for argument. Not a case for argument! What is it that lies at the bottom of all our free institutions? Argument, inquiry, reasoning, consideration, deliberation. What question is there in human affairs so weak or so strong that it cannot be approached by argument and reason? This country will, in every emergency, appeal to its enlightened judgment and its spirit of union and harmony, and the appeal will not be unsuccessful."

These words were spoken while the extreme pro-slavery men cried out against the reception of every anti-slavery petition in the Senate, and muzzled the House with gag rules, feeling instinctively that free argument was just the thing slavery could not endure. Free argument on slavery was what the abolitionists demanded, and Clay, advocating the same thing, soon found himself denounced as one of them.

In the nineteenth century slavery could live only if surrounded by silence. Calhoun knew this well, but, as if impelled by the evil fate of his cause, he could not remain silent himself. While insisting that no petition hostile to slavery should be received and discussed by the Senate, he invited the discussion of the subject by offering a series of resolutions which set forth his theory of the relations between slavery and the Union. They affirmed that the several states entered the Union as independent and sovereign states, with the view to "increased security against all dangers, domestic as well as foreign;" that "any intermeddling of any one or more states, or a combination of their citizens, with the domestic institutions or police of the others, on any ground, political, moral, or religious," was unconstitutional, insulting, and tending to destroy the Union; that the general government was instituted by the several states as "a common agent" to use the powers delegated to it to give "increased stability and security to the domestic institutions of the states," and to resist all attempts to attack, weaken, or destroy them; that slavery was an important part of the domestic institutions referred to; that the intermeddling to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia or in any of the territories, under the pretext that slavery was "immoral or sinful," would be "a dangerous attack on the institutions of all the slave-holding states;" and, finally, that resistance to annexation of new slave territory (pointing at Texas), on the assumption that slavery was "immoral, or sinful, or otherwise obnoxious," would be contrary to the equality of rights and advantages of the several states under the Constitution, and a virtual disfranchisement of the Slave States. In other words, every attack on slavery anywhere was to be considered unconstitutional in spirit; state-rights must be maintained for the Slave States, and the general government must be part of the police force, to give "increased stability and security" to slavery.

The vote on these resolutions, Calhoun said, would be "a test." By rejecting them the Senate would say to the South, "come here no longer for protection." If the Senate adopted them, "it would be a holy pledge of that body to protect the South from further aggression." The postponement or evasion of a vote on them "must be considered a silent acquiescence in the insults offered to Southern rights and Southern feelings."

Calhoun's instinct was correct. Slavery was in danger — indeed, it was lost — if people were permitted to attack it as "an immoral and sinful institution." But could he force people, by a resolution adopted in the Senate, to believe that slavery was not sinful and immoral? Could he hope thus to disarm the ruling sentiment of the nineteenth century? He himself had grave doubts. "He was not sanguine," he said, "of the success of the measure, even if it should be adopted. He had presented it as the most likely to do good, and in the desire to do anything to avert the approaching catastrophe, which he was most anxious to avoid." He desired to preserve the Union, provided he could make slavery secure within it. "This [the slavery question] was the only question of sufficient potency," he said, "to divide the Union, and divide it it would, or drench the country in blood if not arrested." He saw the danger clearly. He felt instinctively that a people differing essentially in their notions of right and wrong cannot permanently remain bound together by voluntary union. But could he hope to avert the danger by the promulgation of mere abstractions? What he actually accomplished was to put the incompatibility of slavery with free institutions again in the strongest light.

A Senator from Indiana, Smith, promptly moved to add a proviso to Calhoun's resolutions, that nothing therein should be construed as expressing an opinion of the Senate adverse to the fundamental principles of this government: that "all men are created equal;" that the freedom of speech and of the press, and the rights of peaceable meeting and of petition, should never be abridged; that "error of opinion may be tolerated while reason is left free to combat it;" and that "the Union must be preserved." He showed conclusively that, if the prohibition of "intermeddling" were enforced by effective legislation, all these fundamental principles of free government would have to yield. Here was again the logic of liberty put face to face with the logic of slavery.

Calhoun might have read the ultimate fate of his cause in the troubled faces of the "Northern Senators with Southern principles." They looked at him beseechingly. They wished to support him and stand by the South; they would go as far as they could; but he must not put upon them loads too heavy for them to carry in their states; he must not threaten the right of petition; he must not impose upon the general government the duty of "strengthening" slavery, and of "increasing its stability;" he must not insist upon condemning as dangerous fanatics all those among their constituents who believed slavery to be "immoral and sinful." He was indeed asking too much of them. Their embarrassment was pitiable to behold.

