CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Bill of Rights in Action
WINTER 2009 (Volume 24, No. 3)
Henry Clay: Compromise and Union
Kentuckian Henry Clay held political office for almost 50 years. He struggled to bring North and South together with compromises.
Henry Clay had a long political career. He served as a state legislator, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Under the banners of different political parties, he ran for president three times and lost each time. His passion was to preserve the Union. His method was compromise.
Henry Clay was born into a modest Virginia family in 1777. His father, a Baptist minister, died when Henry was only 4. He had little schooling but studied law in the office of the Virginia attorney general.
After Clay earned his attorney’s license in 1797, he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he established a successful law practice. He married Lucretia Hart, the daughter of a wealthy Lexington businessman. Clay gained a reputation as a skilled courtroom orator.
In 1798, during the debate over a new constitution for Kentucky, Clay argued for gradually abolishing slavery in the state by freeing children of slaves born after a certain date. His proposed constitutional provision failed, and he temporarily lost popularity. He never, however, changed his view that slavery was a curse on both slave and master.
In 1803, Clay won election to the Kentucky state legislature on a platform of building roads and canals, establishing banks, and developing industry. He was re-elected six times to the state legislature. On two occasions, he filled out the unexpired terms of U.S. senators from Kentucky. In 1810, he launched his national political career by winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Jeffersonian Republican.
From ‘War Hawk’ to ‘Great Compromiser’
In 1811, the 34-year-old Clay arrived in Washington to start his freshman term in the House of Representatives. He joined the “War Hawks,” members of Congress who called for war against Great Britain in retaliation for its seizing American merchant ships and kidnapping American seamen. Clay impressed the War Hawks with his dedication to their cause and his skills as an orator. They then won enough votes to make him speaker of the House.
Up to this time, the speaker was mostly a symbolic figure who presided over legislative sessions. Clay, however, quickly made this position a powerful one in Congress. For example, he assigned his War Hawk friends to important House committees.
Clay led the War Hawks to pressure President James Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Britain. This occurred in June 1812, with most of the support for the war coming from the South and West.
The War of 1812 proved to be more difficult than the War Hawks had predicted. The New England states even threatened to secede from the Union because the war severely disrupted their trade with Britain. In 1814, Clay went to Europe and participated in peace negotiations with Britain.
Clay served on and off as speaker of the House for a total of 10 years, longer than any other in the 19th century. His friends marveled at his ability to gather the votes of House members for laws he wanted passed. His enemies called him arrogant and a dictator.
In 1819, Missouri, part of the Louisiana Purchase, applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. This would have upset the equal balance of free and slave states in the Union. During the debate over statehood for Missouri, however, Maine applied for admission to the Union as a free state.
In February 1820, the Senate voted for a bill to approve the admission of both Missouri and Maine to the Union. The senators also passed an amendment to the bill that prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes latitude with the exception of Missouri.
Southerners in the House firmly opposed the Senate bill because it closed much of the West to slavery. Many Northerners rejected the bill because it added a slave state and seemingly opened the door for slavery to expand someday south of the 36–30 line.
As speaker of the House, Clay formed a committee with him as chairman. He made sure that a majority of the committee favored reaching a compromise. The committee recommended accepting the Senate action but dividing it into three separate bills:
1. Admitting Missouri with no restriction on slavery.
2. Admitting Maine as a free state.
3. Prohibiting slavery north of 36–30 latitude, except for Missouri.
This was a brilliant move by Clay. If the House members had voted on one unified bill, the opponents of each part probably would have banded together to defeat it. By the House members voting for each part separately, Clay divided their votes.
On March 3, 1820, the House passed the three bills that made up the compromise. Three days later, President James Monroe signed the bills into law, now known as the Missouri Compromise.
The crisis, however, did not end there. In writing their state constitution, a condition for admission to the Union, resentful Missourians authorized their legislature to bar any free blacks from entering their state. The anti-slave Northerners were enraged and threatened to repeal the Missouri Compromise, while some Southerners talked of seceding from the Union if this happened.
Members of the House again turned to Clay, who was not then serving as speaker of the House. They wanted him to break the deadlock between Northerners who opposed Missouri’s constitution and Southerners who supported it. Clay formed and headed another committee, and he worked two weeks arguing and pleading with both sides to compromise.
