Uncompromising Compromiser

LUCRETIA HAD LITTLE news from Clay as he traveled abroad. During this time, though, she penned the only letter to her husband that survives. Writing shortly after Clay left Washington, she told him the children missed him and included a brief account of affairs in Washington. She waited for the better traveling conditions of spring before making the long journey home with the children.1 Back at Ashland, she took Theodore and Thomas out of their boarding school and searched for a tutor for them as well as for Susan, Anne, and little Lucretia. Years earlier, an English housekeeper, Sarah Hall, had joined the family and was a comforting presence at Ashland during these months, as she would be for decades through good times and bad. Even after becoming adults, the children always called her “Nanny” Hall2; she remained with the family for more than fifty years.

In May 1814, Lucretia hired Amos Kendall, a young man from Massachusetts, to teach the older children. Kendall had come to Kentucky via Washington, where Clay’s friend Senator Jesse Bledsoe had hired him to tutor the Bledsoe children, an arrangement that fell through after Kendall arrived in Lexington. Clay’s younger half brother, John Watkins, told Kendall about the Clay children at Ashland, and Lucretia soon hired him at $300 a year plus room and board. Kendall earned every penny, for Thomas and Theodore were rambunctious. But other incentives encouraged him to stay: Kendall aimed to become a lawyer, and Lucretia generously allowed him to use her husband’s library.3

The two became warm friends. Acting the part of Pygmalion, Lucretia set about softening the sharp edges of Kendall’s Yankee manners and easing him into Bluegrass society. She taught him to bow, to enter a room with confidence, and to engage in harmless flirtations, but the social poise that came so easily to her Henry remained elusive for Kendall. He was sincerely grateful for her kindness, though, and came to hold Lucretia Clay in considerable esteem. Even so, he most wanted an introduction to her husband for the doors Clay’s influence could open—even more reason to stay at Ashland than Clay’s books.4

Kendall must have wondered whether it was worth dealing with Theodore and Thomas. Mothers kept delicate daughters under close supervision, and Kendall found the “three fine little girls” delightful. But farm life for boys in the early nineteenth century was the stuff of Tom Sawyer.Theodore and Thomas Clay had attended schools where rods were seldom spared, but at Ashland they suffered little, if any, discipline. Kendall tried to persuade Lucretia to take a stronger hand, but she was an indulgent mother by temperament as well as by the customs of the time. Theodore was twelve and Thomas eleven when Kendall took charge of them, or rather they took charge of him. Thomas was prone to abusive tantrums—he once called Kendall a “damned Yankee rascal”—and Theodore could explode into frightening rages. Kendall had to manhandle the boy out of Ashland’s kitchen building one afternoon when Theodore threatened a slave with a knife, an ominous sign of things to come.5

Kendall’s persistence gradually improved the boys at their studies and in their attitude, but he remained an odd, friendless fellow despite Lucretia’s guidance. Churning ambition drove Amos Kendall, and others apparently sensed in him what Lucretia could not see: a man very much on the make and therefore not altogether trustworthy. Clay had not yet returned from Europe to give him his references when Kendall became impatient to start his career. In the spring of 1815, he left Ashland for Georgetown, Kentucky, to open a law office and edit a newspaper. That June, he returned to Lexington for court day and fell seriously ill with a “violent bilious fever.” Nobody cared enough to tend to him as he writhed sweating in his boardinghouse bed, and he might have died had Lucretia not heard about his condition. She had him rushed to Ashland and for the next month gave him “all the attention which kindness and generosity could bestow.” Nursed back to health, Kendall returned to Georgetown just before Clay arrived in Lexington, and a year would pass before they would meet, giving Kendall the chance to ask for favors. Nobody, however, would ever match the kindness already shown Amos Kendall by the quiet, compassionate mistress of Ashland, who had taught him to bow and had saved his life.6

FROM NEW YORK, Clay hurried to Lexington and Lucretia by way of Washington, D.C. Seeing the capital’s charred buildings was a sobering reminder of the British attack one year before. Clay had been reelected to the House of Representatives by loyal constituents anticipating his return and would be back in Washington soon enough, so he paused only long enough to receive the official proclamation of the city’s gratitude and left before a grand celebration in his honor.

After almost two years’ absence, he found Lexington much changed with new industries, a growing population, and refinements previously unknown to the region.7 The town was part of a spectacular economic surge that was especially evident in the West. Cheap land encouraged westward settlement and beckoned European immigrants who swelled a naturally increasing population. The war had ended Indian threats in the Northwest and the South, new roads sped migration into the Ohio Valley, and steamboats began churning upstream on western rivers.

The Clay children had grown considerably. Eliza had been a babe in arms but was now a toddling chatterbox. Henry Jr. had been less than three years old when his father left the country. Now four and a half, he was clever and quick. Much to Clay’s surprise, the older boys could now recite Greek, thanks to Kendall.8

Clay planned to make his family preeminent in the Bluegrass, with Ashland a showplace using plans supplied by Benjamin Latrobe to add flanking wings to the house. Clay also began importing livestock. He introduced Hereford cattle from England to improve the region’s bloodlines.9 He continued to acquire interests in racehorses, bought expensive merino sheep, and brought jackasses from Europe to breed mules.

Lexington enthusiastically greeted its returning hero. His friends threw him a lavish dinner at Postlethwaite’s Tavern, and the city trustees proclaimed their gratitude. When a few complaints surfaced that his election to Congress was illegitimate because he had been in a diplomatic post when it occurred, a special canvass in October yielded another certain victory because nobody saw any use in running against him. People chuckled how Europe must have agreed with Clay because he had finally “gained some flesh” eating rich foreign dishes.10

Clay turned over the management of Ashland to his half brother John Watkins, and with Lucretia started for Washington, arriving in early December 1815. When Congress convened on December 4, the House promptly elected him Speaker.11 Secretary of State James Monroe had conveyed Madison’s offer to appoint him minister to Russia, but Clay declined. Clay did not want to serve abroad again. In addition to being politically ambitious, he intended to make the country strong enough to prevent the prospect of having its shores again invaded, its towns terrorized, its capital torched. Many believed that the European peace was but a truce, and Clay meant to prepare the nation for the next war, a job he could accomplish only in Washington, not by smiling at the czar in Saint Petersburg.12

President Madison’s annual message delighted Clay, for the president’s views about the country’s economic future precisely matched his own. Madison wanted to keep a relatively large standing army of about ten thousand men, maintain an adequate navy, enhance coastal defenses, and improve the nation’s rivers, harbors, and roads. He wanted infant American industry protected from foreign competition and the currency stabilized. As was the president’s custom, he drew a broad picture and left the details to the legislature.13

Madison benefited from surging nationalism. The United States had fought the world’s most powerful empire and emerged relatively unscathed, with its honor (if not all its public buildings) intact. Offsetting the humiliation of seeing Redcoats in Washington, American military victories at Baltimore, Plattsburgh, and most gloriously at New Orleans further convinced Americans that they were no longer untried in a formerly disrespectful community of nations. National pride encouraged national unity and made for considerable political harmony, especially in light of the Federalist Party’s decline. Federalist dissent from the war had climaxed at a convention in Hartford, Connecticut, in the closing days of the conflict. There, disgruntled New England Federalists had aired grievances with enough vigor to create the impression of disloyalty. With the Federalists in disarray, it looked like smooth sailing for Speaker Clay as he piloted the president’s program through the House.

Yet there were shoals. Republicans clearly dominated Congress, but not all of them found Madison’s plans appealing. John Randolph exemplified those wary about large armies, naval construction, and higher taxes. And Republicans more levelheaded than Randolph thought that these matters had been sensible obligations in war but were unreasonable burdens in peace. Those who again embraced small government, low taxes, and a reliance on state militias saw little difference between Madison’s proposals and those of arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s. In that regard, the decline of the Federalists became a problem. William Crawford perceptively observed that the waning of their political opponents could not “fail to relax the bonds by which the Republican party has been hitherto kept together.”14 Beneath the seeming placidity of what would be dubbed the Era of Good Feelings ran currents of conflict that eventually floated the Second American Party System.

Clay noticed the emerging factionalism in his own ranks. He relied on the old War Hawk cadre of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Congresses, men such as John C. Calhoun, William Lowndes, and Peter Porter. Randolph often squawked, but Clay preserved his reputation for fairness in handing out committee appointments and presiding over floor debates. For especially important issues, he carefully chose committee members and their chairmen to yield favorable bills presented to the entire House, but otherwise he appointed broadly to satisfy diverse regional and political interests. Charming and mixing “very much with the members,” he was always “affable and engaging in his manners.”15 He needed to be. Pushing through Madison’s program required more than parliamentary skill, and only two weeks into the session he joked that he was already “getting rather tired of politics.”16

The president’s nationalist proposals marked a significant revolution in the government’s direction, for they were actually the essence of old Federalism. Clay’s vision for the country was even more revolutionary. He thought the government was justified in promoting economic prosperity because affluence was essential to national security. A protective tariff to make recently established American industries competitive against cheap foreign imports was key. Regarding the currency and credit, the president had left unspoken how to achieve improvement, but the financial strains of the war had convinced Clay that a national bank was necessary to stabilize the country’s money supply and regulate its credit. The war had also revealed the lamentable shortcomings of the country’s primitive roads, a flaw that everyone who traveled realized was an impediment to commerce in times of peace, a grave deficiency when at war.

