“I Injured Both Him and Myself”

WHEN HE RETURNED home, Henry Clay was again treated to a sumptuous dinner, the type of display that John Quincy Adams regarded as “a triple alliance of flattery, vanity, and egotism.”1 Clay could not have disagreed more. He did not see his exit from politics as permanent, and he regarded these events as encouraging evidence of his persistent popularity. At the dinner, he continued his criticism of the Monroe administration for not recognizing Latin American republics, a fashionable stand to take in liberty-loving Kentucky. When the president finally acknowledged those new nations months later, Clay was vindicated, and Latin Americans would forever look gratefully upon him for being a friend during their early struggles.2

When Clay returned home in the spring of 1821, Lexington still suffered from the economic slump, but it sustained its reputation as a cultural center, in part because Transylvania University attracted students from all over the nation. Clay continued to serve on the university’s board of trustees during these years, a time in which Andrew Jackson’s nephew was a student, as was young Jefferson Davis, the future president of the Confederacy. Yet times were hard in Lexington, and Clay made his situation worse by generously cosigning notes for friends who often left him responsible for their debts. He was fortunate that his reputation as an excellent attorney attracted a brisk business to his practice, and his profitable arrangement with the BUS allowed him to begin retiring his debt fairly quickly. He needed every penny.

While Clay had been away, Ashland had seen some changes. In February, Lucretia delivered their fifth son and last child, John Morrison Clay, named for Clay’s father and brother and for his friend James Morrison. Clay secured an appointment for his second son, seventeen-year-old Thomas Hart Clay, to the United States Military Academy, and the boy left for New York during the summer of 1821 to begin an ill-fated adventure. His math skills were so deficient that he lasted only a few months before West Point dismissed him in early 1822, and then he did not show up to meet his father in Washington. Instead he squandered his travel money on a drunken gambling spree in New York City and remained stranded there until Clay managed to get him funds for the trip home. The West Point disaster and the New York romp shook Clay’s faith in Thomas, who seemed determined to avoid responsibility and to cultivate debauchery.3

In the spring of 1822, a happier if bittersweet event occurred when Susan Hart Clay married Martin Duralde, Jr. The marriage folded Susan into an extended family of Clays in the Crescent City: Martin was the younger brother of Julie Duralde Clay, wife of John Clay, Henry’s brother. Later that year, when the newlyweds moved to New Orleans, Anne Clay accompanied them for a visit. It was quite an adventure for Anne, who was fifteen. And it was difficult for Henry and Lucretia to see Susan embark on a new life away from them. She was only seventeen.4

Aunt Julie took Anne under her wing, and during the dazzling whirl of parties the girl met James Erwin, an entrepreneur with interests in New Orleans and Tennessee whose father, Andrew, was a prominent Tennessee businessman, politician, and, most notably, an opponent of Andrew Jackson. James had dash and élan, more in fact than Anne or her parents realized, and young Anne’s heart didn’t stand a chance. The speedy courtship resulted in a wedding the following fall in Lexington, possibly more bittersweet for Henry Clay than Susan’s, because clever Anne was always his favorite.5 As if to compensate for the departure of the girls, Martin and Susan in 1823 gave the Clays their first grandchild, Martin Duralde III.

But indescribable sadness was yet to devastate Ashland in 1823. Early that year, fourteen-year-old Lucretia Hart Clay became ill and grew steadily worse through the spring. Never a strong child, she took a sharp turn for the worse in May, and by June her racking cough and bloody sputum revealed that she was dying of tuberculosis. Clay canceled all long-distance travel and refused cases in Ohio. He and Lucretia were at their little girl’s bedside when she died on June 18, 1823, the third of their daughters who would forever be a child.6

IN EARLY 1822, Clay argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, breezed through the Washington social scene, and visited Richmond, Virginia, as a commissioner for the state of Kentucky in order to resolve a land dispute between Kentucky and Virginia.7 His arrival in Richmond marked a homecoming and included pleasant reunions with old boyhood friends such as Tom Ritchie, who had become the influential editor of the Richmond Enquirer. Clay tried to persuade Ritchie to abandon his allegiance to states’ rights and embrace a nationalist program. Ritchie was courteous but unconvinced.

Richmond’s hospitality was typically lavish—Clay was treated to a grand parade through the middle of town on his way to the statehouse—and its citizens were appreciative of their guest. An overflowing crowd including many ladies heard Clay’s “most impressive” address of three hours in which he laid out Kentucky’s case in the land dispute and appealed to Virginians’ pride by expressing his delight at sharing their heritage. His suggestion for arbitration came to nothing, however, and he turned his efforts to securing a rehearing of the 1821 Supreme Court ruling against Kentucky in Green v. Biddle by drafting an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief. Clay’s brief was the first such document submitted to the Supreme Court, a groundbreaking gesture that has since become a commonplace in cases before the Court. The justices agreed to revisit the case but again ruled against Kentucky. Rather than closing the matter, however, considerable confusion continued in years to come as Kentucky defied Virginia’s attempts to recover title to disputed lands, and not until a statute of limitations came into play was the issue resolved.8

Clay almost exhausted himself with his work for the BUS. His friend Langdon Cheves had taken over a bank in crisis with its books full of bad loans and had set about saving the institution by restricting credit for both state banks and individuals. Cheves hired Clay and other attorneys to bring suit to collect delinquent loans. Clay also helped the BUS to recover $100,000 from Ohio, taxes levied in defiance of McCulloch v. Maryland.9

The debt cases posed a ticklish problem for a man with political ambitions. Clay urged leniency and recommended extensions in many instances, but his association with the Bank during hard times made him unpopular in some circles, even in Kentucky. As in other states, the Kentucky legislature debated whether the state should help debtors, an argument that gave birth to two factions, the Relief and Anti-Relief parties. The Relief Party, advocating moratoriums on foreclosures, suspected Clay because of his association with the BUS. Although Clay tried mightily to stay above this fray, the issue would eventually lose him significant political support and rupture long-standing friendships as well. He needed both because he had decided to return to Congress and was considering a run for the presidency.10

The field was crowded. As early as 1822, a dozen aspirants were already testing the presidential waters. Some were long shots, such as Vice President Daniel D. Tompkins, whose alcoholism made his chances slim. New York governor DeWitt Clinton, an avid proponent of internal improvements, had gained luster by shepherding the Erie Canal into construction, and William Lowndes was a respected South Carolina statesman. But Clinton could not shake his regionalism, and Lowndes died before the campaign commenced. In the end, only a few noteworthy contenders actually stood as rivals, chiefly Crawford, Adams, and Calhoun, all members of Monroe’s cabinet and consequently powerful because of their patronage. Clay also had to worry over disquieting stories out of Tennessee about Andrew Jackson’s plans. A Jackson candidacy could seriously damage Clay’s chances in the West.11

For the time being, though, the other candidates seemed most formidable. William H. Crawford was not solely a southern candidate, for his national appeal was evident in the coveted support of New York’s powerful Albany Regency. When Republican politicians under the leadership of Senator Martin Van Buren had joined to control New York’s complex network of factions, local interests, and egocentric personalities, Van Buren was hailed as a miracle worker for magically cobbling together this workable faction, informally called the Bucktails. His decision to back Crawford was a ringing endorsement of the Georgian’s electability. Van Buren did not back losers.

John Quincy Adams, peppery and shrewd, had ruled the State Department for six years with a cool head and an unwavering resolve, and there was no question that he was eminently qualified for the presidency. Yet he labored under the handicap that many people did not much like him. Even those who did, after a fashion, could muster little enthusiasm for a man who seldom smiled and often snarled. As the secretary of state, he occupied the post from which both Madison and Monroe had moved seamlessly to the presidency, as much a tradition as anything could be in a government less than four decades old. Despite a feigned indifference to honors and office, Adams was eager to see the tradition continued.

The man who sat across from Crawford and Adams in Monroe’s cabinet meetings was an interesting study in talent, industry, and guile. John C. Calhoun had not been Monroe’s first choice for the War Department, nor even his second. But he proved himself tireless, diligent, and innovative in that post, and he surmounted the deficit of his youth—he was only forty-one in 1823—with such unremitting competence that others wondered where his ambition would lead him next. Perceptive observers, including Adams, deduced that Calhoun was quietly ruthless and ready to bowl over anyone who stood in his way. The truth of the matter was more complicated than that. Born into middling circumstances in a South Carolina Scots-Irish community, Calhoun rose through hard work and natural aptitude. His family made sacrifices to send him to good schools, first his brother-in-law Moses Waddell’s Academy, and then Yale, where Calhoun established himself as something of a prodigy.

He married money. Floride Colhoun, John’s first cousin once removed, was eleven years his junior, from the well-to-do side of the family, and fetching in her own right if a bit high-strung. She was an heiress to a fortune that allowed John to pursue politics and afforded them an opulent style of living. Their courtship had been ardent, although the one love poem that John had written to her oddly began every stanza with a lawyerly “Whereas,” a portent of his behavior after their marriage, which was always kind but never again passionate. Nonetheless, men envied Calhoun for his beautiful, rich wife and his seemingly charmed political career, and they admired him for his talent as well as his dark and rugged good looks. Yet almost nobody liked him.

It was easy to see why. It was not just the stately house called Oakly (later known as Dumbarton Oaks), which had been purchased for the couple by Floride’s mother. Nor was it because of his graceful wife who smelled of verbena and money, or even Calhoun’s arresting stare that signaled a first-class mind unwilling to suffer ordinary mortals, let alone the fools among them. It was the impression that Calhoun was both enormously principled and thoroughly insincere, a humorless man who chuckled only when cued by the laughter of those who got the joke. In the fall of 1821, Calhoun promised Crawford his support for the presidency but privately mocked his colleague and characterized his possible election as a national calamity. By the following spring he was openly hostile toward Crawford, and by the summer of 1822 he was disparaging Adams as well.

Ambition did not so much change John Calhoun as it revealed him. Shy by nature, he drove himself to become a successful public man. His candidacy became for him a great religious crusade, a messianic mission to save the country from certain destruction. It was as good an excuse as any for public rectitude and private treachery. Those who saw only the rectitude supported him; those who felt the treachery distrusted him.

