Losing the Bank, Saving the Union

THEIR RETURN TO Ashland was bittersweet. Almost four years as a rental property had left the house and grounds in some disrepair, and Clay threw himself into refurbishing the buildings and reviving the farm. Lucretia purchased new furniture for the mansion, and Clay tended to livestock and planting. Friends urged him to return to politics, but he refused. His health needed restoring as much as his home did. For a while, personal affairs became his exclusive focus.

For the rest of his life, he spoke with pride about his accomplishments at Ashland, the most stunning of which was Ashland itself. Visitors described the farm as comprising “the most highly cultivated grounds in all Kentucky.”1 In addition to growing hemp and grains, Clay continued to breed fine livestock, especially top-quality racehorses. Often in partnership with others, he bought blooded mares and stud horses to make Ashland a renowned source of prized bloodlines, and the place’s reputation for producing fast horseflesh spread throughout the country. One of his studs, Stamboul, was ungainly in appearance but earned $2,650 in one year alone.2

Clay placed twelve-year-old James and eight-year-old John in a Lexington school. He did not know what to do with Theodore and Thomas, who had floundered from one career to another. Law, farming, or manufacturing variously engrossed them, but their zest for anything always waned. He and Lucretia loved them to the point of distraction, which made their capacity to disappoint so distracting. “Oh!” Clay once howled, “no language can describe … the pain that I have suffered on account of these two boys.” As the recent caper in Philadelphia had shown, Thomas was a bounder. Nobody suspected, however, what was in store for Theodore.3

Clay consoled himself that James and John could still amount to something, but his dreams for young Henry placed a heavy burden on the boy. “If you too disappoint my anxious hopes,” Clay told him, “a constitution never good, and now almost exhausted, would sink beneath the pressure.” Young Henry became, in short, “the pride and hope of your family.”4 Under such pressure, the boy fed on worry, almost choking on the possibility that any failure would diminish him in Papa’s eyes. Henry once timidly ventured that possibly his intellectual abilities were “not above mediocrity,” but Clay would have none of that. He continually insisted to Henry that he was smart and clever and naturally could succeed at anything. Clay’s certainty did not so much reassure the boy as it stirred his doubts and added additional links to his invisible chain of worry. Papa was always offering advice and pushing him to work harder, to do better, to improve. Henry should read more, Clay said, and should learn the “dead languages.” Clay had always regretted not learning Latin and Greek, and when he urged his son to correct that deficiency in himself, Henry suddenly had another burden, another way to disappoint, another way to fail.5

He entered the United States Military Academy in 1827 and excelled, much to his father’s delight. The challenges at West Point amplified his serious, diligent qualities.6 Anne saw him in Washington during the summer of 1828 and joked to her father that Henry was at the age when young men are “obliged to put on a very sage and serious air to remind one of” their dignity. Eliza Johnston, wife of Clay’s friend Josiah Johnston, had a similar impression while visiting Henry Jr. in Philadelphia, a meeting that left her “surprised to see how grave he has grown.” Henry was seventeen, brimming with anxiety.7

He was also increasingly uncertain about his career path and gradually had doubts about the army. He even asked for his father’s approval to withdraw from the Academy, but Clay was mindful of youthful whimsies, even in his overly serious son, and counseled against a rash decision. Henry obeyed. Henry always obeyed. After the election of 1828, however, Clay agreed that his son’s chances in an army under President Jackson had considerably dimmed, particularly because he was Henry Clay, Jr. They both deliberated over alternative careers, the boy always anxious to have Papa’s approval. West Point had trained him to be an engineer, and Henry rather enjoyed the work, the clear precision of mathematics appealing to his temperament. Yet when Papa expressed a preference for the law, Henry agreed that perhaps the law would be best.

Occasionally Clay realized what he was doing to this boy and sometimes told Henry to take his counsel as suggestions rather than instructions. Henry, however, was instinctively dutiful. He insisted that he “must consider them as commands doubly binding for they proceed from one so vastly my superior in all respects and to whom I am under such great obligations that the mere intimation of an opinion will be sufficient to govern my conduct.”8 From anyone else, that mouthful would have been suspiciously obsequious; but with good reason, Papa never doubted his son’s sincerity. When Henry graduated second in his class in 1831, Henry wrongly suspected that by falling short of first he had disappointed Papa. Brimming with anxiety, he resolved to try harder and after a year resigned his commission—to study law.

After Eliza and Susan died, Clay doted on Anne, and not just because she was his only surviving daughter. He openly admitted that she was “one of the few sources which I have of real happiness,” but both her vivacious temperament and the fact that Clay treated her as a friend rather than a project kept her from feeling, as Henry did, that her papa’s devotion was too great not to be disappointed.9 Clay was never able to make his sons his friends, not even after they married and had children of their own. With Anne, everything was different. Her letters were playful and informative, full of puns and amusing stories about her, James, and the children. James Jr., she said, was “becoming quite a beauty, at least for his opportunities, not having any to inherit from either side of the house.”10 Clay constantly urged James Erwin to bring her to Ashland for lengthy visits, and they did come often, usually between Anne’s pregnancies, which meant their arrival always filled the house with chattering children and Anne’s laughter.11 In 1831, Erwin bought the Woodlands, a house near Ashland, and planned for the family to spend a large part of every year in Lexington. Clay was jubilant.

Lucretia thrived on the grandchildren. Susan’s boys, Martin Duralde III and Henry Clay Duralde, spent much of their childhood at Ashland or traveling with the Clays. The lads spoke only French at first, but Lucretia organized a program for the whole family of English instruction disguised as a game, and soon her little Creoles were speaking, reading, and writing like Kentuckians. Clay sent them to private schools, and they grew up surrounded by family, which in some ways was a mixed blessing. John Morrison Clay was only two years older than young Martin and three years older than Henry Duralde, and he could be overbearing and sometimes cruel in the manner of a spiteful older brother rather than a loving uncle.12

Life continued to pepper the family with losses. Some were expected, but no less sad. In the fall of 1829, Hal Watkins collapsed one afternoon and never again rose from his bed. His death marked the passing of more than a kind cousin, for Hal was the only father Henry Clay had ever known. Clay had often visited his parents at their farm outside Versailles and often wrote to his mother, Elizabeth, when in Washington, though she apparently did not save any of his letters. She wrote her only surviving letter to him while he was at the State Department, but she mentioned his letters as always welcome. She had a clear hand, her penmanship not unlike her famous son’s, but her phrasing was stilted and studied, and her letters were likely rare. Elizabeth had been failing for years, and Hal’s death deprived her of both his loving companionship and his care. When Clay went to the farm to help bury Hal, he gently told the feeble, grieving woman to come home to Ashland where she would want for nothing and would have everything money and love could provide. No, she said, she would stay in Versailles with Clay’s half sister, her daughter, Patsy Blackburn. Only ten days after Hal’s death, she died too and was placed next to him in the quiet country graveyard outside Versailles. Three years later, when Lucretia lost her elderly mother, Susannah Hart, apparently the victim of a stroke, the Clays buried the last of their parents.13

Just days after he had buried Hal and Elizabeth, Clay received news that his brother John had died aboard a steamboat while returning to New Orleans from St. Louis, the distance from his home requiring his burial in the Arkansas Territory. Also in 1829, Clay’s brother Porter lost his wife, Sophia.14