Clay’s trusted lieutenants in the House were prepared to help him address these problems. William Lowndes and John C. Calhoun, two South Carolinians who had proven their nationalism before and during the war, had already taken the lead before Clay’s arrival to call for a tariff and a bank. To help him realize those goals, Clay appointed Lowndes to head the House Ways and Means Committee considering a protective tariff and made Calhoun the chairman of a select committee on the currency question that would recommend a new national bank.17

As these moves progressed, Clay fought those who believed the expansion of federal power would diminish individual liberty and come at the expense of the states.18 As before, John Randolph emphatically pointed out the dangers of a larger, more powerful federal government. Clay’s plan, he bellowed, “out-Hamiltons Alexander Hamilton.” And as before, he was formidable if often rambling. People could not help but listen to his “shrill, sharp, effeminate voice.” He could speak for hours at a time as ideas flew from his mouth as though tumbling from a jumble in his head. Despite Randolph’s “astonishing powers of mind,” most congressmen consequently viewed him as “a very useless member.”19

Yet he was an extremely vocal one, railing against the young Republicans’ nationalist program. He expressed astonishment that James Madison encouraged it, an observation that gradually alarmed other Republicans as well. This strangely Federalist agenda had them squinting suspiciously as the young men of their party assured them that everything under consideration was constitutional, complete with the imprimatur of “the Father of the U.S. Constitution” himself, James Madison.20 Whipped to action by Clay’s leadership, the Fourteenth Congress moved rapidly through a remarkable assortment of legislation in almost record time, passing bills to maintain an adequate military and improve roads and lighthouses before taking up Madison’s two most controversial requests—stabilizing the currency and establishing a protective tariff.21

American markets were a rich target for the British after the war. Established British manufacturers could operate at lower costs than their embryonic American counterparts and consequently price goods well below American competitors. Clay and his allies argued that given time to acquire technology and establish a domestic factory system, American manufacturers would be able to compete with any country in the world. A protective tariff—an import tax to raise the price of foreign goods—would make American industry profitable and provide incentives for the creation of a larger, more self-sufficient manufacturing capability. Disregarding the objections of naysayers like John Randolph, most congressmen finally agreed to support a protective tariff when assured it would be temporary. Madison signed into law the country’s first import tax designed to regulate trade as well as raise revenue.22

Less than a half century earlier, Americans had fought a war with Britain over just such regulatory and revenue policies, but striding away from the American Revolution’s purpose paled in comparison to the difficulties of the next part of Clay’s project. In consultation with Treasury secretary Alexander J. Dallas, Calhoun’s select committee drafted a bill to establish a new Bank of the United States. Built in the image of its predecessor, the planned bank was to be capitalized at $35 million and overseen by a president and twenty-five directors, five of whom the president of the United States would select. Because it would serve as the repository for all public funds and conduct all government transactions, it would be the largest bank in the country, controlling the nation’s credit and as well as stabilizing its currency by accepting only sound banknotes. The notes issued by the Bank would be the soundest of all, and its ability to establish branches in the various states ensured that its notes would have the widest circulation.23

Clay’s support of the measure forced him into a most awkward position. He was pushing for the passage of legislation he had vehemently opposed just five years earlier. His eloquent hostility to a national bank at that time had featured his skewering of the hapless Virginian William Branch Giles, a memorable Clay performance that made his current support of a bank bill not just dubious but embarrassing. On March 9, Clay addressed the House as the Committee of the Whole to explain himself.

The speech of that day does not survive, but a similar oration to his constituents suggests the gist of what Clay told Congress. His speech to the House was a long one, lasting almost four hours and suggesting how uncomfortable his new position made him. In his later speech, he recalled that in 1811 the Kentucky legislature had told him to oppose the Bank. He now said he believed Kentucky wanted a national bank but one that would not abuse its influence by meddling in politics. In 1811, Clay said, he had thought Congress did not have the constitutional authority to create corporations unless it justified invoking the “necessary and proper” clause. Now, in 1816, he argued that the abysmal state of the economy made the Bank a necessary and proper remedy. He candidly admitted that “the Constitution, it is true, never changes,” but “fallible persons” could learn from experience.24

Clay’s most effective plea stemmed from his description of the country’s ineffective banking system and the unhealthy fluctuations in the value of paper money. In the end, congressional majorities were persuaded to adopt the Second Bank of the United States (known as the BUS to distinguish it from its predecessor), although the vote in the House was close at 80 to 71. President Madison signed the bill into law, and the Bank began operations on January 1, 1817, with its headquarters in Philadelphia. Its supporters’ high hopes of a better managed economy, however, were soon dashed, for the Bank was badly managed in its opening years and did little to control a bloated credit bubble that finally burst in 1819. Many would blame the BUS for the economic panic and serious depression that followed. They would become the foundation of a new political movement dedicated to thwarting Henry Clay’s vision for America.

SECRETARY OF STATE James Monroe saw himself as Madison’s heir apparent to the presidency, but opposition mounted within the party both to his nomination and the traditional method of bestowing it. Many, including Clay, criticized the congressional caucus system of choosing a presidential nominee, and a sizable faction contemplated nominating Secretary of War William Crawford because he seemed superior to Monroe in both intellect and talent, having “risen entirely by merit.”25 Clay liked both men, and because he did not want to be in the position of supporting one over the other, his problem seemed solved when Crawford withdrew.

As the caucus opened, Clay offered a resolution declaring that it was “inexpedient to nominate candidates,” but he was promptly voted down. Possibly Clay was quietly acting on Monroe’s behalf, responding to rumors that Crawford’s supporters intended to ignore his demurral and nominate him anyway, a possibility that Monroe’s backers feared might give Crawford the prize. They wanted to delay the nomination in order to obtain an explicit statement of withdrawal from him.26 Some even thought Clay supported Crawford, but he voted for Monroe, and the Virginian eked out a 65 to 54 victory. Clay immediately proposed that Monroe and his running mate, New York’s Daniel D. Tompkins, be submitted to the people.27 It had been a close run within his own party, but Monroe was on track to score an overwhelming victory against the hobbled Federalists in the fall, and as the election neared, they were so lackadaisical in their support for their candidate, Rufus King, that the question was only how resounding Monroe’s victory would be.

The members of the Fourteenth Congress would not be so fortunate. As they neared the end of their session, they committed a political blunder so colossal that it would cost about two-thirds of them their seats. It began harmlessly enough. In February 1816, Clay’s fellow Kentuckian Richard M. Johnson casually remarked that representatives’ pay of $6 a day made for longer sessions because it encouraged members to delay adjournment in order to collect the extra money. It was an interesting observation about a practical problem, and Clay appointed Johnson as chair of a select committee to consider a solution. That committee recommended a bill that was officially named the Compensation Act but would infamously become known as “the Salary Grab.”28

The bill established a flat $1,500 salary for congressmen to replace the $6 per diem, a substantial raise of about $600 per year. Clay stood to gain even more from the change. As Speaker, he drew $12 a day, and under the new arrangement, his salary would increase to $3,000 per year. Most saw nothing wrong with this, because $6 a day could not cover even their most basic expenses. Indeed, it amounted to less than some government clerks earned, which upon reflection seemed hardly proper for the men who managed the affairs of the republic. The paltry per diem was unintentionally undemocratic as well. Clay told the House that the current level of compensation meant that only men of independent means could afford to serve in Congress, making it a body of wealthy elites. A wealthy South Carolina planter who opposed the bill drew Clay’s wrath: How dare he block a measure that would provide entrée to congressional service for the ordinary working man? After a round of such self-congratulation for enduring the financial sacrifices of public service for so long, they sent the bill to Madison’s desk, and he signed it.29

The remarkable insularity of Washington’s political class has seldom been so vividly displayed. Blind to the consequences of giving Congress a salary larger than that of almost every voter in the country, they had compounded their seeming avarice with blatant self-interest by awarding themselves this princely sum rather than applying it only to future Congresses. Voters throughout the country exploded and then simmered, counting the hours to election days when they could punish these brigands at the polls. The two-thirds who were not returned for the Fifteenth Congress were either defeated or prudently retired.

When Lexington heard that Clay had voted for the creation of the BUS and the Compensation Act, attorney and state legislator Thomas Barr announced his candidacy for Clay’s seat. Barr, however, stepped aside when a meeting of twenty-five militiamen at John Higbee’s Mill put forward former United States senator John Pope. Clay tried to discredit Pope’s candidacy as the product of an undemocratic and vaguely illegitimate process, but it was soon apparent that he had a stiff fight on his hands.30 Like Clay, Pope had come to Lexington from Virginia while a young man, a noticeable character owing in part to a physical oddity, having lost an arm in a youthful accident. He considered himself a loyal Republican, but in the Senate he had occasionally shown an exasperating independence from both party and constituents. Unlike Clay, Pope had ignored the legislature’s instructions and voted to renew the First Bank of the United States, and he had been the only Kentuckian to vote against declaring war on Great Britain in 1812. Not everyone liked Pope, but precisely because he did not pander for popularity, he was highly respected. Clay’s recent votes made Pope’s principles even more palpable. When Clay asked an Irish immigrant why he planned to vote for Pope, the man explained in a thick brogue that at least Pope had only one hand with which to raid the Treasury.31

Clay defended himself on the stump as best he could, but many thought his change of heart about the Bank bewildering and his vote for his own pay raise indefensible. One anonymous critic claimed to have admired Clay until he put his “foot upon our necks.” Clay was a great man only in the mold of “Caesar, Marius, Cromwell; and woe to Rome and England that they were!”32 Other critics attacked him for taking money from the poor, even using doggerel to mock Clay’s greed:

O! Wont to hear

What roaring cheer

Was spent by Johnny Congress O!