Clay thus weighed the weaknesses and the strengths of his rivals. He planned his resumption of public service with a run for the Eighteenth Congress, scheduled to convene in the late fall of 1823. His easy victory in August 1822 gave him more than a year before his return to Washington. He could arrange his affairs and quietly begin the letter-writing campaign to advance his presidential candidacy. In addition to his demanding legal workload, though, he battled chronic health problems. Never physically vigorous, Clay suffered from frequent colds and other infections that were occasionally debilitating. During 1822 and 1823 he was frequently under the care of physicians. Often bedridden, he read irritating reports in newspapers that described him as dying. The rumors hurt his viability as a presidential candidate.12

Other events in 1822 also undermined Clay’s chances. In January, Congressman John Floyd of Virginia called for President Monroe to release correspondence between the government and the American peace commissioners at Ghent, hoping that it would reveal how Anglo-Indian relations had affected negotiations. Among those papers was Jonathan Russell’s letter to Monroe, then secretary of state, alluding to disagreements in the delegation and promising to send another communication with details. That subsequent letter of February 1815 was not in the files, but Russell, now in Congress, obligingly supplied a copy. Russell’s copy described John Quincy Adams as willing to sacrifice all western interests, including the navigation of the Mississippi, to retain New England fishing rights.13

Clay’s friends chortled, confident that Adams could never recover from revelations that would cost him every vote outside New England. Yet Russell’s original letter soon turned up and proved to be seriously at odds with Russell’s supposedly true copy. Clearly the “copy” was a fabrication to hurt Adams, and many suspected that Clay was the author of the scheme if not the letter. Adams certainly thought so and was prepared to class him with Calhoun as willing to stoop low to achieve the presidency. Clay distanced himself from Russell, and Adams eventually wrote a damning refutation that made Russell look deceitful, which he likely was, and foolish, which he most certainly was.14 Moreover, Adams’s refutation turned the regional tables on Clay by depicting him as advocating only western interests at Ghent. The two briefly pounded each other in the newspapers before dropping the matter, possibly because Clay could see no advantage in challenging the memory of a man who rose hours before dawn to scrawl the minutiae of his life in a diary. This early round went to Adams.15

During the summer and fall of 1822 a much greater threat to Clay’s candidacy came from the unexpected ambitions of a man completely outside the political establishment. Andrew Jackson, formerly a major general in the U.S. Army, had become a national symbol of all that was right or could be right about America. He was astonishingly popular with the public. Like Calhoun a generation after him, Jackson had risen from the ranks of the poor Scots-Irish of South Carolina, but unlike Calhoun, he had not gone to fine schools and married wealth. Instead, Jackson had gone to Tennessee and married another man’s wife. In that coarse western country, lanky, long-faced Jackson carved out a life to mimic the ways of a gentleman by acquiring property and influence until he resembled a gentleman as much as anyone else in his neighborhood did. He was like Clay in that accomplishment. It was on the battlefield, though, that he achieved a celebrity that would have been remarkable for any place or any time. Jackson was a self-taught tactician; by nature he knew how to attack and by canny intuition when to defend. The War of 1812 provided him with the stage to display these talents, which were happily blended with Jackson’s prodigious resolve. At New Orleans in January 1815, he validated the judgment of those ragtag soldiers who had dubbed him “Old Hickory.”16

Stories about the adulation of a grateful nation immediately became part of American lore. New Orleans began the practice of naming things after him. A tavern keeper in North Carolina, it was said, pulled out an ancient bar tab from Jackson’s youthful carousing days and scrawled on it PAID IN FULL AT NEW ORLEANS. He might as well have spoken for the entire nation, which seemed prepared to forgive Jackson not only his debts but all of his lapses as well.

As it happened, there were quite a few lapses. Jackson’s bad temper was made doubly dangerous by a touchy sense of personal honor. The result was a life dotted with enough violence to give credence to tales that the Hero of New Orleans was actually a brawling thug unfit for polite society. He was just the man for taking care of marauding Indians or invading Redcoats, but was precisely the man to avoid when the business was taking care of republican government. As his behavior in Florida showed, Jackson often reacted in ways that confirmed that judgment. Clay’s criticism of Jackson in that incident was, in Jackson’s eyes, evidence of a Washington cabal, one that included treachery in Monroe’s cabinet, where Jackson was certain Crawford was his most determined enemy. When Jackson threatened to slice off the ears of anyone who questioned his judgment, enough bodies and body parts lay in his wake to suggest he meant it.

The American people did not care. That kind of popularity sooner or later assumes its own dynamic and generates its own magnetism. Some people saw early on that this unlikely man was becoming irresistibly emblematic to the American people. Some of these visionaries were longtime friends, some were political opportunists jumping on an accelerating bandwagon, but they all whispered the word “presidency” in Jackson’s ear. They became his handlers as well as his supporters, taking on the task of shaping him to match the image the people had already embraced. In July 1822, his handlers persuaded the Tennessee legislature to nominate him for the presidency, but political observers outside Tennessee interpreted it as a meaningless tribute to an aging hero. Clay even considered the possibility that antiwestern forces had engineered Jackson’s nomination in order to divide the region’s vote and elect an easterner. Surveying the supposedly empty honor afforded to Jackson, Clay saw the fine hand of John Quincy Adams.

In retrospect they were all curiously blind to what was about to happen, but the ordinarily sagacious political professionals who misread these events could be excused for misinterpreting the signs. Jackson was fifty-six and seemed physically spent from a hardscrabble life. Many thought he would be content to retire to the Hermitage, his home outside Nashville. He himself claimed this was his only desire. Political observers outside Tennessee reassured each other that he was telling the truth. His handlers, however, were only getting started. Jackson remained coy about his candidacy, but his friends were steely-eyed and serious. They next secured Jackson’s election to the United States Senate. He would take his seat at the same time Clay returned to the House.17

ALTHOUGH CLAY UNDERESTIMATED Jackson, he saw the wisdom in obtaining a state nomination of his own. A nod from Kentucky would not be nearly as important as one from another state, and he spent the summer and fall of 1822 urging friends in Ohio to boost him in the Buckeye legislature. Clay’s occasional advocacy of southern interests, such as his ambiguous stand on slavery in the Missouri debates, hurt him in the North, though. A Republican caucus in Ohio endorsed him in January 1823, but it was hardly as ringing as the approval of the entire legislature, and it was only a rump caucus at that.18

For the rest of 1822 through 1823, Clay corresponded with supporters in Louisiana, New York, and Missouri to suggest ways to improve his organization. His friends offered advice as well. From New York, Peter Porter urged Clay to court the wily Van Buren away from Crawford. Yet Clay resisted the temptation to make promises he would find awkward to keep. He repeatedly declared his “fixed determination to enter into no arrangements, to make no bargains,” to remain “free & unshackled, to pursue the public good” according to his best judgment. He also avoided controversies with rivals. He made no attacks and maintained “a perfectly decorous course.” As other candidates were sure to drop away, he wanted his affability to appeal to their uncommitted supporters.19

If Jackson did not become a serious candidate, Clay already controlled most of the western vote, but he wanted to be more than a regional candidate. Taking Porter’s advice, he tried to improve his standing in New York, where Van Buren and his Bucktail Republicans had made enemies trying to ram Crawford through the legislature.20 In Virginia, Clay hoped that hailing from the Slashes in Hanover County still counted for something. Just how much was difficult to say. His visit there in 1822 had not been encouraging, for Virginia Republicans suspected that Clay’s nationalism would eventually diminish the South’s influence. The Richmond Junto, a nebulous group of important Virginia Republicans tied together through kinship and financial alliances, supported Crawford.21

Garnering support in the East became more urgent as the likelihood of Jackson’s candidacy became more obvious. Old Hickory was certainly acting like a candidate as he corresponded widely to assess the national strength of his rivals. Clay knew about the letters flying from the Hermitage across the nation, and he struggled to keep up. Shortly after the death of little Lucretia, however, he fell seriously ill. Confined to his bed and able to manage only brief trips into Lexington, Clay’s legal practice suffered and his pen faltered. Soon rumors about his future competed with the truth. They said he would not take his seat in the Eighteenth Congress that December. Some said he was dying.22 He was still dangerously ill when he pulled his gaunt frame from the bed at Ashland to depart for Washington.

CLAY, ADAMS, AND Calhoun counted one another as foes, but at this point in their careers they essentially agreed that the country was best served by coordinated national initiatives ambitiously conceived and broadly executed. Yet the implementation of what Clay began calling the American System proved oddly out of phase with popular attitudes in the 1820s. Many Americans had grown wary of centralization, were increasingly opposed to the Bank of the United States, and were troubled by the prospect of paying for projects that were seen to help only distant locales. Crawford should have benefited from this emerging consensus for decentralization. With the exception of his support for the Bank (and even that was qualified), he opposed the expense and authority inherent in a nationalist agenda. Yet paradoxically, Crawford enjoyed almost no advantage from what should have been popular positions. Instead, many plain folk regarded him as the establishment’s candidate because he was the favorite of the discredited Republican congressional caucus, and enemies painted his tenure at Treasury as marred by the corrupt use of patronage to purchase political support. Although he was the marginal favorite for having graciously stepped aside for Monroe in 1816, Crawford’s star was partly dimmed by these charges of elitism and dishonesty. Crawford and Clay had been good friends until political rivalry caused them to grow apart. They remained cordial but wary as the campaign season commenced. Then, in the fall of 1823, as Clay lay ill at Ashland, something happened to Crawford that changed the entire dynamic of the upcoming election.23

Crawford had good reason to flee Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1823. The fetid swamps around the capital bred sickness in the hot months, and he sought relief from the heat and refuge from disease by traveling to the nearest high ground, the rolling Blue Ridge of western Virginia.24 By the time Crawford arrived at James Barbour’s home, however, he was seriously ill. Barbour anxiously summoned a local doctor who was probably imperfectly skilled. Most doctors were trained rather than educated, serving as apprentices to established practitioners, watching and learning from men who had received their inadequate training the same way. Armed with a deficient medical arsenal, the doctor attending Crawford waded into battle and made a terrible mistake. Thinking Crawford suffered from a heart malady, the doctor administered digitalis, an extract of the poisonous foxglove plant and toxic if incorrectly dosed. In fact, it was an extremely dangerous drug. The measure separating a fruitless from a fatal dose could be less than a drop. The doctor gave Crawford too much. With his heart beating wildly out of control, Crawford suffered a massive stroke and began to die.

