Life of Henry Clay/24 The Election of 1844
THE ELECTION OF 1844.
No sooner had Clay declared his determination to withdraw from the Senate than invitations poured upon him from all sides to show himself to the people. He replied to them in letters burning with wrath at the "weak, vacillating, and faithless chief magistrate," the "President vainly seeking, by a culpable administration of the patronage of the government, to create a third party." Clay's Kentucky constituency welcomed him to his home with boundless enthusiasm. He was honored with a grand open-air feast attended by a large multitude. The toast with which the chairman greeted him was a fair specimen of the language in which the ardent Whig of the time was in the habit of expressing his feelings about his gallant leader on festive occasions: —
"Henry Clay, farmer of Ashland, patriot and philanthropist, the American statesman and unrivaled orator of the age, illustrious abroad, beloved at home: in a long career of eminent public service, often, like Aristides, he breasted the raging storm of passion and delusion, and, by offering himself a sacrifice, saved the Republic; and now, like Cincinnatus and Washington, having voluntarily retired to the tranquil walks of private life, the grateful hearts of his countrymen will do him ample justice. But, come what may, Kentucky will stand by him, and still continue to cherish and defend, as her own, the fame of a son who has emblazoned her escutcheon with immortal renown."
The nomination of the "Old Prince," — a name by which some of his friends proudly called him — as the Whig candidate for the presidency in 1844, was treated as a matter of "justice to Henry Clay." Too impatient to wait for a national convention, the Whigs of North Carolina brought forward his name as early as April, 1842; Georgia and Maine followed. The Whig members of the legislature of New York, the state which in 1840 had abandoned him, sent him a glowing address. In August the Whig State Convention of Maryland formally nominated him amid "tremendous enthusiasm," supplemented with a salute of one hundred guns. Even the Whigs of Massachusetts, Webster's influence notwithstanding, could not be restrained. In September he was invited to a great Whig Convention at Dayton, in Ohio, where nearly one hundred thousand people were assembled, and where resolutions were adopted nominating Henry Clay and John Davis of Massachusetts as the Whig candidates for 1844. Wherever he appeared, he was greeted with extravagant demonstrations of affection. From Dayton he continued his triumphal "progress" into Indiana. It was there, in the town of Richmond, that an incident occurred the significance of which was scarcely understood by him. At an unexpected moment, when all around him seemed to be admiring devotion, the slavery question threw again its dark shadow across his path.
While he was addressing an enthusiastic Whig gathering, a Quaker by the name of Mendenhall presented to him a petition, bearing many signatures, in which Henry Clay was respectfully requested to emancipate his slaves. Clay's answer was a masterpiece of oratorical skill. He characterized the presentation of the petition as a breach of hospitality, and then he took Mendenhall generously under his protection, against the indignant cries of the crowd. He declared slavery to be a "great evil;" he deeply lamented that we had "derived it from the parental government and from our ancestors;" he wished every slave in the United States were in Africa; if slavery did not exist here, he would oppose its introduction with all his might. But, slavery existing, how could it be dealt with? Great as its evils were, would not the evils sure to flow from sudden emancipation be greater, a "contest between the two races, civil war, carnage, pillage, conflagration, devastation, and the ultimate extermination or expulsion of the blacks?" The only safe method was gradual emancipation, and that had been postponed half a century by the reckless agitation of the abolitionists. As to himself, should he liberate his slaves forthwith? There were those among them whom age and infirmity made a heavy charge upon him. Should he turn them, and the infants, upon the cold charities of the world? There were those who would not leave him: should he drive them away? He recommended to Mr. Mendenhall the benevolent example of other Quakers who, while in principle firmly opposed to slavery, would not resort to revolution and disunion for its abolition. He expressed his respect for the "rational abolitionists," among whom he had many friends. They were not monomaniacs, but knew that they had duties to per form towards the white man as well as the black. Finally he put to Mr. Mendenhall a practical question. If he (Clay) liberated his fifty slaves, worth about $15,000, would Mendenhall and his friends undertake to contribute an equal sum to take care of the slaves after their liberation? Then he dismissed Mendenhall with the admonition to begin the work of benevolence at home: "Dry up the tears of the afflicted widows around you; console and comfort the helpless orphan; clothe the naked, and feed and help the poor, black and white, who need succor, and you will be a better and a wiser man than you have this day shown yourself."
The assembled multitude was lost in admiration. Poor Mendenhall withdrew, discomfited and laughed at. Clay's speech was triumphantly published in the newspapers all over the country. But many thousands of Mendenhalls were to rise up in the campaign of 1844; and it was the cause represented by that humble Quaker that was to prove the absorbing question of the time, and the fatal stumbling-block of the great orator's highest ambition.
To mark the development of the slavery question, a short retrospect is required. In the House of Representatives, the struggle about the famous twenty-first rule — the rule excluding anti-slavery petitions — began afresh when, in the twenty-seventh Congress, the House was controlled by a Whig majority. Upon Adams's motion the rule was dropped, and the great controversy about the right of petition might have been wisely ended. But the representatives of the slave power, Whigs as well as Democrats, would not rest until it was revived. They insisted that "the hydra of abolitionism must be crushed." With blind infatuation, they kept slavery before the people as the enemy of the right of petition. They did more. In January, 1842, John Quincy Adams presented a memorial of some citizens of Massachusetts praying Congress "to adopt measures for the peaceful dissolution of the union of these states," and he moved that the petition be referred to a committee with instruction to report why the prayer could not be granted. Southern members, some of whom were in the habit of threatening the dissolution of the Union on all possible occasions, thought they saw an opportunity for crushing the fearless old champion of the right of petition, and moved that he be censured with the utmost severity for having presented a petition of such tenor. The right of defending himself could not be denied him, and the old statesman, summoning all his powers, exposed the character of slavery and the slave-holding aristocracy with so unsparing a force that, after several days of torture, his accusers, with a sigh of relief, permitted the resolution of censure to be laid on the table. Even the exciting quarrel between Tyler and Congress attracted scarcely more of popular attention than this "trial of John Quincy Adams."
