Gamaliel Bradford.

The last seven years of the life of Henry Clay online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordThe last seven years of the life of Henry Clay → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

1856.] The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. 543




The Last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. By Calvin
Colton, LL. D., Professor of Public Economy, Trinity Col-
lege, [Hartford, Connecticut.] New York: Published by
A. S. Barnes & Co., 51 and 53 John Street. 1856.

The author of this book has been long and favorably known
to the best part of the reading public by his writings on vari-
ous and widely different subjects. Without being liable to the
imputation of versatility of genius or taste, his literary works
have been diversified as well as numerous. So much the better
for the task which he took in hand when he began the work
now before us,— and which he has faithfully executed, not only
to the best of his unquestioned ability, but to the full extent of
the capability of his subject. Sincere and earnest in his efforts
to ascertain the truth, industrious and patient in his investiga-
tions of it, he has been proportionally successful in the expres-
sion of it on this occasion. -He came to this enterprise, in the
possession of extraordinary advantages and opportunities well
improved. His personal knowledge of many of the events
which he narrates, and his intimate association with those who
performed the greatest parts in these transactions, have fitted
him to make this volume what it is — a valuable contribution to
our contemporaneous political history, and one quite essential
to the completeness and the preservation of our knowledge of
the times and of the country in which we live, and have lived.
He has herein furnished important materials to the future his-
torian of the events of this age. As a simple and faithful an-
nalist, he could have done that. He has done much more, in
the unconscious fidelity with which he has in this, (and preced-
ing works constituting a series of which this is a necessary part
and the proper conclusion,) both represented and exemplified
the impassioned admiration and devoted affection which that
extraordinary man so widely and deeply inspired.

Such partiality, far from impairing, enhances the value of this
historic testimony. The author's fidelity and competency
being conceded, he instructs by sure facts, which he illustrates
by inferences and comments, also instructive and interesting,
though they cannot and will not be adopted by all his most
intelligent readers.

544 The last Seven Tears of the Life of Henry Clay. [Nov.,

Henry Clay possessed and exercised an influence over not
only the opinions but the affections of his countrymen, difficult
to explain even now, — and likely to be more difficult, perhaps
puzzling, to those who may read or write of these things thirty
years hence, if a sufficient interest in them prevail so long.
His influence, for good and evil, was great, and was energeti-
cally, effectively exerted, in both directions, on the men, espe-
cially on the young and patriotically hopeful men, of his time.
The manifest purpose and confessed object of this volume is —
not only the enlogization of Mr. Clay, — but a defense of his
conduct in public affairs during the last seven years of his life
— a defense of what has not been attacked, and which no one
has cared about enough to feel provoked to make an attack
on it.

Our case is not wholly and exactly parallel to that of the
Lacedemonian who was invited to hear the delivery of a pane-
gyric on Hercules, and who in reply, exclaimed — ■" On Hercu-
les ! Why ? Who ever thought of blaming Hercules ?" The
gross animal preeminence of the semi-fabulous personification
of classic or barbarous heroism was nearer to the Spartan's
beau-ideal of human perfection than Henry Clay is to what the
intelligent portion of his countrymen would regard as a model
of wisdom and goodness, or to their standard of attainable ex-
cellence in statesmanship and policy. But the inquiry now
naturally suggested, on the presentation of this bulky and elab-
orate defense of Mr. Clay's supplementary course as a politi-
cian after what was justly deemed the close of his public and
official career, is — Who has published or uttered anything in
condemnation or censure of the man since his death ? His foes
having not only ceased to denounce him but actually contradicted
and very generally retracted their former abuse, why not leave
the disputable points of the latest portions of his history to the
willingly charitable judgments or silence of his countrymen
both of the present and following generations? No man ever
had a more liberal allowance of praise while alive and imme-
diately after death ; and in view of that, it is not very wise or
well-timed to force upon public notice a vindicatory biography
of him, demanding criticism, as this certainly does. Mr. Clay's
friends have enjo} T ed unbounded and unchecked license in their
posthumous commendations and eulogies of him, it being of
course understood that the interests of his country and the
characters of his survivors should not be unjustly sacrificed to
give an unnatural splendor to the already profuse and extrava-
gant honors rendered to the unquestionably illustrious dead.
Justice to the living, and the establishment of the truth of his-