Clay stepped in with an intermediate proposition, after the debate had proceeded for several days, and the first resolutions of Calhoun's series, modified and amended, had been adopted. Clay had voted for them, "not," as he said, "from any confidence in their healing virtues." On the contrary, he thought, they were calculated, especially at the North, "to increase and exasperate, instead of diminishing and assuaging, the existing agitation." What he thought necessary was to strengthen the Union sentiment. Calhoun was trying, by his resolutions, to rally the state-rights party. In Clay's opinion, the interests of the South should not be put in the exclusive safe-keeping of any one party, but of them all. He believed in the healing power of argument, reasoning, friendly discussion.

"Mr. President," he exclaimed, "I have no apprehension for the safety of the Union from any state of things now existing. I will not answer for the consequences which may issue from indiscretion and harshness on the part of individuals or of Congress, here or elsewhere. We allow ourselves to speak too frequently, and with too much levity, of a separation of this Union. It is a terrible word, to which our ears should not be familiarized. I desire to see in continued safety and prosperity this Union, and no other Union. I go for this Union as it is, one and indivisible, without diminution. I will neither voluntarily leave it, nor be driven out of it by force. Here, in my place, I shall contend for all the rights of the state which sent me here. I shall contend for them with undoubting confidence, and with the perfect conviction that they are safer in the Union than they would be out of the Union."

Then he offered a series of resolutions as substitutes for those of Calhoun, affirming: 1. That slavery in the states was exclusively under the control of the several states, and not to be interfered with; 2. That petitions touching slavery in the states should be rejected as praying for something "palpably beyond the scope of the constitutional power of Congress;" 3. That the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia would be a violation of the good faith "implied in the cession" of the District, that it could not take place without indemnifying the slave-owners, and would alarm the Slave States; 4. That, on the other hand, the Senate, recognizing its "duty in respect to the constitutional right of petition," should hold itself bound to receive and treat with respect petitions touching slavery in the District; 5. That such petitions should be referred to the appropriate committees; 6. That it would be "highly inexpedient to abolish slavery in Florida, the only territory of the United States in which it now exists," because it would excite alarm in the South, because the people of Florida had not asked for it, and because they would be exclusively entitled to decide the question when admitted as a state; 7. That Congress had no power to abolish the slave-trade between Slave States; 8. That the agitation of the abolition question was to be regretted, that the Union should be cherished, and that the prevailing attachment to the Union was beheld "with the deepest satisfaction."

Calhoun was exasperated. "The difference between me and the Senator from Kentucky," he said, "is as wide as the poles." No doubt it was. Calhoun would have preserved the Union if slavery could have been made secure in it. But he would willingly have sacrificed the Union to save slavery. Clay tried to pacify the slave-holders, and opposed the abolitionists, to avert from the Union a threatening danger. But he would have sacrificed slavery to save the Union. To him it was "not expedient" to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia and in Florida. Calhoun would hear nothing of "expediency." He insisted on placing the constitutional duty of protecting slavery on "the high ground of principle." He would hear nothing of concession. "Shall we yield, or stand firm? That is the question," he said. "If we yield an inch, we are gone." He was certainly right. But to be entirely right he should have added: "If we stand firm, we are gone likewise."

Clay was more hopeful, because he saw the real nature of the trouble less clearly. A natural compromiser, he believed in the efficacy of compromise in all cases. His resolutions were intended to be a compromise between slavery and the principles of republican government. The greatest stress he laid upon those referring to the District of Columbia and to Florida, in which he neither affirmed nor denied the power of Congress to abolish slavery, but deprecated its exercise as "inexpedient." They were offered to replace those of Calhoun concerning the territories and the annexation of Texas, and Clay actually succeeded in securing their adoption as substitutes. The rest of Calhoun's resolutions, the keenest edges of which had been much blunted by amendments, passed the Senate by a large vote.

The practical result was nothing, except more agitation of the slavery question. Calhoun had forgotten that senate resolutions will not determine public sentiment, but that public sentiment will at last determine the action of senates; and also that the struggle about slavery was to be, in the last resort, a struggle of moral and material forces, and not of constitutional theories. The greatest thinker among the champions of slavery tried to fight fate with paper balls.

Clay suspected Calhoun of personal ambition in this movement. He wrote to his friend Brooke: "They [Calhoun's resolutions] are at last disposed of. Their professed object is slavery; their real aim, to advance the political interest of the mover, and to affect mine." That was the suspicion of a presidential candidate watching a supposed rival. Calhoun certainly could not expect to win any political capital by his resolutions. They could never be popular at the North, and even a good many Southern men considered their introduction extremely impolitic. A speech delivered by Clay about a year later was more justly suspected to be a part of a presidential campaign.