But this experience did not teach the pro-slavery men prudence. Soon afterwards Joshua R. Giddings of Ohio offered in the House a series of resolutions concerning the case of the Creole, a brig, which, sailing with a cargo of slaves from Norfolk bound for New Orleans, had been taken possession of by the slaves, some of whom had risen in insurrection, overpowered the crew, killed a supercargo, and run the brig into the harbor of Nassau, where the British authorities had liberated the unoffending slaves and refused to surrender the mutineers. The resolutions of Giddings declared that slavery existed only by local municipal law; that the jurisdiction of the municipal law did not extend over the high seas; that the negroes on the Creole had not violated any law of the United States by claiming their natural right to individual freedom on the high seas, and that any attempt to make them slaves again by an exertion of the national power was unauthorized by the Constitution, and prejudicial to the national character. These resolutions caused another explosion of wrath. Debate was cut off by the previous question. Without giving Giddings an opportunity to defend himself, a vote of censure was passed, declaring that he deserved "the severest condemnation of the people of this country." Whereupon Giddings promptly announced his resignation as a member of the House. In leaving the hall he met Clay, who had witnessed the scene. To see a man condemned unheard, and a representative of the people cut off from the right of expressing his opinions, revolted Clay's heart. He held out his hand to Giddings, thanked him for the firmness with which he had met the outrage perpetrated upon him, and said that no man would ever doubt his perfect right to state his views. Giddings returned to his constituents, issued an address, was reëlected by a larger majority than before, and returned to the same Congress strengthened by the enthusiastic applause of his neighbors and of popular meetings held all over the North. In constantly widening circles the Northern mind began to doubt whether slavery could be "got along with" in a republic. The anti-slavery movement was gradually invading the masses.
Although the attacks upon the right of petition and the freedom of speech by the advocates of slavery greatly offended Clay's democratic instincts, there seemed still to remain in his mind a lingering impression that the greatest danger to the Union came, not from slavery, but from abolitionism. This misconception was no doubt nourished by the attacks made upon him by the abolitionists, and he in turn made every possible effort to discredit them with the Northern people. There is among his preserved correspondence a curious letter in which he suggested to a pamphleteer, arguments to be addressed to the laboring men of the North, — how immediate emancipation would bring the labor of the blacks into competition with the labor of the whites; how it would degrade labor generally; and how the tendency would be toward the social intermingling and intermarrying of white and black laboring people, and so on. While he made such preposterous attempts to stem the current, the great event which, in its consequences, was to bring the slavery question to its final crisis, and which finally opened Clay's eyes too as to the true source of danger, was pressing toward its consummation.
In 1837 the Texan government proposed to Van Buren the annexation of Texas to the United States, but Van Buren declined. Eight Northern legislatures formally protested against annexation. For the settlement of the claims against Mexico an arbitration treaty was concluded in 1839; but when in 1842 the term of the arbitration commission expired, many claims were still unadjusted. It was suspected that they were purposely kept an open sore.
The annexation of Texas became one of Tyler's ruling ambitions. In October, 1841, he wrote to Webster: "I gave you a hint as to the probability of acquiring Texas by treaty. Could the North be reconciled to it, could anything throw so bright a lustre around us? Slavery, — I know that is the objection, and it would be well founded if it did not already exist among us." In March, 1842, the Texan Minister at Washington renewed the offer of annexation, but Webster strongly opposed it. It was also considered certain that no annexation treaty could then obtain the consent of the Senate. The treaty with Great Britain called the Ashburton Treaty was concluded that summer, assented to by the Senate in August, and ratified by the British government in October. Thus dangers of warlike complications with England were averted.
The congressional elections of 1842 resulted in a crushing defeat of the Whigs. The Democrats won a very large majority in the House of Representatives. Late in October Tyler consulted his friends as to whether he would not do well to throw himself into the arms of the Democrats, as he thought himself entitled to their gratitude. In May, 1843, Webster resigned the office of Secretary of State. It is probable that Tyler, whose main purposes he did not serve, had ceased to treat him with confidence and cordiality; and the Whigs, even in Massachusetts, were greatly dissatisfied with him because he had stayed too long in office. Tyler reorganized his Cabinet, taking three Democrats into it, and transferring Upshur of Virginia, who had been Secretary of the Navy, to the State Department. Upshur, an ardent state-rights and pro-slavery man, took up the Texan business with energy. The problem was not only to conclude a treaty, but to make annexation palatable to the country. Rumors were spread that Great Britain was endeavoring to obtain a controlling influence over Texas, — this to neutralize the adverse current of feeling at the North; and also that England was planning to bring about the abolition of slavery in Texas, — this to convince the South that there was extreme danger in delay. There was some plausibility in this. The Texan Republic labored under extreme financial embarrassments. It was heavily in debt to England. Would not England take advantage of those financial difficulties to obtain a foothold there, and to use its influence for the abolition of slavery? England did, in fact, recommend to the Mexican government, when recognizing the independence of Texas, to make the abolition of slavery in Texas a consideration. This, however, remained without result. But the South was continually agitated with rumors of a plot of American and English abolitionists to disturb slavery in Texas, and thus the impression grew stronger that, in order to save slavery, prompt action was needed.
