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HENRY CLAY (1777-1852)
THE PEOPLE'S FAVORITE
N those days of tariff and slavery agitation, when all seemed at
risk in the great Republic of the West, the noble figure of Ilenry
Clay stood in the front rank of the patriots who fought against the forces of disunion; not towering, like Webster, in heroic defiance of the foes of the Union, but healing its wounds, allaying the violence of the combat, and winning by mild measures what could not be attained by violence. Where other men made themselves admired, Clay made himself loved. IIis gentleness and courtesy won him an abiding place in the hearts of his countrymen. He was everywhere the favorite of the people. “Who ever,” says Parton, “ heard such cheers, so hearty, distinct and ringing, as those which his name evoked ? Men shed tears at his defeat and women went to bed sick from pure sympathy with his disappointment. Ile could not travel during the last thirty years of his life, he only made progresses ; the committee of one State passing him on to the committee of another, the hurrahs of one town dying away as those of the next caught his ear.”
How did this man win such high esteem? He began life humbly enough, working on a Virginia farm to aid his widowed mother, and riding barefoot to mill for the family flour—whence his familiar title, “ The Mill-boy of the Slashes.” A clerk in Richmond at fourteen, he was admitted to the bar at twenty, and by signal fortune became a member of the United States Senate before reaching the constitutional limit of thirty years of age. His rapid progress was due to his fine native powers of oratory, his skill in debate, and his controlling influence in political measures. Endowed by nature with a voice of wonderful compass and rich harmony, fluent in delivery
and graceful in gesture, his reputation soon spread from end to end of the land. “Take him for all in all," says Parton, “we must regard him as the first of American orators; but posterity wiil not assign, him that high rank, for posterity will not hear that matchless voice, will not see those large gestures, those striking attitudes, that grand manner, which gave to second-rate composition first-rate effect.” While excelled as a reasoner by Webster, and surpassed in fiery earnestness by Calhoun, none were his equals in grace of oratory and charm of manner. His speeches do not all read well. Many dull passages are met with. They lack that splendor of delivery which gave them such winning effect. Yet they present, even on the printed page, hundreds of admirable passages, and will long be perused with pleasure and profit by students and lovers of oratory.
In the several critical periods of American history which came while Clay was in Congress, his broad spirit of conciliation went far to tide the Union over the danger points in its career.
Three great compromise measures were engineered by him—the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, and the Territorial Compromise of 1850, the latter two being initiated and carried through by him. By these noble services he smoothed the waves of discontent and stayed the spirit of disunion until death removed him from the scene. His own words form the true motto of his character: “I would rather be right than be President.”
THE AMERICAN SYSTEM [Clay, who had argued strongly in favor of a protective tariff during the spirited discussion in 1824, took different ground in 1832 and 1833, during a period of excitement in the South against high tariff that yielded in South Carolina an attempt to nullify the United States tariff laws. Clay, in a speech in 1832, showed vividly the prosperity which had arisen between 1824 and the latter date, due, as he believed, to the protective tariff. But in the following year he introduced, in order to allay the irritation, a bill for a gradual reduction of the tariff during the ten succeeding years. This was the compromise above spoken of.]
Eight years ago it was my painful duty to present to the House of Congress an unexaggerated picture of the general distress pervading the whole land. We must all yet remember some of its frightful features. We all know that the people were then oppressed and borne down by an enormous load of debt; that the value of property was at the lowest point of depression ; that ruinous sales and sacrifices were everywhere made of real estate ; that stop-laws and relief-laws and paper-money were adopted
to save the people from impending destruction ; that a deficit in the public revenue existed which compelled the Government to seize upon, and divert from its legitimate object, the appropriation to the sinking fund to redeem the national debt; and that our commerce and navigation were threatened with a complete paralysis. In short, sir, if I were to select any term of seven years since the adoption of the present Constitution which exhibited a scene of the most widespread dismay and desolation, it would be exactly that term of seven years which immediately preceded the establishment of the tariff of 1824.