And how so gay

They doubled their pay

And doubled the people’s taxes O!

There was Clay in the Chair

With his flax-coloured hair,

A-signing tax bills cheerily O!

And smiled as the rabble

So lowly did gabble

And the Salary bill was carried O!33

Finally aware that explanatory orations would not win the day, Clay doubled his efforts. He enlisted family to campaign for him. Porter returned from Louisiana and vouched for his older brother’s character. Clay debated Pope at Higbee’s on July 31 and traveled the district to kiss babies and pump every voter’s hand he could reach. His supporters countered attacks in the press and tarred Pope as a Federalist, but only when Clay finally admitted that he had been terribly wrong about the salary grab, promised to secure its repeal, and begged the voters’ forgiveness did they grudgingly return to his camp. He won by a close vote of 2,493 to 1,837 and would later chuckle to his friend Caesar Rodney that his “Constituents had the grace to pardon me.”34

Before the Clays left for Washington and the last session of the Fourteenth Congress, he made plans to send Theodore and Thomas to a New York boarding school where they would spend the fall and winter terms before rejoining their parents in the capital in February, “much improved.” He would place their oldest girl, twelve-year-old Susan, at Mrs. Vail’s girls’ boarding school in Baltimore.35 He hired tradesmen to work on Ashland’s two wings and began acquiring various plants and fruit trees for the grounds. Lucretia was in the final days of her ninth pregnancy and shortly before they left for Washington presented the family with another daughter, whom they named Laura.36

IN LATE AUGUST, Clay received an offer from President Madison to become Secretary of War. Clay’s reasons for declining were obvious. As Speaker of the House, he wielded more power and enjoyed greater prominence than he would in the cabinet. In addition, he had been reelected after a hard-fought contest by making promises that he could not keep if he headed off to the War Department. But most of all, Clay had his eye on a bigger prize. With everyone certain of Monroe’s election, Clay wanted to be the new administration’s secretary of state. Monroe was expected to leave Madison’s cabinet intact, but by becoming president he would create a vacancy at State, the most senior and important cabinet post, which had also become a springboard to the presidency. Clay believed his work as Speaker for Madison during the war and his service at Ghent had earned him that honor. He was so confident that the post would be his that he rented a house for his family rather than taking rooms at a boardinghouse.37

Clay did not realize, though, that beneath Madison’s proffer was an elaborate plan to form a ready-made cabinet for the Monroe administration, a plan that Madison had gone to a fair amount of trouble to make happen. James Monroe had remained at State, but a fair amount of shuffling had occurred in other departments. When Secretary of the Treasury Alexander J. Dallas resigned, the president persuaded William H. Crawford to move from the War Department to Treasury to make way for Clay. Crawford did not want to do this, but he reluctantly agreed with the understanding that Clay would succeed him. When Clay declined the post, Crawford accordingly expected to remain in it, but Madison still moved him to Treasury and offered the War Department to William Lowndes. When Lowndes refused it, Madison left it to Monroe to fill. Crawford felt he had been ill used.38

Ultimately Clay would feel that way too. These maneuvers were veiled at the time, but in retrospect they show that in Madison and Monroe’s plans, Clay was supposed to be at the War Department and was never considered for the State Department. When Monroe finally formed his cabinet, Clay would not be in it. The new administration would soon have cause to be sorry.

Monroe easily won the election with 183 electoral votes to King’s 34, but for the time being the president-elect made no announcements about appointments, and Clay presided over the House of Representatives, assigning sections of President Madison’s last annual message to committees. Then suddenly President-elect Monroe, the State Department, even the House of Representatives did not seem in the least important. The Clays’ baby was seriously ill.

Laura Clay was only two months old when the family arrived in Washington. She had contracted whooping cough on the journey from Kentucky, and the days that followed became an agonizing vigil for Lucretia, helpless as sleepless nights came and cheerless dawns followed, all hours marked by the baby’s continuous, heartrending cough. Lucretia’s sister Nancy, soft-spoken Elizabeth Lowndes, and Margaret Bayard Smith were on hand to spell her, but hers was a lonely watch that only the mother of a dying child can know. Henry wore a stricken expression and was given to vacant stares. Margaret would never forget the night in early December when it finally ended. As she cradled Laura in her lap, Clay knelt beside her chair and wept. He stood as if to leave but instead leaned toward the tiny face for a last kiss. “Farewell, my little one,” he murmured. The coughing that had tormented the “lovely infant” stopped.

The next day Clay worried that he would be seen as weak and negligent for not presiding over the House. Margaret gave him a talking-to and set him straight. Lucretia was distraught and needed him. He stayed in, planned the small funeral, and sat in silence with Lucretia. When a few days later they received reports from New York that Thomas had been in an accident, they were frantic with worry until they heard from a friend that the boy was not badly injured.39

WHEN COPING WITH personal tragedy, Clay buried himself in work. He dutifully spoke for the repeal of the Compensation Act and suggested a more modest adjustment, from $6 to $8 per day, that eventually passed.40

Clay also helped to found an association whose work would become an important part of his life. Taking its cue from state organizations like the one in Kentucky, the American Colonization Society held a preliminary meeting at the Davis Hotel in Washington on December 21, 1816, with Clay presiding. The gathering agreed to consider “the expediency and practicability of ameliorating the condition of the Free People of Color … by providing a Colonial Retreat,” a place that would be eventually fixed on the western coast of Africa.41

On New Year’s Day in the House of Representatives chamber, the first regular meeting of the society took place, with Clay again presiding. It elected George Washington’s nephew, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Bushrod Washington, president and made Clay an officer. Most founding members were slave owners like Clay, among them John Randolph, who believed that free blacks set a dangerous example by revealing for slaves the possibilities of freedom. Clay too recognized free blacks as a problem, but he also argued that white prejudice would never allow freed slaves the full rights of citizenship. His solution of voluntary colonization was meant to benefit free blacks as much as it was to insulate restive slaves. Nonetheless, he was careful to declare that the society’s purpose was not to attack slavery as an institution.42

Henry Clay was no longer the young idealist of 1798–99 who had fought for abolition in Kentucky. He owned slaves and continued to buy them. While he was not a relentless pursuer of fugitives, he occasionally took pains to recover them rather than suffer financial loss. Yet he was always ambivalent about the morality of owning people. He helped a former family slave who had gained freedom purchase his brother, and Clay would free a number of his own slaves over the years. Clay spent considerable effort trying to recover Nathaniel Hart’s slave, Isham, who had been captured with his master at the River Raisin and then sold by Indians to a Louisiana planter. His labors were intended not to restore a valuable piece of property for the family but to give Isham his freedom.

As a sustaining member and future president of the American Colonization Society, Clay helped people free slaves and encouraged their colonization. And though writers frequently cite a portion of his speech to the Kentucky Colonization Society in 1829 to allege that the real reason for his advocacy of colonization was his inherent racism, only selective quotation supports the charge. Free blacks, he said, were “the most corrupt, depraved, and abandoned” class of people in the nation, but he immediately followed that observation with a statement that is seldom quoted: “It is not so much their fault, as the consequence of their anomalous condition. Place ourselves, place any men, in the like predicament, and similar effects would follow. They are not slaves, and yet they are not free. The laws, it is true, proclaim them free; but prejudices, more powerful than any laws, deny them the privileges of freemen.” Clay believed that only colonization would give them a chance to live as free men with dignity.43

It was considered an enlightened view at the time, one held by open-minded people in both South and North, Abraham Lincoln included. Yet for all its relative progressivism, the view was deeply flawed. Most free persons of color in the United States did not want to leave what they considered their home. They resented the implication that they were a danger to society. That good-hearted men such as Clay and Lincoln could not grasp this was one of the enduring evils of slavery.44

IN HIS LAST annual message, in December 1816, President Madison again mentioned internal improvements, which the Fourteenth Congress had done little to address during its first session. On February 4, Calhoun introduced a measure that would soon be called the Bonus Bill proposing that the $1.5 million received from the Bank of the United States for its charter, along with the Bank’s future dividends, be placed in a permanent fund to finance the construction of roads and canals. Calhoun’s eloquent appeal explained how improving one part of the country could strengthen the entire nation. Clay agreed and applauded Calhoun for presenting a plan “cementing the union—in facilitating internal trade—in augmenting the wealth and the population of the country.”45

Many throughout the country were not sure about that. Reflexive resistance met proposals that had the government paying for projects that seemed to benefit only distant regions and local populations. People in Charleston were apt to bristle over paying for a road in New Hampshire, while Granite Staters would grumble about paying for the dredging of Charleston Harbor. In addition to these self-interested objections to internal improvements, many thinking men found them constitutionally troubling, as they empowered the federal government to undertake projects, spend money, and inevitably encroach on states’ rights. Given these obstacles, the Bonus Bill would not have stood a chance in Congress had not James Madison urged the legislature to consider the matter. Madison’s seeming conversion, along with Thomas Jefferson’s, to the idea of limited federal projects convinced enough skeptics that the Constitution’s “Necessary and Proper” clause might indeed sanction such enterprises.46

Consequently the Bonus Bill passed Congress, though with only a two-vote margin in the House, and was dispatched to Madison in the closing days of his administration. Clay and Calhoun had every reason to believe that surmounting the congressional hurdle meant the difficult part was done, but Madison and Jefferson had suggested that a constitutional amendment might be necessary for the kinds of projects that Clay wanted, which was an ominous portent for the Bonus Bill. On March 2, Calhoun paid a customary courtesy call on the outgoing president and Mrs. Madison at the Octagon House, a wealthy Virginia planter’s property that served as the president’s residence while the gutted Executive Mansion was being rebuilt. Calhoun chatted politely with the Madisons, wished them well, and prepared to leave. As Calhoun walked toward the door, Madison called to him. The president seemed uncomfortable and clearly had something on his mind as he accompanied Calhoun toward the exit. After a pause, he hesitantly said that he planned to veto the Bonus Bill because he thought it unconstitutional.