Tyler directed Upshur to inform the Texan Minister that the United States were ready for the annexation. This proposition was kept secret, but preparations for the event went forward. A letter in favor of annexation was obtained from Andrew Jackson. A canvass of the Senate was made, to ascertain the chances of an annexation treaty in that body. The patronage was not spared to propitiate Senators. We learn from John Tyler's eulogistic biographer, Lyon G. Tyler, that "an expedition was fitted out for Oregon in the summer of 1843; and the conciliation of Benton was one of the reasons which induced the administration to make John C. Fremont, apart from his own preëminent fitness for the place, the commander of the enterprise."
The Mexican government, scenting in the air what was coming, in August, 1843, declared to the American Minister that it would consider the annexation of Texas by the United States a declaration of war. This did not deter Tyler and Upshur. They formally proposed to the Texan government a treaty of annexation. The Texan government hesitated. The friendly offices of France and England had brought about a cessation of hostilities between Mexico and Texas, which was a great relief to the exhausted Texan people, and not lightly to be jeoparded. The Texan President, Houston, calculated correctly that, should the fact of serious negotiations for annexation become known, Mexico might resume warlike operations. He therefore desired to be informed whether the United States could be depended upon to protect Texas vi et armis against all comers, while the negotiations were pending. As a constitutional lawyer Upshur could not say "Yes," and he would not say "No." He did not answer that question at all, but caused the Texan government to be informed that the Senate had been canvassed, and that there was not the slightest doubt of the necessary two thirds majority being in favor of the annexation treaty. But the Texan government, anxious to obtain assurances of protection, addressed the same question which Upshur had left unanswered to Murphy, the diplomatic agent of the United States in Texas. Murphy replied without hesitation, in the name of his government, that neither Mexico nor any other power would be permitted by the United States to invade Texas on account of the negotiation. This satisfied the Texan government, which informed Murphy that a special envoy, General Henderson, would forthwith be sent to Washington with full power to conclude the treaty. A few days afterwards President Houston rejected, for a reason of punctilio, an armistice which had been concluded between the Texan and Mexican commissioners.
But before the Texan envoy, Henderson, reached Washington, Upshur had lost his life by the explosion of the gun "Peacemaker" on board the United States frigate Princeton. The Attorney General, Nelson, who was temporarily charged with the State Department, informed Murphy that the President, without being authorized to that effect by Congress, had no constitutional power to employ the army and navy against a foreign nation with whom the United States were at peace; that, therefore, he (Murphy) had gone too far in his promises; but that the President was "not indisposed to concentrate in the Gulf of Mexico and on the southern borders of the United States a naval and military force to be directed to the defense of the inhabitants and territory of Texas, at a proper time."
Tyler offered the secretaryship of state to Calhoun, who accepted it, declaring that he would resign as soon as the annexation of Texas should be accomplished. He entered upon his duties on March 29, 1844. The following day the Texan envoy, Henderson, arrived at Washington. Nothing stood in the way of the conclusion of the treaty but the question whether the United States would protect Texas during the pendency of the treaty before its final consummation. Calhoun's constitutional conscience was troubled, but he finally replied that the concentration of the naval and military forces promised by Murphy and Nelson would be made, and that the President, during the pendency of the treaty of annexation, "would deem it his duty to use all the means placed within his power by the Constitution to protect Texas from all foreign invasion." This was an equivocation. Calhoun knew that, Congress alone possessing the power to declare war, the means placed by the Constitution within the power of the President were not the means required for protecting a foreign state from invasion. He knew that the Executive had, indeed, the right to initiate a treaty, but that by initiating a treaty the President could not transfer from Congress to himself the power to declare war, — that is to say, the power to determine whether war should be made against a foreign state for any cause. The Texans suffered themselves to be deceived in this respect, as they had been deceived by the assurance that there was in the Senate a two-thirds majority in favor of the scheme. On April 12, 1844, the treaty of annexation was signed, to be sent to the Senate for approval ten days later. It was at this period that Clay found himself obliged to address the American people upon this momentous subject.
We left him at Richmond, in Indiana, where in October, 1842, he discomfited poor Mendenhall. His clever speech found so much applause in the press that he may have thought it sufficient to banish the slavery question from the coming presidential campaign. The following winter, combining business with politics, he visited New Orleans and all the prominent places of the Southwest, and, after taking a rest at Ashland during the summer of 1843, resumed his peregrinations during the winter of 1843-4, then touching all the important points in the Southeast, like a general riding along the line, giving instructions and encouragement to the subordinate commanders, and stirring the rank and file with his inspiring presence. His journeys were again public "progresses" in grand style, with no end of enthusiastic ovations and speech making to and fro. He expressed himself sonorously upon all the old Whig principles and measures, repeating his view of the protective tariff as a temporary arrangement, which the infant industries, rapidly growing up to manhood, would not much longer require, and denouncing in vigorous terms the treacherous conduct of Tyler. When he rested at Ashland, tokens of esteem and affection poured in upon him in the shape of presents, ranging from barrels of American-made salt to bottles of American-made cologne water; and a flood of letters, inviting him to visit every county and town East and West, and asking for expressions of his views on public problems. Distinguished guests, too, from Europe as well as the United States, sought the renowned statesman at home. The political skies also looked brighter again. In the elections of 1843 the Whigs recovered much of the ground lost in 1842.