Miraculously, he clung tenaciously to the slenderest thread of life. When the initial crisis passed, he was paralyzed and blind, his mouth twisted, his tongue thick and nearly speechless. What had happened was kept secret, and for the most part the effort was successful, though word that something was wrong at the Barbour mansion reached at least one neighbor. In October, the elderly Thomas Jefferson, who no longer left home for much of anything, traveled from nearby Monticello to visit Crawford, rumored to be ill but convalescing. In Crawford’s darkened room, Jefferson gazed sadly at the withered form and spoke words of encouragement to the vacant eyes. This was a man dead but for the dying.

In November, a stricken but still breathing Crawford returned to Washington. Working at the Treasury proved too taxing, and he went into seclusion at his home on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Fourteenth Street, where he lay motionless, his eyes swollen and crusted shut with a new infection, the room’s shutters closed against any light.

A growing din of gossip naturally speculated about Crawford’s condition and the presidential contest. His rivals, including Henry Clay, measured the changed landscape and weighed how Crawford’s impending death could help their causes.25

WHILE CLAY HAD lain ill for so long that summer and fall, family and friends had begun to worry that he might not recover. He took the waters at Olympian Springs, and his physicians put him on “the blue pill” for dyspepsia, but he did not improve. In November, starting toward Washington and certain that he would have to head south for his health soon after reaching it, Clay took matters into his own hands. He purchased a small carriage and a saddle horse and resolved to ignore his doctor’s prescriptions and stop all medication. On the journey, he alternated between the carriage, the horse, and hiking, and arrived in Washington in fine fettle. In fact, he would remember that his stamina had never been better, and he was prepared to work like a horse.26

Washington was buzzing with rumors about Crawford, but it was also speculating about Andrew Jackson’s ability to forgive and forget those who had condemned his conduct in the Seminole War. Jackson’s journey from Nashville to Washington resembled a royal progress, with cheering crowds lining the streets of every town and village along the way. Children threw flowers, ladies waved handkerchiefs, and militias paraded with paunchy veterans at their head. Jackson was the picture of dignity, a paragon of calm, for his handlers intended for Old Hickory to make all of his enemies his friends, starting with Henry Clay.

Clay already knew from contacts in Tennessee about Jackson’s plans to rehabilitate his image, so he was not surprised when Jackson and Tennessee senator John Eaton invited him to dinner. After a pleasant evening, Jackson and Eaton drove Clay back to his rooms on Ninth Street, where they parted as friends. Clay was not deceived by the show of cordiality, but he played along like a good veteran of such charades.27

Jackson’s popularity could not touch Adams’s in New England, but it undermined Crawford, Calhoun, and Clay in their key strongholds. In addition, Old Hickory’s team of tenacious and discerning political operatives proved just as effective on the road as in Tennessee. They not only controlled their candidate but shaped public opinion with a network of newspapers that placed Jackson far ahead of rivals who fashioned their campaigns on outmoded rules and timeworn traditions. Calhoun was an early casualty of the Jackson machine. The South Carolinian hoped to establish national credentials by building support among Pennsylvania’s political elite and securing the state’s nomination. Jackson’s supporters, however, bypassed the party bosses to create an effective grassroots network throughout Pennsylvania. The result was an event that stunned the political world when a convention in Harrisburg endorsed Jackson for president and named Calhoun his running mate. Lacking essential northern support, Calhoun dropped his presidential bid and accepted second place on a Jackson ticket. That Calhoun also appeared on the Adams ticket in some states emphasized his appeal and pointed to the sagacity of Jackson’s highly professional organization in claiming him when they could. Their business was to win an election, and there was not an amateur among them.28

Many thought the election for Speaker was a reliable indicator of whether Clay or Crawford could attract more significant support, for it pitted Clay against Crawford supporter Philip Barbour. Clay’s overwhelming victory seemed proof of Crawford’s waning fortunes, but Crawford’s adherents insisted it meant no such thing.29 Worse, Crawford’s already abysmal health worsened further in December, and false optimism about his recovery was growing as ineffective as it was tedious. Martin Van Buren consequently decided that the only way to save Crawford’s candidacy was to secure the Republican congressional caucus’s nomination.30

The caucus had not met since 1816 and even then had been criticized as a discredited vestige of elitism. As most states broadened the franchise to attain universal white male suffrage, nominations from state legislatures or conventions became a more desirable alternative, but Crawford’s health made that option unlikely. By necessity, the traditional if tarnished caucus became the only way to convince the nation that Crawford was the true Republican candidate.31

All the other candidates condemned the caucus, although Clay paused to weigh the possibility that it might choose him instead of Crawford. Finally convinced that it would not, he too denounced it as undemocratic.32 Crawford’s supporters moved ahead, though, and managed to convene something resembling the caucus of old. On the night of February 14, 1824, only 66 of the 216 Republican members of Congress nominated Crawford. Acting as if this meant something, Crawford’s people audaciously offered the vice presidency to Clay and then to Adams, but had to settle for Albert Gallatin. The halfhearted belief that Gallatin might possibly deliver his home state of Pennsylvania to the ticket could not cloak this poignantly nostalgic gesture that tried to revive the halcyon days of Jefferson and Madison. In the end, Gallatin did Crawford more harm than good, but it was the caucus nomination that hurt Crawford the most. Opponents quickly tarred him as a creature of the elite.33

SPEAKER CLAY KEPT on good terms with everyone by making fair committee assignments and allowing all reasonable debate. He promoted himself as the architect of the American System and was congenial rather than confrontational with the administration. Grateful that Monroe had finally recognized the Latin American republics, he enthusiastically supported the part of the 1823 annual message that became known as the Monroe Doctrine, a warning that the Americas were closed to new European colonialism, a position that complemented Clay’s earlier call for hemispheric economic ties and cooperation.34

Clay was not so enthusiastic about the section of the message that pledged to limit American involvement in Europe. He shared this concern with others such as Daniel Webster, who offered a resolution calling for American recognition of Greek revolutionaries seeking independence from the Ottoman Empire. Clay thought that Webster’s resolution celebrated America’s founding principles and revolutionary past, but others did not agree. The resolution failed, and though the administration did not support the Greek Revolution, Clay did not publicly disparage Monroe. The Speaker’s goal as candidate was to avoid controversy and maintain a positive attitude.35

Privately he grumbled. When Monroe and Adams ignored his recommendation that William Henry Harrison be appointed minister to Mexico, Clay muttered that “favorites, fawners and sycophants” controlled the administration and that he would make no more recommendations.36 The appointment of his brother-in-law James Brown to head the far more prestigious embassy in France somewhat consoled Clay, though, and Nancy excitedly told Lucretia to send her a wish list of clothes to buy in Paris. Lucretia would need fashionable outfits, laughed Nancy, when she became First Lady. Lucretia could not have cared less.37

In the short term, Clay hoped his improved relations with the administration would smooth acceptance of his legislative program. Though he had originated none of the components of what he called the American System during this congressional session, they were increasingly regarded as his program, almost the equivalent of a modern political platform and proof that Clay was more than a regional candidate. An enthusiastic supporter declared that President Clay would take the nation to “the highest pinnacle” with his American System.38

To be sure, the Panic of 1819 and the depression that followed increased support for federally funded roads to revive commerce, but Monroe repeatedly vetoed efforts to pass such legislation. The challenge was to fashion a bill that Monroe could deem constitutional. The General Survey Bill of 1824 planned to have the Army Corps of Engineers survey projects to benefit the entire country.39 In a major speech to the House on January 14, Clay lauded the measure. Some projects, he said, were simply too large and expensive for individual states. If anyone doubted the constitutionality of harbor improvements and interstate roads, the Constitution empowered the government “to establish Post Offices and Post Roads,” and Congress obviously had the authority “to build” them.40

Strict constructionists like John Randolph countered that expanding the government’s power to build roads eventually would give government the power to end slavery, another foreshadowing of how fears over this issue had begun to color southern perceptions of everything. Yet Randolph’s mean streak compelled him also to parse Clay’s grammar, diction, even pronunciation.41 Randolph’s contempt likely stung Clay, for he was sensitive about his educational deficiencies, but in this setting and at this time it revealed more about Randolph’s tin ear than Clay’s shortcomings. Clay was able to express regret about his poor education while adding that he had been “born to no proud patrimonial estate.” He continued, “From my father I inherited only infancy, ignorance, and indigence. I feel my defects; but, so far as my situation in early life is concerned, I may, without presumption, say they are more my misfortune than my fault.” Thus Henry Clay began the myth of his youthful poverty while passively showing John Randolph to be pretentious and petty, besting him again, this time with such finesse that the thin-skinned Virginian did not even feel the spear.42 And Clay won the point about the legislation as well. The General Survey Bill passed both houses and also the constitutional scruples of James Monroe, who signed it into law.

The tariff was another matter. Although economic hard times suggested that domestic manufactures and commerce were the keys to American prosperity, Clay faced significant obstacles in his effort to raise tariff schedules. Southerners bristled because the tariff had already raised the price of foreign imports and domestic goods while their agricultural staples, such as cotton, suffered in depressed markets. On the other end of the scale both economically and geographically, northeastern shippers were distressed because of diminishing European imports that the tariff made artificially expensive. They were against anything that worsened that situation.43

Clay’s advocacy of higher tariffs was informed by his acquaintance with Irish-born Philadelphia publisher Mathew Carey, who wrote extensively about the advantages of a protective system and an integrated economy. Clay corresponded with Carey, whose influence is evident in Clay’s major speech to the Committee of the Whole on March 30 and 31.44 It featured standard appeals to patriotism and described people hit by the recent economic crisis, but it also included a lesson in political economy that made this speech a methodical, logical argument stripped of Clay’s customary rhetorical flourishes. Aiming his remarks at “the high-minded, generous, and patriotic South,” he explained that protecting American industry would not blight the nation with factories and urban slums but would economically liberate it from Europe. In his conclusion, he prayed that “God, in His infinite mercy,” would “conduct us into that path which leads to riches, to greatness, to glory.”45

The speech was hardly the stuff of schoolroom recitations (though he did use the phrase “American System” in its soon to be famous domestic context for the first time), but it gained wide currency, and Clay used it as a campaign document, distributing it in those states that benefited most from a tariff. His stand on the issue was not just political expediency, though. Clay became fixated on raising the protective tariff. He worked behind the scenes in Congress and buttonholed colleagues at social events. He was “ardent, dogmatical, and overbearing” and talked of little else.46The Tariff of 1824 barely passed the House with a five-vote margin, but it passed, and the Senate followed suit after tacking on some harmless amendments. Clay laughingly celebrated like a schoolboy, tossing off a pun about Connecticut congressman Samuel Foot and New York congressman Charles Foote, who had defected from the pro-tariff ranks. “We made a good stand,” he quipped, “considering we lost both our feet.47

As he had the General Survey Bill, Monroe signed the measure. The nation seemed well advanced toward embracing Henry Clay’s American System, and it seemed reasonable to assume that it would soon embrace Henry Clay as well.