The worst blow, however, was the fate of Nancy Brown. Before their return from France, James had reported that Lucretia’s sister was gravely ill. She had discovered a lump in her breast and was experiencing a mysterious numbness in her face that puzzled all her doctors. The family read the grim reports and began to expect the worst. As they anxiously awaited the Browns’ return, specks of cheerful news during the summer and fall of 1829 gave them hope that Nancy was becoming her old self again, but clearly she had breast cancer, and the brief rally only disguised its rapid spread. When Nancy died suddenly of an internal hemorrhage in the fall of 1830, Henry and Lucretia were stunned. James Brown dissolved in grief and never really recovered. Nancy’s laughter and lilting voice had made unthinkable that anything bad could happen to her, and her death pushed the world askew on its axis. Clay found his brother-in-law inconsolable and took on the sad duty of settling Nancy’s estate.15

BEFORE THE ELECTION of 1828, Jacksonian editor Duff Green had made a prediction. “Mr. Clay will not die without a struggle,” he warned Kentuckian Richard M. Johnson, who was also moving into Jackson’s camp. “The poison will still remain in his fangs; and so vindictive is he that those who have stood in his way need expect no mercy at his hand.” Jackson’s election, said Green, would only briefly dispirit Clay, who would then immediately “organize an opposition.”16

Green understood the man and knew what drove him. Though ostensibly retired from public life, Clay remained a public figure, delivering the occasional speech and maintaining a wide correspondence with numerous friends throughout the country. He lamented that “the course of the new administration is so far worse than its worst enemies could have anticipated,” because a “deluded people” had not only elected “a most incompetent but vindictive” president as well.17 Clay was reacting to stories about Jackson’s turning out federal officeholders. A few years later, New York Democrat senator William Marcy famously remarked, “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy,” and gave the colloquial label “Spoils System” to what Jacksonians preferred to gussy up as “rotation in office.” By any name, however, it amounted to the rewarding of political supporters with public appointments, a system successfully employed by political machines in New York and Pennsylvania to sustain support through the public payroll. To some extent, each administration from Jefferson onward had replaced officeholders, but the tradition had persisted from the colonial era that only bad behavior, and certainly not political affiliation, merited removal from office. Adams, much to Clay’s chagrin, had resisted removing even open turncoats, such as McLean. In that respect, the advent of Jackson’s presidency did mark an acute change. Jackson claimed he was cleansing corruption, but some of the rogues he rewarded hardly provided convincing proof of his regard for honest government. Old Hickory’s spontaneous inclination to punish opponents and Van Buren’s appreciation for the power of patronage helped to magnify as well as systemize the Spoils System.

McLean landed on the Supreme Court for supporting Old Hickory, but he nervously predicted that the administration’s ruthless system of replacement would soon fill “the vials of wrath” among Jackson’s foes. Kentuckian William T. Barry, once Clay’s friend but now Jackson’s postmaster general, also worried that the wholesale dismissals could cause unrest not just among the opposition but of a general sort.18 Most, however, shouldered up to the trough. The previous winter, Amos Kendall took special delight in conveying Kentucky’s Electoral College vote to Washington, and he soon met with Jackson to emerge from the interview as the new fourth auditor of the Treasury with an annual salary of $3,000, double what he had unsuccessfully tried to pry from Clay. In this bidding war, Andrew Jackson knew the value of a man who bought ink by the barrel and let his pen freely slip the leash of conscience.19

The Jacksonian axe also fell closer to home. John Speed Smith replaced Clay’s friend Crittenden as district attorney for the District of Kentucky, and John M. McCalla was in as the state’s marshal.20 McCalla, at least, would soon be sorry for crossing Henry Clay.

Clay had not planned to resume his legal practice, but after his return to Kentucky, circumstances compelled him to participate in a notorious case that also gave him an opportunity to spear his Bluegrass political opponents. Thomas R. Benning, the young editor of the Lexington Gazette,was a pro-Jackson populist who opposed Robert Wickliffe’s candidacy for the Kentucky legislature and during the 1828 campaign published anonymous attacks on him. Benning did not write them. Instead, Wickliffe’s opponent McCalla did, under the pen name of “Dentatus.” Wickliffe wisely chose to ignore the insults, but his son Charles found them so offensive that he demanded the name of their author. On March 9, Benning was in his Gazette office when the angry young man confronted him. Charles Wickliffe claimed that Benning menaced him with a walking stick, causing Charles to pull his pistol and fatally wound the editor. A grand jury concluded that evidence merited a reduced charge of manslaughter, but Kentucky’s Jacksonians thought it should have been murder. That sentiment as well as the political overtones surrounding the case made it most likely that a jury would convict Wickliffe. The elder Wickliffe entreated his friend and neighbor Henry Clay to join a defense team that included John J. Crittenden and Richard H. Chinn.21

Clay’s participation was slight until the trial’s end, when he characteristically relied on emotional appeals to sway the jury, and his treatment of McCalla provided the trial’s most dramatic moment. McCalla had reluctantly admitted during the proceeding that he had written the offending articles, and accounts of the slaying described him as lurking at its edges. Clay was determined to paint him as the real villain of the piece, the instigator who had done the insulting while skulking behind a Roman pseudonym. “Who is this redoubtable ‘Dentatus’?” he asked as he surveyed the courtroom. He posed the question again, quizzically gazing at the jury as though truly perplexed, his voice dramatically pitched as though sincerely reflective. He mused that the way the unfortunate Benning had reacted when Wickliffe asked him that question the day of the shooting suggested that Dentatus was “a Hercules in prowess, and a Caesar in valor.” Clay whirled and asked yet again, “Who is ‘Dentatus’?” Standing now directly before the jury, Clay seemed to shrink by pulling his arms close to his body, hunching his shoulders around his neck, and bending his knees to diminish his height; he raised his baritone several octaves: “Why, gentlemen, it is nobody but little Johnny M’Calla!” The judge’s gavel repeatedly rapped amid the din of laughter and surprised chatter, and everyone soon noticed that McCalla had slunk silently from the courtroom during Clay’s performance. McCalla never forgave him. Clay did not care. On June 13, the jury deliberated all of seven minutes before returning the verdict of not guilty.22

WHEN ANDREW JACKSON took the oath of office in 1829, some believed the gaunt old man would not live to complete his first term, and most doubted he would seek a second. Clay’s supporters urged him to enter the contest for 1832 early to steal a march on any Democratic opponent. The Jacksonians meant “to assail and destroy You in every way in their power—This object is never lost for a moment,” a friend wrote to Clay, a sign that of all possible candidates, Jacksonians feared him most. Clay had already planned a winter trip to New Orleans to visit the Erwins, and that was certainly a prime purpose for the visit; but he could also use his time in Louisiana to mend political fences and make new friends.23