But the "old Whig policies" no longer absorbed the interest of the people. The Texas question pressed more and more to the foreground, an unwelcome intruder. The story goes — and was believed at the time — that a unique arrangement to prevent the Texas question from becoming an issue in the presidential canvass, had been made by the two gentlemen likely to be nominated as the candidates of the contesting parties, — Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren. There had always been pleasant personal relations between them. However fiercely Clay might attack Van Buren's party or policies, he had always had a kind word to say for the man. When Van Buren, after leaving the presidential office, traveled in the South and West, Clay invited him to Ashland, and Van Buren, in May, 1842, heartily enjoyed for a few days the hospitality of his old adversary's roof. There they had, as Clay wrote to Crittenden, "a great deal of agreeable conversation, but not much of politics." A little conversation on politics, however, may possibly have sufficed for their purpose. The annexation of Texas was an unwelcome subject to both of them. Clay, in a large sense a Southern man with Northern principles, disliked annexation because his instinct told him that it meant the propagation of slavery, and that it endangered the Union. Van Buren, a Northern man with Southern principles, was afraid of it, because it was intensely unpopular at the North, and threatened to bring on a war. They agreed, therefore, if it should become necessary, both publicly to take position against it.
Until late in 1843, Clay hoped it would not be necessary. On December 5 he said, in a letter to Crittenden, that he did not "think it right, unnecessarily, to present new questions to the public," and "to allow Mr. Tyler, for his own selfish purposes, to introduce an exciting topic, and add to the other subjects of contention before the country." But the negotiations going on between the administration and the Texan government did in their progress not remain secret, and the rising excitement created a louder demand for the voice of the leaders. In his southeastern "progress" Clay arrived at Raleigh, in North Carolina, on April 12, the same day the treaty of annexation was signed by Calhoun and the Texan plenipotentiaries. Clay, who felt that he could remain silent no longer, wrote a public letter to the editor of the "National Intelligencer," known as his Raleigh letter of April 17, 1844.
Reviewing his connection with the Texas question in the past, he said he had believed and contended that the United States had acquired a title to Texas by the Louisiana purchase. But that title had been formally relinquished to Spain by the treaty of 1819. Texas had been sacrificed for Florida. Having thus "fairly alienated our title to Texas by solemn national compacts," it was as "perfectly idle and ridiculous, if not dishonorable, to talk of resuming our title to Texas," as it would be for Spain to talk of resuming her title to Florida, or France to Louisiana. Under the administration of John Quincy Adams he had attempted to repurchase Texas from Mexico, but without success. The extent to which the revolt in Texas had been aided by citizens of the United States had laid us open to the imputation of selfish designs. Our recognition of the independence of Texas had not impaired the rights of Mexico; and if Mexico still persevered in asserting her rights to Texas by force of arms, we should, in acquiring Texas, also acquire the war with Mexico. And he would not plunge the country into a war for the acquisition of Texas. Another objection to the annexation of Texas he found in the decided opposition it met with in a large part of the Union. He thought it wise rather to harmonize the confederacy as it existed than to introduce into it a new element of discord and distraction. Neither did he favor the acquisition of new territory for the purpose of maintaining the balance of power between the two great sections of the Union. If Texas were acquired to strengthen the South, Canada would be acquired to strengthen the North, and finally the weaker section would be the loser. If British North America should separate from England, the happiness of all parties would be best promoted by the existence of three separate and independent republics — Canada, the United States, and Texas — natural allies. Finally, he considered the annexation of Texas without the assent of Mexico as a measure compromising the national character, involving the country certainly in a war with Mexico, probably with other powers, dangerous to the integrity of the Union, and not called for by any general expression of public opinion.
This letter naturally displeased the annexationists of the South, who clamored for Texas at any cost. Neither was it satisfactory to the extreme anti-slavery men at the North, because it did not put forward slavery as the main reason for repelling Texas. It would have pleased them better had he repeated in his public manifesto what he had said in his letter to Crittenden of the 5th of December, 1843, that the establishment of British influence in Texas "would not be regarded with so much detestation by the civilized world as would the conduct of the United States in seeking to effect annexation," because the motive that would be attributed to the United States, "and with too much justice, would be that of propagating, instead of terminating, slavery." But in the manifesto, while not reasoning distinctly from the anti-slavery point of view, he did, indeed, emphatically object to the main reason, — the restoration, or rather the guaranty, of the balance of power, for which Texas was desirable to the slave-holding interest. The bulk of the Whig party in the Free States accepted the document as substantially in accord with their views.
A public letter from Van Buren appeared at the same time in the Democratic organ at Washington, the "Globe." The coincidence was noticed as remarkable. Van Buren questioned the constitutionality of admitting Texas as a new state by treaty; it could only be done by Congress. He, too, believed that annexation meant war with Mexico. Whether we could "hope to stand justified in the eyes of mankind for entering into" such a war, was a grave question, "in respect to which no American statesman or citizen could possibly be indifferent," especially as nothing was more true or more extensively known than that Texas was wrested from Mexico through the instrumentality of citizens of the United States. He warned against treating lightly the sacred obligations of treaties. As to the matter of slavery, he hinted that he might be trusted, not being a man "influenced by local or sectional feelings." Finally, if Congress in a constitutional manner should acquire Texas, he would, as President, execute the legislative will.
It was significant that Andrew Jackson, whose favorite candidate Van Buren was, hurried upon the scene with a second letter, expressing his unshaken confidence in the man who would undoubtedly change his mind when he considered "the probability of a dangerous interference with the affairs of Texas by a foreign power."
