The New York Times/Carl Schurz's “Henry Clay”

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Carl Schurz's “Henry Clay”
From The New York Times of July 10, 1887. See also Life of Henry Clay.
CARL SCHURZ'S “HENRY CLAY.”

LIFE OF HENRY CLAY. American Statesmen Series. By Carl Schurz, in two volumes, pp. 383-424. Boston and New-York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1887.

Until this series of American political biographies was undertaken there had been a lack of important critical lives of American statesmen and politicians. We had been amply provided with biographies conspicuous for loose and unthinking laudation, with biographies that were colorless, unmeaning, and dreary to peruse, and with writings severely critical, prejudiced, and unjust, in all of which there was a dearth of fine intelligence and fairness. Party prejudice was gratified and a natural human liking for picturesque exaggerations was ministered to, though no one was safely guided or wisely instructed. Of works like Jared Sparks's, it is to be said, that, in spite of their unreadableness, they were able to effect considerable good, in that from them at least passion was absent; but the unfortunate thing was that so few people ever read them or could be prevailed upon to do so. It still remained essential that the art of writing entertainingly and yet justly and soberly should be acquired. Not until our day has existed the needed critical and literary gift properly animated by a sincere desire to narrate events truthfully and searchingly and yet not maliciously, and to state unpleasant facts with intelligent sympathy and a just appreciation of their relations to larger and greater things. It would be an interesting occupation to trace the origin and growth of these gifts, by means of which we have come to live in a truly eclectic and tolerant age. Doubtless in political matters the civil war contributed a very potent share of influence. Political feeling then became so intense and consuming, and prosperity has followed that crisis so surprisingly until it is even now making affluent the localities most completely desolated by war, that a reaction has of necessity ensued, until unthinking prejudice has grown into criticism, which, while candid, fails not to be sympathetic and capable of making allowances.

Among the volumes in this series the critical spirit has been conspicuous. One eminent example of it was Prof. Sumner's biography of Jackson, another was Mr. Roosevelt's recent sketch of Benton, and a third, the most conspicuous of all, is the present “Life of Henry Clay,” by Mr. Carl Schurz. Eminent as the work is for its union of criticism with philosophical fairness, this is not its sole claim to rank as one of the ablest and most important of recent political writings. It is a work that belongs to good literature, being pervaded by literary and art sense, written in elegant language, charming for its lucidity, its intellectual integrity, its grasp of the subject, and its fine, manly courage. Henry Clay appears as an active, memorable, and abiding force and personality, a man eminent for failings as well as for great virtues and great services to the Republic, and a generation which knows scarcely anything clearly and definitely of Clay's place in the affairs of his country will read it with abounding pleasure and assured profit. The incidents of Clay's life are unlike the incidents of Webster's life, of Washington's, of Jefferson's, or even of Madison's, which have become treasured commonplaces in the public mind. Besides anecdotes of his private life, not always good to relate in a mixed company, and his famous saying that he “would rather be right than be President,” the general public has had an extremely vague recollection of his doings and importance. The recent publication in a prominent magazine of an elaborate article on his Kentucky home was doubtless something of a revelation to the most of its readers, especially the younger ones. While each of Macaulay's schoolboys was familiar with Mount Vernon, Monticello, Montpelier, and Marshfield, the most learned of them, if they had any notion at all, probably had very confused ones respecting Ashland.

Nothing in Mr. Schurz's work has been more interesting to us than the various chapters which relate to Clay as a candidate for President. The author's conclusion is that it was a misfortune that Clay so constantly, for a period of 30 years, sought this glittering prize. He would have been “a happier and a greater man” had he never done so, and it is probable that its capture would have “added nothing either to his usefulness or his fame,” while the pursuit of it “made his public life singularly restless and unsatisfactory to himself.” The author admits that the desire of so distinguished a political leader to be President “was natural and legitimate,” and that, “even had he cherished it less ardently his followers would have more than once pushed him forward;” but in various parts of Clay's career Mr. Schurz finds illustrations of the weakening effect of Presidential ambitions upon Clay's character, and his famous saying that he would “rather be right than be President” was spoken, he says, “at a time when he was more desirous of being President than sure of being right.” Clay's career as a candidate dates from the close of Madison's second Administration, when his Secretary of State, Monroe, had been chosen to succeed him. As the Secretaryship had now come to be regarded as the stepping stone to the greater office, those who aspired to be President “coveted with peculiar solicitude” this office in the Monroe Cabinet, and among the number was Henry Clay. But Clay, in this, as in his future Presidential ambitions, was to meet with sore disappointment. John Quincy Adams was chosen in his stead. This, says our author, was “a most excellent selection, although Clay very decidedly did not think so.”