The Senate continued to lay anti-slavery petitions on the table without that reference and respectful consideration which Clay had asked for them. The House adopted more gag rules to silence anti-slavery members. But all these things served only to strengthen the movement among the people. It began seriously to alarm the politicians, for they found themselves confronted by a force which could neither be conciliated by the offer of offices, nor be frightened by exclusion from them. To the managing politician the man who wants nothing is the most embarrassing problem. The anti-slavery men began to catechise candidates, and to work against those they did not find "sound" on the slavery question. And, as is apt to happen, they worked most bitterly against those who in their opinion ought to have been sound and were not. By them a Democrat might be forgiven for being a pro-slavery man, but a Whig could not be forgiven.

"In Ohio the abolitionists are alleged to have gone against us almost to a man," Clay wrote in November, 1838. "The introduction of this new element of abolition into our elections cannot fail to excite, with all reflecting men, the deepest solicitude. Although their numbers are not very great, they are sufficiently numerous in several states to turn the scale. I have now before me a letter from the secretary of the American Anti-slavery Society in New York, in which he says: 'I should consider' (as in all candor I acknowledge I would) 'the election of a slave-holder to the presidency a great calamity to the country.' The danger is that the contagion may spread until it reaches all the Free States. My own position touching slavery, at the present time, is singular enough. The abolitionists are denouncing me as a slave-holder, and slave-holders as an abolitionist, while both unite on Mr. Van Buren."

The opinion that the abolitionists were a dangerous class of people grew very strong in Clay's mind. The half-way man usually considers those who insist upon the last logical consequences of his own feelings or principles very inconvenient, and even very obnoxious, persons. On the other hand, Clay's course with regard to the anti-slavery petitions, as well as his occasional professions of sentiments unfriendly to slavery, had injured his popularity with the slave-holders. This he felt, as his correspondence indicates; and it is probable that Southern Whigs, many of whom, while his friends, were fierce pro-slavery men, suggested to him the policy of "setting himself right" with the South. In February, 1839, he made a speech which had all the appearance of an attempt on his part to do this. It was not in the course of a debate on some practical measure, but in presenting a petition of inhabitants of Washington against the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Gossip had it that he himself had written the petition; and there is good ground for believing that, contrary to his habit, he carefully wrote out the whole speech, and read it, before its delivery in the Senate, to Senator Preston from South Carolina, an ardent pro-slavery man, in company with several other friends. The speech bears all the marks of that careful weighing of words characteristic of a candidate "defining his position" on a delicate subject.

It may perhaps be called his least creditable performance. Many of his friends and admirers must have witnessed it with regret. It was an apology for his better self. Formerly he had spoken as a born anti-slavery man, who to his profound regret found himself compelled to make concessions to slavery. Now he appeared as one inclined to deplore the attacks on slavery no less, if not more, than the existence of slavery itself. He divided the abolitionists into three classes: the conscientious and peaceful philanthropists, such as the Quakers; those who coöperated with the abolitionists because they thought the right of petition had been violated; and finally, the real ultra-abolitionists, who would resort to the ballot, and also to the bayonet, to effect a revolution in the South, and hurry the country "down a dreadful precipice." The principal cause of the present excitement he found in the example of emancipation in the British West Indies, and in the existence of "persons in both parts of the Union who have sought to mingle abolition with politics, and to array one part of the Union against another." He recited all his old arguments against the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia and the Territory of Florida, as well as against the power of Congress to prohibit the slave-trade between the Slave States.

The immediate object of the abolitionists, he asserted, was to liberate, at one stroke, all the three millions of slaves in the Slave States. Of this he denied the power as well as the morality. If there were no slavery in the country, he would resolutely oppose its introduction. But in the Slave States the alternative was that the white man must govern the black, or the black the white. "In such an alternative," he said, "who can hesitate? Is it not better for both parties that the existing state should be preserved? This is our true ground of defense. It is that which our Revolutionary ancestors assumed. It is that which, in my opinion, forms our justification in the eyes of all Christendom."