The letters of the presumptive candidates for the presidency went before the people at the same time that the annexation treaty was submitted to the Senate. Calhoun communicated together with the treaty an answer he had written to a dispatch from Lord Aberdeen, which had been received several weeks before. That answer contained his reasons why the annexation of Texas had become necessary. Lord Aberdeen had, in that dispatch, incidentally mentioned the well-known desire and constant exertion of Great Britain to procure the general abolition of slavery throughout the world, earnestly disclaiming, however, any intention directly or indirectly, openly or secretly, to interfere with the tranquillity and prosperity of the United States. Treating this as a new revelation, Calhoun, the same man who had declared in 1836 the annexation of Texas necessary, now pretended that, in view of such avowals by Lord Aberdeen, annexation had become immediately indispensable for the salvation of slavery, and, therefore, for the safety of the people of the United States. Tyler's message, which accompanied the treaty, had, indeed, much to say of the commercial advantages which the "reannexation" of Texas would confer upon the American people; but it laid also great stress upon the "anxiety of other powers to induce Mexico to enter into terms of reconciliation with Texas, which, affecting the domestic institutions of Texas, would operate most injuriously upon the United States, and might most seriously threaten the existence of this happy Union." Nor did he omit to mention that "formidable associations of persons were directing their utmost efforts" to the overthrow of slavery in Texas. In other words, the United States were bound to risk a war and annex a country for fear that slavery might be abolished in that country; the United States must possess that country for the avowed purpose of preserving slavery there. This was the argument of the President and the Secretary of State before the Senate, and this was the position in which they placed the great American Republic before the world.
The Whig National Convention met at Baltimore on May 1. Almost all the notables of the Whig party were there, Webster included. The nomination of Clay as the Whig candidate for the presidency required no ballot. It was carried with a great shout that shook the building. Theodore Frelinghuysen of New Jersey was nominated for the vice-presidency. The following day a "ratifying convention" was held, — an immense assemblage, — before which Webster solemnly renewed his allegiance to the Whig party.
Webster had, since he left Tyler's Cabinet, lived in gloomy political isolation. His question, "Where shall I go?" had not been answered by the Whig leaders. He had to answer it himself. So he returned to the Whig party, and, as Clay was the recognized chief of the Whig party, to Clay. In the summer of 1843 some of Webster's intimates made overtures for a resumption of friendly relations. The chief received the approach somewhat grandly. "I approve in the main," Clay wrote to Peter B. Porter, "of the answer you gave to Mr. Webster's friend. I have done him [Mr. Webster] no wrong, and have therefore no reconciliation to seek. Should I be a candidate for the presidency, I shall be glad to receive his support, or that of any other American citizen; but I can enter into no arrangements, make no promises, offer no pledges, to obtain it." Porter answered: "Our friends were delighted with this reply, and even the Webster men were obliged to acknowledge that it was perfectly correct and proper." Webster came to Baltimore knowing that Clay's nomination was certain. In his ratification speech he spoke of Clay in terms of warm eulogy, extolling the services that eminent citizen had rendered to his country at home and abroad; he rejoiced in presenting his name to the country as a candidate for the presidency; they had, indeed, differed upon some points of policy, but there was now no public question before the country upon which there was any difference between himself and that great leader of the Whig party. The cheering which responded to this speech was immense. The Whig party appeared to be as firmly united as ever, and its members congratulated one another upon the prospect of certain success.
These sanguine expectations seemed to be well justified by the dissensions disturbing the Democratic party. It was known that, of the delegates elected to the Democratic National Convention, a majority were for Van Buren, very many of them instructed by their constituents. But the ardent annexationists were bound to have a man in the presidential chair whom they could trust to go to extremes in insuring the acquisition of Texas. Systematically they went to work to compass Van Buren's defeat. They had at their disposal the whole power of Calhoun, Van Buren's old enemy. They appointed a committee of correspondence at Washington to organize the anti-Van-Buren movement throughout the country. All over the South meetings were held to agitate the annexation of Texas, and to inflame the pro-slavery feeling. In South Carolina the cry, "Texas or disunion!" began to be heard. Calhoun's organs in the press loudly declared Van Buren's nomination impossible. Here and there steps were taken to rescind instructions in his favor. When the convention met, on May 27, Van Buren had still a majority of the delegates on his side, professedly at least. But as soon as, upon the motion of a Southern delegate, the rule was sustained that a majority of two thirds should be required for effecting a nomination, Van Buren was lost. On the first ballot he still had twelve more than a majority, but he lacked twenty-six of two thirds. On the ninth ballot the opposition to Van Buren combined with a rush upon James K. Polk of Tennessee, a warm advocate of the annexation of Texas. The two-thirds rule, which had been applied in the conventions of 1832 and 1836, when there were hardly any contests, was, after 1844, recognized by the slave power as the surest means of controlling presidential nominations, or rather of preventing nominations obnoxious to its interests, and it remained the standing practice of Democratic national conventions.
For the vice-presidency George M. Dallas of Pennsylvania was nominated, after Silas Wright, the friend of Van Buren, had peremptorily declined. A resolution was adopted recommending to the cordial support of the Democracy of the Union "the reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas at the earliest practicable period" as great American measures, — Texas for the South, and Oregon ostensibly for the North.
The Democratic National Convention of 1844 marks an epoch in American history in two respects: it designated as the leading issue of the presidential election the annexation of Texas, the beginning of the end of slavery; and it was the first deliberative assemblage the proceedings of which were reported by the electric telegraph, the most striking exponent of modern civilization, Morse having, with the aid of the government, just completed his first line between Baltimore and Washington.