1856.] The last Seveji Years of the Life of Henry Clay. 515

toiy require of us an examination of such opinions and comments
on facts in Mr. Clay's history, as are set forth in tins volume.
The first chapter begins with a " Ketrospect " of some of the
^ events of 1844, and refers to the accomplishment of Mr. Clay's

predictions as to the annexation of Texas and the consequences
of that act. It gives also a minutely detailed description of
the complimentary visit to Ashland by the Kentucky Presi-
dential electors of that year, immediately after casting their
votes for Clay and Frelinghuysen. The account of the inter-
view forcibly suggests two reflections. How deeply that sad
defeat impressed the hearts of Mr. Clay's patriotic friends with
sympathy for his personal disappointment in view of the hu-
miliating prostration of the over-confident hopes with which
he and they had looked forward to the anticipated triumph !
And how willingly, under the influence of that sympathy,
they forgot or overlooked, at the time, the very large and es-
sential part he himself had borne in the production of the re-
sult ! And this kindly oblivious feeling was simultaneously
prevalent among those who most deplored the consequences of
his egregious folly, all over the Union. There was not one sen-
sible, observant man among them all, who could not trace the
defeat of Mr. Clay and the Whig party to the natural and ne-
cessary influence of the idly discursive and exceedingly silly
letters written by him for publication during the summer and
autumn of that year, — written in contemptuous disregard of
the unanimous and urgent expostulations of those who were
then disinterestedly lavishing their labor, time and means for
his election. In the final result, it became evident that a
change of about 2600 votes from the successful candidate to
him would have given him the electoral ballots of New York,
and would have made him Presideot. In the same State,
15,000 votes were thrown away on electors pledged to a hope-
less anti-slavery ballot for J. G. Birney. Two-thirds of these
(as was proved four years after) could have been secured to a
whig slaveholder in the position occupied by Mr. Clay when
he received the unanimous nomination of the National Con-
vention at Baltimore, May 1st, 1811. Maine and Indiana
were probably as needlessly lost by the same unparalleled and
inexcusable folly. Even Mr. Clay himself would have been
compelled to admit this, if any person had been cruel enough
to extort from him then any opinion on the point. His letters
to Alabama and Georgia on Texas-annexation and the tariff,
wholly unnecessary as they were for the information of any one
as to his views on those subjects, although they did not abso-
lutely contradict the plain declarations previously made by
vol. xix. 36

546 The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. [Nov.,

him, were yet so apologetic and equivocal in their tone as to
furnish his opponents in the Northern states with new and ir-
resistible weapons against him. It was thus that he encourag-
ed and delighted his enemies, while he chilled the hearts and
benumbed the zeal and energies of his friends.

Much of that affectionate obliviousness of these and many-
other injurious errors of Mr. Clay, was the consequence of the
saddened feelings with which his most devoted admirers and
disinterested defenders regarded him, at the time of what they
justly deemed his final as well as total defeat. To brighten
that defeat and to cheer him under that disappointment, with
more than the honors of success, was " a labor of love" with
them. The catalogue and partial detail of them fills many
pages of this work. The golden vase from the artisans of
New York, the silver-mounted scroll containing the farewell
address of the New York Clay Clubs, the contributions of some
tens of thousands of dollars by his New York friends for the
payment of his debts, with many other heart-free tributes to
his still-acknowledged excellences, are mentioned and described
by his biographer.

