Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Henry Clay,
the Great Advocate of Compromise

In those historic days when Washington was settling himself in his seat as first President of the United States, and this great country was slowly getting used to its new government harness, there entered the office of the Court of Chancery at Richmond, Virginia, a boy clerk whose ungainly appearance created a smile among the older lads in the office. He was fifteen years old, very tall for his age, very slender, very awkward, yet with a prepossessing face. And he was dressed in country fashion, wearing a pepper-and-salt suit, with stiffly starched shirt and collar and an equally stiff coat-tail. No wonder looks and winks of amusement went round among the clerks.

Such was Henry Clay at fifteen. Before he was twenty all his awkwardness had vanished and he had learned to dress and carry himself as well as the most fashionable of his fellows. He was never a handsome man, but he had an expanded forehead and a countenance beaming with intelligence, while his every movement had gained a winning grace. The ungainly boy had developed into the well-poised man. And his voice, always musical, now seemed to hold the rich tones of an organ. It had a depth, a volume, a harmony, a compass, rarely heard, and was destined to fill large audiences with delight in future years.

Henry Clay's early life had been one of penury and privation. He was born in 1777, during the war of the Revolution, in a low, swampy district of Virginia called the "Slashes," not far away from Richmond, the capital city. The boy had a hard life of it. He was one of seven children, his father, a poor Baptist preacher, dying when he was four years old, leaving his wife to a desperate struggle for life with her young family.

Henry had plenty of time for work, but very little time for study. We see him first sitting, one of a score of barefooted urchins, in a little log school-house, with a teacher who was good-natured enough when he was sober, but cross and irritable when he was drunk. Here the boy learned to read, write, and cipher, going into the arithmetic only as far as the rules of "Practice."

That was the whole of his schooling. His mother had to take him from school at an early age and put him to work on her little farm. At thirteen we see him again, still barefoot, clad in a homespun butternut suit of his mother's making, riding to mill on the family pony, and carrying before him a bag of the corn he had helped to raise in the fields. From this he afterwards got the title of the "Mill-Boy of the Slashes."

He was put into a Richmond drug-store as errand boy at fourteen, and a position was obtained for him in the Court of Chancery at fifteen. Here, despite the ridicule of the clerks, he made his way so well by study and industry that he was chosen by the Chancellor for his private secretary. The Chancellor liked the boy, taught him many things, and gave him a chance to study law. This he did so earnestly that he was practicing as a lawyer before he was twenty-one.

Long before this the boys in the office had ceased to smile at Henry Clay. He had made friends among some of the best families of Richmond, was grave and studious in disposition, and had already shown himself a ready and able debater. Tradition tells us that he was the peerless star of the Richmond Debating Society in 1795, when eighteen years of age.

Kentucky was then a rapidly growing state. Settled by Daniel Boone and his followers in Revolutionary days, it was now fast filling up. Clay's mother, who had married again, had moved to that fertile land in 1792; and Clay himself, finding business anything but brisk in Richmond, followed her in 1798, when twenty-one years of age. Like many others, he thought it would pay to "grow up with the country."

The young lawyer hung out his sign over an office in Lexington, Kentucky, and waited for business. He had plenty of ambition, but his pocket was empty. He had not money enough to pay his board, and his first fifteen-shilling fee filled him with delight. But he was versed in the law, was a good pleader, and so successful in his cases that business came to him fast. In less than two years he married a woman of excellent standing and character, and soon after had money enough to buy an estate of six hundred acres near Lexington, named Ashland. It afterwards became famous as the home of Henry Clay.

Thus was the future great orator launched in life. He soon became active in politics, advocating the policy of President Jefferson, whom he esteemed as one of the best and ablest of men. His native powers as a speaker had now greatly developed, his rich, resonant voice was heard widely on stump and rostrum, and his powers of rhetoric and oratory unfolded so rapidly that he soon became highly popular as a public speaker. The people of Lexington thought that a man of his powers ought to represent them in the legislature, and he was elected by a large majority in 1803.

As a law-maker Clay's ability was so marked that three years later, when one of the Kentucky Senators resigned, he was chosen to fill the balance of his term in the Senate of the United States. He was re-elected to this body again in 1809, another Senator having resigned.

Up to this time Henry Clay had not especially made his mark, though he was becoming widely known as an orator of unusual powers and a statesman of fine ability. His great career began in 1811, when he was elected to Congress as a member of the House.

It was a time of great political activity. Troubles were growing between England and the United States. War was in the air, and Clay became such an ardent and powerful advocate of appeal to the sword that the war-party in the House immediately elected him Speaker. He attained to his important office at thirty-four years of age.

From that time on Clay's voice fiercely denounced Great Britain for its injuries and insults to this country, and he had more to do with bringing on the war of 1812 than any other individual. He often left his seat as Speaker to arouse the House by his clarion voice. He put new spirit into President Madison. When the war began and the soldiers set out for the field, Clay warmed their hearts with inspiring words, and they read his speeches with delight by their camp-fires. At a later date, when all seemed going wrong in the army, the President wished to appoint him commander-in-chief, but Gallatin objected, saying, "What shall we do without him in the House of Representatives?"

In 1814 Russia, as a friend of both countries, tried to bring about a peace, much as the United States did for Russia and Japan in the war of 1905. Both parties were tired of the war, and "Harry of the West," as Clay was then called, was chosen as one of the commissioners to the peace conference at Ghent. The treaty was agreed to on the day before. Christmas, 1814 In settling its terms Clay gained many advantages for the United States.