I have now to perform the more pleasing task of exhibiting an imperfect sketch of the existing state of the unparalleled prosperity of the country. On a general survey, we behold cultivation extended, the arts flourishing, the face of the country improved, our people fully and profitably employed, and the public countenance exhibiting tranquillity, contentment and happiness. And, if we descend into particulars, we have the agreeable contemplation of a people out of debt; land rising slowly in value, but in a secure and salutary degree ; a ready, though not extravagant, market for all the surplus productions of our industry ; innumerable flocks and herds browsing and gamboling on ten thousand hills and plains, covered with rich and verdant grasses ; our cities expanded, and whole villages springing up, as it were, by enchantment; our exports and imports increased and increasing; our tonnage, foreign and coastwise, swelling and fully occupied ; the rivers of our interior animated by the perpetual thunder and lightning of countless steamboats; the currency sound and abundant; the public debt of two wars nearly redeemed; and, to crown all, the public treasury overflowing, embarrassing Congress, not to find subjects of taxation, but to select the objects which shall be liberated from the impost. If the term of seven years were to be selected of the greatest prosperity which this people have enjoyed since the establishment of their present Constitution, it would be exactly that period of seven years which immediately followed the passage of the tariff of 1824.
This transformation of the condition of the country from gloom and distress to brightness and prosperity has been mainly the work of American legislation, fostering American industry ; instead of allowing it to be controlled by foreign legislation, cherishing foreign industry. The foes of the American system, in 1824, with great boldness and confidence, predicted : ist. The ruin of the public revenue and the creation of a necessity to resort to direct taxation. The gentleman from South Carolina (Mr. Hayne), I believe, thought that the tariff of 1824 would operate a reduction of revenue to the large amount of eight millions of dollars. 2nd. The destruction of our navigation. 3rd. The desolation of commercial
cities. And 4th. The augmentation of the price of objects of consumption, and further decline in that of the articles of our exports. Every prediction which they made has failed-utterly failed. Instead of the ruin of the public revenue, with which they then sought to deter us from the adoption of the American system, we are now threatened with its subversion by the vast amount of the public revenue produced by that system.
The danger to our Union does not lie on the side of persistence in the American system, but on that of its abandonment. If, as I have supposed and believed, the inhabitants of all north and east of the James River, and all west of the mountains, including Louisiana, are deeply interested in the preservation of that system, would they be reconciled to its overthrow ? Can it be expected that two-thirds, if not three-fourths, of the people of the United States would consent to the destruction of a policy believed to be indispensably necessary to their prosperity-when, too, this sacrifice is made at the instance of a single interest which they verily believe will not be promoted by it? In estimating the degree of peril which may be incident to two opposite courses of human policy, the statesman would be shortsighted who should content himself with viewing only the evils, real or imaginary, which belong to that course which is in practical operation. He should lift himself up to the contemplation of those greater and more certain dangers which might inevitably attend the adoption of the alternative course. What would be the condition of this Union if Pennsylvania and New York, those mammoth members of our confederacy, were firmly persuaded that their industry was paralyzed and their prosperity blighted by the enforcement of thie British Colonial system, under the delusive name of free trade? They are now tranquil and happy and contented, conscious of their welfare, and feeling a salutary and rapid circulation of the products of home manufactures and home industry throughout all their great arteries. But let that be checked ; let them feel that a foreign system is to predominate, and the sources of their subsistence and comfort dried up ; let New England and the West and the Middle States all feel that hey too are the victims of a mistaken policy, and let these vast portions of our country despair of any favorable change, and then, indeed, might we tremble for the continuance and safety of this Union !
THE HORRORS OF CIVIL WAR [Of Henry Clay's contributions to the stability of the Union, one of the greatest was the Compromise of 1850, which he erected as a dam against the flood of hostile sentiment which was then swelling in North and South alike. If no check were put to it, if it should lead to the fatal ultimatum of secession, a war of frightful dimensions would be, in his opinion, an inevitable consequence. He was justified in his