Of Clay's subsequent hostility to the Monroe Administration a very interesting and straightforward account is given. That hostility contributed little to the glory of Clay, since it was so obviously inspired by personal feeling; but Adams and Clay became excellent friends some years later, and the story of their relations during the two periods furnishes one of the conspicuous examples of the incongruities of many political friendships. Clay and Adams had already been associated as American Envoys to negotiate with Great Britain at Ghent, and their relations on that mission had not been free from strong differences of opinion which taxed to the utmost the considerable powers of Albert Gallatin as peacemaker. It is a striking sketch that Mr. Schurz gives of the two men at the time of their departure on this mission. It is a feature of the biography that so many of the leading men of Clay's time have their characters admirably sketched for us. Here, for example, are a few lines on Adams:

“John Quincy Adams was then 47 years old with all his peculiarities fully matured — a man of great ability, various knowledge, and large experience; of ardent patriotism and high principles of honor and duty, brimful of courage and a pugnacious spirit of contention, precise in his ways, stiff and cold in manners, tenacious of his opinions, irritable of temper, inclined to be suspicious and harsh in his judgments of others and, in the Puritan spirit, also severe with himself; one of the men who keep diaries and in them regular accounts of their own as well as other people's doings.”

Of Clay the author says in the same chapter:

“Clay was then 10 years younger than Adams, certainly no less enthusiastic an American patriot, no less spirited, impulsive, and hot-tempered, having already acquired something of that imperiousness of manner which later in his career was so much noticed; quick in forming opinions and impatient of opposition, but warm-hearted and genial; no Puritan at all in his ways; rather inclined to ‘sit after dinner whether the wine was good or bad, and while willing to work, also bent on having his full share of the enjoyments of this world.’ ”

That Clay had reason for his anger at the nomination of Harrison in 1840 is conceded; he was the chief of the Whig Party, and had fought its battles and received the blows struck at it, and he saw himself cast aside for “a man whose significance could not be compared with his.” What was more, the methods employed to defeat him were those of intrigue; they were “unscrupulous, crafty, without precedent in American politics.” Henry A. Wise has left a picturesque account of Clay's appearance and conversation when he received the news of this nomination. “My friends,” said he, “are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them;” and again: “I am the most unfortunate man in the history of parties; always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination when I, or any one, would be sure of an election.” “This lack of dignity in Clay,” says Mr. Schurz, “was certainly unbecoming a great leader.” Probably the extent of Clay's wrath was to some degree due to the sacrifices he had made in his anti-abolition speech and in his letters of explanation.

But still a greater humiliation awaited him. “It was a terrible disappointment,” says Mr. Schurz, “first to be thrown aside by the convention of his party for a second-rate man, and then to be thrown aside by that second-rate man to gratify the jealousy or greed of small politicians. For 12 years he had struggled against the tremendous power of Jackson and the cunning of Van Buren. Now at last his party was in power, and he was shown the door. He was then 65 years old, and had reached that age when such slights cut deeply.” Of all Clay's disappointments this was doubtless the most bitter. But his defeat by Polk four years later must have caused him intense pain. Mr. Schurz points out that but for his Alabama letter more than half of Birney's vote in New-York would have gone for him, and this would have saved him the State and made him President of the United States. It was estimated at the time that three-fourths of the abolition vote in New-York came from firm Whigs who had been converted into abolitionists by Clay's letter.

Clay's long warfare against Andrew Jackson began in 1819 in the debate on the resolutions disapproving Jackson's proceedings in the trial of Arbuthnot and Ambruster — an incident of the Seminole war, of which much was heard and much was made at the time. This debate, says Mr. Schurz, “was destined to be of far greater consequence to Clay's political fortunes than anything that had gone before.” Clay at the time had no personal feeling against Jackson, and no reason is found to attribute his course in the debate to any but conscientious motives. But that Clay would fail with the resolutions was to be expected. Jackson was the hero of New-Orleans, and as such in the eyes of the public could neither have intended, nor done any wrong, and hence the resolutions were voted down by heavy majorities. Thus had been begun “the great duel which was to embitter the best part of Clay's life.” The enmity of Jackson had already been secured when, in the Presidential contest of 1824, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, and the power of making the decision fell practically into the hands of Clay. The accusation that the decision of Clay in favor of Adams and against Jackson was the result of a bargain by which Clay was to become Secretary of State Mr. Schurz pronounces “an infamous intrigue against the good name of two honorable men, designed to promote the political fortunes of a third.” But the accusation clung to Clay throughout the remainder of his life; he “lived to appreciate the wonderful vitality of a well managed political lie.” Nobody believes the accusation now, but it defeated Clay's “dearest ambitions and darkened the rest of his public life.” Deny and explain as he did, year after year, thousands of voters continued to believe he was “a great knave who had cheated the old hero of New-Orleans out of his rights.” The Administration of Adams was “one of the purest and most conscientious the Republic has ever had,” but the friends of Jackson gradually convinced many well meaning people that it “was really a sink of iniquity and an abomination in the sight of all just men.”