The information stunned Calhoun. All of his hard work had been carried out on the assumption that the president wanted a bill authorizing internal improvements, and now with one in hand he was going to strike it down. Calhoun rushed to Henry Clay with this news, and Clay quickly wrote to the president to implore that he not use the veto and instead leave the matter to James Monroe to decide. Madison was not swayed. He vetoed the bill.47

His veto message detailed specific objections that were shared by critics of the policy. The bill authorized no specific improvements but merely established an enormous pile of money that all but invited corrupt dealings and tainted trades, what later generations would describe as pork-barrel politics. To judge the constitutionality of an internal improvement bill required weighing specific projects against the “Necessary and Proper” test. He cited the constitutional convention, about which he could speak with more authority than anyone else, to remind Congress that the Framers had drafted the “Necessary and Proper” clause not to give it infinite unrestrained power but as a gauge to measure the worth and consequences of individual initiatives.

Revealing the level of his disappointment in this episode, Clay took the additional extraordinary step of trying to override the veto of his own party’s president. Revealing the level of opposition to the very concept of internal improvements, the override failed.48 A major element of the program that he and Calhoun felt was essential to national progress had been repudiated.

Clay’s disappointments mounted in those early days of March 1817. Monroe’s cabinet announcements were finally made official, and John Quincy Adams was the new secretary of state. Clay felt humiliated at being passed over, but his embarrassment soon gave way to angry resentment. Being rejected for Adams was especially vexing. During their six months together in Ghent, Clay had concluded that to know Adams was to dislike him, and he sincerely believed that the New Englander’s barbed personality was unsuited for the State Department. Worse, Clay did not trust Adams to protect western interests, because he had been so willing to bargain them away at Ghent.

Monroe did not help matters when he offered Clay the War Department, a decidedly inferior cabinet post, especially in peacetime. When Clay turned Monroe down “in the most decided manner,” Monroe then made a worse blunder by proposing that Clay replace Adams as minister to Great Britain. Clay hardly thought it a consolation to be offered Adams’s leavings.49

Because Clay’s irritation obscured for him Monroe’s perfectly good reasons for his cabinet choices, he could not see that he was being unfair to a man with a complex set of predicaments that had nothing to do with satisfying Henry Clay. Federalists circulated rumors that Monroe had made a deal with Clay for his support in the Republican caucus. For blocking Crawford’s nomination, they whispered, Clay was to receive the State Department. No such arrangement existed, but the suggestion of impropriety horrified Monroe. In addition, William Crawford was senior to Clay, with an impressive résumé: he had been in the government longer, had served in Madison’s cabinet, had been minister to France, and had been elected president pro tempore of the Senate. Giving the State Department to Clay would have slighted Crawford, who was already annoyed by Madison’s shuffling him from War into Treasury. Finally, Monroe wanted a geographically balanced cabinet with one member from the North, one from the South, one from the Mid-Atlantic region, and one from the West. The most qualified loyal Republican from the Northeast was John Quincy Adams, a career diplomat, making him the logical choice for the State Department. Monroe tried to mollify the other two aspirants to State by bringing them into the cabinet as well, which was why he asked Crawford to remain at Treasury and offered Clay the War Department. Crawford said yes; Clay said no, and Monroe sought out another westerner, first considering Andrew Jackson but asking former Kentucky governor Isaac Shelby, who also declined. Ultimately, Monroe settled on John C. Calhoun, a southerner who, with the Georgian Crawford, tilted the quest for sectional balance to the South. But Monroe could console himself that it was not a perfect world.50

In fact, imperfections cropped up in the most unexpected places at the start of this “Era of Good Feelings.” When nobody consulted Speaker Clay about plans to dress up the House chamber with red plush chairs for Monroe’s inauguration, he curtly insisted that the Senate would have to be satisfied with “the furniture of the Hall, such as it is.” Because of a quarrel over chairs, James Monroe had the distinction of being the first president sworn in outdoors.51

Clay did not attend Monroe’s inauguration, which might have been a show of petulance over being denied State, but he did not cut himself off from the administration either. He asked Monroe to appoint friends to federal jobs, and the president usually obliged. Clay kept his disappointment largely to himself, joking with friends about the cabinet and letting Monroe continue to consider him a friend and an adviser. Whether Clay’s pique colored his attitude toward the Monroe presidency is uncertain. His disagreements with the administration are often filtered through the lens of John Quincy Adams’s diary and consequently seem to have stemmed entirely from Clay’s personal displeasure. Clay always claimed, however, that he differed with the administration solely on policy. Perhaps the truth was somewhere in between.52 In the fall of 1817, he counseled Kit Hughes not to brood over being denied a diplomatic appointment he wanted. He told Hughes “to acquiesce, with a good grace, in what is unalterable … to patiently wait a more favorable turn of events.” It was good advice. Clay might have taken it himself.53

The Clays stayed in the capital during that summer of 1817. Henry had business interests in Washington, his daughter Susan was in school in Baltimore, Lucretia was in the early months of her tenth pregnancy, and the family was installed in a comfortable house. As the days shortened and shadows lengthened with autumn’s approach, Washington was a ghost town. Congress was not in session, and legislators as well as members of the cabinet had left for their homes. President Monroe toured New England to cultivate support in that last bastion of Federalism. On November 9, 1817, Lucretia gave birth to her tenth child, their fourth son, James Brown Clay. Unlike Henry Jr., James was frequently ill and gave his parents several anxious months before finally gaining strength.54

MEMBERS OF CONGRESS began trickling back into town at the end of November, and Washington came alive again. Once Lucretia regained her strength, the Clays went to parties and hosted their own with broad guest lists that even included John Quincy Adams. Yet Washington was not the same without vivacious Dolley Madison at the head of society. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe was a reserved woman who did not call on wives and with her husband avoided socializing in private homes to prevent the impression that the president had favorites. The Monroes gave parties and held levees, but these lacked the sparkle of Mrs. Madison’s events. In any case, the president and his wife were frequently ill during his eight years in office and limited their social calendar. In matters both convivial and political, Monroe’s presidency did not measure up to Clay’s standards.55

Voter anger over the Salary Grab meant that an extraordinary number of the Fifteenth Congress were freshmen, and Clay hoped that he could play on that inexperience to undo Madison’s eleventh-hour fit of constitutional caution over internal improvements. He was encouraged that the House overwhelmingly elected him Speaker once again, but his easy victory did not mean the House would automatically do his bidding. Some new members found Clay arrogant and resented his efforts to use them for his purposes. Many lodged the same constitutional objections to federally funded internal improvements as previous Congresses, objections that Monroe, like Madison, shared. As Clay surveyed his opponents, he grew frustrated. Friends in Kentucky proposed running him for governor, and he considered it.56

In fact, Clay had contemplated retirement from Congress since spring. The principal reason he did not quit and go home was his desire to steer the United States to support Latin American revolutions fighting for independence from Spain. This issue gave rise to Clay’s sharpest disagreements with the Monroe administration. The president tried to mollify Clay, and a formal break never occurred. In addition, many suspected that Clay’s fixation on recognizing Latin American republics was just another way for him to embarrass Monroe and Adams. Yet his disgust over the administration’s reluctance to support Latin American revolutions was quite sincere, and he had planned before the fall session started to make it a major issue for the Fifteenth Congress.

