Life of Henry Clay/Editor's Preface

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A word should be said in explanation of the fact that this life of Clay fills two volumes, because, if unexplained, this might seem to imply an exaggerated opinion of the importance of Clay in comparison with those other statesmen to each of whom only one volume is allotted. It was not by original intention that this distinction was made; on the contrary, it was permitted with some reluctance and under peculiar pressure; nor would it even thus have seemed permissible had there not been a fundamental reason for it. Clay's career in public life was not only very long, but the historian finds it singular in one respect. Other statesmen are allied with parties and represent policies in such a manner that a certain unity runs through their actions: in such cases the writer fulfills his duty by telling what were their political beliefs, what measures they promoted, and what obstruction they encountered in forwarding these beliefs; he gives their philosophy, and seeks to show wherein and why it sometimes achieved successes and sometimes met with failures. But Clay's life cannot be thus written; for he managed to get upon both sides of pretty much every great question which arose in his day, and it would be difficult to say that he had any other or more profound philosophy in statesmanship than temporarily to heal dissensions. Thus it is in a way inevitable that it should require almost twice the usual space in order to narrate a story which requires that the policies, politics, and views of two parties should be presented instead of the, policies, politics, and views of only one party. So, when this life of Clay was offered for editorial consideration, it appeared, perhaps by a certain inherent necessity rather than by design, to have taken the shape almost of a history of the United States during that middle term of years which intervened between the downfall of Federalism and the exclusive predominance of the slavery question. Yet this seemed such a very useful element in the series that the book was accepted in spite of its trait of disproportion.

Clay's character and reputation present an interesting study. From the beginning nothing seems to occur as, by logic, it ought to occur. A man of fiery, impetuous, emotional temperament would be expected to prove a strenuous partisan; but so far was Clay from being a partisan that, although he ranks as a Whig, it is not easy to attribute to him any clear and stable convictions upon any great question of political principle. He dashed into public life with a great whirl when the difficulties with Great Britain were leading to the war of 1812. Reckless, hot-headed, and at that time utterly inexperienced and ignorant, he caused as much mischief as could be caused by the blunders of so young a politician. Yet the splendid vehemence of his patriotism prevented his suffering the punishment which might have followed him had he been an older and more trusted leader. It was his first and last error in the direction of extremism in politics. At Ghent, in the negotiations for peace, he proved a poor diplomatist; yet again good luck saved his prestige; for an unexpectedly good treaty was secured, and the people did not accurately distribute the respective contributions of the negotiators.

Having escaped so fortunately the natural results of early mistakes, Clay became for the future a statesman of moderation. It is a curious spectacle that he presents in this character, which, a priori, would be supposed so anti-pathetic for him. Concerning the tariff, he was at once everywhere and nowhere, so to speak; and concerning slavery he was much worse. He was intense and extreme only in one matter, and that was hatred of Andrew Jackson. In all else his panacea, his watchword, his purpose, was always Compromise. Yet what he called compromises were in fact only temporary makeshifts. He seemed to think that a real end had been achieved when a congressional majority had been secured for some bill which most of those who voted for it disliked and intended to replace in due time. He seemed to think that protectionists and free-traders could be brought to permanent agreement, and that this agreement could be produced by or based upon a scheme which each regarded as bad, or at least as very imperfect. He seemed to think that pro-slavery men and anti-slavery men, North and South, could be kept contented when each section earnestly believed itself to be sacrificing its worldly interests and moral convictions. All this sort of thing is now clearly seen to be the most shallow and transitory statesmanship. Compromises between deep, honest, antagonistic faiths are absurdities. Yet the statesman who advocated these tame as well as useless methods was a man of hot spirit and high ambition and no small intellectual force. He could advocate a compromise with a fire and brilliancy of oratory which generally belong only to the extreme ardor of partisan faith. He presented the views of few persons; he asked sacrifices of opinion and belief, political or moral, from nearly every thinking man among the people; one would not think that this would prove the road to popularity; yet, instead of finding only a limited and lukewarm following, he was for a long time the most popular man in public life. His private morals were notoriously bad, even scandalously so, yet a nation which plumed itself almost pharisaically on the strictness of its morality forgave him without a moment's hesitation. Why, then, did he never succeed in becoming president? How he craved that office! Of all the men who have fallen victims to the ruinous desire for it, no one has had that wretched political disease longer or more severely than did Clay. Proud as he was, he sometimes truckled for this end; honest as he was in a political way, it was with difficulty that he succeeded -- though to his honor it is to be said that he did succeed -- in refraining from sacrificing his personal honesty to the temptations of apparent opportunism. His candidacy was constantly recurring, so that he was a sort of permanent candidate; and it must often have been the case that, if the country had been polled to answer the simple question, "Who is your personal choice for the presidency?" the replies would have shown an ample majority for Clay. It was one of the many contradictions, in which his story abounds, that all this long-enduring popular backing never produced the result which seemed natural and logical.

It is a very difficult thing to know how to value Clay as a statesman. Upon the one hand, his influence during a long series of years was very great. Yet it was an influence which has failed to leave any permanent trace; it was an influence which did not impel the people in any direction which was long held, which did not in any appreciable degree lead the nation towards the destination which history now shows was before it. Clay did not train any intellects to believe in slavery or in anti-slavery; and though he ranks as a protectionist, yet hardly more did he construct any fundamental, consistent, and wide-reaching doctrine of protection. He contented himself always with steering the ship of state from day to day; he undertook to lay out no long voyage, no definite course in any direction; he was satisfied to glide around perils, to weather storms, as those came; achievements most necessary, without doubt, yet hardly rounding out the full duty of such a statesman as Clay aspired to be. These volumes show, in my opinion, a man whose motives one often approves; whose conscientiousness one often respects; whose brilliance one nearly always admires; whose patriotism, gallantry, sincerity, one praises; and yet one fails to discern the picture of a man who had a guiding faith in any definite principle, or who cherished any distinct ideal in the moralities, or even in the business of the national statesmanship. None the less, he has left behind him a name and reputation which stand high among the best in our country.


September, 1898.