In fact, Clay’s January 1830 New Orleans trip signaled the start of his 1832 presidential campaign. In addition to stumping for André Roman and Josiah Johnston, Clay consulted about how best to oppose Jackson’s policies and extol the American System, a strategy that filled the next two years of his supposed retirement from public life. Clay was not alone in looking toward 1832. Other candidates also organized their followers, formed alliances, and undermined opponents. Everyone anxiously measured the moods of the old man in the White House, who was apparently pondering his plans as much as observers were, among them his vice president, John C. Calhoun.24 He too hoped to succeed Old Hickory, but Calhoun’s place in the administration required that he be exceedingly careful not to show too much ambition. He had rivals in Jackson’s official family and among his unofficial advisers, the group critics dubbed the “Kitchen Cabinet.” The most dangerous was Secretary of State Martin Van Buren, who had Jackson’s ear because he was willing to flatter and fawn, poses Calhoun found repellent. During Jackson’s first year as president, his relations with Calhoun soured as they clashed over Mrs. Eaton’s social status. Some speculated that Calhoun’s own sinking fortunes would drive him into the arms of administration opponents, a prospect that caused Van Buren to beam.25

During these months, William H. Crawford’s unexpected reemergence on the political scene was a surprise. He was still in very bad health, but his friends saw him as a good southern alternative to Calhoun, whose ties to southern extremism increasingly and unattractively defined him. Crawford was game but hardly able. Returning to Congress meant the world would hear his thick tongue and see his faltering step and palsied hands. Even Jackson, in comparison, would look nimble. Crawford consequently sought the presidency from the shadows, first by proposing an incredible scheme to Henry Clay. If Jackson did not run, he said, Van Buren and Calhoun were sure to, and a field that also included himself and Clay would splinter the Electoral College to prevent a majority. Crawford suggested that Clay drop out and throw his support to Crawford, who pledged a payoff in victory. He would not only put Clay in the cabinet but also formally designate him as his successor. Crawford’s letter “indicates some want of self possession,” Clay told Frank Brooke, and as he read and reread it in Ashland’s shaded study, he became pensive and sad. His friends worried about all comers and wanted to use the letter to discredit Crawford once and for all, but Clay told them to forget the entire matter. He admitted that his old friendship with Crawford, though buffeted by events, yet haunted him. Clay folded closed the letter with the implausible plan and scratched on it, “Never answered.”26

Crawford explored another tactic to wreck another rival with a scheme just as mischievous; indeed, it bordered on malice. That spring he informed Jackson that in 1818 Calhoun had recommended Jackson’s censure and punishment for disobeying orders in Florida. Although Calhoun’s sentiments about Jackson’s invasion had been noised about for years, Crawford’s revealing the particulars of cabinet discussions was an extraordinary breach of trust. Clay had charitably judged Crawford as having lost his way, but this act of treachery toward James Monroe and his former colleagues, particularly John C. Calhoun, confirmed something darker. Because of rampant rumors, Jackson had suspected something like what Crawford was now telling him, but Old Hickory nevertheless feigned outrage. By now, he and Calhoun were completely estranged, and Jackson cited the Crawford leak as an additional reason to ruin his vice president. Calhoun was in the process of learning what it was like to be Henry Clay.

Calhoun despised Crawford for a sneaky informer, but he blamed Van Buren for making the wretched invalid a cat’s-paw in a plot to turn Jackson against him. Calhoun simmered and finally steered a course completely at variance with his customary caution. In early 1831, he published a pamphlet of his correspondence with Jackson and included documents to show the truth of the matter and defend himself against charges of disloyalty. Clay had done much the same thing three years earlier to refute the Corrupt Bargain charges. Clay could have told Calhoun not to waste his time.27

THE CRAGGY-FACED man from South Carolina had been destined for greatness but was beginning to retreat into truculence, and for reasons that had more to do with Henry Clay than Andrew Jackson. Calhoun’s philosophy of government had undergone a dramatic transformation in the years after the War of 1812. As a nationalist War Hawk, he had matched Clay’s enthusiasm for protective tariffs, internal improvements, and a national bank. His alliance with Jacksonians in the 1820s abruptly forced him to oppose all such policies, in part because Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams promoted them. Yet there was more to it than that. South Carolina’s growing opposition to the American System also tugged Calhoun away from nationalism. He especially denounced the protective tariff because like many southerners he believed it favored the North’s manufacturing economy at the expense of the agricultural South. The nationalists’ attempt to grow and consolidate power in the federal government genuinely alarmed Calhoun, and he branded the tariff as another unconstitutional manifestation of those efforts.28

That sort of attitude could make a man a hero at home but a political outsider everywhere else. Calhoun knew this as he eyed the presidency, weighed Van Buren’s plots, and secretly caviled at Clay’s protectionism. In fact, he had already cast his lot with sectionalists. He had just not yet admitted it. In 1828, his complaints jelled in his anonymous composition, The South Carolina Exposition and Protest. The pamphlet essentially outlined a way to block national initiatives with state interposition or nullification. Calhoun built on the work of Jefferson and Madison in their Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798–99 by adding his own views on the nature of the Union. Because the states had been sovereign before they ratified the Constitution, the reasoning went, their individual sovereignty took precedence over the country they formed. In fact, Calhoun did not recognize the United States as a nation at all but rather saw it as a compact of states, each with the power to judge the constitutionality of federal laws. A state had the right to nullify a federal law it deemed unconstitutional by refusing to enforce it. In response, the federal government could amend the Constitution, after which the state had the option of submitting to the nation’s judgment or withdrawing from the Union.29

In January 1830, the country saw an attempt to make nullification a viable doctrine rather than a regional eccentricity. Western senators furiously protested northeastern efforts to restrict land sales, and South Carolinian Robert Y. Hayne pointed out how the “Tariff of Abominations” had similarly victimized the South to benefit the Northeast. He suggested nullification as a way to protect minority interests in both the West and the South. The majestic Daniel Webster (“the Godlike Dan’l” was among his nicknames) was appalled, and his reply to Hayne commenced a nine-day debate that ranks as one of the most famous exchanges in American political history. Webster came closest to matching Henry Clay in oratorical ability, and more than a few said he exceeded him, but the two were different kinds of speakers, each peerless as a type. Webster was physically imposing, a big man with a prominent brow, piercing black eyes to match his hair (“Black Dan” was another moniker), and a voice that could make water shiver in tumblers. He now aimed that voice like artillery at nullification, which, he thundered, would destroy the Union. To allow each of the twenty-four states to obey or reject federal laws as it pleased would reduce the Union to “a rope of sand.” Hayne often gave as good as he got in these exchanges, but the Godlike Dan’l in the end was spectacular, his concluding statement bringing men to their feet and providing generations of American schoolchildren with words to recite from memory: “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!”30

Tying nullification to disunion was a masterful stroke. Calhoun’s growing isolation in the administration gave him reasons beyond ideology to fall in line with South Carolina’s radicals, but it was a move sure to widen an already yawning breach with Jackson. Old Hickory did not comment on the Webster-Hayne debate, but nobody would be allowed to challenge the government and imperil the Union on his watch. By April, Van Buren had told him that Calhoun was the anonymous author of the Exposition and Protest. At that month’s Jefferson Birthday Dinner, angry toasts flew between them, Jackson snarling “Our Federal Union—it must be preserved!” and Calhoun responding “The Union: next to our liberty, most dear!” Their break complete, Jackson summoned Francis Preston Blair from Kentucky to establish the Washington Globe. It immediately replaced Duff Green’s United States Telegraph as the administration’s official newspaper.31