Clay had early expressed sympathy for Latin American revolutionaries because he saw them as comparable to America’s patriots of 1776. He criticized United States neutrality between Spain and its erstwhile colonies as a breach of faith and “came out with great violence against” Monroe’s detachment.57 When Monroe refused to recognize the republics but sent a fact-finding mission to South America instead, Clay acidly contrasted the $30,000 cost of the mission to the mere $18,000 necessary to pay for an official minister to Buenos Aires. He angrily denounced those who said such matters were beyond the province of Congress and spoke passionately over the span of three days in March 1818 urging recognition. He was sorely disappointed at not only losing that vote, but by a resounding margin of 115 to 45 at that. So much for the Spirit of ’76.58

Monroe actually sympathized with the revolutionaries, but he could not risk a rupture with Spain by seeming to encourage the disintegration of its empire. Secretary of State Adams was negotiating with Spanish minister Don Luis de Onís to acquire Spanish Florida, but the talks were not going well and were beset by troubling events. When pirates and mercenaries overran Amelia Island on the east coast of Spanish Florida, Monroe authorized American military forces to oust the freebooters because they posed a threat to U.S. coastal trade and the southern border. These brigands had vague connections to Latin American revolutions, and Monroe knew that Spain did not want them on Amelia Island any more than he did. Yet he had to be careful, for any American military action against Spanish territory anywhere and for any reason threatened to spoil Adams’s work. Even so, Monroe thought another military campaign in Spanish Florida to suppress violence by Seminole Indians on the Florida border was easily justified. The administration sent Major General Andrew Jackson into Florida to chastise those Seminoles, confident that the laws of nations sanctioned the pursuit of enemies across international borders.59

WHEN CLAY TOOK his family home after Congress adjourned in the spring, he was only vaguely aware of these developments. In Kentucky, friends applauded his stand on Latin America and his efforts to promote the West, and he stood for reelection to the Sixteenth Congress unopposed. In November, Clay returned to Washington without Lucretia and the children. Laura’s fatal illness on the trip the previous year made them cautious, and James’s fragile health as he approached his first birthday called for prudence.60

As Clay prepared for the trip, he heard troubling rumors about Jackson’s campaign in Florida. Old Hickory, it was said, had taken Pensacola, the capital of Spanish West Florida. Clay noted that if this were true, Jackson had committed an unconstitutional act by attacking a foreign power without congressional approval.61 By the time Clay arrived in Washington in late fall, the capital was buzzing with additional news about the Florida invasion that rapidly pushed every other issue aside. Jackson’s actions at Pensacola had been accurately described, which was bad enough, but there was more, much more, and it all spelled troubled for the administration politically and for the country diplomatically.

Jackson had gone into Florida in early 1818 with orders to chastise Seminoles near the United States border. Secretary of War Calhoun included instructions not to molest any Spaniards or attack Spanish forts or settlements. Yet Jackson moved on St. Marks, a small Spanish post, where he demanded the garrison’s surrender. At St. Marks, Jackson imprisoned an elderly Scottish trader, a British subject named Alexander Arbuthnot, for befriending the Seminoles. Old Hickory then headed east to scatter Seminole towns near the Suwannee River. There another British subject, a former British Royal Marine captain named Robert Chrystie Ambrister, fell into American hands. Returning to St. Marks, Jackson convened a court of his senior officers to try Arbuthnot and Ambrister for inciting the Seminoles to make war on the United States. The court convicted and sentenced both to die, but Ambrister threw himself on his captors’ mercy with such sincerity that they reduced his sentence to a flogging and imprisonment. Jackson, however, had both men executed. He then marched on Pensacola, shelled it into submission, and forced the Spanish provincial governor to sign an instrument of surrender. Leaving an occupying force, Jackson headed home.62

Jackson’s two-month campaign had cut more than a wide swath in Florida. In addition to chastising Seminoles, which was the sole official purpose of his invasion, Jackson had summarily hanged two unoffending Indians and had murdered two British subjects. The Indians had not even had a trial, but considering the drumhead court-martial of Arbuthnot and Ambrister, it would not have mattered. Jackson obviously intended to ignore rulings if they ran counter to his wishes. He also obviously intended to ignore the orders that prohibited any attack on Spaniards. He had forcibly taken both St. Marks and Pensacola. Jackson’s campaign was not just diplomatically inexcusable and domestically impolitic. It was illegal.

When news of these incredible exploits reached Washington, Monroe was in Virginia and the cabinet was scattered. Not until mid-July did the president and his secretaries frantically gather to craft a response that might justify to the British and Spanish embassies Jackson’s murdering the former’s citizens and assailing the latter’s provincial government.63 Divisions immediately emerged. Calhoun and Crawford wanted Jackson punished for insubordination.64 Monroe paused short of that plain course of action, however, as did Attorney General William Wirt, who usually formed an opinion only after discovering the president’s. John Quincy Adams alone defended Jackson, on the grounds that this show of force could convince Spain that the better course was to sell Florida to the United States instead of having it stolen. Aside from the diplomatic advantage that might result, Jackson was enormously popular with Americans, particularly westerners and southerners, and condemning him was risky. With such arguments, Adams persuaded Monroe and the cabinet to sustain Old Hickory in the face of both foreign outrage and domestic indignation. Calhoun and Crawford were not happy, but they consented to the plan.

The United States was lucky that the British government’s outrage was more designed to satisfy British public opinion than to menace America and that Spain was too distracted by its crumbling empire to go to war with anyone over anything. Through George Erving, the U.S. minister in Madrid, Adams told the Spanish government that its failure to control Florida Indians justified Jackson’s invasion but that all territory would nonetheless be returned. The British backed away from a confrontation over the elderly Scot and the hapless freebooter, and the Spaniards grudgingly resolved to cut their losses by resuming talks over Florida, quietly grateful that Florida was still theirs to talk about.65

Monroe and the cabinet knew that many in Congress would be far more difficult to mollify, and John Quincy Adams especially worried about Henry Clay’s reaction.66 True enough, some congressmen recoiled from attacking the popular Jackson, and others so strongly wanted territorial expansion that they were not fussy about how it was accomplished. But a substantial number in the legislature took congressional prerogatives under the Constitution very seriously, Speaker Clay foremost among them.67

To tread lightly around Jackson’s popularity while placating Congress on the Florida affair, Monroe took contradictory positions in his annual message of November 16, 1818.68 He insisted that Andrew Jackson’s behavior was justified and worthy of congratulation. Yet he also insisted that Jackson had not been authorized to take Spanish posts, which accordingly would be returned to Spain. This peculiar statement that sustained Jackson in one breath and disowned him in the next left Clay and others both bewildered and unsatisfied. Alabama’s territorial governor, the former congressman and senator William W. Bibb, plainly stated these worries: “no man should be permitted in a free country to usurp the whole powers of the whole government and to treat with contempt all authority except that of his own will.”69

Hoping to preempt Clay’s assignment of the president’s Florida explanation to its logical place, the unfriendly Committee on Military Affairs, Jackson supporters on December 8 tried to have it placed in the Committee on Foreign Relations, which was inclined toward Jackson. The debate on this purely procedural matter consumed two days and concluded with Military Affairs charged with examining the Florida affair. The debate also gave rise to questions about the constitutionality of Jackson’s actions, but Clay reminded the House that the time to debate the war would come when the committees brought in their reports.70 The two committees went to work as Washington entered the holiday season nervously anticipating what stand Congress would take when it reconvened after the first of the year.

Clay made the rounds of Christmas parties that culminated with the most lavish of them celebrating New Year’s. Foreign ministers and cabinet secretaries hosted gatherings at their homes, and “a magnificent ball at the Marine barracks” was followed by “a refulgent dinner at the President’s.” Concerts, plays, and performances by novelty acts such as magicians enlivened evenings during which everyone in the political establishment traded jests and raised glasses as if the best of friends. Attorney General Wirt cynically noted that there was “so much bowing—so much simpering—so much smiling—so much grinning; such fawning, flattering, duplicity, hypocricy [sic]—my head spun—my stomach turned.” Clay, on the other hand, not only had the stomach for such socializing, he regarded the politicking that went with it as mother’s milk and the events themselves as enjoyable amusements.71

The parties gave Clay a chance to discover attitudes about Jackson’s actions in unguarded social moments. People were troubled, that much was clear, but Clay could not tell how many had the courage to criticize the Hero of New Orleans. Part of the answer came on January 12, when the Military Affairs Committee issued a majority report condemning Jackson for the trial and execution of Arbuthnot and Ambrister. Yet a minority report by the committee’s chairman, Richard Mentor Johnson, endorsed Jackson’s comportment as perfectly proper. Clay and Johnson, both Kentuckians and friends, had never disagreed on a political question. Soon, because of Andrew Jackson, they would disagree about almost everything.72

Legal, moral, political, and personal motives framed the three-week debate over Jackson’s actions. Virginian states’ rights advocates, for instance, expressed alarm over growing federal power, and others lamented the seeming congressional indifference to Monroe’s constitutional nonchalance if Jackson were not condemned.73 Clay clearly disapproved of what Jackson had done, but his reasons for pursuing the course he chose during these weeks were subjected to suspicious scrutiny. Clay had met Jackson once a few years before. He had also handled a minor legal matter for Jackson in Kentucky, but all their contact had been through correspondence.74 Nothing suggests that Clay saw Jackson as a political rival, but as this affair unfolded, Old Hickory’s popularity became increasingly evident, and some in retrospect supposed that Clay was delivering a preemptive blow. Others saw Clay as using the debates to undermine the administration, an extension of his other efforts to make Monroe and Adams sorry Clay had not been given State.75

Yet if Clay wanted to discomfit Monroe, he could have tied Jackson more effectively to the administration. Instead, as Jackson’s passionate followers mounted fervent defenses of him and his actions, Clay’s decision to challenge Jackson likely stemmed from motives similar to Calhoun’s. If a United States Army officer could make war on his own initiative and execute captives without trial or under the cover of rigged tribunals, the Constitution meant nothing.76

Clay planned to come down from the Speaker’s chair on January 20 to make a major speech on the Florida invasion. Announced in advance, the address was his most important since returning from Europe and led to a flurry of expectation. The Senate scheduled an adjournment to allow its members to attend, all the foreign ministers came to Capitol Hill, and the ladies of Washington appeared in droves to hear his voice. Observers had never seen such a crowd. The House gallery was packed to overflowing, and extra chairs were placed on the House floor to accommodate ladies. Spectators stood in the lobby and shoved for a place at the chamber door. Awaiting Clay, the assemblage raised a loud din of chatter over which laughter occasionally broke out as congressmen flirted with their female guests. When Clay finally rose to speak, however, “such a silence prevailed that tho’ at a considerable distance,” Margaret Smith “did not lose a word.”77