Mr. Schurz presents a vivid picture of the triumphs won by Jackson over Clay in after-years. He dwells especially upon the success of the resolution expunging the vote of censure, and he thinks “nothing could have imparted greater sweetness to his triumph than the reflection that the man whose work had been stamped by the act of the Senate with such unprecedented ignominy was Henry Clay, whom he hated more fiercely than any other human being.” As for the triumphs which Clay achieved in public, Mr. Schurz remarks that in one respect he achieved “the greatest triumph of his life at the close of it,” when both political parties, Democrats and Whigs alike, adopted the compromise measures as the foundation of their policy, and he adds that “the genius of statesmanship, it would seem, could hardly have achieved a triumph more complete.”

Of Jackson's character Mr. Schurz furnishes an excellent picture and estimate. Readers who have already made acquaintance with Prof. Sumner's recent biography of that impressive personage will find none of this estimate uninteresting reading. The following paragraph — as long a one as there is room for here — will illustrate its marked attractions:

“Andrew Jackson, when he became President, was a man of 62. A life of much exposure, hardship, and excitement, and also ill health, had made him appear older than he was. His great military achievement lay 15 years back in the past, and made him the old hero. He was very ignorant. In his youth he had mastered scarcely the rudiments of education, and he did not possess that acquisitive intellectuality which impels men, with or without preparation, to search for knowledge and store it up. While he had keen intuition, he never thoroughly understood the merits of any question of politics or economics. But his was in the highest degree the instinct of a superior will, the genius of command. If he had been on board a vessel in extreme danger he would have thundered out his orders without knowing anything of seamanship, and been indignantly surprised if Captain and crew had not obeyed him. In war he was of course made a General, and without any knowledge of military service he went out to meet the enemy, made raw militia fight like veterans, and won the most brilliant victory in the war of 1812. He was not only a brave man himself, his mere presence infused bravery into others. To his military leadership he owed that popularity which lifted him into the Presidential chair, and he carried the spirit of the warrior into the business of the Government. His party was to him his army, those who opposed him the enemy. He knew not how to argue, but how to command; not how to deliberate, but how to act. He had the impulsive energy which always creates dramatic conflicts, and the power of passion he put into them made all his conflicts look tremendous. * * * In rising up against nullification and in threatening France with war to make her pay a debt, we shall see him saving the Union from a deadly peril and humiliating to the dust the insolence of the Old World. Thus he appeared like an invincible Hercules, constantly meeting terrible monsters dangerous to the American people and slaying them all with his mighty club. * * * His personal integrity was above the reach of corruption. He always meant to do right; indeed, he was always firmly convinced of being right. His idea of right was not seldom obscured by ignorance and prejudice, and in following it he would sometimes do the most unjust and dangerous things.”

This paragraph discloses some of the literary charm of Mr. Schurz's biography, and above all its intellectual disinterestedness. It is the truth of history that we find him searching for and recording, not the passionate adulation or the passionate detraction of prejudice and partisanship, and thus it is that he is able to write of Jackson as critically, and withal as justly as of his great antagonist Clay.