In Kentucky, Clay watched these developments with considerable interest. Like Webster, whom Clay congratulated for his masterful defense of the Union, he thought nullification preposterous. He echoed the New Englander’s nationalism: “If a minority could at any time rise up, on any subject and in any part of the Union, and by threats of its dissolution control the majority, that Union would not be worth preserving.”32 Clay found Nullifiers more nonsensical than disturbing, a noisy few trying to bully the nation into meeting their demands, but as their bluster became rash and their actions reckless, he grew concerned. The obvious assault on the protective principle, one of the three mainstays of the American System, signaled trouble, but Clay also concluded that the very concept of nullification threatened to raise serious political storms. Nullification would lead “to immediate disorder and disunion,” a result that should “fill every patriot bosom with the most awful apprehensions.”33 Although Calhoun’s coming untethered nationally provided an opportunity for Clay’s faction to court him, Clay warned against the fallacy of judging the enemy of your enemy to be your friend. Already in 1831, the odor of disunion, though faint, was clinging to John C. Calhoun. Clay could not stomach it.34

CLAY INTENDED TO present to the American people a positive program of economic growth and general prosperity. He remained convinced that his American System would best tie the country together economically by making the sections interdependent for their individual welfare as well as the common good. The American System could eventually lower prices for manufactured goods, provide a stable currency and reasonable credit for economic growth, and promote thriving commerce along modern roads and canals. It would make rivers and harbors navigable with innovative engineering techniques and systematic dredging. Economic interdependence would make disunion not only unlikely but unthinkable.

He reluctantly agreed that taking this message to the people required him to alter his campaign methods to fit changing political times. The early Republic considered courting votes vulgar and frowned on electioneering, which replaced calm deliberation with “the worst passions.” Political practices in the 1820s rapidly changed that attitude, in large part because many states were allowing more people to vote. Clay found it necessary to mingle with more people. He attended barbecues and began embellishing his modest upbringing as exceedingly humble, a practice rapidly emerging as obligatory and one that eventually created the myth of Clay as “the Millboy of the Slashes.” He never completely mastered this new political trade, because he remained uncomfortable plying it. Until the end of his days, he avoided the appearance of his travels as politically motivated, instead always insisting that personal or financial reasons required trips, during which he just happened to make speeches.35

More than just distaste for cheap theatrics or discomfort over exaggerating his experiences as a youth restrained him. The demands of the new politics transformed Henry Clay into a truly strange amalgam. On the one hand, he exemplified the political past because of his preference for the staid traditions of Madison and Monroe’s time. Yet he also foreshadowed the future by extolling the virtue of planned progress, the idea that the government was not only empowered but obligated to perform economic functions that individuals could not or that private corporations would not.

This strange combination of past and future made him curiously out of place in his time, the Jacksonian period of the early nineteenth century that invoked the People as a mystical entity and insisted that the unbuilt road and the silted-up harbor did not hurt commerce. Clay steered a middle course that made him seem a basket of contradictions. The Progressive movement of the late nineteenth century that promoted moral uplift and active government would seem to be his legacy. Yet Clay opposed coerced morality and recoiled from regulating private economic behavior. A moderate on many issues, Clay was doctrinaire on certain matters, such as the inviolability of the Union and the role of economic progress in preserving it. Dubbed the Great Compromiser, he was not naturally prone to compromise, and instead became, as one perceptive historian has said, “an ideologue of the Center.”36

Clay’s entry into the 1832 presidential sweepstakes became increasingly purposeful because the administration began attacking the American System, or at least parts of it. Jackson, in fact, usually treated internal improvements as political plums and consequently signed more bills to fund them than any one of his predecessors. Yet in May 1830, he suddenly announced a constitutional objection to the Maysville Road and vetoed the bill funding it. The Maysville Road was really an extension of the National Road through Kentucky to the Natchez Trace, a project that would have facilitated travel between the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. Despite the obviously national aspect of the Maysville Road, its length fell entirely in Kentucky, and Jackson described it as a purely local venture that benefited only one state at the expense of the others.

Some laud Jackson’s Maysville Road veto as a courageous state paper, but it was actually an expedient political gesture. Posing as the nation’s protector, Jackson walloped Henry Clay by injuring Kentucky. Secretary of State Martin Van Buren used it to soothe southern states’ rights men anxious about growing federal power that could threaten slavery while satisfying flinty northeasterners who had financed many of their own internal improvements and objected to paying for those in other states. Jackson ran a relatively low risk of permanently alienating westerners with the veto, and he gained allies elsewhere. He was able, for instance, to erode southern support for South Carolina Nullifiers.37

The Maysville Road veto infuriated Henry Clay, of course, but it also angered other Kentuckians, who sensed that Jackson was singling them out for punishment. It also exasperated Kentucky’s neighbors, who would have profited from an increase in commercial traffic. Clay suggested that Congress draft a constitutional amendment to allow simple majorities to override vetoes, a recurring idea for him that perfectly expressed his belief in legislative supremacy. Jackson’s popularity made the plan impractical, however. Indeed, Jackson’s popularity seemed to sweep all before it; but he was also careful not to take chances. It was apparent that he had carefully timed his Maysville veto to avoid antagonizing congressmen he needed to pass one of the major initiatives of his first term, Indian removal. He waited until that had narrowly passed, and not until the following day did he issue his Maysville veto.38

Like most westerners, Clay had never been a champion of Indian rights, and privately he expressed doubts that Indians could assimilate into or peacefully coexist with white culture. At first, then, his dissent from Jackson’s Indian removal policy appeared more opportunistic than sincere, a gesture to exploit the Indian Removal Act’s unpopularity in the Northeast. Yet in the years that followed, as dubious treaties filled with counterfeit pledges uprooted entire tribes in the Southeast, he changed. The government’s promise to the Indians of protected and provisioned passage to new homes in the Arkansas or Indian territories west of the Mississippi proved empty as hunger, illness, and weather plagued their journeys. Countless Indians perished, most infamously on “the Trail of Tears,” and many Americans watched the unfolding horrors with growing dismay. Clay was among them. From the letters of clergymen and humanitarians, Clay followed the plight of displaced Indians and denounced from heartfelt conviction the administration’s behavior as dishonest and inhumane. When Clay returned to the Senate, he met with Indian leaders to advise them about avoiding this calamity to their people. Indian removal came to disgust him as it did other National Republicans, and their revulsion informed the stand of the new political party Clay founded in the 1830s. The barbarity of Jackson’s policy in its implementation was impossible for him to countenance, and what had begun as a political opportunity to oppose Andrew Jackson became for him another compelling reason to unseat Jacksonians.39

SEVERAL EVENTS IN early 1831 convinced the Clay faithful that it was time for him to end his so-called retirement in a formal way and return to the national stage. First, the administration put to rest all doubt regarding a second term, ruling out other Democrat contenders. With only two candidates in the running, Clay’s supporters reckoned he stood a better chance. Clay’s victory, chortled one, would likely kill Jackson, or at least irritate Old Hickory’s famous and chronic digestive problems. “His diarrhea will be brought on,” went the joke.40

Another event that gave Clay supporters hope was the disintegration of Jackson’s cabinet in the spring of 1831. The turmoil over Margaret Eaton had not abated, but it had boosted the fortunes of widower Martin Van Buren, the only man in the cabinet who could offer Mrs. Eaton his arm and not worry about an ugly scene later at home. Jackson consequently judged Van Buren the only gentleman among a cadre of cads and was willing to embrace Van Buren’s solution to the crisis. He and Eaton would resign their posts and put pressure on the rest of the cabinet members to follow suit. The plan appears more plausible from a modern perspective than it did at the time, because the idea of the cabinet as completely subservient to the will of the president was hardly a fixed principle in the 1830s. Instead, many saw the cabinet as a relatively autonomous arm of the executive, something akin to a privy council whose collective wisdom helped frame executive responses to legislative policies. The other secretaries did not eagerly prepare to jump Jackson’s ship simply because he, let alone Martin Van Buren, wanted them to. It took a few heated scenes that created considerable and lingering animosity, but the other secretaries were ultimately persuaded to resign.