Another nominating convention was held in Baltimore at the same time. John Tyler had attempted to purchase the support of the Democrats with patronage, but received only ironical compliments. He had persuaded himself that the people believed him to be a very great man, and waited only for an opportunity to rise up for him en masse. This grand uprising of the American people for John Tyler had for a long time been the standing jest of the newspapers, but Tyler's faith could not be shaken. He therefore gravely posed as a candidate for the presidency, and assembled a convention consisting mainly of office-holders. The convention solemnly nominated him, and he responded with an equally solemn letter of acceptance. But before long it dawned upon him that he had no support whatever, and he withdrew in favor of the Democratic candidate.
Still another convention had been held months before, on August 30, 1843, at Buffalo, which the politicians of the two great organizations probably thought at the time of less practical importance even than Tyler's corporal's guard. It was the convention of the "Liberty party." Its presidential candidates were James G. Birney and Thomas Morris. The Liberty party consisted of earnest anti-slavery men who pursued their objects by political action. They were not in sympathy with those abolitionists who lost themselves in "no government" theories, who denounced the Union and the Constitution as a "covenant with death and an agreement with hell," and who abhorred the exercise of the suffrage under the Constitution as a participation in sin. In the language of Birney, they regarded the national Constitution "with unabated affection." They interpreted it as an anti-slavery document, and declared that they had "nothing to ask except what the Constitution authorizes, no change to desire except that the Constitution be restored to its primitive purity."
Their first practical step was to interrogate the candidates of the existing parties concerning their views on slavery, in order to throw the weight of their votes accordingly. Then they attempted a party organization of their own, to furnish a nucleus around which future political anti-slavery movements might gather. Their first presidential candidates, as we have seen, were offered to the people in the election of 1840, when they received about seven thousand votes. The popular excitement caused by the Texas question augmented their strength; and their national convention at Buffalo in August, 1843, was unexpectedly large in numbers, strong in character, and enthusiastic in spirit. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, a man cast in a grand mould, who had already rendered conspicuous service in the anti-slavery cause, was one of its most prominent members. Birney, its candidate for the presidency, was a native of Kentucky. A slave-holder by inheritance, he liberated his slaves and provided generously for them. He was a lawyer of ability, a gentleman of culture, and a vigorous and graceful speaker. Obeying a high sense of duty, he sacrificed the comforts of wealth, home, and position to the cause of universal freedom, — not as a wild enthusiast or unreasoning fanatic, but as a calm thinker, temperate in language, and firm in maintaining his conclusions. His principal conclusion was that slavery and free institutions could not exist together. He has been charged with committing an act of personal faithlessness in opposing Clay in 1844. This charge was utterly unjust. He had never given Clay or Clay's friends any promise of support. It is true, Clay and Birney had maintained a friendly intercourse until 1834; but in June of that year they had a conference on the subject of slavery which produced upon Birney a discouraging effect. From that time their friendly intercourse ceased, and Clay found in Birney only a severe critic.
The defeat of Van Buren in the Democratic National Convention was a disappointment to the Whigs, as it baffled the hope of keeping the annexation question out of the presidential campaign. But Polk, although he had been Speaker of the National House of Representatives, was comparatively so obscure a man, that a contest for the highest honors of the Republic between him and the great Henry Clay appeared almost grotesque. The Democrats themselves were at first somewhat embarrassed by the contrast. The question, "Who is Polk?" was asked on all sides, to be answered by the Whigs with a jeering laugh. Indeed, had nothing happened to overshadow the old issues, the personal question would have appeared as the most important. For about the tariff and the bank the Democratic and the Whig platforms differed very little.
Of a United States Bank the Whig platform said nothing. It spoke only of a "well-regulated currency." Clay himself, returning to the position he had taken during the campaign of 1840, remarked at Raleigh that, while his views about the bank question remained the same, he did "not seek to enforce them upon any others;" he did not desire a bank unless it was imperatively demanded by the people. Among the Whigs generally, the United States Bank had been given up as an "obsolete idea." That point, therefore, was substantially yielded by them. As to the tariff, the Democrats had made a fresh record. In the session of 1843-1844, when they controlled the House by a very large majority, they laid a bill modifying the tariff of 1842 on the table; and in their platform, while denying the right of the government to raise more than the necessary revenue, and to foster one branch of industry to the detriment of another, they did not even mention the tariff by name. They evidently did not mean to take the field as an anti-protection party. The manner in which, on the contrary, they continued to steal Clay's thunder, was amazing in its boldness.
The tariff of 1842 was very popular in Pennsylvania, and, indeed, much favored by the manufacturing interests in various Northern States. It had also many friends among the Democrats of Kentucky and Louisiana. Polk enjoyed the reputation of being a free-trader. The problem to be solved was to make him acceptable to both sides. Three weeks after the Democratic Convention he addressed a letter to J. K. Kane of Philadelphia, in which he first set forth his votes in Congress against the tariff of 1828, the "tariff of abominations," his vote for the tariff of 1832 effecting a reduction of duties, and his vote for the compromise tariff of 1833. This was for the free-traders. Then he declared that, in his judgment, it was "the duty of the government to extend, so far as practicable, by its revenue laws and all other means within its power, fair and just protection to all the great interests of the whole Union, embracing agriculture, manufactures, the mechanic arts, commerce, and navigation." This was for everybody, the protectionists included. No sooner had the "Kane letter" been published, than the cry was raised: "Polk, Dallas, and the tariff of 1842." In Pennsylvania at every mass meeting, in every procession, banners appeared bearing that legend, — not seldom with the addition, "We dare the Whigs to repeal it." But even that was not enough. While Polk and the Democratic party were paraded as the special champions of the tariff of 1842, Clay, the father of the "American system," was systematically cried down as a dangerous enemy of protection; and, in the name of protection to American industry, the voters of Pennsylvania were invoked to vote against him. It was one of the most audacious political frauds in our history. That it should have been possible to carry on such a palpable deception, through a campaign lasting several months, is truly astonishing. And what an opening of eyes there was in Pennsylvania when in 1846 the Polk Democrats did repeal the tariff of 1842, which the Clay Whigs vainly struggled to sustain!