AS PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS almost always do, the campaign of 1824 became nasty. For a year, Illinois senator Ninian Edwards used the pseudonym “A.B.” to publish a series of anonymous letters in the Washington Republican accusing William Crawford of financial malfeasance. By the time Edwards was revealed as the author, he was on his way to Mexico to become its U.S. minister, but he openly accused Congress of negligence in not investigating his allegations. The House called for documents, and Clay appointed an investigative committee, but he was careful not to burn any bridges. He still had hopes that he could lure Crawford’s supporters to his candidacy, and he was more than fair in choosing the committee members. Eventually it would exonerate Crawford—a whitewash, Adams privately complained, but he kept his opinion to himself to avoid alienating Crawford’s supporters—but the charges of misconduct were the least of the Georgian’s problems. He suffered a relapse that again confined him to his bed and revived rumors that he was dying. As 1824 wore on, he seemed certain to drop out of the presidential contest, one way or another.48

Clay did not see the need to engage in macabre calculations about Crawford’s viability. He had concluded that no candidate would score a majority in the Electoral College, which meant that under the Twelfth Amendment, the House of Representatives would choose the next president from among the top three finishers. Clay’s experience in shaping congressional majorities under ordinary procedures might make his influence in the House’s selection of the next president nearly irresistible. After all, under the rules that gave each state one vote, little states with a single congressman wielded as much clout as populous states with large delegations.49

Congress adjourned on May 27, 1824, and Clay returned home to direct his presidential efforts from Lexington. He hoped that his legislative successes would strengthen his cause, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region. He spent that summer and fall trying to determine the states certain to fall in his column balanced against those that were merely possible or at worst unlikely. The varying ways that states chose presidential electors complicated these forecasts. Since 1800, many states had abandoned the seemingly undemocratic practice of having legislatures choose electors. Instead, statewide popular votes or the division of states into electoral districts became prevalent. In the latter instance, electors from different districts could fall to different candidates, making for a mixed outcome rather than the usual winner-take-all result. In states where legislatures still chose electors, the electoral vote could also be split among more than one candidate. As Clay tallied the possible results in these various settings, the cardinal imperative was not to win but to place among the top three. Crawford’s condition more than suggested he would.50

Situated in a part of Hanover County, Virginia, called the Slashes, this modest but comfortable farm called “Clay’s Spring” was the birthplace and boyhood home of Henry Clay. (Engraving from the authors’ collection)

In later years, as part of his political image, Clay’s youth was framed on the notion that he had been “The Millboy of the Slashes.” The myth became part of the common lore, as this fanciful illustration from a late-nineteenth-century juvenile biography shows. (From John Frost, The Millboy of the Slashes: Young Folks’ Life of Henry Clay, 1887)

This 1793 letter from Henry Clay to Peter Tinsley is the earliest surviving document in Clay’s handwriting. Written shortly after he began working as a clerk in the Virginia Chancery, it displays a more ornate penmanship than his mature handwriting, but it is hardly the work of an unschooled primitive. (Courtesy of the Transylvania University Library Special Collections)

George Wythe was the chancellor of Virginia when Henry Clay became his clerk. A celebrated legal scholar and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Wythe was a kind mentor who helped to transform the boy from the Slashes into a confident young man. (Detail from “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence” by Ole Erekson, Library of Congress)

Clay had become a fashionable gentleman by the time he moved to Lexington in the late 1790s. This miniature shows him a year before he vaulted onto the national stage to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate in 1806. (Engraving by D. Nicholls based on a miniature by Benjamin Trott, from Noah Brooks, Statesmen, 1893)

Felix Grundy was an early opponent of Clay’s in the Kentucky legislature, but he became a member of Clay’s War Hawk faction in the Twelfth Congress. Emblematic of the shifting alliances of politics, Grundy later became a Jacksonian and is shown here while serving as Martin Van Buren’s attorney general. (Library of Congress)

Former vice president Aaron Burr’s shadowy plans in the American West threatened to tarnish Clay’s national career at its outset when Clay agreed to defend Burr in a grand jury proceeding. (Bust by Jacques Jouvenal, U.S. Senate Collection)

One of Henry and Lucretia Clay’s closest friends in Washington was Margaret Bayard Smith, a social maven whose observations of life in the capital provide valuable insight into the political workings of the early republic. (Library of Congress)

As a member of the War Hawks, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun was one of Clay’s most trusted lieutenants. His nationalism waned in the 1820s, however, and he became a rival and eventually an enemy. (Library of Congress)

John Randolph of Roanoke suffered from a malady that kept him beardless and high-voiced for all his tortured adult life. He was a vicious political opponent and early on detested Henry Clay. They eventually fought a notorious duel, but by the time of Randolph’s death in 1833, he grudgingly admired Clay. (Library of Congress)

Clay liked President James Madison and, as did everyone, he adored Madison’s smart and vivacious wife, unofficially “Cousin Dolley” to Clay because she had family connections in Hanover County. Yet Clay ultimately judged Madison as overwhelmed by the demands of the war with Britain and found vexing the president’s constitutional reservations over Clay’s legislative program. (Library of Congress)

Ghent became the site of the negotiations to end the War of 1812. It was little changed when captured in this later photograph. Christopher Hughes described it as “a most delightful place, in every respect.” (Library of Congress)

Ornate dress and formal calling cards were part of the official kit for American diplomats abroad. Clay’s “Ghent Coat” is a prime example. (Photograph by Mary Rezny, courtesy of Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, Lexington, Kentucky)

Swiss-born Albert Gallatin had served as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s secretary of the treasury before his appointment to the American Peace Commission. He became indispensible in soothing arguments among his colleagues, especially those between John Quincy Adams and Clay. (Painting by Rembrandt Peale, courtesy of Independence National Historical Park)

A century after the signing of the Peace of Ghent, this painting by Amedee Foriestier commemorated the event as “The Hundred Years’ Peace.” Lord Gambier shakes hands with Adams as Gallatin stands just behind him. Kit Hughes is in the foreground, and Clay is seated behind James Bayard. (Courtesy of Library Canada)

The British occupied Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and burned several public buildings including the Executive Mansion and the Capitol, shown here as Clay would have seen it upon his return to Congress in 1815. (Library of Congress)

While Clay was in Europe, Lucretia hired New Englander Amos Kendall to tutor the children at Ashland. She was kind to him and even saved his life when he fell gravely ill, but Kendall eventually turned on Clay when the Jacksonians proved more useful associates. (Library of Congress)

South Carolinian Langdon Cheves was a War Hawk, and succeeded Clay as Speaker when Clay departed for Europe in 1814. Cheves became the president of the Second Bank of the United States in 1819 and eventually employed Clay to represent its legal interests in the western states. (Library of Congress)

Clay supported James Monroe for the presidency in 1816 but was disappointed when Monroe offered him what Clay regarded as a minor cabinet post in the new administration. Clay remained in the House of Representatives. (Library of Congress)

As revolutions swept across Latin America, Clay supported the efforts of fledgling republics to throw off Spanish rule. His stand earned him Latin America’s enduring admiration and gratitude, and he is shown here holding a message of thanks from South American republics. (Courtesy of the University of Kentucky)

William H. Crawford had long been a friend of Clay’s, but disagreements over the BUS strained their relations. Crawford was also a rival for the presidency in 1824 and incredibly edged Clay out of contention despite being gravely ill. (Library of Congress)

Acerbic and proud, John Quincy Adams irritated Clay when they served together at Ghent and irked him by taking the State Department post in Monroe’s cabinet. Yet Clay supported Adams over Andrew Jackson in the House vote for the presidency in 1825. When Clay was made secretary of state, Jacksonians immediately labeled the arrangement the “Corrupt Bargain.” (Library of Congress)

Washington remained a rural village throughout the early nineteenth century, as this view of the Capitol in 1828 shows. Livestock can be seen grazing in the foreground. (Library of Congress)

An unrelenting political assault on John Quincy Adams and Clay made Andrew Jackson’s election to the presidency a certainty in 1828. Old Hickory would remain Clay’s bitter enemy for the rest of his life. (Library of Congress)

The Jackson-Clay clash provided abundant grist for cartoon mills during the eight years of Jackson’s presidency. Titanic battles over the BUS and Nullification as well as Clay’s 1832 presidential bid defined the period. (Library of Congress)

Martin Van Buren was a master coalition builder who earned the nickname “Little Magician” for fusing factions first in Albany for New York State politics and then across the country as the architect of the Democratic Party. His magic, however, played out when he followed Jackson into the presidency. Through it all, Clay remained a friend despite their deep political disagreements. (Library of Congress)

Kentuckian Richard M. Johnson was for years Clay’s friend until he bolted for the Jacksonian camp in the 1820s. Once a dashing war hero (he was credited with killing Tecumseh during the War of 1812), Johnson had become slovenly and dissolute by the time he served as Van Buren’s vice president. (Library of Congress)

Francis Preston Blair was yet another Kentuckian who turned on Clay to become an enthusiastic Jacksonian. As editor of the Democrat newspaper The Washington Globe, Blair wrote many a venomous editorial condemning Clay and the Whigs in the most scurrilous terms. (Library of Congress)

Abolitionist Joshua R. Giddings disagreed with Clay about gradual emancipation, but their abiding cordiality exemplified Clay’s talent for keeping personalities out of personal differences. (Library of Congress)

Clay’s cousin Cassius M. Clay became an ardent opponent of slavery in Kentucky. His calls for immediate emancipation and his talent for poisonous prose ultimately estranged him from his kinsman. (Library of Congress)

Only slightly younger than Clay, Aaron Dupuy was one of the slaves at Clay’s Spring who was taken to Kentucky by Clay’s mother and stepfather. He and his wife, Charlotte, remained with Henry Clay at Ashland for the rest of Clay’s life. (Courtesy of the University of Kentucky)

Charles Dupuy became Clay’s personal servant in place of his father and accompanied him on his extensive travels. The artist John Neagle visited Ashland in 1842 to paint Clay’s portrait and produced this sketch of Charles when he was in his mid-thirties. Clay freed Dupuy in December 1844. (Courtesy of Hugh R. Parrish III)