Cleaning out the cabinet to get rid of John Eaton and to punish those who had snubbed John Eaton’s wife caused a stir in Washington. As Jackson’s official family was being browbeaten to resign, National Republicans hoped the overbearing executive behavior would brand Jackson as an incipient tyrant and the resulting chaos would convince voters of his incompetence.41 Thus did the opposition try to attach deeper meaning to an otherwise shallow series of events that had oddly preoccupied the executive branch of the United States government for two years. As the Eatons left Washington for Tennessee, Clay kept his perspective. Parodying Domitius Enobarbus’s tribute to Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, he said of Margaret that “age cannot wither nor time stale her infinite virginity.”42

As they chuckled over Democrat contretemps, National Republicans were verging on a schism of their own. A new political party emerging in their traditional strongholds threatened to take voters away from Clay’s candidacy. Antimasonry had first appeared in Upstate New York and then spread south to the Mid-Atlantic and north into New England. It condemned the secretive Masonic Order as an elite league that dominated local, state, and national politics at the expense of outsiders. In 1826 William Morgan, a disaffected Mason in New York, had threatened to publish the order’s secret rites. Morgan was abducted and efforts to find him and his kidnappers were fruitless, apparently because Masons interfered with the investigation. Morgan never turned up, but a badly decomposed and unidentifiable body found months later confirmed for many the wickedness of the Masons. The Morgan affair transformed what had been a social reaction against special privilege into a full-fledged political movement.43

This new party stood to cause Clay considerable trouble. An Antimasonic candidate would poach more National Republican than Democrat voters, but the fact that Clay himself was a Mason spelled problems. His association with the order likely resulted from his efforts to gain status after first arriving in Lexington, and he had been active into the early 1820s, holding important positions in the Grand Lodge of Kentucky. By the late 1820s, however, he was too busy to remain an active Mason, aside from being aware of the political damage it could cause.44

Clay at first underestimated the fervor of the Antimasons and took false comfort in the fact that Andrew Jackson was also a Mason. All else being equal, Clay expected that the candidate best promoting their economic interests would claim the Antimasons’ votes. Clay gradually became worried, however, that Antimason rabble-rousers were stirring up the masses for selfish political purposes, and in the summer of 1831 he finally realized the threat Antimasonry posed to his candidacy. Still refusing to disavow the Masonic order, he remained baffled over what pertinence any of this had for politics.45

In September 1831, the Antimasons held a national nominating convention in Baltimore. Although of a regional character, the convention was historic in the sense that it was the first to choose a presidential candidate. Delegates considered a panoply of prominent political figures, including former president John Quincy Adams, a choice that would have understandably astonished Clay. The convention flabbergasted him just as thoroughly, though, when it nominated his old friend and fellow National Republican, William Wirt, who inexplicably accepted. Although Wirt opposed Jackson’s policies just as strongly as did Clay, friends had convinced him that Clay could not defeat Jackson. Perhaps Wirt could, they mused, by seeking fusion with National Republicans. The hope that boosting Wirt to prominence would persuade National Republicans to pick him at their December convention indicated the foolish reveries of the Antimasons. The Antimasons could never be anything but spoilers in a political fight, and Wirt’s sad role was made sadder by the likelihood that he was not emotionally stable at the time. Earlier that year, his sixteen-year-old daughter Agnes had died suddenly, and Wirt remained consumed by grief. As for the 1832 election, numerous attempts to join National Republicans and Antimasons failed, but a dispassionate assessment would have informed the rankest political amateur that Wirt could never defeat Jackson. On the other hand, dividing National Republicans dashed any hope of victory at all.46

The Wirt candidacy shook Clay to the point of prompting him to consider withdrawing and allowing the party to nominate someone else. He was hardly a rank amateur, but he claimed he was unable to gauge his own chances for victory, and he asked for friends’ advice. Those friends read between the lines to discern that he was really asking for their support, and their encouragement was quick and heartfelt. Instead of quitting, they said, Clay should return to public life to become more nationally noticeable.47 They suggested a return to the Senate, but Clay was reluctant.

He was reluctant in part because he was greatly preoccupied in the summer and fall of 1831 with something other than politics. Theodore had fallen into serious trouble. As a boy, this oldest son could be fearfully unpredictable and prone to violent tantrums, some of them menacing. The family blamed the head injury Theodore had suffered as a child, a conclusion that possibly had merit. That Amos Kendall had had to snatch away a knife Theodore was brandishing at a slave indicated something far more serious than a spoiled, high-strung child, and shadowy, oblique references to similar outbursts over the years point to an ongoing problem that the Clay family coped with rather than addressed. Clay always hoped that the boy would grow out of his short-tempered ways, but mostly he just wanted Theodore to grow up. He brought Theodore to Washington in 1824 “in the hope of reforming him of his indolence and dissipation” but soon had to send him home when Theodore began sneaking off to drink and gamble, once losing $500 he could never hope to pay. Thomas drank excessively and gambled too, but he remained relatively jovial while doing the one and was usually penitent about the other. Thomas got drunk, but Theodore could get ugly. His behavior and moods embarrassed his father. “This is a delicate and painful subject,” Clay conceded in 1828, “which parents will know how to appreciate.”48

During Theodore’s periods of calm and stability, which could be lengthy and encouraging, Clay hoped for the best. Just as Theodore could be angry and brooding, when in good humor he could be witty and charming, clever with a phrase, quick to laugh, tenderly sympathetic, impossible not to love.49 During these good times, Clay entrusted Theodore with important tasks, almost as rewards for correct behavior. The young man explored his father’s extensive land holdings on the Kentucky River, traipsing through ten thousand acres of wilderness before returning to Ashland with a healthful tan and a sense of achievement. Though Clay prudently hired managers to run Ashland while he was away, he always asked Theodore to keep an eye on the place. Clay employed Theodore as a State Department courier to take messages to Joel Poinsett in Mexico and to the commissioners at the Panama Congress at Tacubaya. He was hopeful when Theodore showed an interest in the law, and when the young man proved a quick study, Clay was relieved that at last his son might have found his way.50

Theodore, however, either lost interest in a legal career or lacked the mental focus to run a practice. In 1830, something more alarming than usual began happening to his mind. He left Kentucky that summer and by early September was in St. Louis. The reason for his trip is unclear, but it seems to have been an argument with Anne. He referred to disagreements with her that he hoped neither she nor James Erwin would hold against him. Possibly Anne had tried to give Theodore a talking-to about nearing thirty with no purpose in life. Her brother had visited New Orleans, apparently in search of opportunities, but disdained all that Erwin sent his way. Theodore’s trip to Missouri had the appearance for a time of being a permanent move. He liked St. Louis, he told his mother, and “should I remain here, I perceive a tolerable chance of getting through my journey of life with pleasure.”51