He spoke for three hours. He intended to speak longer, but he started too loud and his voice gave out. Throughout he held his audience spellbound, and even those who disagreed with every word he spoke had to admit that his wit, sarcasm, and sincerity made for a masterful performance. Federalist Louis McLane detested Clay, but he freely conceded that the speech was “the most eloquent one I ever heard.”78

And yet Clay’s address on January 20, 1819, has most often been described as a serious miscalculation, for he not only attacked the popular Andrew Jackson, he also made in the space of three hours an implacable, relentless personal enemy. Clay claimed no personal hostility toward Jackson, but he could not defend behavior he found morally and constitutionally indefensible. Yes, Spain had clearly violated the treaty of 1795 that required it to control Indians within its borders, but that violation did not justify the wrong done by American forces when placed in historical perspective. The 1813–14 war with the Creek Indians had ended with Andrew Jackson’s draconian peace that had forced many Indians into Florida, two of whom Jackson executed in this latest foray simply because he had found them. Killing “an unarmed and prostrate captive” was an unpardonable departure from the philosophy that defined Americanism and guided Americans, the culture that made the rule of law supreme over the will of a powerful man. In that regard, Arbuthnot and Ambrister’s guilt or innocence was beside the point. More central was the question of whether they had been killed in accordance with the law after having access to due process. Jackson said that because they had allied themselves with Indians, the two were criminals, but where in the laws of nations was such a finding supported?

He addressed the broader implications of Jackson’s constitutional transgression. The Constitution placed the power to make war exclusively with Congress, and everyone knew the sound reason for restricting that authority to the representatives of the people. The president clearly did, for he had assured Congress in March 1818 that the campaign against the Seminoles would not involve a foreign power, a statement Monroe believed to be true at the time. Yet on the very day that Monroe had sent Congress that assurance, Jackson was writing to the administration about his plan to take St. Marks, a plan that had Jackson exercising a power only Congress possessed. Jackson then announced that by destroying villages on the Suwannee, he had all but concluded his campaign, but Jackson subsequently interpreted the Spanish governor’s protesting the unprovoked attack on Spanish territory as an affront and had marched on Pensacola.

Clay warned that allowing Jackson’s behavior “to pass, without a solemn expression of the disapprobation of this House” would repeat the sad histories of Greece, of Rome, and of France. All of those glorious, free nations had relaxed restraints on their militaries and had paid the ultimate price for doing so. Americans had a duty to prevent “a triumph of the military over the civil authority—a triumph over the powers of this house—a triumph over the constitution of the land.”79

He was done, and the House and galleries exploded in applause and cheers as Clay exited to the lobby. He sipped on a drink as colleagues extended hands, slapped him on the back, and heartily congratulated him on his triumph. It was gratifying, but when his eye settled on Margaret Smith sitting alone at the base of a stairway, he strode over to join her, “throwing himself most gracefully into a recumbent posture.” People would remember him there, chatting with Mrs. Smith, occasionally acknowledging the repeated congratulations of passersby with a smiling nod, the toast of the Capitol making it appear perfectly natural to lounge smiling next to an elegant lady on the risers outside the House chamber.80

He was the toast of the Capitol at least for that day, but his friends had reason to worry that Clay’s stance had done him long-term political injury. Although Clay had taken pains to avoid attacking Monroe or Adams, those supporting Jackson had had their suspicions about Clay’s motives confirmed, at least in their own minds, and they tallied his speech as a score to be evened. Old Hickory’s arrival in Washington three days after Clay’s speech caused a stir among those eager to see matters evened right away. Richard Johnson had predicted that Jackson’s temper would cause “a rattling among the dry Bones,” but Clay had not meant his remarks as a personal attack, and he promptly called on Jackson to make that clear.81 Yet for Jackson everything touching upon him was personal, and he was decidedly chilly during Clay’s visit. In addition, Jackson regarded the controversy over his Florida campaign as a conspiracy launched by a growing list of enemies. He set his henchmen to the task of smearing the motives of William H. Crawford, whom Jackson suspected of being his chief enemy in the cabinet, and William Lowndes as well as Henry Clay, his enemies in the House. Jackson was intent upon ruining their reputations for daring to criticize him. He threatened to cut off the ears of anyone who spoke against him. He considered challenging Clay to a duel but was waiting for Congress to adjourn, and cooler heads persuaded him to drop it.82

Events and Jackson’s popularity rather than his bullying threats saved him from formal censure. On February 22, Adams and Onís finally signed a treaty that ceded Florida to the United States. Later dubbed the Transcontinental Treaty because it also established the border between U.S. and Spanish territories all the way to the Pacific Ocean, it deflated Jackson’s opponents and energized his supporters, now armed with proof that his Florida foray had paid real expansionist dividends. Richard Johnson and other Jackson men were the minority on the Military Affairs Committee, but they became a majority in the House itself, defeating the report condemning Jackson. In the Senate, a report denouncing Jackson never came to a vote.83

As a political controversy, the Florida affair ended unsatisfactorily for everyone. Jackson’s opponents grimly surveyed what they perceived as serious constitutional wreckage resulting from the failure to discipline an arrant military leader disdainful of his superiors and contemptuous of the people’s tribunals. Jackson was vindicated, but he brooded over criticisms that he snarled were merely the sniping of ingrates and schemers, men he marked as suspect in their love of country because they did not love him. He planned to settle scores eventually and had taken names. Henry Clay topped the list.

EVEN AS THE controversy over Florida blazed, another unexpected domestic crisis emerged. In a way, Clay had planted the seeds for it in December 1818 when he presented a memorial from the Territory of Missouri, in essence a request for admission to the Union. Clay had friends and family in Missouri and was interested in paving the territory’s way to statehood. The request was routinely referred to committee, and there the matter remained, ticking. On February 13, 1819, it exploded.84

New York congressman James Tallmadge proposed an amendment to the Missouri enabling bill. The Tallmadge amendment said that no more slaves were to be brought into Missouri and provided for the gradual emancipation of children born to slaves already there. The House was in the Committee of the Whole to discuss the enabling bill, and Clay leaped to attack Tallmadge’s proposal. Because of the late hour on Saturday, the House adjourned before opinions could be aired. It placed the matter on Monday’s calendar. The weekend turned tense over the prospect of a serious quarrel.85

At first Clay was curiously blind to Missouri’s potential for causing serious trouble. Federally funded internal improvements and the recognition of the South American republics remained his priorities.86 Yet southerners considered the Tallmadge amendment a portentous menace to sectional balance. Although in 1788, when the Constitution was adopted, the North and South were roughly even in wealth and population, the passing years saw the North growing richer and more populous, resulting in a growing northern majority in the House of Representatives. Only by maintaining equality in the Senate, where twenty-two free state senators were balanced by twenty-two from the slave states, could southerners hope to foil northern efforts to meddle with slavery. Restricting slavery in Missouri could set a precedent for the rest of the enormous Louisiana Purchase and encourage emancipationists elsewhere, possibly in the South itself.

The House debate on Tallmadge’s amendment featured arguments for and against slavery that would become all too familiar in coming years. It also featured Henry Clay at his moral nadir on the slavery issue. He stood firmly with the proslavery side, voicing with seeming conviction arguments that would become a staple of slavery proponents. He compared slaves to northern factory workers to suggest that slaves were materially better off as to food, clothing, and shelter, the closest he ever came to describing the institution as a positive good, and something he would never do again. To his marginal credit, he did at least say that the existence of slavery was regrettable, but he disagreed with Tallmadge’s presumption that Congress had the right to dictate slavery’s status in any part of the Louisiana Purchase. As it happened, the point was timely because northerners were also seeking to eliminate slavery in the Arkansas Territory. When the vote on Arkansas yielded a dead-even division with 88 for and 88 against slavery, Clay cast his tiebreaking vote to keep slavery unrestricted in the new territory. It was not his finest hour.87

Rhetoric became alarming during the second day of debate on the Missouri question. Thomas W. Cobb threatened disunion if Tallmadge did not withdraw his amendment. The New Yorker, said Cobb, was kindling “a fire that all the waters of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood can only extinguish.” Tallmadge darkly responded, “Let it be so! … if civil war … must come, … let it come!” Under the shadow of such talk, the House narrowly passed the enabling bill with the Tallmadge amendment and sent it to the Senate, where southern strength succeeded in removing slavery restriction. The final session of the Fifteenth Congress ended with the fate of Missouri undetermined, giving the sections time to feed their unique anxieties over the question.88

Southerners gradually embraced the unnerving conclusion that northern antislavery rhetoric could incite slaves to rebellion, and northerners suspected that southern vehemence about Missouri signaled a design to spread slavery to all new territories west of the Mississippi. Meetings throughout the North instructed representatives to support the Tallmadge amendment.89

This first serious disagreement between the sections on slavery revealed the issue’s uncanny ability to affect seemingly unrelated questions. For example, attempts to restrict slavery made southerners consider that expanding federal power wielded by growing northern majorities could lead to nationally mandated abolition. By way of such predictions, even the BUS became an unpopular symbol of an extensive federal reach that could affect slavery.