But the much-respected author of the work before us,
writing — not history, but eulogy — has ignored the great facts
underlying his careful narrative of these demonstrations. His
last volume is, throughout, an apology for the last seven years
of Henry Clay's life. Probably, no man could have done it

Many pages of this volume are devoted to an account of the
events and proceedings which caused the nomination and elec-
tion of Zachary Taylor to the Presidency, in 1848, — four years
after the time when Henry Clay had willfully and wantonly
thrown away the advantages given him by a unanimous nomi-
nation from the National Whig Convention. The same pages
contain an implied and undisguised attack on those who pro-
moted or favored Taylor's nomination and election, — Mr. Clay
being the principal opposing claimant of the same honors. If
the nomination of Zachary Taylor was wrong, either as to
expediency, or justice and propriety, we are guiltless. Those
whose opinions or action we may represent '' in this connec-
tion," are equally so. There were those who did their utmost
(and that was not little) to secure Mr. Clay's nomination in
1848, because they knew that he vjished for it, and because
they knew that he could be elected to the place which he had
openly sought for more than twenty-eight years. From the
moment when they clearly understood that Mr. Clay was a
candidate, or willing to be such, they " went in for him, heart

1856.] The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. 547

and soul," — as he 'warmly acknowledged, — by word of mouth
and grasp of hand, as well as by pen, ink and paper. There
were others, who, being made to understand quite clearly, in
1845 and in the beginning of 1846, that Mr. Clay was no
longer a candidate, and was looking forward cheerfully to a
bright and calm old age, and a quiet though not unhonored
grave in or near Ashland, were looking for some new man with
whom, and in and by whom, that same old Whig party and
cause might triumph. Among these we name, for instance,
John James Crittenden, John Middleton Clayton, George D.
Prentice and John Bell. We can name others, if need be ;
but these " will do for a sample."

In the midst of these particularly inopportune and inauspi-
cious circumstances, Mr. Clay suddenly presented himself as
a candidate for a renomination to the Presidency, in the let-
ter, or proclamation, or decree, published soon after his return
home from New York, in the Spring of 1848. He therein sig-
nified his wish to be a candidate for a nomination disputed by
three eminent competitors, (Taylor, Scott, and Webster,) in the
Philadelphia Convention of June, 1848, — four years after hav-
ing received such a nomination, when no man's name was pre-
sented or even suggested to the Convention in opposition to
him. He went into that competition, and was thoroughly beat-
en on the third ballot.

And here let us suggest that our author is essentially mis-
taken in his talk about the effects of the " military feather,"
in the commencement of Chapter IV, (page 89,) attributing
the action of the Whig party, in nominating General Taylor,
to the mere influence of the disputed military reputation which
he acquired by his successes at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma,
Monterey and Buena Vista. Those events made him known, as
an honest, modest, unpretending man of plain common sense,
great simplicity of character, and indomitable courage, — con-
scientious in doing his duty to the government and the coun-
try, in all his official relations. The people rejoiced in his suc-
cesses, and were naturally grateful to him for the glory therefrom
resulting and accruing to them and their posterity. The most in-
telligent portion of the people, disconnected from politics regard-
ed as a trade, very early discovered the peculiar excellences of
General Taylor's character as unconsciously displayed by him-
self in his simple official dispatches, reporting to the Federal
Government what he had done in obedience to its orders.
Much of that had been done by him successfully and glori-
ously, notwithstanding the numerous obstacles studiously and
continually put in his way by President Polk and Secretary