He soon returned to Kentucky, though, for he had fallen in love with a daughter of the prominent Brand family in Lexington. She did not love Theodore, and his disappointment unhinged him. He became delusional, explaining to himself that her family’s disapproval, not the girl’s indifference, was responsible for her rejecting him. In the fall of 1831, just as his father was considering his return to the Senate, Theodore charged into the girl’s home and held the Brand family at gunpoint. After defusing that dangerous situation, the Brands promptly swore out a complaint. The court summoned a jury, which heard witnesses regarding Theodore’s sanity, for the Brand family graciously asserted that his menacing behavior was the impetuous act of a helpless man. It was unfortunately by then the kindest explanation for Theodore’s erratic actions, and the Clays cooperated with rather than resisted the sad drama playing out in the Fayette County courthouse that October. Henry Clay and James Erwin testified before a jury of prominent citizens that included Clay’s oldest friends, Richard Chinn, Leslie Combs, Robert Wickliffe, and John Postlethwaite among them. They pronounced Theodore insane—a “lunatic” in the legal parlance of the day—and the court committed him to the Eastern Kentucky Insane Asylum.52

Thus Henry Clay’s oldest son passed into the land of shadows. To the end of their days, Henry and Lucretia hoped Theodore’s condition was temporary, and at first they had promising signs of recovery, even to an extent that allowed him brief visits to Ashland. The periods of lucidity were all the more heartbreaking, though, for their increasing brevity. The possibility that the next incident when Theodore was irrational and armed would end tragically compelled Henry and Lucretia to harden their hearts and stop their ears to Theodore’s frequent entreaties for release from the asylum, to ignore his unrealistic plans for starting over somewhere else. Days faded into months and months into years, and the pleas gradually lessened until they ceased altogether as Theodore slipped away. When he had been in St. Louis in the summer of 1830 he had told his mother, “I am charmed with this place, and I sincerely hope that I am not throwing away my time.”53 Now Theodore had nothing but time, and his plans and dreams were a knife in Lucretia’s heart, another wound as she thought about her boy confined just miles from Ashland but drifting away from her. Eventually he did not recognize any of them, but his days stretched across the decades beyond the passing of his parents and all his siblings save two. Only Thomas, the brotherly playmate of his childhood, and baby brother John remained to bury Theodore Wythe Clay in 1870.

CLAY’S BID TO regain national prominence was best served by succeeding John Rowan in the U.S. Senate. The state legislature had tried to fill the vacancy in the winter of 1830–31, but no candidate could secure a majority. Clay’s friend John J. Crittenden came closest, but he was a member of the legislature and would have had to vote for himself to win, which he refused to do. The legislature postponed another vote until late in the summer of 1831, hoping that by then state elections would clarify matters. In those contests, Clay’s supporters won a clear majority, and Crittenden was persuaded to step aside. Clay remained reluctant but consented to serve. He defeated Richard M. Johnson, the Jacksonian candidate, 73 to 64. After almost three years, Henry and Lucretia were to go back to Washington. All the children were either grown or in school, and the Clays took with them only their little grandson Henry Clay Duralde.54

What everybody would most remember about that winter in the capital was the cold. The ice on the Potomac was three inches thick and stopped all steamboat traffic. Lucretia was miserable. Margaret Smith greeted her affectionately, but Lucretia missed her children, was distraught about Theodore, and was often physically ill. She and Henry Duralde shivered away their days in a small rented house, where their chief amusement consisted of his English lessons. Soon she wished she had not come to Washington at all, as she hungered for news from home. Some of it was mercifully cheerful.

Henry Jr. managed the farm at Ashland when he was not heading up to Louisville to visit pretty seventeen-year-old Julia Prather. They were well suited, her good cheer a nice counterweight to his subdued nature. By the summer of 1832, Henry was deeply in love. Julia was too, seeing in the quiet, serious suitor something grand. On October 10, they married, making Henry the first of the sons to wed.55

Lucretia was unhappy in Washington, but the return to the capital placed her husband “in his very element,—in the very vortex of political warfare.”56 Meanwhile, the National Republican convention in Baltimore placed him again in contention for the presidency. Speculation stemming from Antimasons about another candidate came to nothing, and delegates in Baltimore never seriously considered Wirt. Consequently, Clay’s was the only name before the convention, and its decision surprised no one. The convention named Pennsylvanian John Sergeant to be Clay’s running mate and issued a statement of purpose, the forerunner of the modern party platform, which condemned Jackson’s veto of the Maysville Road, his use of government patronage, and his criticism of the Bank of the United States.57

Although political parties were still in their infancy, Clay’s nomination placed him at the head of those styling themselves National Republicans. He intended to lead the opposition to the administration when he entered the Senate, but his expectations about party discipline were unrealistic. Despite Jackson’s setbacks with the cabinet, he remained a political colossus. Clay found the National Republicans to be fractious as well as cautious about crossing an enormously popular president. Those congressional attitudes made realizing his policies to promote economic growth all the more difficult, and, worse, it revealed a remarkable erosion of the principle of legislative supremacy. Clay was astonished at how far “King Andrew” had extended executive power, but he was equally uneasy about the apparent awe this president caused in Congress. Clay intended to do something about that.58

Many dismissed Henry Clay’s challenge of Andrew Jackson as a mere clash of egos, but behind the fireworks was Clay’s principal purpose of reestablishing Congress as the “first wheel of government.” His arrival in Washington in 1831 presented Andrew Jackson with a foe unlike any he had ever encountered, for the decorous rules of the State Department no longer hamstrung Senator Clay. Unlike the professorial Calhoun, Clay was agile in debate, dexterous in controversy, and extremely quick in impromptu exchanges. Jackson’s supporters, who had been having their way fairly unimpeded for three years, quickly learned to tread lightly around Henry Clay. There were “hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men in the United States, who exceed Henry Clay, in information on all subjects,” said a friend, “but his superiority consists in the power and adroitness with which he brings his information to bear.”59

It was not enough to repeat the old saw that when Clay spoke, people listened, for Clay rising from his desk in the Senate was comparable to the curtain going up in a first-rate theater. He used props for stage business, such as the little silver snuffbox that he absentmindedly rolled from one hand to the other, creating a near hypnotic spell while he spoke. He pulled his snow-white handkerchief from his coat with a flourish and polished his spectacles as though lost in thought, the pause lengthening and listeners’ expectations swelling until he again broke the silence with “his unequalled voice, which was equally distinct and clear, whether at its highest key or lowest whisper—rich, musical, captivating.” Like any accomplished trial lawyer, Clay commanded attention with tricks to distract the audience when others were speaking. He looked bored and stared at the distance while “eating sticks of striped peppermint candy.” Foes and friends reacted accordingly. Clay was “very imperious” and showed “bad temper in debate,”60 or he displayed “a most courteous and conciliatory deportment to all his great political opponents.”61