Finally, Clay put together a bill that required Missouri never to pass a law that would stop “any description of persons,” who were or may become citizens of other states, from entering the state. Clay’s bill passed the House by six votes. Following approval by the Senate, Missouri accepted this condition for its admission to the Union. On August 10, 1821, President Monroe declared Missouri the 24th state.
For the second time, Clay had kept the Union together with a compromise. His admirers began to call him the “Great Compromiser.”
Clay and the Nullification Crisis
In 1824, when the Jeffersonian Republican Party dominated national politics, Clay ran against three other Republicans for the White House. None of the candidates won a majority of electoral votes. Under the 12th Amendment, the House of Representatives had to decide who would be president among the top three vote getters. This eliminated Clay since he had received the fewest electoral votes of the four candidates.
The contest came down to John Quincy Adams versus Andrew Jackson .Clay ignored instructions from the Kentucky state legislature to vote for Jackson and supported Adams, who won a majority of House votes and became president.
Jackson’s backers charged that Clay had made a “corrupt bargain” to swing his support to Adams in exchange for a cabinet appointment. In fact, Adams did appoint Clay secretary of state, but he strongly denied this was part of any secret deal.
Following Clay’s largely uneventful service as secretary of state, the Kentucky state legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1830. In the Senate, Clay led the opposition against Jackson, who had finally won the presidency in 1828.
Both Jackson and Clay had been members of the Jeffersonian Republican Party. After Jackson’s election, the party split into two opposing political parties: Jackson Democrats and National Republicans. Clay joined the National Republican Party and ran as its candidate for president against Jackson in 1832. Jackson crushed him at the polls.
Clay remained in the Senate and fought against Jackson’s policies. Clay promoted what he called the “American System” that encouraged policies to strengthen the Union as a whole. He argued for a national bank (opposed by Jackson) to coordinate the financing of internal improvements such as new roads, canals, and harbors.
Clay put “protective tariffs” at the center of his American System. These tariffs protected American industries from foreign competition. They generally had the effect of keeping prices of goods manufactured in other countries higher than they would have been if no tariffs were in place. Clay argued that these tariffs were necessary to build up American manufacturing and make the United States a strong economic power in the world.
The North, where most industry was developing, favored protective tariffs. The South and the frontier West opposed them because these regions were mostly made up of farmers who complained that the tariffs caused manufactured goods to cost too much.
In 1832, Congress passed and President Jackson signed into law the Tariff of 1832. This law reduced tariffs somewhat but not enough for South Carolina. Many in the state blamed tariffs for their economic troubles.
South Carolina passed a law declaring that protective tariffs passed by Congress were “not binding” on the state. In effect, the South Carolina state legislature nullified (vetoed) a law passed by Congress. This set off a crisis over whether the states had the authority under the Constitution to nullify acts of Congress.
South Carolina threatened secession from the Union if the federal government attempted to enforce the protective tariffs in states that rejected them. The possibility of civil war loomed.
Henry Clay, a strong protectionist himself, viewed the threat of disunion and war as the greater danger facing the nation. He began to negotiate a compromise between Northern protectionists, led by Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and the Southern nullifiers, led by Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.
After a month, Clay reached agreement between Webster and Calhoun on a new compromise tariff law. The law would allow the existing protective tariffs to continue for almost 10 more years. In 1842, tariff rates would drop sharply to provide just enough revenue to pay for federal government operations.
Thus the North would have a decade to expand and strengthen its protected industries. Afterward, the South would benefit when the United States abandoned protective tariffs altogether.
Henry Clay and Slavery
Henry Clay owned as many as 60 slaves, thought of them as property, and held that slavery should be a matter for the states to decide. He also believed that the white and black races could never live together as equals.
Yet, Clay condemned slavery as an evil curse. He blamed Great Britain for introducing slavery into the American colonies and despaired it might never be uprooted. He recognized the contradiction between slavery and the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Most important, he feared slavery would rip apart the Union. Clay was a young member of the House of Representatives in 1816 when he helped form the American Colonization Society. This group sought to encourage slave owners to free their slaves voluntarily to rid themselves of a “universally-acknowledged curse.” The Society would then finance the re-settlement of freed slaves on a voluntary basis in the African colony of Liberia. Clay freed some of his slaves during his lifetime and emancipated the rest in his will.