By 1819, the BUS had enough problems without adding sectional distrust to them. In that year, the first serious financial panic since Washington’s presidency struck the nation hard, destroying businesses, closing banks, throwing enormous numbers out of work, and ushering in a lingering economic depression. The causes of this economic calamity were various, but land speculation figured prominently. The western branches of the BUS were deeply involved in these reckless investments, and the BUS in general had encouraged rather than restrained the dizzying credit spiral that resulted throughout the country. People unversed in the arcane formulas of discount rates and the relationships between sound credit and stable currencies knew only that when they lost their homes or saw their local banks driven to failure by called loans, the BUS was the culprit.

Consequently, when the House revived questions about the Bank’s constitutionality, Clay was disturbed. He had already suffered a constitutional setback on internal improvements with Madison’s veto of the Bonus Bill, and he was greatly relieved when the Supreme Court weighed in favorably on the Bank shortly after the congressional session ended. In the case of McCulloch v. Maryland, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that federal agencies could not be impeded by states, a decision in which he famously declared that “the power to tax is the power to kill,” and he also declared the Bank constitutional. Marshall could make the BUS legitimate, but his ruling could not make it popular.90

Clay returned home after Congress adjourned with the hope that the economic crisis was not as dire as reported, but what he saw was disheartening. During that spring and early summer, he traveled to New Orleans to see his brother John, purchase sugar to sell in Kentucky, and attend a dinner in his honor. As he returned home aboard the steamboat Napoleon, he saw the same suffering along the river that had shadowed his visit to the Crescent City. Bank failures and falling agricultural prices were compounded by a severe drought that left crops withering in the fields. The great Mississippi and Ohio were so shrunken that Clay had to leave the Napoleon to travel overland, and he was late in returning to Ashland, thus missing James Monroe, who was on a western tour.91

The panic’s grim consequences further shaped Clay’s strong views on economic development. He was convinced that the inability of the BUS to ward off the crisis was the result of the Bank’s mismanagement rather than the Bank itself. More than ever the country needed a central fiscal agent to regulate credit and the currency, and the ouster of the Bank’s inept president William Jones in favor of Langdon Cheves encouraged Clay. Thereafter, he took a more vigilant interest in the BUS and in due course managed its legal affairs in the West.92

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS claimed that some disgruntled congressmen wanted to prevent Clay’s election to the Speakership of the Sixteenth Congress, but he again won the post in a lopsided vote.93 Clay continued to promote Latin American independence and to protest flaws in the Adams-Onís Treaty.94

But his forum was largely preoccupied with what was becoming a perennial crisis, for the Missouri question dominated the session, and Clay finally understood the importance of resolving it. On the most basic level, Missourians were angry at being treated differently from other territories because they happened to own slaves. Led by Thomas Hart Benton’s St. Louis Enquirer, Missouri’s newspapers demanded admission on Missouri’s terms. Benton had family connections to Henry Clay. He was named after Lucretia’s father, Thomas Hart, who had been Benton’s great-uncle. Colorful adventures marked Benton’s progress from Tennessee to Missouri, including an alliance with Andrew Jackson that ended when the two tried to kill each other in a Nashville street brawl. That was in 1813, but in Missouri, Benton had risen to prominence as a newspaper editor and politician. He now expected “Harry of the West” to support Missouri’s application.95

That Clay only gradually focused attention on Missouri actually showed that he was more in touch with the country. For all the heat generated by the question, it remained an issue relatively confined to Washington politics. The territory understandably saw its statehood as the highest national priority, but the rest of the country felt that the economic crisis merited more attention from the government. Congress, however, ignored the rest of the country and took up where it had left off regarding Missouri. When the Maine district, a part of Massachusetts, with the state government’s consent, requested admission to the Union as a separate state, southerners howled over the potential of further tilting the sectional balance, but perceptive observers saw in Maine an opportunity for a quid pro quo.

On December 30, 1819, Clay spoke about this to the Committee of the Whole. He had no objection to Maine’s admission, but he wanted to know Missouri’s fate before casting his vote. He thought it was fundamentally unfair to place restrictions on Missouri and none on new states in the East. He did more than suggest that the vote for Maine should be predicated on the vote for Missouri. Massachusetts congressman John Holmes, a resident of Maine, said that surely Clay’s idea “did not extend quite as far as” to trade Maine for the unconditional admission of Missouri. Clay succinctly answered by muttering “Yes, it did,” pausing between the words for emphasis, making each loud enough for everyone to hear. He then elaborated: no restrictions on the admission of states could be permitted, no matter their section or their situation. Surprised by the hostile reluctance to connect the New England and western requests, Clay was grateful that Congress had time to overcome it. Massachusetts had not yet worked out the details of Maine’s separation, and time could calm tempers and light the proper way.

In this first great compromise of a career whose fame would rest largely on Clay’s ability to craft conciliation and resolve contentious questions with mutual concessions, he realized that time was always reason’s greatest ally. Given enough time, anything was achievable, the fieriest tempers would cool, the most rigid positions would bend. Wait, he told Holmes, and see. Northern votes passed the Maine enabling bill in the House, but southerners in the Senate had their cue. They insisted on linking Maine’s admission to Missouri’s.96

After a pause, Illinois senator Jesse Thomas stepped up with a plan. A moderate with strong southern ties, Thomas proposed not just the unrestricted admission of both Maine and Missouri but also a demarcation of the Louisiana Purchase at latitude 36° 30′, which was the southern border of Missouri. Except for Missouri, all states formed north of that line would be free; any states south of it had the option to choose slavery.

The proposal became famous as the Missouri Compromise, and within Clay’s lifetime he would be erroneously credited for having framed it. Possibly the confusion resulted from his remarks suggesting the linkage of Maine and Missouri, but Thomas’s plan as proposed in the Senate contained the significant addition of 36° 30′, which Clay had nothing to do with. Actually, Clay never publicly spoke for or against the Missouri Compromise, and he was in fact doubtful that it would calm rancor or long quell disunion. One Sunday morning as he left church services, then held in the Capitol, he told John Quincy Adams that within five years the nation would come apart to form three separate confederacies. It was a gloomy long-term forecast. In the short term, he glumly doubted that Thomas’s plan could pass the House.97

Clay believed that the failure of compromise endangered the Union in a practical way. Sectional political parties would arise, further polarizing the country. When rumors predicted that northern Republicans would nominate one of their own rather than the incumbent James Monroe, he condemned the alleged movement. Despite his differences with Monroe, Clay saw great perils in any effort to unseat him.98

The Senate finally passed Thomas’s compromise on February 17 and sent it to the House. Clay supported the compromise as the only reasonable solution but remained uncharacteristically pessimistic about its chances. The problem was that both southerners and northerners found different portions of it objectionable for different reasons, but those objections made opponents of the measure into unlikely allies against it. Only moderates like Clay with the strong support of President Monroe could push it through the House, but there weren’t enough of them, and they failed.99 The House stubbornly voted yet again to admit Missouri under the Tallmadge amendment, which the Senate just as obstinately rejected yet again on March 2, sending back a bill admitting Missouri without restrictions and marking 36° 30′ in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase. Another House vote would likely have yielded the same insistence on including the Tallmadge amendment had not the implausible majority against it been broken by cleverly separating Missouri from the Missouri Compromise line. Each of these could attract slim majorities, as indeed they did. Neither side was satisfied, but when traversing difficult ground, the best that could be hoped for was that everybody was equally uncomfortable, more often than not the definition of political compromise.100

The following morning, however, John Randolph tried to upset the wagon and spill its cargo by demanding a reconsideration of the issue. Clay ruled Randolph out of order. House rules, he said, clearly required the completion of routine matters before any new business could be considered. Randolph unsuccessfully appealed and sat sulking as the House introduced petitions and committee reports. Occasionally Randolph piped up to repeat his motion, but he was each time ruled out of order. Finally, with all old business completed, Randolph offered his motion, but Clay announced that because the clerk of the House had already taken the Missouri bill to the Senate, it could not be reconsidered. Randolph was dumbfounded. He blurted that the clerk had violated a member’s prerogative to ask for reconsideration, but his motion of protest was defeated too. Randolph sat fuming. Clay had done it to him again. Through a crafty use of parliamentary procedure, the Speaker made sure that the Missouri Compromise passed Congress.101

CLAY SUFFERED FINANCIAL reverses in the economic panic and decided not to place his name on the ballot in the upcoming summer elections. Instead, he would return to Kentucky, practice law, and try to restore his assets. His retirement was not meant to be permanent, but it did make urgent his desire to move on several important issues that had been shoved aside by the economy and Missouri. After the sectional crisis was resolved, Clay had only the remaining two months of this session and the second session in the winter of 1820–21 to promote the initiatives he valued most.102

The best Clay could accomplish for the Latin American republics was a narrowly successful resolution (80 to 75) asking the president to consider sending a minister to certain governments. In his impassioned speech for the resolution, Clay on May 10, 1820, first used the expression “American System” to describe not just national economic sovereignty but also the potential for hemispheric solidarity of a New World committed to republican liberty against the corrupt crowns of old Europe. Not until Spain finally concluded its deliberations on the Adams-Onís Treaty and ratified it in the fall of 1820, however, was there a chance for the United States to begin building such camaraderie. Clay’s victory on the issue was at best partial.103