Clay’s erstwhile friend Francis Preston Blair prudently adopted the maxim not to demagogue in private when he warned his Jacksonian cronies that Clay was formidable because he “never deserted a friend.” Other men had political allies, Blair said, but Clay had friends for whom he showed real and enduring affection.62 Edward Bates, who became Abraham Lincoln’s attorney general, described Clay’s charisma as “a winning fascination in his manner that will suffer none to be his enemies who operate with him.” “His manly & bold countenance” gave rise to “an emotion little short of enthusiasm in his cause, and nothing short of absolute detestation & contempt for the cowardly” people who opposed him. Henry Clay was “a great man,” said Ned Bates, “one of nature’s nobles.”63

CLAY’S IMMEDIATE TASKS in the Senate were to protect the American System and to get himself elected president. Protecting the American System became a significant challenge because South Carolina’s protests about the Tariff of Abominations were in full roar, and the state’s Nullifiers were readying to move on its polls. Eager to avert a crisis, Congress wavered on protection as National Republicans lost their nerve. Clay warned that to give in to threats only invited more demands, and he worked to isolate both Nullifiers and antitariff southerners angling to form a western alliance by supporting lower land prices.64

He first thought he could accomplish this with an alternative tariff, but others doubted the plan would work. The day after Christmas, Clay called on another “junior” member of Congress, Representative John Quincy Adams, who had broken the tradition of former presidents living in quiet retirement. Since leaving office, Adams had been chilly toward Clay.65 That previous summer, Clay had written to Adams after hearing of James Monroe’s death, but his light tone put off the New Englander. Clay noted that Adams’s father, Thomas Jefferson, and now James Monroe had all died on July 4, making it “very unfashionable” for former presidents to die on any other day. Every July 5, a former president would know that he had at least another year to live. Clay closed with warm wishes “that your fourth may be far distant.” Adams was not amused.66

In fact, Adams wore annoyance like a frock coat. Meeting with him that December afternoon, Clay tried another joke. He asked how Adams “felt upon turning boy again to go into the House of Representatives.” Adams’s response was tart: he did not know yet, since the House had done little business. Clay abandoned apparently useless pleasantries and turned to the tariff. His real purpose for the visit, after all, was to generate support for his idea. He assured Adams that southern agitation was merely a bluff that would soon die down, but Adams thought that South Carolina was far from bluffing. “Here is one great error of Mr. Clay,” Adams told his diary.67

Days later, National Republicans caucused in Massachusetts congressman Edward Everett’s rooms to hear Clay explain his plan. In addition to the threat of possible cooperation between the South and the West to kill protection, Clay feared that the administration would adopt an antitariff stance simply to oppose him. Jackson’s annual message promised to eliminate the national debt by the end of his first term, in March 1833. It was a laudable goal, but Clay worried about its ramifications for the tariff. A Treasury surplus would make significant tariff revenues unnecessary. Clay’s bill would have done away with duties on imports such as tea, coffee, and spices while reducing them on other items. Otherwise, Clay planned to sustain high duties on products still in need of protection from foreign competition. Reducing or eliminating duties, he explained, would prevent a large surplus and require a tariff to produce revenue. Clay was pleasant during his presentation, though Adams also found him somewhat overbearing, an impression that might have resulted from the New Englander’s jealousy over Clay’s rising fortunes. The two also had a sharp exchange. Adams said they should not defy the president’s plan to pay off the debt, but Clay growled that “he would defy the South, the President, and the devil” to preserve the American System. His efforts to jolly Adams were at an end.68

Calhoun led the administration’s other antagonists in Congress, and had it not been for that faction’s extreme opposition to the tariff, Clay might have been able to fold it into a formidable coalition. The two groups grasped what they perceived was a splendid opportunity to act on their shared hostility to Andrew Jackson when his nomination of Martin Van Buren as minister to Great Britain came before the Senate for confirmation. Van Buren’s solution to the Margaret Eaton muddle had left him unemployed, and Jackson rewarded him with the diplomatic assignment to Great Britain. The recess appointment meant that Van Buren had already sailed for London when Congress began considering his confirmation, and Calhoun was excited about doubly embarrassing the Little Magician by compelling his recall.69

Van Buren’s tenure at State made him more than qualified to represent the United States at the Court of Saint James, but Jackson’s enemies wanted to make clear that Congress had not become the administration’s rubber stamp. That resolve was made easier because Van Buren’s climb to power had left behind it a wake of ill will. Senators spoke of his role in engineering the widespread dismissals and in causing the rupture between Calhoun and Jackson. Van Buren had managed to usher in excellent Anglo-American relations and had finally persuaded the British to open their West Indian colonies to American trade, securing an agreement that had eluded Clay. Yet more than sour grapes motivated Clay’s opposition to Van Buren’s appointment to London. Clay was livid that Van Buren had ingratiated himself with the British by criticizing the Adams administration, a gesture that had prostrated and degraded “the American eagle before the British lion.”70

Opposition forces arranged for the vote to end in a tie, giving Calhoun the honor of breaking it to defeat Van Buren’s confirmation. Afterward, Calhoun was reportedly giddy: “It will kill him dead, sir, kill him dead. He will never kick, sir, never kick.”71 Van Buren did not need to kick. Humiliating him only made Van Buren a martyr in many people’s eyes, a victim of partisan bickering. His rejection by the Senate would bring him home, but hardly in disgrace. Instead, he would again be at Jackson’s side, accelerating the plan for him to replace Calhoun on Jackson’s 1832 ticket.72

Van Buren had drawn Clay’s and Calhoun’s supporters together, but the session’s tariff debates drove them apart. Jackson’s secretary of the Treasury, Louis McLane, was working with the House Committee on Manufactures (chaired by Adams) to draft a tariff satisfactory to the South while sustaining at least the principle of protection. Clay did not like the looks of that development, for the last thing he wanted was for the administration to be able to claim credit for solving this crisis as the election neared. As the House committee worked on the McLane-Adams bill, Clay wrote his own to present to the Senate on January 11, 1832. Administration men immediately attacked Clay’s plan as insufficient in its reductions, punitive toward the South, and harmful to the market. Clay grew openly irritable and tenacious, “prepared for anything to advance his own views,” possibly even strike a “bargain with the devil.”73

As far as Clay was concerned, that was precisely what John Quincy Adams had done. His cooperation with the Jacksonians was galling, particularly when they began branding Clay a Federalist in comparison.74 Meanwhile, senators fearful of a confrontation with South Carolina Nullifiers preferred the more moderate Adams-McLane tariff, and Clay’s impatience boiled over in a speech that spanned three days in February. He provided a long look at the history of tariffs in the United States. Not so long ago, he said reflectively while staring at Calhoun, almost everyone acknowledged the wisdom of the protective tariff. The year 1816 came to mind when a majority that included the current vice president had approved the tariff and had embraced the American System as the best way to ensure American prosperity.75 Clay was amazed at the mistaken idea that free trade would solve all the world’s economic problems. He shouted, “Free trade! Free trade! The call for free trade, is as unavailing as the cry of a spoiled child, in its nurse’s arms, for the moon or the stars that glitter in the firmament of heaven. It never existed; it never will exist.” Instead of liberating American commerce, free trade would only place the nation “under the commercial dominion of Great Britain.”76