While this trick cost him the vote of Pennsylvania, Clay had more dangerous enemies to encounter, elsewhere. The campaign had hardly begun when the "old hero" at the Hermitage, on the brink of the grave, sent forth his last bugle-blast to summon his friends against the man he hated most. Andrew Jackson wrote a letter again affirming his belief in the story that Clay and Adams had by bargain and corruption defrauded him of his right to the presidency in 1825, and again the old cry resounded in all the Democratic presses and in numberless speeches. Again Clay thought it necessary to call upon his friends for testimony to prove that he had given an uncorrupted vote for Adams twenty years before. But, in spite of Andrew Jaekson's still potent hostility, he would have won the day had he not found his most dangerous enemy in himself.
The Texas question was, after all, the real issue of the campaign. In this respect Polk's position was perfectly clear. As a declared advocate of annexation, he could count upon a majority of the Southern States; but in the North he was for the same reason in danger of losing not a few Democratic votes. New York was looked upon as the decisive battle-ground. To prevent the loss of that state, Silas Wright, the friend of Van Buren and an opponent of annexation, was prevailed upon to accept the Democratic candidacy for the governorship. A secret circular was issued by prominent Democrats of anti-slavery feelings, — among them William Cullen Bryant, the editor of the "Evening Post," David Dudley Field, and Theodore Sedgwick, — censuring the Democratic National Convention for adopting a resolution in favor of annexing Texas, and recommending to Democrats to support only such candidates for Congress as were opposed to annexation, but to vote for the Democratic presidential ticket: a poor device, indicating, however, that there was ominous wavering in the Democratic ranks.
Clay's letter on the annexation question, while not reaching up to the standard of the Liberty party, had the approval of anti-slavery men of more moderate views, and was well calculated to attract to his support anti-slavery Democrats who were not willing to deceive themselves by voting for a candidate while protesting against that which he represented. Clay had, therefore, reason to hope that he would receive votes beyond the regular strength of his party, and this especially in the important State of New York. He had only to let his Raleigh letter produce its natural effect.
But in the planting states the excitement about the Texas question rose from day to day. It was still more inflamed by the news that the Senate, after a long and warm debate, had on June 8, by a large majority (35 to 16), refused to assent to the treaty of annexation; that then Tyler had sent a message to the House asking that annexation be accomplished by "some other form of proceeding," but that Congress had adjourned without further action. The Southern Whigs became anxious, and some of them earnestly insisted that Clay should modify the expression of his views on the vexed question. In an evil hour Clay yielded to their entreaties, and ventured upon that most perilous of manœuvres on the political as well as the military field, — a change of front under the fire of the enemy. On July 1 he wrote a letter to Stephen F. Miller, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in which he disclaimed that, when speaking in his Raleigh letter of a "considerable and respectable portion of the confederacy" against whose wishes Texas should not be annexed, he had meant the abolitionists. "As to the idea of my courting the abolitionists," he said, "it is perfectly absurd. No man in the United States has been half as much abused by them as I have been." "Personally," he added, "I could have no objection to the annexation of Texas; but I certainly should be unwilling to see the existing Union dissolved or seriously jeoparded for the sake of acquiring Texas. If any one desires to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of the Union will furnish him the key."
This might have passed without much harm, but his Southern friends demanded more, and he gave more. "I do not think it right," he wrote to Miller on July 27, "to announce in advance what will be the course of a future administration in respect to a question with a foreign power. I have, however, no hesitation in saying that, far from having any personal objection to the annexation of Texas, I should be glad to see it, without dishonor, without war, with the common consent of the Union, and upon just and fair terms. I do not think that the subject of slavery ought to affect the question, one way or the other. Whether Texas be independent, or incorporated in the United States, I do not think it will shorten or prolong the duration of that institution. It is destined to become extinct at some distant day, in my opinion, by the operation of the inevitable laws of population. It would be unwise to refuse a permanent acquisition, which will exist as long as the globe remains, on account of a temporary institution."
Whether these letters were extorted from him by the cry of the extreme annexationists, "Texas or disunion!" or whether they were merely a bid for Southern votes, in either case Clay could not, as to their effect upon the election, have committed a greater blunder. They could not strengthen him where he was weak: they could only weaken him where he was strong. They could not induce the annexationists to trust him: they could only make the opponents of annexation doubtful as to whether he deserved to be trusted by them. They could only repel the anti-slavery vote, for they declared that the anti-slavery argument against the annexation of Texas was without value.
The Liberty party suddenly rose to a practical importance in the canvass which it had not enjoyed before. Some of its speakers and writers had, indeed, attacked Clay, from the beginning of the campaign, as a "slave-holder and a gambler." True, Polk was a slave-holder, too; Polk and his party were pledged to do what the anti-slavery men held most in abhorrence, — enlarge the area of slavery. The Whig party contained a much larger element congenial to the anti-slavery men than did the Democracy, and the election of Clay was perhaps the only thing that could prevent the annexation of Texas: there were, therefore, many reasons why the anti-slavery men should have supported Clay. Yet their opposition to him was not without logic. They did not expect to decide the contest between the two great parties. Their work was, as they conceived it, missionary work. They simply desired to strengthen their organization for future action, and naturally endeavored to draw recruits from that party in which they had the largest number of sympathizers, — the Whigs. To that end they endeavored to make the anti-slavery Whigs dissatisfied with their party and their candidate. Hence the vigor of their warfare upon Clay. And that warfare was undoubtedly inspired also by a tendency always prevailing among men who are struggling for the realization of ideas in advance of their time, — the tendency to censure more bitterly those from whom they expect sympathy and aid, if that sympathy and aid do not come, than those from whom they expect and receive nothing but hostility. Thus the Liberty party gave up the Democrats as hopeless, and severely castigated the Whigs for not rising to its own standard.