When the National Republicans merged with the new Whig Party, Clay joined and became its presidential candidate against Democrat James K. Polk in 1844. A key election issue was the annexation of Texas as a state, which Clay opposed because he feared it would lead to war with Mexico.
During his campaign for president, Polk championed admitting Texas to the Union. He won the election, handing Clay his third defeat for president. Texas became a state a few days before Polk took office in 1845.
Clay opposed going to war with Mexico over a disputed border. Once the war began, Clay supported it but questioned what to do after invading and conquering Mexico. He suffered a terrible personal loss in the war. One of his sons died in battle.
Many Northerners questioned why Southerners promoted the Mexican War. They believed the South wanted to get more land open to slavery. During the war, Congress debated but failed to pass a measure called the Wilmot Proviso. This would have prohibited slavery in any lands acquired from Mexico. In 1848, the war ended with a treaty that transferred to the United States a vast territory. Called the Mexican Cession, the new land stretched from Texas to the Pacific Ocean.
When Clay returned to the Senate after being re-elected in 1849, he found Congress in turmoil. California, in the middle of the Gold Rush, sought immediate admission as a free state. New Mexico and Utah wanted to become U.S. territories, but their status as future free or slave states was in doubt. In addition, Texas disputed its state boundary with New Mexico.
Northerners in Congress kept pushing the Wilmot Proviso to ban slavery in all of the Mexican Cession. Southerners demanded a stronger law to enforce the return of fugitive (runaway) slaves and again raised the threat of seceding from the Union.
Clay decided to resolve all the differences between the North and South over slavery in one grand compromise. Clay’s proposal would admit California to the Union as a free state and organize New Mexico and Utah as territories without any restrictions on slavery. Other provisions in Clay’s compromise included a more effective fugitive slave law and the abolition of the slave trade in Washington, D.C.
In February 1850, the 72-year-old Clay, weakened by tuberculosis, made an electrifying speech before the Senate in support of his compromise. His overriding purpose was to preserve the Union. As he discussed each part of his compromise, he argued that the South would be much better able to resolve its differences with the North by remaining a part of the United States than by seceding from it.
Clay also declared that under the Constitution “there is no right on the part of any one or more of the States to secede from the Union.” He warned that dissolving the Union would result in a bloody civil war. Clay ended his speech by pleading with both sides “to pause, solemnly to pause at the edge of the precipice [cliff], before the fearful and dangerous leap be taken into the yawning abyss [bottomless pit].”
In the Senate debate over the compromise, Clay proclaimed, “I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to which I owe my allegiance. . . . My allegiance is to this Union.” He tried to address the issue of slavery in the West by arguing that the climate and prohibition of slavery under Mexican rule made it unlikely to take root there.
Northern radicals, however, still demanded that Congress ban slavery in all the lands won from Mexico. Southern radicals called for extending the Missouri Compromise 36–30 line all the way to the Pacific, thus permitting slavery south of that latitude in the Mexican Cession territories.
Clay did not give up. He formed a special committee to try to work out the differences. He thought he had achieved a grand compromise bill with five key provisions. But Northern and Southern radicals objected to one part or another and threatened to join forces and kill the bill.
Clay decided to resort to a strategy he had used before and separated the provisions of the compromise bill into five different bills. In doing this, Northern and Southern opponents could vote against any of the five bills they disliked. But they would not be likely to combine their opposition votes as they could when all five parts were in one bill.
In August and September, the Senate and House voted to approve all five bills that together made up the Compromise of 1850:
1. The United States admitted California as a free state.
2. New Mexico was organized as a territory, and when later applying for statehood, it would be admitted “with or without slavery.” The United States compensated Texas for giving up disputed territory to New Mexico.
3. Utah was organized as a territory and would also be later admitted to the Union “with or without slavery.”
4. A strong fugitive slave law required federal officials in the North to arrest and “remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory where he or she may have escaped.”
5. A law abolished slave auctions and trading (but not slavery itself) in Washington, D.C.
The Compromise of 1850 was Henry Clay’s greatest achievement. It kept the Union together for another decade. Clay died in 1852. “If any man wants the key to my heart,” he once said, “let him take the key of the Union and that is the key to my heart.”
For Discussion and Writing