On his return, in 1815, he was at once sent back to Congress, where he was re-elected Speaker, and for the years that followed he was the leader of the House, leaving it in 1825 to become Secretary of State. Never has the House known his superior as a presiding officer. There was a charm of manner, a dignity, and a reserved power in the way in which he held together the excitable members, and during his whole career not one of his decisions was reversed. Party feeling was intense during his early years as Speaker, and all his strength and resolution were often needed to keep order, but he never failed.

The great event of this period in Henry Clay's career was the famous Missouri Compromise of 1821. It was a result of the first great struggle over the subject of Slavery. New territories were opening in the West, and the planters of the South claimed the right to take their slaves into this region. Missouri applied for admission as a State in 1820, and at once there arose a bitter contest as to whether it should be admitted as a slave or a free State. The dispute grew so hot and violent that there was almost a war on the floor of Congress.

Finally a compromise was suggested under which Missouri was to be a slave State, but no other slave States were to be made in the Western country north of the parallel of 36 30', the southern boundary of Missouri. Clay, a peace-maker in spirit, despite his advocacy of war ten years before, became the great advocate of this compromise. He did not confine himself to speeches, but went in person from member to member, talking with them, reasoning, beseeching, and persuading, in his most winning way. He succeeded, the Compromise Bill was passed, and the difficulty was settled for the next thirty years. Clay was praised as the "great pacificator."

In the year 1824 Jackson, Adams, Crawford, and Clay were candidates for the Presidency. Jackson got the largest number of votes, but none of the candidates had a majority, and the choice of a President was left to the House of Representatives. The choice was to be made from the three highest candidates, of which Clay was not one. He was still Speaker, his influence in the House was very great, and as Jackson had long been his bitter enemy he naturally used his influence in favor of Adams, who was declared elected.

Adams, on forming his Cabinet, selected Clay for the highest place in it, appointing him Secretary of State. In consequence of this the charge was made that Clay had sold his influence to get this high post, and that there had been a bargain between him and Adams before the election. The charge was false and malicious, as has since been shown, but it was widely believed at the time, and it hurt Clay for all the rest of his career. For years the cry of "bargain and sale "was not allowed to drop.

The next great question that came before the country was that of a protective tariff. Henry Clay was one of its ablest supporters. In a few years a new tariff party was formed, called the Whig party, which looked upon Clay as its leader. The tariff question became urgent after 1829, when Jackson was made President, and so much hostile feeling was stirred up that South Carolina attempted to secede from the Union. This was checked by the vigorous action of "Old Hickory," who took hold of the affair with a warlike grip.

But the tariff contest remained before the country, and something needed to be done with it. Clay ceased to be Secretary of State when Jackson became President, but two years afterwards he was elected to the Senate. The agitation was great, and Clay did his best to allay it, offering his second great compromise measure. This was the compromise tariff of 1833, under which the duties were gradually reduced till they reached the level of twenty per cent.

Clay ran for President against Jackson in 1832, though he had no chance of election against a soldier of such popularity. He ran again in 1844, and this time seemed sure of an election, for his popularity was immense. But the question of the annexation of Texas came up, and by trying to satisfy both parties Clay lost votes in both, and, to the utter surprise of the whole country, was defeated.

Never was there another Presidential defeat that excited such intense feeling. The Whigs were utterly overwhelmed. "It was," says Nathan Sargent, "as if the first-born of every family had been stricken down." Henry Clay was not only admired, he was loved, worshipped almost, and his defeat gave rise to an extraordinary grief. Men and women alike wept bitterly when they heard the news. The busiest places in the cities were almost deserted for a day or two, people gathering to discuss in low tones the result. The victorious party made no show of triumph, the feeling being that a great wrong had been done.

Clay was bitterly disappointed, and just then other cares arose to add to his depression of feeling. He had fallen deeply into debt, and it seemed as if he might have to sell his beloved home at Ashland to satisfy his creditors. The old man of sixty-seven, whose life had been given to the service of his country, was in no condition to start life afresh.

But if his friends could not make him President, they could save him from poverty. To his utter surprise, he suddenly found that money had come to the bank at Lexington to pay all his debts. Where it came from the banker did not know, and Clay therefore could not return the gift, as it was his first impulse to do. He was forced to accept it, and Ashland was saved.

Then followed the last great event in Henry Clay's life. From 1842 to 1849 he was out of Congress, but in the latter year he was again elected to the Senate. He came there in time to face a momentous question. The dangerous slavery contest was thrown open again. Texas had been annexed, and new territory gained from Mexico. There arose a hot dispute as to whether or not slavery should be admitted into this territory. There was talk of disunion. No one knew but there might be war. The old warrior had to fling himself into the breach again. Once more he offered a compromise measure with the hope of again removing the slavery question from politics.

A sick and feeble old man, often needing a friend's arm to help him up the steps of the Capitol, he was never absent from the Senate on the days when the compromise question was up for debate. During that session of 1849-50 he spoke seventy times. On the morning of his greatest speech on the question he was so weak that he could hardly climb the steps. When he arose to speak his feebleness was evident. But as he went on his cough left him, his frame became erect, and his voice rolled through the Senate chamber with its old musical resonance. Never had he spoken with such pathos and grandeur. That great speech lasted two days. It won the contest and put off the Civil War for ten years, but it wrecked the "great compromiser." He never recovered from the effects of the effort, though he lived two years more, dying June 29, 1852.

As an orator Henry Clay's great power lay in his remarkable voice and his eloquent delivery. His speeches do not read well, but as spoken their force was irresistible. The following estimate is from Parton, the biographer:

"Take him for all in all, we must regard him as the first of American orators; but posterity will not assign him that rank, because 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. His speeches will long be interesting as the relics of a magnificent and dazzling personality, and for the light they cast upon the history of parties; but they add scarcely anything to the intellectual property of the nation."