New Yorker Thurlow Weed was called the “Wizard of the Lobby” for his remarkable influence over the state legislature in Albany. In a career that spanned four decades, he repeatedly worked to thwart Clay’s presidential plans, never more effectively than in the 1840 contest. (Library of Congress)

The aging former general William Henry Harrison supplanted Clay as the 1840 Whig nominee because Clay’s supporters were outmaneuvered at the Harrisburg Convention. He took the disappointment in stride, but stories later circulated that he had been enraged at being passed over. (Library of Congress)

Democrats tried to depict Harrison as a puppet of Henry Clay and, in this cartoon, Henry A. Wise. The charge was an exaggeration, but it made Harrison resentful and ultimately worked to turn him against Clay. (Library of Congress)

In 1841, quarrels between the new Whig majority and Democrats spun out of control when Clay insulted Alabama senator William R. King. A duel was rumored, but friends arranged a public reconciliation. (Library of Congress)

John Tyler became president when Harrison died on April 4, 1841. Tyler had been little more than a ticket balancer and the second half of a catchy slogan until then. He and Clay were on friendly terms at first, but that soon changed. (Library of Congress)

Henry A. Wise became one of Tyler’s allies in the fight with Clay over the establishment of a new national bank. Clay derisively labeled Tyler men “a corporal’s guard,” a phrase that combined with other incidents to make Wise an implacable enemy. (Library of Congress)

Although always troubled by some measure of bad health, Clay in the early 1840s was at the height of his powers as he prepared for the 1844 presidential contest. (Retouched from Brady, courtesy of Henry Clay Simpson, Jr.)

Whigs and Democrats both employed imagery and symbols left over from the 1840 Harrison candidacy, especially variations on the coonskin cap theme. Clay was referred to as the Old Coon by Whigs proud of his cunning and by Democrats condemning his alleged deviousness. (Courtesy of Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, Lexington, Kentucky)

The Democrat nominee in 1844 was Tennessean James K. Polk. The first “dark horse” candidate proved effective in the campaign, and his shrewd maneuvers along with an extraordinary amount of voter fraud defeated Clay, to almost everyone’s astonishment. (Library of Congress)

Theodore Frelinghuysen was a distinguished New York reformer who seemed a perfect running mate for Clay in 1844. Democrats distorted his ties to Protestant philanthropic organizations, however, to portray him as an anti-Catholic bigot. (Library of Congress; campaign ribbon courtesy of Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, Lexington, Kentucky)

Leslie Combs was one of Clay’s most devoted friends. He called on Clay at Ashland after the 1844 defeat and found him profoundly disappointed but resigned to his loss. (Frontispiece from Narrative of the Life of General Leslie Combs, 1852)

By June, William Crawford could not utter a word, and his supporters scrambled to salvage what they could of a deteriorating situation. Expectations of Crawford’s death fueled rumors that his camp might turn to Clay or at least put Clay in the vice-presidential slot. If Crawford died before the election, Clay would become their candidate. If Crawford died after winning the election, Clay would become the nation’s president-elect. Martin Van Buren asked Thomas Hart Benton to put such a proposal to Clay, mindful that Benton was Lucretia’s cousin. The family connection was immaterial to Clay, though, and Van Buren’s offer did not interest him. He and Crawford fundamentally disagreed about the role and purpose of government, and nothing could cloak the brazen cynicism of the arrangement Crawford’s friends proposed. He also found the prospect of advancing to the presidency over Crawford’s dead body vaguely distasteful.51

In any case, Clay saw no reason to give up, as Calhoun had, and settle for the vice presidency. In fact, he was likely to land among the finalists in the House. By his reckoning, everything depended on Andrew Jackson in one regard and New York in another. Jackson’s popularity in the West had eroded Clay’s early strength in the region, and by summer, only Kentucky remained certain. Even in the Bluegrass, Clay’s enemies were promoting a Jackson movement, distributing pamphlets in Kentucky and throughout the West extolling Jackson’s selfless patriotism while accusing Clay of every moral and political sin imaginable. The message was that Clay was simply unfit for the presidency.52

The question of character has always been a staple of presidential elections, but it became an especially prominent issue in 1824 as Jackson’s people questioned Clay’s and lauded Old Hickory’s. The tactic succeeded in planting seeds of doubt about Clay. The country, after all, was in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, a fundamentalist Christian revival of far-reaching political as well as social implications. Clay had earned repute as an effective political broker, but that made it easy to paint him as a backroom dealer. Clay made no secret that he drank spirits, but that made it easy to whisper that he was a drunkard. He was famous for gambling, and that made it easy to depict him as reckless. Adams primly speculated on Clay’s excesses, estimating that his losses in 1823 alone amounted to more than twenty thousand dollars—a clear exaggeration, but a perception shared by many. Taken in sum, these opinions about Clay’s character made him damaged goods. Typical was the assessment that Clay had served the country well but his bad habits made him unqualified for the highest office in the land.53 A North Carolina congressman described Clay as a “column that presents so beautiful a Corinthian capital” but “does not rest upon the broad basis of moral confidence.”54 And Congressman Romulus Saunders accused Clay of suffering from a “laxity of principles.”55 William Lenoir, another prominent North Carolinian, flatly declared that “a man who does not conduct himself morally” could not handle the “important business of a Government.”56

Of course, not everyone thought Henry Clay was a libertine. Responding to vivid stories about the drinking and gambling of his free-spirited youth, friends could rightly claim that he had grown out of such childish intemperance. Fair-minded political opponents liked Clay because they always knew where he stood on issues and admired him because he never concealed his opinions. And yet, for those opponents, fair-minded or not, Clay’s oratorical talents presented the vaguely troubling prospect that “the influence and power which his eloquence” could give him as president would make him politically dangerous.57 Thus was it possible for his rivals to plant doubts about his character, his ambition, his past, and his plans, and even to use his strengths against him. If one did not know Henry Clay well, doubts found fertile ground; if one knew Henry Clay well, he seemed too good to be true, too talented to be trustworthy—a classic case of damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.

Given his image problem, Clay should not have neglected the newspapers. The other candidates had partisan presses to churn out plaudits and assail rivals, squelch rumors about their champions and start gossip about opponents, Jackson’s being the most effective. But Clay was remarkably indolent about this indispensable facet of a national campaign. In the late summer, his tireless but frustrated operative Josiah Johnston courted editors for Clay in New York and Pennsylvania with some success, but it was too little, too late. “There is one advantage at least you enjoy by having no press,” Johnston comforted Clay. “You provoke no hostility.”58

Most damaging of all, Clay too slowly awakened to Jackson’s astonishing popularity and the incredible efficiency and effectiveness of Old Hickory’s handlers. They had made everyone else look like rank amateurs, starting with the masterful maneuvers that won Pennsylvania the previous fall. It was both amusing and sad how everyone had scrambled afterward, trying to gain traction as Jackson’s people greased additional skids. Poor Crawford was the saddest: once robust, now felled like a dying oak, reduced to showing himself in painful carriage rides around the capital, trying to quiet rumors and wick away the stench of impending death.

Messengers from the Crawford camp approached Clay a second time to repeat the offer of the vice presidency, and again Clay said no. Clay also rejected other attractive bargains that would have helped him in crucial states. He refused to name DeWitt Clinton as his vice president, despite the boost it would have given him in New York. “I can make no promises of office, of any sort, to any one, upon any condition whatever,” Clay told Johnston. Others might scramble, but Clay would not. “Whatever support shall be given by me, if any,” Clay declared, “must be spontaneous and unbought.”59

Johnston applauded his friend’s scruples, but he likely regarded the sentiment as quaintly antique, especially while he rushed around key states trying to win support with his hooded eyes and courtly voice, all for a man too principled to win except on his own terms. Clay’s attitude, in short, was frustrating. Nobody realized it would also prove profoundly ironic.

CLAY HAD TO capture a respectable number of New York’s thirty-six electoral votes to land in the top three finalists for the House. To boost his chances, Clay’s friends named former New York senator Nathan Sanford as his running mate, and rumors that Adams and Clay forces would join to eliminate Crawford from contention caused Van Buren to renew his attempts yet again to place Clay on Crawford’s ticket.60

Clay did not reject a temporary alliance with the Adams camp, and, growing nervous about his chances, he paused over Van Buren’s offer. Jackson’s candidacy had so excited the West that Clay doubted he could win the entire section, and without it, he would need a large eastern state to keep his chances alive. Crawford’s grave condition—“a living death,” one of Clay’s friends told him—meant that if Crawford finished in the top three and Clay got him elected in the House, Clay might be in the White House within only a few months. Van Buren’s pitch came with an air of urgency, because as autumn approached, the time for getting Clay on the ballot with Crawford in enough states was short.61

In the end, Clay rejected Van Buren’s offer. Though it was tempting, it smelled, and Clay refused to hold his nose. Yet he framed his rejection in veiled language about not entering unseemly bargains. Van Buren judged such statements sufficiently ambiguous to warrant dumping Albert Gallatin from the vice-presidential slot on Crawford’s ticket, a move that proved indirectly and unexpectedly disastrous for Clay. Gallatin’s withdrawal gave the impression that Clay would replace him as vice president and quit the presidential race. His supporters in the West were further discouraged when Jackson partisans circulated reports that Clay had ceased to be a candidate for either office. Believing the stories, many Clay supporters did not vote for a man they believed was not running, thus suppressing Clay’s totals.62

As the fall elections drew near, Clay outwardly maintained his characteristic optimism. He caught a bug, possibly from Theodore who had recently returned with a serious fever from visiting his sister Susan and uncle John in New Orleans, but he was convalescing when election returns began to form a sketchy picture.63 With good reason, he was confident about Kentucky, which he easily won, but his expectation of sweeping the upper Midwest grew dim as he prepared to return to Congress. His stand on the Missouri Compromise hurt him with antislavery forces in those states, and his legal work for the BUS alienated debtors in the region. He barely won in Ohio over a surging Jackson but lost in Illinois and Indiana where he had been the early favorite. Opponents had spread exaggerations about his gambling and condemned his owning slaves as a sign of inherent immorality. An Indiana newspaper invented a story that Clay had wagered ten slaves on drawing the longest straw from a stack of rye.64

Clay left Ashland in mid-November, bound for Washington and certain that he had not won the election. But he had not expected to. He consoled himself that by his calculations, nobody else had won either. If all of Louisiana and part of New York fell in his column as he projected, he would make it into the final three in the House of Representatives. He correctly deduced that Adams and Jackson would be first and second in the Electoral College, though in which order he did not know, and once in the House, it would not matter. A careful observer made an apt horse racing analogy: “if Clay can be brought on the Turf, he will make sport, be sure of it!!”65

Clay journeyed to Washington without Lucretia. He wanted her with him, as always, but she resisted, and he finally let her stay at Ashland. Some have suggested that her reluctance revealed her growing reclusiveness and grief over her dead children. Yet she was likely more assertive about what she wanted after twenty-five years of marriage, and she had never found Washington appealing. In addition, she had a household to run with Eliza, James, and John still young children at eleven, seven, and three years, respectively. Though supposedly grown up, Theodore at twenty-two and Thomas at twenty-one worried her considerably as well. They studied law, but their labors were only intermittent, and both drank too much too often as they took an extraordinary amount of time deciding what to do with their lives. Only Henry Jr., almost fourteen at the end of 1824, exhibited discipline as well as ambition. His father increasingly placed his highest hopes on the boy’s slender shoulders.