548 The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. [Nov.,

Marcy, who had the countenance, sympathy, and aid of Messrs.
Buchanan and Cass, and their followers, from the first moment
when his astonishing victories gave him the renown which
made him dangerous to their several and common ambitious
purposes. All their meanly envious plots and efforts to crip-
ple him, by delaying or wholly withholding his necessary sup-
plies, and by withdrawing nearly all his regular troops, resulted
in forcing him into the desperate battle and matchless triumph
of Buena Vista, which placed him wholly above the reach of
censure, criticism and cavil. General Taylor was not a great
strategist, not a very scientific military man ; but he had precise-
ly the qualities and faculties for the remarkable results to which
he was providentially conducted. He knew, and so did all in-
telligent and impartial observers, that from the time when his
victories on the Rio Grande made him famous, the managers
and supporters of the Federal Government were doing their
utmost to insult, harrass, and disgrace him — to deprive him of
the means of doing his country further distinguished service,
lest he should gain more and still greater glory thereby. For
this purpose, Messrs. Polk, Marcy, Buchanan, Cass and their
associates, willfully and treasonably aided and comforted the
enemy with which this country was at war by the act of these
very traitors. They sent General Santa Anna back to Mexico
in a United States government ship, and put him in condition
to lead against General Taylor, in a few weeks, the largest and
most splendid army ever put in the field by Mexico, or by any
power on this Continent. We all know that it was their
expectation and intention that General Taylor (deprived of his
most reliable and favorite veteran troops and officers, in view of
this wickedly contrived emergency) should be compelled either
to "shut himself up within the blood-stained walls of Monte-
rey," and fortify himself there against a patriotic foe, power-
ful to besiege him and insult him even to the city's gates — or
to march out and meet, in open battle, that host, fighting on its
own ground, under the ablest commander that ever led a Span-
ish-American army to conflict and to victory. He chose the
latter course — and conquered, against odds of just three to one.
The managers of the Federal Government, who had made
General Scott their willing tool in this attempt to transfer the
war from the Rio Grande and Nueva Leon, to Vera Crnz and
the National Road to Pnebla and the City of Mexico, had
allowed General Taylor's line of communication to be so com-
pletely cut off, that they published their apologies for his
defeat (which they had prepared and deemed certain) after he
had actually won that great and bloody victory by his own

1856.] The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. 549

obstinate courage, and that of his hardy volunteers. He knew
that they had designed to disgrace him by defeat or retreat;
and he determined'to disappoint them or perish with his whole

These were the events which led to General Taylor's nomi-
nation as a candidate for the Presidency — an honor which he
had neither sought nor expected till it was thrust upon him.
The Philadelphia Convention, containing many very base men,
and largely influenced by very base means and motives, pre-
sented him in due form as the regular Whig nominee. It was
not until after many of Mr. Clay's best friends had devoted
themselves publicly to General Taylor, that the retired states-
man of Ashland put himself into the field as a competitor for
that nomination. Mr. Clay had no higher claims to the Presi-
dency than his previous presentations for election, and his re-
peated defeats. Many of his blindly selfish friends urged him
to take that unfortunate position again. And when he did so,
many others could not find it in their hearts to refuse him
another effort to place him where they had so long hoped to see
him. They had no great objections to General Taylor, and
were willing to aid in his election, if they could not succeed in
renominating their old and favorite candidate. They knew
that Taylor was honest and conscientious ; they believed him
capable. He had been, to the last, steadily opposed to the
annexation of Texas — that opposition being based on constitu-
tional grounds. He was also opposed to the extension of slavery
to new territory. So they believed ; and so his official con-
duct, to the day of his death, subsequently proved beyond

Mr. Clay's whole conduct, in connection with that Presiden-
tial nomination and election, is wholly and most deplorably in-
capable of defense ; and his biographer has done no service to
the reputation of the man, in calling public attention again to
these painful facts. He has vindicated the truth of history in
an unintentional way, but at the expense of his hero. For
Henry Clay has at last become a mere matter of history — no
longer convertible to the purposes of partisan friends or parti-
san foes.

The recall to public animadversion of Mr. Clay's unwise
course, in opposition to the administration of President Taylor, is
equally unfortunate. Mr. Clay, considering himself deeply
wronged by the nominating Convention, came forth from pri-
vate life, and, in March, 1849, returned to the Senate, from
which he had retired, with the pathetic solemnities of an eter-
nal farewell, in April, 1843. His new senatorial term com-

550 The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. [Nov.,

menced simultaneously with the inauguration of President
Taylor ; and it was manifest, even before he took his seat or
went to Washington, that he was influenced by unfriendly
feeling towards his successful competitor, by jealousy of the
President's high place in the respect, confidence, and affections
of the people, and seemingly by mortified vanity, if not by
envy of the marvelous good fortune by which he had attained,
almost without seeking or attempting it, the high official sta-
tion which had been the object of fruitless lifelong struggles
and schemes to half a dozen eminent statesmen who, with the
whole nation, were hardly informed of his existence, four years
previously. It was not in Henry Clay's nature to remain in
quiet retirement under the provocation of such feelings and