Had Clay abstained from disturbing the impression produced by his Raleigh letter, that he would firmly oppose the annexation of Texas, those attacks of the Liberty party would not have become dangerous to him, because they would have appeared unreasonable. But his Alabama letters made him appear like one of those trimming politicians who have no fixed principles and aims. Then the assaults of the Liberty party began to tell, for they seemed unreasonable no longer. No more Democratic anti-annexation men would come to him, for they did not know whether he could be trusted. While a large majority of the anti-slavery Whigs remained with their party, they felt themselves reduced to an embarrassed defensive. Their enthusiasm was chilled, and their ability to make converts gone. The number of anti-slavery Whigs who left their party, and ranged themselves under Birney's banners, was comparatively small, but large enough to turn the scale.
The effect of the "Alabama letter" became so apparent that Clay, in the course of the campaign, tried to explain again and again, and to return to his first position; but in vain. The spell was broken. As Horace Greeley expressed it, the previous hold of his advocates on the moral convictions of the more considerate and conscientious voters of the Free States was irretrievably gone. The Whigs did, indeed, not give up their efforts. They continued their displays of external enthusiasm, although in a far less hopeful mood. They called Cassius M. Clay, then in the first bloom of his fame as an anti-slavery champion, from meeting to meeting, to explain the true status and bearing of the Texas question from his point of view. All in vain. Washington Hunt wrote to Thurlow Weed: "We had the abolitionists in a good way, but Mr. Clay seems determined that they shall not be allowed to vote for him. I believe his letter will lose us more than two hundred votes in this county (Niagara). Cassius Clay's powerful usefulness is much weakened by the last letter of Mr. Clay. I dread with all his efforts he may not counteract the influence of the letter, coming as it does at this critical moment, when half the abolitionists were on a pivot."
Polk carried the State of New York over Clay by a majority of 5,080 votes. Birney, the candidate of the Liberty party, received in the same state 15,812 votes, more than twice as many as had been cast for him in 1840 in the whole Union. There is no reasonable doubt that more than half of Birney's vote in New York — two thousand more than were required to give him the state — would have been cast for Clay but for his Alabama letter; and that would have made him President of the United States; for, with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, Ohio, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, which he carried, New York would have given him a majority of the electoral college. "The abolition vote lost you the election," wrote Ambrose Spencer of New York to Clay, "as three fourths of them were firm Whigs converted into abolitionists." The perpetration of gross and extensive election frauds was charged upon the Democratic party, especially in New York and in Louisiana, through fraudulent naturalizations, organized repeating, and ballot-box stuffing; and there was much to prove the justice of these complaints. It was also said that the excitement produced by the war of the "Native Americans" against the Catholics, which in May had led to bloody riots in Philadelphia, had driven the whole "foreign vote" upon the Democratic side, and thereby injured Clay, — especially through the unpopularity in that quarter of the Whig candidate for the vice-presidency, Theodore Frelinghuysen, who was a stern anti-Catholic. But all these causes would not have been sufficient to defeat Clay had he held on his side that anti-slavery vote which his Alabama letter drove from the Whigs to Birney. It is absurd to attribute the result of an election to accident, when it clearly appears that a number of voters sufficient to turn the scale were determined in their action by the character or conduct of one of the candidates with regard to the principal matter at issue. The object of Clay's highest ambition escaped him because, at the decisive moment, he was untrue to himself.
The masses of the Whig party, while the managers noticed the adverse current, firmly expected success to the very last. It seemed impossible to them that Henry Clay could be defeated by James K. Polk. Everything hung on New York. The returns from the interior of the state came slowly. There seemed to be still a possibility that heavy Whig majorities in the western counties might overcome the large Democratic vote in the eastern. The suspense was painful. People did not go to bed, watching for the mails. When at last the decisive news went forth which left no doubt of the result, the Whigs broke out in a wail of agony all over the land. "It was," says Nathan Sargent, "as if the first-born of every family had been stricken down." The descriptions we have of the grief manifested are almost incredible. Tears flowed in abundance from the eyes of men and women. In the cities and villages the business places were almost deserted for a day or two, people gathering together in groups to discuss in low tones what had happened. Neither did the victorious Democrats indulge in the usual demonstrations of triumph. There was a feeling as if a great wrong had been done. The Whigs were fairly stunned by their defeat. Not a few expressed the apprehension that their party would dissolve. Many despaired of the Republic, sincerely believing that the experiment of popular government had failed forever. Others insisted that the naturalization laws must be forthwith repealed. Almost all agreed that the great statesmen of the country would thenceforth always remain excluded from the presidency, and that the highest office would be the prize only of second-rate politicians. Clay himself was in a gloomy state of mind. "The late blow that has fallen upon our country is very heavy," he wrote to a friend. "I hope that she may recover from it, but I confess that the prospect ahead is dark and discouraging. I am afraid that it will be yet a long time, if ever, that the people recover from the corrupting influence and effects of Jacksonism. I pray God to give them a happy deliverance."