His most agreeable companion on the trip as Clay crossed into Virginia was the weather. The mildest autumn in anyone’s memory had caused farmers to postpone their annual hog killings until the first heavy frosts, and late November continued warm and dry. On November 26, Clay stayed at the Albemarle Hotel, really only a roadside tavern near Charlottesville, and the following day he pulled up at Monticello to pay his respects to Thomas Jefferson. He planned to visit Jefferson and then James Madison at Montpelier for a few days before continuing to Washington.

Clay’s visit with Jefferson was doubtless stimulating. The Sage of Monticello at eighty years was surprisingly robust, and his mind was as clear as his house was cluttered, both filled with a lifetime of artifacts, testaments to Jefferson’s love of natural science. They would have talked about the objects strewn throughout Monticello’s entrance hall, about the strangely warm weather, of course, and of crops and horses, and they likely shared stories about bad health, especially their chronic indigestion. They almost certainly talked about the election, although Clay’s visit really was social rather than political.

Jefferson must have wondered what was happening to his country, sentiments that he likely left unspoken. He had been wrong about some things: wrong about using commercial restriction as a cudgel against Britain, wrong about conquering Canada by merely showing up, wrong even about his ideal republic, the one filled with educated yeomen who would come in from their plowing to read Homer at their hearths in the original Greek. Those farmers never had existed as Jefferson had pictured them, but they were spreading across the western landscape in another form, another kind of creature altogether, soon to be called Jacksonians.

Jefferson was depressingly right about other matters, especially slavery, which had caused the Missouri crisis—a “fire bell in the night,” he had called it—and the regrettable compromise postponing rather than resolving the issue by drawing a line that Jefferson was sure would increasingly demark two peoples under one flag.66 Clay had been part of that, and Jefferson’s favorite candidate had nearly died at a neighbor’s house the year before, likely never to recover to advance Jeffersonian principles of limited government. Jefferson disagreed with Clay’s notions about federal power, but he had to marvel that Andrew Jackson, a partially educated backwoodsman who always smelled faintly of bear grease, might ascend to the chair held by Washington, and all because of forty-five minutes’ work outside New Orleans on the Chalmette Plain. And though Jefferson was almost certainly too courteous to say that Clay was not his first and probably not even his second choice for the presidency, we might wonder what the Sage of Monticello did say to Henry Clay about who should be the next president and what Henry Clay confided to Thomas Jefferson.67Only days after Clay’s visit, Daniel Webster visited Monticello and found Jefferson surprisingly animated in his denunciation of Andrew Jackson. “His passions are terrible,” exclaimed Jefferson. “He is a dangerous man.68

JUST AS CLAY had predicted, the unofficial count in the Electoral College in late November had Jackson in the lead and Adams second, but third place remained in doubt. Clay had been confident that Crawford’s illness would ultimately give not only Virginia pause, but New York and Louisiana as well, and that third place would be his. Yet bad news awaited him when he arrived in Washington. By then, the first week of December, unofficial returns had come in for all states except Louisiana. He had lost Virginia, and New York had dealt him a devastating blow.

Circumstances in New York had troubled Clay throughout the fall, and he finally admitted, “I know not the secret springs which have produced such a strange result in N. York. I have moved none of them.”69 The secret springs were, in fact, a bizarre contrivance of shifting balances largely engineered by Adams men in the New York legislature. When that body met in November, enterprising Thurlow Weed and other Adams supporters struck a deal with Clay’s faction to split New York’s electors in a way favorable to Adams and Clay and at Crawford’s expense. As proposed, Adams received 25 electors, Clay 7, and Crawford 4. By taking most of Adams’s leavings and cutting Crawford’s total, Clay would have placed third in the national canvass.70

Yet the deal unraveled when the designated electors met on December 1 to cast their votes for president. Pressure from all sides skewed everything, but there was bad faith as well. Two of Clay’s electors simply did not show up, and their absence allowed the other electors to choose Adams men as replacements. One Adams elector then switched to Crawford, and a Clay elector switched to Jackson, rendering a final count of Adams 26, Crawford 5, Clay 4, and Jackson 1. The tally moved Crawford to third nationally.71

Surveying the result, Clay had to agree with his supporters that the Adams camp had betrayed him. Thurlow Weed had used Clay’s help to obtain the lion’s share of New York’s vote for the New Englander and, having accomplished his object, had blithely cast off the Kentuckian. Adams, after all, was more likely to defeat the invalid Crawford in the House of Representatives. With Van Buren protecting Crawford’s interests and Weed tending to Adams’s, Clay’s people had been simply bamboozled. It was the first of many sleights of hand for Weed in a career that would span decades. As a boy, he had callused those hands on the family farm and on Hudson River work boats. Now an accomplished politician and newspaper editor at the tender age of twenty-seven, he was already working up calluses on his conscience, a requirement for a politician in Martin Van Buren’s state and Andrew Jackson’s America.

LOSING NEW YORK meant that Clay had to have all of Louisiana’s five electors to move ahead of Crawford, an unlikely feat in a state dazzled by Jackson. Faithful Josiah Johnston resided in Louisiana, though, and he joined with other Clay supporters to assure him that they controlled the legislature, where, as in New York, the state’s electors were chosen. Clay was not so sure. Bad news had begun to roll in with appalling frequency. Opponents had spread the story in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio that he had allied with Crawford, and the lie gained enough currency to lose him the first two states while very nearly costing him the third. Clay heard how rumors describing him at death’s door or as having abruptly withdrawn from the contest had further eroded his support in key areas, including the all-important Louisiana. A sense of helplessness dampened his jaunty optimism, and the rebuff of the West injured his ego. Virginia had gone for Crawford, casting its lot with a blind invalid. Clay was reduced to donning a jolly manner while grimly waiting for news from the lower Mississippi. When that news arrived, first as rumor but soon in unofficial but verifiable reports, Clay knew the worst had happened.72

He should have won Louisiana. His friends were perfectly right: he had the votes in the legislature. But fate and shrewd maneuvers by his opponents denied him the prize. As for fate, two legislators pledged to Clay suffered a carriage accident on the way to the vote and missed it. Second, the same rumors that had injured him in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois had flown to Louisiana as if on wings. He was to be Crawford’s vice president, said one; he was so discouraged that he had quit the race, said another. Such talk disheartened Clay’s supporters, leaving the door open for the other camps to make their move.73

His people were bested by yet another set of deals by politically ruthless men with cold calculation. Andrew Jackson’s considerable following in Louisiana obviously derived from his exploits at New Orleans and the careful concealment of his opinions, if he had any, about tariffs and other potentially unpopular subjects. Only a small minority of Louisiana legislators supported John Quincy Adams, but each man’s supporters knew that at the end of the day their candidates were certain to be among the top three finalists before the House of Representatives. Events in Louisiana were thereafter steered by a Jackson-Adams alliance to exclude Henry Clay from the finalists, giving Jackson or Adams—as to which one, they would hash out later—a better chance of winning the presidency in the House of Representatives. The result was a split ticket that gave Jackson three Louisiana electors and Adams two. Even though he had controlled more legislators than either Jackson or Adams, Clay did not receive a single electoral vote from Louisiana.74

With this news, Clay finally knew he had not just lost but had been eliminated. Jackson had 99 electoral votes, Adams 84, Crawford 41, and Clay 37. The 7 votes Clay should have received from New York with the 5 from Louisiana would have pushed Crawford to a relatively distant fourth, and Clay could have worked his magic in the House, the plan he had long envisioned as the only way to become president in the 1824 election.

It was all rather humiliating, especially to lose to an invalid who couldn’t read a state paper, sign his name, or speak clearly enough for even close friends to understand him. In Clay’s estimation, that described Andrew Jackson too, leaving off the invalid part. And capping the many injuries was an insult to Clay’s intelligence. Thurlow Weed later transparently lied by claiming that his behavior in New York was based on a pledge that the agreement with Clay’s men would only hold if Clay won in Louisiana. Anyone with a calendar knew that New York had made its decision long before news from Louisiana could have influenced it. Weed intuitively knew that in politics the audacious lie is always the best one.75

THE WEEKS THAT followed the news of his defeat gave Clay ample opportunity to salve his wounded pride. As the capital hummed with anticipation about how the House would resolve the inconclusive election, its members overwhelmingly reelected Clay their Speaker, proof that he still wielded considerable power. He threw himself into an unceasing social whirl of parties where pretty girls giggled over his harmless flirtations and, tellingly, friends of Jackson, Adams, and Crawford fetched him drinks and chuckled over his slightest witticisms. Always outwardly jovial, Clay masked his disappointment and became privately amused at this transparent courtship by his former rivals. “I enjoy the rare felicity, whilst alive,” he marveled, “which is experienced by the dead.” Having lost the contest, but not his influence, he was placed in the extraordinary position of using that influence to choose the next president. He chucked over “hearing every kind of eulogium and panegyric pronounced upon me.”76 He was having an enormously good time.