Henry Clay was not a learned man; scarcely in any academic sense could he be called an educated man; he was not even endowed with a mind naturally given to reflection and investigation. Mr. Schurz writes on this point with conspicuous clearness, and impartiality. Early in life Clay, he says, had acquired the habit of “rapidly skimming over the surface of the subjects of his study in order to gather what knowledge was needed for immediate employment,” and throughout life this superficiality remained one of the weak points of his genius. What he learned thereafter he learned in the school of experience rather than from actual study. The habit had been first acquired in Virginia, but on his removal to Kentucky the circumstances with which his daily life became surrounded contributed worse than nothing to the production of a change; indeed, if he had been superficial in Virginia, the danger in Kentucky probably was lest he should cease to have any taste whatever for higher knowledge. In this new home “the boisterous hilarity of the barroom and the excitement of the card table accorded with the prevailing taste better than a lecture on ancient history, and a racing horse was to a large majority of Lexingtonians an object of far greater interest than a Professor of Greek.” With all his brilliant abilities Henry Clay never attained to the front rank among great lawyers, and the cause of it was his characteristic failing. When he studied it was for the occasion in hand and to meet and immediate necessity. By means of his remarkable powers as a speaker he was able to make a little knowledge pass for much, and thus to outshine men whose learning was far deeper and wider than his own. His hearers were not the only ones who were deceived by this. Clay doubtless was himself deceived, for as a consequence of his oratorical successes after slight investigations, he became ignorant of the value and necessity of prolonged and laborious study. He was of all the great orators of his time perhaps the least possessed of a logical mind, and very curious are some of the methods of reasoning by which he at various times in his career justified his change of position. Mr. Schurz characterizes the reasoning by which he justified his support of the constitutionality of a recharter of the Bank as “stopping but little, if at all, short of the assertion that whatever may be considered necessary or even eminently desirable to help the country over a temporary embarrassment may be considered constitutional.”

Clay's relations to the tariff are set forth in a way at once suggestive and striking. It is curious reading, this record of first tariff days. Our high protectionists ought not to overlook it, for there are facts here worth pondering over, provided one has the willingness to indulge in that laborious and oftentimes destructive occupation. Clay's first effort in behalf of a policy of protection was made in the Legislature of Kentucky in 1808. It was the period of intense feeling against England, in consequence of those outrages on our merchant ships which finally led to the war of 1812. In the State of Kentucky patriotic men were in a condition of excitement and rage so intense that a resolution declaring that no decision of a British court of law and no British work on law should be read as an authority in any court of the State was immensely popular, and but for Clay it probably would have been passed and Kentucky thus been deprived of the treasures of English jurisprudence. At the same time, other patriotic demonstrations were made in the Kentucky Legislature, and one of them was Clay's resolution recommending that members wear only such clothes as were the product of domestic manufactures. From this conception of the tariff there was utterly wanting any large idea of industrial development as a result of systematic protection. And so, a year later, when he found himself a second time in the Senate, the whole subject was looked at “from the point of view of a Kentucky farmer who found it most economical to clothe himself and his family in homespun, and who desired to secure a sure and profitable market for his hemp.” What is more curious is that Clay was especially anxious not to be understood as favoring a “large development of manufacturing industries with a numerous population of operatives.” It is also to be remembered that the methods suggested by him did not materially differ from those suggested by Gallatin, and Gallatin was, on principle, a free trader.

It was about 15 years after these events that we find Clay developed into a full-blown protectionist, and making a famous speech — one of the most elaborate and effective he ever made — in advocacy of a policy to which he gave the name of “The American System,” and which our author characterizes as exhibiting “Clay's strong as well as his weak points; his skill of statement; his ingenuity in the grouping of facts and principles; his plausibility of reasoning; his brilliant imagination, the fervor of his diction, the warm patriotic tone of his appeals, and, on the other hand, his superficial research, his habit of satisfying himself with half knowledge; his disinclination to reason out propositions logically in all their consequences.” From a speech made by Clay several years later Mr. Schurz extracts a passage showing how far even then was Clay from anticipating a system of protection that should last until our day, and least of all in its present absurd proportions.

“No one, Mr. President, in the commencement of the protective policy ever supposed that it was to be perpetual. We hoped and believed that temporary protection extended to our infant manufactures would bring them up and enable them to withstand competition with those of Europe. If the protection policy were entirely to cease in 1842 it would have existed 26 years from 1816, or 18 from 1824 — quite as long as at either of those periods its friends supposed might be necessary.”