The public mind, immediately after the Presidential election,
had settled down into a very happy tranquillity and a complete
unconsciousness of any cause for renewed disturbance. The
Wilmot Proviso had been almost unanimously adopted by the
Legislature of every Northern state, except Illinois ; and the
South had been compelled, by the necessity of the case, to a
hopeless submission, not only to this but to other strong Anti-
Slavery measures in the same quarter. California was about to
apply for admission into the Union, with a constitution pro-
hibiting slavery, and was likely to be received with as little
opposition as was encountered by Wisconsin and Iowa. The
new territories acquired from Mexico were free from slavery,
and under the operation of existing law must remain so.
There were no movements in the South for secession, nor
threats of disunion, except, of course, in South Carolina and
Georgia, where such complaints are chronic, and endemic, and
harmless — merely furnishing matter of ridicule and amusement
to the newspapers in other parts of the Union. The slave-
breeders and slave-traders could look to no part of the territo-
ries of the United States for a new market. The consolidated
force of the free states was too overwhelming to permit the
idea of a successful resistance to such an established order
of things.

It was then that Mr. Clay made his ill-omened re-appearance
on the political stage, to break the calm by wanton, needless
and mischievous agitation, and to encourage the slave-holders
to pretensions which they could not otherwise have been in-
duced to make. Our author has entirely overlooked some oi
Mr. Clay's most remarkable proceedings about the time of his
election to his last, mortal, Senatorial term. His presentation
of himself before the Kentucky Legislature, his reception by

1856.] The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. 551

unanimous vote, his elaborate speech to them, vilely abusing
the Whig party for maintaining what they always avowed
throughout the Union — his violent denunciation of them as an
Abolition party for adhering to his and their old opinions or
professions — are wholly unnoticed in this courteous apology for
those unfortunate "last seven years of the life of Henry Clay."

On his journey to Washington, Mr. Clay also availed him-
self of every opportunity to make clamorous and startling
appeals to casual assemblies collected in compliment or wel-
come to him, or out of mere idle curiosity to see and hear a
man long so conspicuous and famous. He surprised and alarm-
ed his auditors by telling them of great and before unheard-of
dangers threatening the peace and perpetuity of the Union.
His speech at Baltimore, on this occasion, was a particularly
offensive demonstration of that sort ; and on his arrival at
Washington, he was quiet in his Senatorial chair only while
awaiting an opportunity to attack the Administration of Presi-
dent Taylor, as soon as its friends made the first movement in
favor of a quiet settlement of affairs by urging the immediate
admission of California.

In January, 1850, he introduced into the Senate his prolix,
multifarious, useless, and mischievous Compromise resolutions,
which, after a six months debate, were defeated, with the
three bills subsequently reported, designed, and drawn by him,
to carry out the Compromise principle. But for Mr. Clay's
overbearing, meddling interposition, California would have
been admitted a free State immediately, by a large majority of
both Houses of Congress, with the cordial approval of a slave-
holding President, who was urgent and impatient fur the adop-
tion of the measure. The whole proper business of Congress
was deferred half a year, while Henry Clay was using his in-
fluence with his personal friends and old partisans everywhere,
to stir up local dissension throughout the free states, and to
embolden the South to invent claims and get up pretensions
which even the outrageous impudence of South Carolina had
never conceived before. The whole country, before perfectly
quiet, was put in a universal turmoil. The North was called
upon to make new concessions which the South had never
thought of demanding till Mr. Clay suggested them. A new
and more stringent fugitive-slave-law was a thing not asked
until he proposed it. The State of Texas, by the terms of its
admission, was solemnly pledged to pay its own debts, without
recourse to the Federal Government, and was guaranteed the
absolute possession of all the many millions of acres of land
within its boundaries, as undoubtedly more than sufficient to

552 The last Seven Years of the Life of Henry Clay. [Nov.,

satisfy every just claim against it ; and that State did not even


Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordThe last seven years of the life of Henry Clay → online text (page 1 of 2)