Meanwhile, the social event of Washington’s season loomed when Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch du Motier, better known to Americans as the Marquis de Lafayette, arrived in the capital to coincide with the last session of the Eighteenth Congress.77 Begun the previous summer at Monroe’s invitation, Lafayette’s American tour everywhere had attracted immense crowds grateful for his service, nostalgic for the virtue of an earlier time, and eager to venerate a disappearing cohort of aging veterans. Lafayette, himself aged and infirm, nonetheless remained a vibrant symbol of the Revolution’s idealism, a reminder of the long odds and improbable triumph of a motley people over the world’s most powerful empire. He had toured much of the Northeast and had visited Yorktown on the anniversary of the British surrender. Now Washington prepared to honor him in peerless fashion.

Clay had met Lafayette in France almost ten years before and had stayed in touch ever since with fond letters. He greeted the elderly Frenchman warmly on the morning of December 10 for an intimate breakfast and suggested that Lafayette praise past American patriotism in his address to Congress later that day. Congress greeted Lafayette’s remarks with more than ovations. It voted to give the old man $200,000 as well as a 24,000-acre township from public lands. Clay was privately aghast at the extravagance, but held his tongue and checked his impulse to oppose the popular gesture. He could not have helped but wonder, though, how many miles of road could have been carved out of the western wilderness with those federal dollars (more than $4 million in today’s money), and how many prosperous farms were to be held in abeyance by the marquis’s American fiefdom.78

The parties in Lafayette’s honor were gratifying, though, and Clay basked in the social flurry and courtly lavishness that lit up the city’s evenings. These events did not divert attention from the pending decision about the presidency so much as they pleasantly raised anticipation and provided glittering settings for speculation among the partially informed and maneuvering by the candidates’ friends. To those not in the know, Henry Clay appeared detached from the issue, poker-faced when obliquely flattered, occasionally teasing the edgy contenders. Everyone realized that much “depends upon Mr. Clay.”79

Clay’s inertia, though, concealed his own quiet maneuvering, if imperfectly. When Kentuckian Robert P. Letcher began dropping in on John Quincy Adams in late December, it was noticed. Letcher’s visits were ostensibly to discuss public affairs, especially Kentucky politics, yet he was Clay’s friend and roomed at Clay’s boardinghouse, an association that troubled supporters of Jackson and Crawford. Actually, up to a point, Letcher’s somewhat directionless conversations with Adams were curiously frustrating, but when Letcher expressed concern that the Kentucky legislature might instruct the state’s congressional delegation to vote for Jackson, Adams perked up. Now they were getting somewhere.

Letcher casually asked Adams his opinion of Clay. Adams said he felt no ill will toward Henry Clay—a clipped response, not necessarily a lie, but not completely sincere either. Even though Letcher claimed that he was not speaking for Clay, Adams had the growing impression that Clay’s friend was trying to discover what could be expected in exchange for Clay’s support. If that was indeed the purpose of these visits, it made Adams extremely uncomfortable. Dark-haired and swarthy, Letcher was known as “Black Bob,” and the prospect of bargaining for the presidency with such a man repelled Adams. In that regard, Letcher’s visits became troubling, especially because Adams could not afford to offend him without risking Kentucky’s vote. Then, on New Year’s Day, Letcher’s series of calls reached their object: Would Adams be willing to have a private meeting with Henry Clay?

Adams said yes.80

That evening Martin Van Buren and members of his congressional mess hosted a dinner party for Lafayette at Williamson’s Hotel. The reception at the fashionable hostelry saw hundreds gathered, including every prominent man in the city. Henry Clay glided through the assemblage, pausing to drop quips at clusters of notables, laughter trailing after him like the wake of a cruising ship. When he saw Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams sitting near the fire with an empty chair between them—almost a cordon sanitaire—he must have laughed at their funereal appearance. Both stared straight ahead, their faces sour. True enough, the expression was natural to Adams even in repose, but Jackson could usually muster pleasantries at these affairs. Perhaps he was ailing, or possibly he had nothing to say (the numerous parties tended to exhaust small talk) and was uncomfortable sitting near his chief rival for the presidency. Clay found the solemn tableau irresistible. He walked across the room and sat down in the empty chair. As he looked back and forth at the two men, a sly smile parted his wide mouth. He pretended to study them. They pretended not to notice him. Finally, he deftly delivered a line aimed more at his audience than at his former adversaries: “Well, gentlemen, since you are both so near the chair, but neither can occupy it, I will slip in between you, and take it myself!” Laughter rippled out across the room, reaching a crescendo as more people got the joke or had it repeated to them. Amid this hilarity Adams sat stone-faced. If reports that Jackson smiled are true, it was certainly a forced smile. Neither he nor Adams thought any of this was a joking matter.81

And actually, Clay didn’t either. Later in the evening he quietly approached Adams and softly told him that they should speak privately in a few days. Eight days passed before a note from Clay arrived at Adams’s home asking permission to call that evening at six. Those eight days had seemed an eternity. Adams immediately replied to come, yes, by all means.82

THE FIRST NINE days of January 1825 had been for Henry Clay a postscript to a decision he had made some time before, and if we can believe his later recollection, quite some time before. He later claimed that he began weighing the possibility that he might not finish in the top three even before he had left Ashland in November. The disappointing news from Indiana and Illinois had certainly made that unpleasant prospect more likely, and his optimism about New York did indeed have the sound of cheerful whistling in the dark. In short, and according to Clay, he had considered supporting Adams while still gazing at waving bluegrass. That contemplation became resolve when his defeat became certain, and several friends later confirmed that determination.

We can never be absolutely certain whether this was true or if Clay concocted this story only after everything about what he and Adams decided on that January night went dreadfully wrong. If true, the chronology is a powerful defense against the charge that Clay held out his support for the highest bidder, an auction for which Crawford did not have the assets and Jackson the stomach. But an inescapable logic drove what Clay did, if not how he did it, suggesting that his decision to have Mr. Adams as president was inevitable, regardless of its timing. He certainly would have known at least this before he left Kentucky.83

Clay went to Adams’s lodgings on January 9 possibly by the lash of his own ambition but certainly by a simple process of elimination. Even if Clay had agreed with Crawford’s ideas on government, the Georgian’s health made his potential presidency unlikely and probably impossible. Andrew Jackson’s temperament made the prospect of his presidency chilling for Clay, who believed Old Hickory exhibited every characteristic that should be avoided in an elected official. Not only was Jackson a “military chieftain” whose Florida exploits had raised the specter of Caesar, he had also demonstrated an appalling disregard for American law during his occupation of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812, for the laws of nations by attacking Spain, and for basic humanity by killing men without trials. He had displayed an ungovernable temper during his brief stint as territorial governor of Florida. Clay knew his decision would damage his popularity in the pro-Jackson West, especially in Kentucky.84 Yet he was convinced that Jackson’s election “would be a precedent fraught with much danger to the character and security of our institutions.” He could not “believe that killing 2500 Englishmen at N. Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult and complicated duties of the Chief Magistry.” He would not be a party “to the election of a military chieftain.”85

Clay sincerely believed that what was now being called his American System was the only way to promote the country’s domestic welfare and preserve its security from foreign threats. In his mind, that required a legislative program maintaining the Bank, enacting protective tariffs, and authorizing internal improvements, all implausible under the limited-government philosophies of Crawford or Jackson. Even Adams did not completely agree with Clay’s legislative vision, but in the balance of the three, he was simply the least of the evils.

For obvious reasons, Clay would have kept his decision to himself until he was certain of his defeat. From accounts by people in whom he confided and from Clay’s own words, we have evidence that at least before the New Year, he had decided to support Adams, even before Letcher’s visits to Adams had obliquely broached the subject of Clay’s possible place in the coming administration. Letcher’s primary purpose, in fact, seems to have been the discovery of Adams’s views about a wide range of issues in addition to Adams’s opinions about Clay. This last was certainly important for more than just personal reasons, though. The recent campaign had been bitter, and Clay knew that Adams suspected him of having encouraged many nasty attacks. Clay never nursed grudges, for he knew that in politics today’s enemy was often tomorrow’s ally. But others were less philosophical. Adams almost matched Andrew Jackson for prickly pride that had a long memory for slights. If Clay’s programs were to prosper during an Adams administration, he needed a personal as well as a political reconciliation with the peppery little man from Massachusetts.86

So the eight days between Clay’s brief conversation with Adams and the meeting it proposed were undoubtedly a coda to a decision already made. Beginning at six o’clock on the evening of January 9, the two spent about three hours in Adams’s study, and most of what was said there would remain forever behind that room’s doors, for neither man left a lengthy account of their discussion. Adams perfunctorily noted in his diary that the two talked about the past and the future. They did not, Adams claimed, confer about Clay’s possible place in the new administration. Instead, he said, Clay wanted assurances that they were in accord on broad public principles, meaning the American System. Comfortable with Adams’s stance on those principles, Clay finally told Adams what more than a few already knew and almost everyone else suspected. Clay gave Adams his support.87

Adams certainly understood that he was gaining more than just Clay’s vote in the Kentucky delegation. Clay would use his almost irresistible influence in the House to persuade others to vote for Adams as well. It could all be decided on the first ballot, something nobody had thought likely before. This cheerful prospect obscured for the Puritan and the gambler that they were about to make the biggest mistake of their careers.