Clay went home in May. He had not seen his family in more than six months. Many constituents regretted his decision to retire, but Clay was determined to resume his law practice before returning in the fall for his last congressional session. The economic downturn had hit Lexington especially hard. The rapid contraction of credit collapsed the region’s manufacturing production and agricultural yields as businesses shuttered their windows and the hemp market shrank. Other towns such as Louisville and Cincinnati on the Ohio River became rivals benefiting from the increasing prevalence of steamboats carrying passengers and hauling cargoes, making Lexington a sleepy outpost that would never recover its former commercial vitality. Clay’s investments in the town’s now slumbering economy nearly ruined him, and he briefly considered moving the family to New Orleans, where lawyers’ fees were higher.104 He scrounged up business wherever he could, but not until the Bank of the United States hired him to represent it in Ohio and Kentucky was he able to make headway in restoring the Clay family coffers. When the BUS put him on a hefty retainer the following year, he finally began to see financial light at the end of the tunnel.105

Hard times had him looking everywhere for assets, especially to help his equally strapped siblings. The Virginia lands that included the plantation Euphraim that Clay’s mother and stepfather had sold in innocent violation of John Clay’s will were recovered through the efforts of a Virginia cousin, attorney Benjamin Watkins Leigh. The legal achievement was made sweeter by the warm letters between Leigh and Clay, the beginning of a lifelong friendship.106

In late October 1820, Clay resigned the Speakership with a letter to the clerk of the House.107 He arranged for Lucretia to move with the younger children into a house he rented in Lexington. She was in the last months of her eleventh (and last) pregnancy, and Clay wanted her close to her family during his absence. He placed Ashland’s operations under an overseer. After celebrating Christmas with the family, Clay started out for Washington.108

The congressional session began with a bruising battle to replace him as Speaker, a consequence of lingering rancor over Missouri. Clay had always been elected Speaker on the first ballot, but it took the House twenty-two ballots to elect John W. Taylor of New York to succeed him.

The presidential race for 1824 was also in full swing.109 In some ways, that contest had been shaping up since Monroe’s election in 1816. Given the signal honor of being the last president to run unopposed, Monroe’s reelection in 1820 had featured a nearly unanimous vote for him in the Electoral College with only a single elector opposing, keeping George Washington’s record intact.110 At the start of Monroe’s second term, presidential aspirants immediately became more obvious in their campaigning. Three members of Monroe’s cabinet—Adams, Crawford, and Calhoun—stood at the pinnacle above a number of lesser lights seeking the prize as well. Nobody thought that Clay’s leaving the legislature meant his permanent retirement from public life, and the presidency did indeed beckon him. Crawford correctly perceived that “there are but few men who have less relish for retirement than Mr. Clay.”111

Clay found the House in the midst of reducing the military as part of the political games between Crawford’s and Calhoun’s congressional supporters. Clay applauded retrenchment during difficult economic times, but it also helped that army reduction would legislate Andrew Jackson out of the military.112 Most of all, though, Clay hoped at last to compel Monroe to recognize the Latin American republics. He again pushed through a resolution favorable to that course but was exasperated when the Missouri controversy reappeared to disrupt congressional business, this time in another guise.

When the previous session had passed the Missouri Compromise, Congress gave Missouri leave to draft a state constitution, and a convention soon produced a document that called for a law prohibiting free blacks from entering the state. Northerners said the clause plainly violated Article IV, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “citizens of each state shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of citizens of the several states.” Because free blacks could be citizens in several northern states as well as Tennessee and North Carolina, barring them from Missouri infringed on their “Privileges and Immunities.” A large majority in the House refused to approve Missouri’s constitution, and the hard-won compromise of the previous year threatened to unravel.

Missouri already considered itself a state and had sent Thomas Hart Benton and David Barton to the Senate and John Scott, previously the territory’s congressional delegate, to the House. The Senate at least seated Benton and Barton, though without voting privileges, and agreed to admit Missouri, leaving it to the courts to rule on the offending part of the state constitution. The northern majority in the House, however, insisted that Missouri change the state constitution as a condition of admission.113

The threat that the Republican Party would divide along sectional lines reemerged as southerners again threatened disunion. For a month, Clay worked within the Committee of the Whole and behind the scenes to craft a compromise.114 He proposed and then chaired a sectionally balanced committee of thirteen to work out a solution. After a week, its majority report recommended Missouri’s admission if it promised not to pass any laws discriminating against the citizens of another state. A lengthy debate on February 12 ended with the proposal failing 83 to 80. The following day, with the measure under reconsideration, Clay “alternately reasoned, remonstrated, and entreated” for almost an hour. He managed to bring two additional votes to his side, but several opponents absent for the first vote now swelled the ranks against the bill, and it again failed, 88 to 82.115

And there the matter stood when a joint congressional session gathered to count the electoral vote from the fall presidential election. The procedure was more a formality than usual, since Monroe had run unopposed, but the complication of what to do with Missouri set the stage for a dramatic confrontation. Like any other state, Missouri had presidential electors and expected them to be counted. A joint committee chaired by Clay recommended to the House that Missouri be included in the tally unless someone objected, in which case two votes would be taken, one with and one without Missouri. It was an ungainly solution, but the House consented, and the president pro tempore of the Senate, John Gaillard of South Carolina, began calling out the states and their totals.116

Everyone grew edgier as Gaillard neared Missouri. When he finally called out the purported state’s name, New Hampshire congressman Arthur Livermore leaped up to object that Missouri was not a state and its votes could not be included. John Floyd of Virginia came to his feet just as quickly to shout that Missouri was most certainly a state and its electors most certainly would be counted. Floyd put his sentiment into a motion, and the national legislature dissolved into bedlam as members shouted objections and shook fists. The Senate walked out. The House finally calmed down enough to try to sort matters out, but John Randolph kept debate lively with wild remarks and dire predictions. Clay gained the floor to remind everyone that the House had already decided how to handle any objection. He suggested tabling Floyd’s motion to allow the legislature to fulfill its constitutional duty of electing James Monroe. Upon reflection, that sounded sensible. The Senate reappeared, the tally was completed, and two totals were recorded. The country was fortunate that it did not, in this case, matter what they were.117

The Missouri question remained unresolved as ratifications on the Transcontinental Treaty were finally exchanged on February 22, but the treaty’s conclusion calmed northern fears that Texas would serve as an avenue of southern expansion. The prospect of maintaining balance in the Senate weakened objections about Missouri, and on that very day Clay proposed that a joint committee of twenty-three representatives and seven senators craft a solution for Missouri. The resulting proposal echoed that of Clay’s House committee on February 12: Missouri would not interpret its constitution as allowing the passage of a law infringing on the “Privileges and Immunities” of citizens of other states. Work behind the scenes made for an abbreviated debate in the House and a favorable result of 87 to 81 for this final compromise, Henry Clay’s principal contribution to resolving the Missouri controversy. Missouri made the required pledge and became a state on August 10, 1821.

As the session closed, Clay thanked Speaker Taylor for presiding with fairness during a difficult time, and privately he expressed cautious optimism that “wisdom and prudence may keep us united a long time, I hope for ever.”118 It was not to be forever, for slavery only slumbered, and only for the time being.

AFTER CONGRESS ADJOURNED on March 3, Clay remained in Washington for a couple of weeks to attend to business and argue cases before the Supreme Court. He wanted the government to pay him additional compensation of $4,500 for expenses incurred while he negotiated the commercial treaty with Great Britain, and he applied directly to James Monroe for the sum. Adams violently objected. Not only was Clay seeking the same level of compensation Adams had received as a senior diplomat, he had gone directly to Monroe rather than through Adams at the State Department. Adams told Monroe not to approve the money. Monroe, however, consulted Attorney General William Wirt, who saw nothing untoward about Clay’s request. Monroe approved it.119

Adams and Clay were thus again at odds when Clay called on him just before leaving for Kentucky. The visit was on the surface a courtesy call, but Clay was obviously checking on the status of his payment. Adams played along, though, and they parted on friendly terms. Later that evening he ruminated in his diary about Henry Clay, a man he would never understand, try as he might. Clay was “an eloquent man, with very popular manners and great political management,” but like so many important men in the country he was “only half educated.” Adams thought Clay’s “morals public and private, are loose, but he has all the virtues indispensable to a popular man … and the sort of generosity which attaches individuals to his person.” It was a pensive observation.

A few days later, one of Clay’s friends approached Adams to sell him a ticket to a farewell dinner planned in Clay’s honor. Adams snapped that he would buy the ticket but could not attend. He later sniffed to his diary that such dinners were not an American practice and accused Clay of importing an obnoxious British custom.120 Rarely did John Quincy Adams mislead his diary, his closest confidant. He knew very well that such dinners were a fashionable way to pay tribute to prominent men throughout the country. He did not admit to his diary that he had never been treated to one.

Adams also had to entertain the likelihood that Clay was a rival for the presidency. No Speaker before the Civil War would use as effectively the precedents set by Clay to manage the House of Representatives or to wield his level of influence over legislation and policy. As a result, Americans would regard few nineteenth-century Speakers as men of sufficient vision and power to merit consideration for the presidency. Nobody doubted Clay’s capacity for broad vision or his ability to wield power, qualities on vivid display as he had presided over the House, qualities that had not dimmed when he took his place on the floor. Nobody doubted that Henry Clay was presidential timber.

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