The tributes which Mr. Schurz pays to the eloquence of Clay are cordial, intelligent, and suggestive. Here is one of them:

“It was his eloquence that first made him famous, and that throughout his career mainly sustained his leadership. His speeches were not masterpieces of literary art nor exhaustive dissertations. They do not offer to the student any profound theories of government or expositions of economic science. They will not be quoted as authorities on disputed points. Neither were they strings of witty epigrams. They were the impassioned reasoning of a statesman intensely devoted to his country and to the cause he thought right. To be fully appreciated they had to be heard on the theatre of action, in the hushed Senate Chamber, or before the eager upturned faces of assembled multitudes. To feel the full charm of his lucid explanations and his winning persuasiveness, or the thrill which was flashed through the nerves of his hearers by the magnificent sunbursts of his enthusiasm or the fierce thunderstorms of his anger and scorn, one had to hear that musical voice cajoling, flattering, inspiring, overawing, terrifying in turn — a voice to the cadences of which it was a physical delight to listen — one had to see that face, not handsome, but glowing with the fire of inspiration; that lofty mien, that commanding stature constantly growing under his words, and the grand sweep of his gesture, majestic in its dignity, and full of grace and strength — the whole man a superior being while he spoke.”

This is very pleasant reading, and the pleasure of it is heightened by the fact that we know this writer to be sincere and feel that he is just. Again, he ranks Clay as “without question the greatest Parliamentary orator and one of the greatest popular speakers America has ever had.” And yet “his most potent faculty has left the most imperfect monuments behind it.” The impression of “heavy tameness” which one now receives from reading the printed reports of his speeches furnishes a most striking proof of his power when it is remembered what effect they produced upon those who heard him deliver them. Of Clay's singular attractions as a man he says:

“No less brilliant and attractive was he in his social intercourse with men; thoroughly human in his whole being, full of high spirits, fond of enjoying life and of seeing others happy, generous and hearty in his sympathies, always courteous, sometimes studious and elaborately so, perhaps beyond what the occasion seemed to call for, but never wounding the most sensitive by demonstrative condescension, because there was a truly kind heart behind his courtesy, possessing a natural charm of conversation and manner so captivating that neither scholar nor backwoodsman could withstand its fascination; making friends wherever he appeared and holding them — and surely to no public man did friends ever cling with more affectionate attachment.”

Mr. Schurz's work closes with a quotation from Clay himself that the leading and paramount object of his life has been “the preservation of this Union,” which is declared to be a “just judgment.” The reader will find that Mr. Schurz has taken Clay at his word, and has used this declaration as the key to his career. Indeed of Clay's patriotism and belief in the future grandeur of his country he always writes with enthusiasm — in one place as follows:

“Here was the well-spring from which Henry Clay drew his political inspirations — a grand conception of the future destiny of the American Republic and of a Government adapted to the fulfillment of that great destiny; an ardent love for the Union as the ark of liberty and national grandeur, a Union to be maintained at any price; an imaginative enthusiasm which infused its patriotic glow into his political opinions, but which was also apt to carry him beyond the limits of existing things and conditions and not seldom unfitted him for the formation of a clear and well-balanced judgment of facts and interests. But this enthusiastic conception of the Nation's grandeur, this lofty Unionism constantly appearing as the inspiration of his public conduct, gave to his policies, as they stood forth in the glow of his eloquence, a peculiarly potent charm.”

Writing of the Missouri compromise, Mr. Schurz points out the reasons which made it seem good statesmanship to adopt that measure as a means of holding the Union together and adjourning the final struggle until the Union feeling and the free States should both become strong enough to make the result of a conflict certain, and the ofttimes forgotten point is brought out that, “while the thought of dissolving the Union occurred readily to the Southern mind, the thought of maintaining the Government and preserving the Union by force hardly occurred to anybody.” He adds that “it seemed to be taken for granted on all sides that if the Southern States insisted upon cutting loose from the Union nothing could be done but to let them go.” Even John Quincy Adams, who was an anti-slavery man and a patriotic statesman, declared that “if the Union must be dissolved, slavery is precisely the question upon which it ought to break.” Had the South at that time attempted to dissolve the Union it “would have been likely to succeed” is the opinion of Mr. Schurz, and without any armed collision about the dissolution as a distinct issue. While it is conceded that this train of reasoning may not have been Clay's conscious motive, it is certain that, as a devoted friend of the Union, he left for the moment all other interests out of view, and thus probably, as was his habit, simply followed his instinct.

Clay's patriotism, as we have said, is the one note most accentuated in this work. He was not always consistent on slavery questions; he was not always even wise on those questions speaking after the manner of the politicians; and, viewed from the standpoints and circumstances of later times, he was not enlightened nor was he heroic; but the fact remains, and a reading of this book must enforce it upon every mind, that had Clay survived until the decade that followed the one in which his own earthly labors were forever closed he would have been found valiantly at work for the cause of liberty and for the preservation of the Union of these States.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).