Snow covered the ground as Clay left his appointment. Much of Washington stayed indoors close to hearths and cozy fires. The wind was arctic and wet. A storm was coming.88

BEFORE HE ANNOUNCED his endorsement of Adams, Clay quietly began lining up votes. At such a task, he was at his most skillful, a political manager who could pluck deals out of thin air. Yet his numerous consultations about his plans had virtually revealed his choice of Adams, and Jackson’s supporters panicked when Clay’s politicking all but confirmed it. The vote in the House would take place on February 9, giving them just one month to stop Henry Clay from making John Quincy Adams president. Despite Jackson’s affecting a magisterial aloofness from petty politics, his operatives had been trying to arrange deals themselves. Just days before the Adams-Clay meeting, Jackson sourly speculated that Adams, Crawford, and Clay were in league against him. He was wrong about Crawford.89

Clay spent most of two weeks strolling from meeting to meeting. Then word arrived from the Kentucky legislature instructing the state delegation to vote for Jackson. If the news gave Clay pause, he did not show it. Despite being on record that such directives were inviolable, he continued to pressure his Kentucky colleagues as well as other western delegations to vote for Adams. Jackson supporters hoped that Frankfort’s instructions rather than Clay’s brokering would save the day, but they redoubled efforts to ally with Crawford just to play it safe. When the Kentucky delegation announced on January 24 that they would ignore their state’s instructions, gloom settled in over Old Hickory’s camp. Clay finally announced for Adams as well, a signal that Prince Hal’s work was finished. Only the actual vote on February 9 would show whether it had been effective.90

As the day approached, Clay’s work certainly seemed to have been successful. With Kentucky came Ohio, and Jackson’s people frantically tried to dam the tide. They resorted to thuggish tactics, threatening popular uprisings if the House rejected Old Hickory and mounting a smear campaign against Clay. On January 25, the Philadelphia Columbian Observer printed a letter from an anonymous author claiming that Adams and Clay had made a tainted deal. The writer said he had evidence that Adams had promised to make Clay secretary of state in exchange for Clay’s help in the House of Representatives. Other papers printed the letter in a crudely conceived operation that would first soil Clay as a power broker in the upcoming election and then make his acceptance of any post in an Adams administration seem proof of the letter’s accusation.91

Clay met this challenge head-on. When the letter appeared in the Washington National Intelligencer, he demanded that his accuser step from the shadows with such vehemence that he all but invited a duel. A few days later, Congressman George Kremer of Pennsylvania came forward, and Clay immediately regretted being a party to what was obviously a sorry mess. Kremer was an embarrassingly doting Jackson supporter, an oafish eccentric whom Clay described as “an old vulgar gross drinking half Dutchman half Irishman.” It was doubtful that poor Kremer had written the letter but almost certain that he had been put up to claiming it.92 His high-pitched, screeching voice had prompted some wag at some point to dub him George “Screamer,” a rhyme on “Kremer” that enough people found funny to have the name stick, only one of the many sad aspects of Kremer’s indifferent public career. He was too stupid to take seriously, and everyone concluded that his “muddy and contracted mind” could not have concocted the attack on Clay without direction.93 Clay had no intention of meeting this pathetic Jackson pawn in a duel, but instead asked that Congress investigate the charges. Kremer had no evidence and became a sputtering fount of inconsistencies during the congressional inquiry that ultimately judged his accusations to be groundless. Everyone would remember the accusations, though. Andrew Jackson and his minions would see to that, which was the whole point in the first place.94

Clay’s character continued to come under attack. He put up a brave front, but he was deeply hurt by some of his critics. He had braced himself for the Jackson camp’s spiteful barbs, but many Crawford people were spitting denunciations too, some of them Virginians whom Clay considered old friends. His native state had placed him dead last in its popular vote, and now friends he had known since childhood were accusing him of corruption. Had he ever known them at all?95

JOHN RANDOLPH AND Edward Livingston were the only two congressmen present in 1825 who were members of the House of Representatives that had elected Thomas Jefferson in 1801. Speaker Clay consequently wanted a committee to draw up procedures to govern the February 9 vote. Meanwhile, he vigorously lobbied Daniel Pope Cook of Illinois and John Scott of Missouri, each the lone congressman for their states. Illinois had gone for Jackson in the general election, and though Cook wanted to vote for Adams, he was under more than considerable pressure—he was receiving death threats—to vote accordingly. Missouri had voted for Clay, with Jackson second, and Clay battled Thomas Hart Benton over Scott’s vote, for Benton had put aside his differences with Jackson to jump on Old Hickory’s bandwagon. Clay persuaded Cook to vote his conscience and bested Benton to claim Scott for Adams.96

At noon on February 9, representatives and senators assembled in the House chamber. They first heard the tally of votes for vice president declaring John C. Calhoun the winner. As expected, the count of the presidential ballots yielded no majority, and the Senate retired to allow the House to elect the president from the three top candidates. Each state received a box to collect its delegation’s ballots and appointed a member to take it to a table where Daniel Webster and John Randolph waited. There they would conduct a count of the twenty-four boxes’ contents and record each state’s choice. To win, a candidate needed a simple majority of thirteen.97

Everyone predicted that of the three candidates, Adams would win the most states on the first ballot but fall short of a majority, despite Clay’s work. On a second or third ballot the slightest switch of votes in this or that delegation could then shift momentum, break the contest open, and allow for serious haggling to begin anew. Van Buren expected Adams to win as many as twelve states, a total perilously close to victory, especially because New York was almost evenly split between Crawford and Adams. Van Buren lobbied hard among New York representatives to stop them from putting the New Englander over the top on the first ballot, and he had all but succeeded except for one vacillating holdout.

Stephen Van Rensselaer was one of the wealthiest men in America, the inheritor of enormous landed estates in New York that he had turned into models of productivity and social experimentation. He was in politics entirely because of his civic-mindedness, but he had never distinguished himself, possibly because he was pleasant by temperament and eager to avoid confrontation. Understandably, then, he found the contentious decision of choosing the next president not only daunting but disconcerting, especially when Van Buren explained to him that his vote would likely decide the question. By Van Buren’s count, if Van Rensselaer voted for Crawford, New York would be tied, giving Adams only twelve states on the first ballot.98

Because Van Buren planned to tout Crawford as a compromise candidate on a second ballot, it was crucial that he persuade Van Rensselaer to make a second ballot necessary. He and Delaware congressman Louis McLane had an advantage in that they lodged and took meals with Van Rensselaer, and their relentless coaxing and prodding finally brought him over to Crawford. By the time Van Rensselaer arrived at the Capitol, though, Clay had discovered Van Buren’s plan. Accompanied by Daniel Webster, Clay hustled Van Rensselaer into the little “Speaker’s Room.”

It was neither Webster’s nor Clay’s finest moment as they browbeat the confused old man, vividly describing the national turmoil if the House failed to elect the president on the first ballot. Van Rensselaer left the room nearly in tears but committed to do Clay’s bidding. Convinced that the good of the country depended on a decisive first ballot, Stephen Van Rensselaer’s key vote made John Quincy Adams president by giving him New York.

Martin Van Buren later excused Van Rensselaer’s decision by inventing a curious story that endured for many years. As Van Rensselaer prepared to vote, Van Buren said, he prayed for guidance, his head bowed and his eyes closed. Opening his eyes with his head still bowed, he spied on the floor what he took to be a sign from above: an Adams ballot. He placed it in New York’s box as his vote, confident that he was doing God’s will. The quaint story was a pure fabrication. Van Rensselaer said immediately after the event that he had acted according to his sense of duty to the country.99

Initially, all seemed calm in the wake of this surprisingly quick resolution. A congressional delegation took the results to Adams, who received them with an affected air of subdued calm. As always, he revealed his actual sentiments to his diary: “May the blessing of God rest upon the event of this Day!”100 That night, at a reception hosted by President Monroe, he encountered Jackson. Official Washington held its collective breath, but Old Hickory only bowed courteously and extended his hand to congratulate Adams on his victory.101

Jackson’s generous gesture did not reflect his true feelings, which were hardly jovial. At first, he and his friends were stunned enough to be civil, but after analyzing the House vote, they became livid. In addition to the seven states Adams had taken in the general election, he had captured six others that rightly belonged to someone else. In the general election, Kentucky, Missouri, and Ohio were Clay’s, while Maryland, Louisiana, and Illinois should have been Jackson’s.102 He did not take long to reach the conclusion that Adams and Clay’s base intrigue had cost him the election. “Was there ever witnessed,” he snarled, “such a bare faced corruption in any country before?”103 The days of Jackson’s smiling congratulations were over.

Adams early planned to offer the State Department to Henry Clay, but Clay always claimed that the post was never a trade for his support. When the offer came, though, he worried about how it looked. He asked friends if Kremer’s accusations—proven groundless but still in currency among capital gossips—should prevent him from accepting. Most of those friends told him that the opportunity was too good to refuse. They assured him that with Kremer discredited, talk of corruption and bargains would soon die down.104 Clay heard what he wanted to, but he also reasoned that not to accept the post in order to avoid criticism would only serve to give even more credence to the rumors. He would not be intimidated by idle gossip.

The announcement that Clay had accepted the post did not merely fuel gossip, however. It set off a firestorm. Andrew Jackson bellowed to a friend that “the Judas of the West had closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver.” Jackson ominously added, “His end will be the same.”105 Pro-Jackson newspapers proclaimed that Clay “DIED—politically,” on the day of the House vote because “he fell victim to cunning, fraud and intrigue.”106

Clay and Adams had underestimated Jackson as a candidate, but they had missed the measure of him as an enemy by miles. His extensive network of supporters was never more animated and relentless than when given a specific task with a specific goal. With the same cold calculation that had delivered Pennsylvania to Old Hickory at the Harrisburg convention in the fall of 1823, these Jacksonites resolved to destroy Adams’s stillborn administration and crush its midwife, Henry Clay. The “Corrupt Bargain” rapidly became an unshakable label, shorthand to condemn the brigand Clay and his coconspirator Adams. Lost in the clamor over the supposedly tainted deal that had bought the presidency were all the programs Clay believed vital to the nation. Adams was to be at best a caretaker. At the State Department, Clay would nearly kill himself trying to make that otherwise.

Twenty-five years later, he would finally make what he described as a “frank confession.” He never doubted that his vote for John Quincy Adams had been the proper thing to do, and he insisted that he had been correct to persuade his friends to do the same. Yet he had made a grievous mistake taking the position at State. “By doing so I injured both him [Adams] and myself,” Clay would declare, “and I often painfully felt that I had seriously impaired my own capacity of public usefulness.”107

The president-elect soon had a sobering illustration of just how wrong things had gone when he and his wife attended the theater shortly after the House vote and were greeted by tepid applause. When the performers spontaneously broke into a rousing rendition of “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a song celebrating Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, the audience clapped in time and at its finish erupted into a prolonged fit of stamping, whistling, and cheers. The Adamses sat silent through the impromptu merriment staring straight ahead, their faces ever so slightly revealing a mixture of surprise and pain. This would be emblematic of their lives for the next fifteen hundred days.108

It officially began when John Quincy Adams took a carriage to his inauguration on March 4, 1825. He had at last attained the pinnacle his venerable father had always hoped would be his son’s, a vindication of his own troubled presidency that had been beset by tribulation and crisis. Adams basked in his father’s praise and still held hopes that his intellect and visionary ideas would make his administration historic, memorable as one of his country’s finest hours.

Clay was there to watch Adams take the oath of office. He had resigned as Speaker of the House the day before and looked forward to plunging into work at the State Department. He planned to be at his desk early the following morning. First light on the day after the inauguration, however, found him so ill he could not get out of bed. He was diagnosed as having a severe cold, possibly even influenza. He would recover, but he never really felt fit for the next four years.

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