There was a visionary dogma that negro slaves were not property. "That is property which the law declares property." That species of property was worth twelve hundred millions. Would the abolitionists raise that sum to indemnify the owners? The abolition movement had set back for half a century the prospect of any kind of emancipation, and "increased the rigors of legislation against the slaves." Kentucky had once thought of gradual emancipation, but did so no longer. He himself had then favored it, because the number of slaves was much smaller than that of the whites. "But," he added, "if I had been then, or were now, a citizen of any of the planting states, I should have opposed, and would continue to oppose, any scheme of emancipation, gradual or immediate, because of the danger of an ultimate ascendency of the black race, or of a civil contest which might terminate in the extinction of one race or the other." He drew a gloomy picture of the dangers threatening the Union, of disruption, hatred, strife, and carnage, from which the abolitionists themselves would shrink back.

This was the highest flight upon which his old anti-slavery spirit ventured: —

"I am no friend of slavery. The Searcher of all hearts knows that every pulsation of mine beats high and strong in the cause of civil liberty. Wherever it is safe and practicable, I desire to see every portion of the human family in the enjoyment of it. But I prefer the liberty of my own country to that of any other people, and the liberty of my own race to that of any other race. The liberty of the descendants of Africa in the United States is incompatible with the liberty and safety of the European descendants. Their slavery forms an exception — an exception resulting from a stern and inexorable necessity — to the general liberty in the United States. We did not originate, nor are we responsible for, this necessity. Their liberty, if it were possible, could only be established by violating the incontestable powers of the states and subverting the Union; and beneath the ruins of the Union would be buried, sooner or later, the liberty of both races."

He closed with a beseeching appeal to the abolitionists to desist.

Clay received his reward — or punishment — immediately. No sooner had he finished his speech than Calhoun rose as if to accept his surrender. When he turned his eyes back for the last twelve months, Calhoun said, and compared what he then heard with what was now said in the same quarter, he was forcibly struck, and he might say pleasurably, with the change. He recalled to the memory of the Senate the debate on his resolutions, and Clay's part in it. "Sir," he added, "this is a great epoch in our political history. Of all the dangers to which we have ever been exposed, this has been the greatest. We may now consider it passed. The resolutions to which I referred, with the following movements, gave the fatal blow, to which the position now assumed by the Senator from Kentucky has given the finishing stroke." And, as if this had not been enough of humiliation to Clay, he went on: —

"What has been done will be followed by a great moral revolution of feeling and thinking in reference to the domestic institutions of the South. Already the discussion has effected a great change among ourselves. There were many, very many, in the slave-holding states, who, at the commencement of the controversy, believed that slavery was an evil to be tolerated, because we could not escape from it, but not to be defended. That has passed away. We now believe that it has been a great blessing to both of the races — the European and African — which, by a mysterious Providence, have been brought together in the southern section of this Union. I heard the Senator from Kentucky with pleasure. His speech will have a happy effect, and will do much to consummate what had already been so happily begun and successfully carried on to a completion."

How would the proud and fiery spirit of Clay have blazed forth at this haughty assumption of superiority and leadership, had he not been a candidate for the presidency! But the candidate for the presidency, having said what he did not feel to win the favor of the slave-holders, bore his humiliation in silence. Calhoun assigned to him a place in his church on the bench of the penitents, and the candidate for the presidency took the insult without wincing.

Not long after these occurrences Senator Preston of South Carolina, with whom Clay had consulted before delivering his speech against the abolitionists, addressed a Whig meeting in Philadelphia, and said in the course of an eloquent eulogy on Clay: "On one occasion Mr. Clay did me the honor to consult me in reference to a step he was about to take, and which will, perhaps, occur to your minds without a more direct allusion. After stating what he proposed, it was remarked that such a step might be offensive to the ultras of both parties, in the excitement which then existed. To this Mr. Clay replied: 'I trust the sentiments and opinions are correct; I had rather be right than be President.'"

This was a fine saying. But, alas! Clay wanted very much to be President, and men who want very much to be President are often not fully conscious of their motives. What he called "right" on this occasion he would not have called right at other periods of his life. He said it with the presidency in his mind. But it did not make him President after all.

He repeated something feebly resembling the sentiments expressed in his speech against the abolitionists, when presenting an anti-slavery petition a year later, in February, 1840. But he showed again that he had by no means lost the appreciation of the moral feelings of mankind with regard to slavery. In April, 1840, when discussing a set of resolutions offered by Calhoun protesting against the liberation of slaves on the American brig Enterprise, which had been forced by stress of weather into a British West Indian port, Clay expressed regret that such resolutions had been offered, for he thought "that prudence and discretion should admonish us not too often to throw before the world" questions in relation to slave property. It was repugnant to him to see his country appear among the nations of the civilized world as the champion of slavery. But as a politician he voted for Calhoun's resolution.