Clay’s seemingly interminable blizzard of words was an exhaustive treatment of the subject as well as simply exhausting, for both him and his listeners. He was tired, and many he had wanted to persuade remained unconvinced, which set the mood for confrontation. The old War of 1812 veteran Samuel Smith came unsteadily to his feet, unaware that he was about to be figuratively knocked off them. Smith confessed to having been among those Clay had mentioned who formerly supported protective tariffs but now opposed them. He simply doubted the need for Clay’s higher duties. Clay derisively turned on Smith. What this old relic and Jacksonian toady was really saying, Clay thundered, was that he no longer cared about American manufacturers. He recited an insulting rhyme: “Old politicians chew on wisdom past / And totter on in business to the last.” Smith took the bait. Leaping to his feet, he snarled that “the last allusion is unworthy of the gentleman,” and shouted, “Totter, sir? I totter! Though some twenty years older than the gentleman, I can yet stand firm, and am yet able to correct his errors. I could take a view of the gentleman’s course which would show how inconsistent he has been.” Clay shouted back, “Take it, sir, take it—I dare you.” Cries of “Order!” rang through the chamber as Smith bellowed over the din, “No, Sir, I will not take it. I will not so far disregard what is due to the dignity of the Senate.” The Senate quickly adjourned for the day.77

Jacksonian newspapers universally condemned Clay’s treatment of Smith. Francis Preston Blair’s Globe played on the issue of age with an editorial headlined “Mr. Clay’s Senility,” ignoring that the seventy-nine-year-old Marylander had actually shaved five years off his age in comparing himself to Clay.78 The feisty performance, however, energized National Republicans heartened to see someone rearing up on his hind legs at imperious Jacksonians. Clay during his audacious days in the House had never been better, they thought, and even those who disagreed with him “admired his splendid talents, his bold, chivalrous & manly bearing” and “his fearless & uncompromising spirit in what he deemed to be right.”79

Better yet, Clay seemed to be winning. His resolution was sent to the Committee on Manufactures, of which he was a member and likely to dominate its discussions. Yet opponents had a plan to turn westerners against Clay. To distract the committee from rapid deliberations on Clay’s bill, Thomas Hart Benton managed to get an administration initiative referred to the Committee on Manufactures as well, even though it obviously had nothing to do with manufacturing. Benton’s bill instead proposed to lower land prices through a complicated system of distributing proceeds to the states. The measure was popular with westerners, and Clay’s opposition to it risked his western support in the coming election. He did not believe in artificially high land prices, but he refused to let Benton and the Jacksonians bully him to win votes. In addition, Clay worried that extremely low land prices on the western frontier would depress property values in the settled areas while removing land revenues as a source of income for the government. Securing funds for internal improvements would then become all but impossible.80

Clay knew that southerners were likely to support any proposal that committed the West to oppose a tariff, and before such an irresistible majority took shape, he moved to supplant the administration’s land policy with one of his own. His alternative was similar to Benton’s, but its differences, while key, allowed Clay to portray it as a compromise. As in the administration plan, the government would distribute proceeds to the states for explicit purposes such as internal improvements, education, debt retirement, or colonizing freed slaves. Yet Benton had proposed selling the lands directly to the states, while Clay wanted the federal government to retain possession and sell to individuals or private consortia to ensure top dollar for the tracts. As enticement for the West, Clay proposed that a state would receive 10 percent of revenue from the sale of public lands within its borders. The Treasury would divide the balance among all the other states in sums based on population. Keeping land prices relatively high would please easterners worried that cheap land would lure their citizens westward, and the government would be forced to rely on a tariff for operating funds. Though proponents of lower land prices were not happy with Clay’s plan, it was a shrewd interweaving of specific interests for a common good, and it attracted enough support from the Northeast and more populous Western states to pass in the Senate. Clay foiled Benton’s ploy to make him appear an enemy of western interests, but his bill died in the House.81

Clay’s tariff fared no better. He had the votes to bring it out of the Committee on Manufactures, but many of his colleagues still believed the Adams-McLane proposal was a less confrontational compromise. The House’s tariff did not abandon protection, which was the only reason Clay found it marginally acceptable, but it drastically reduced many duties to 1824 levels. Clay labored to raise rates with amendments, but the House rejected the changes, and rather than risk a crisis with South Carolina, the Senate finally conceded. Protectionist circles at least credited Clay with preserving their principles. The bill that ultimately passed both houses in July 1832 little resembled Clay’s but was essentially the one Adams and Secretary McLane had originally proposed. Jackson signed it, and many hailed it as a laudable and satisfactory compromise. South Carolina Nullifiers could not have disagreed more.82

IN ADDITION TO debating a new tariff and land policy, Congress also considered renewing the charter for the Second Bank of the United States. The bank’s current charter would not expire until 1836, but BUS president Nicholas Biddle hoped that holding the renewal debate in an election year would compel Jackson to sign off on what had become a popular institution largely responsible for a thriving economy.

The move was risky, however, because Jackson disapproved of the BUS. Shortly after his inauguration in 1829, he told Biddle he disapproved of all banks, which was something of an exaggeration, although Jackson’s own financial problems thirty years earlier had indeed created in him an enduring distrust of paper money. Like many westerners, he held the BUS responsible for the Panic of 1819 and the resulting financial crisis. He believed that loans in banknotes that exceeded an institution’s actual holdings were inherently dishonest, and he inclined toward using only specie for financial transactions. Biddle’s steady leadership of the BUS since 1823 had inspired growing support for the Bank, even in Jackson’s cabinet, but Jackson remained unconvinced that it served the financial interests of the country so much as it fattened the wallets of its wealthy investors.

Left unspoken, of course, were less lofty reasons for disliking the BUS, such as its independence from the executive, making it a patronage engine the administration could not control. Jacksonian constituencies, local bankers among them, chafed under Biddle’s ability to control credit, always on the restrictive side to their thinking. Biddle did not realize how deep those resentments ran or how determined Jacksonian politicos were to transfer patronage privileges to the U.S. Treasury. Rather, he hoped he could change Jackson’s mind before the BUS charter expired. From the day of Jackson’s inauguration, Biddle used diplomacy and gentle persuasion to convert Old Hickory, but the BUS president rubbed the U.S. president the wrong way from the start. Biddle’s belonging to one of Philadelphia’s most patrician families, his sterling education, and his diplomatic service abroad made him seem aloof. His immersion in the complex world of national finance made him seem arrogant. He was an excellent financier but as it turned out a poor politician and an ineffective pleader. Biddle occasionally overcame these deficiencies with questionable practices, such as putting prominent politicians on the BUS payroll, a move that laid him and the Bank open to charges of corruption. In 1829, he had sealed for Jackson the impression of suspect dealing. Biddle proposed early recharter in exchange for the BUS assuming the national debt, pledging to pay it off by 1833 as Jackson wanted. That interview with the president went quite badly, because Jackson bristled at Biddle’s transparent attempt to buy support for recharter by taking on one of Jackson’s pet projects. He never trusted Biddle again, and he instantly hardened against the Bank. He made clear in his first annual message that he was opposed to its recharter.83

The following year, Biddle considered asking for early renewal anyway, hoping the Bank’s popularity and the good economy would induce Jackson to consent. Credit was stable, and the Bank’s notes circulated nationally as sound currency. Biddle asked Clay’s advice, but the former BUS attorney counseled caution. If Jackson vetoed a renewal bill, Bank supporters could not muster the two-thirds majority to override it. Biddle decided to wait.84

His decision to ask the Twenty-second Congress for early renewal at the end of 1831 seems to have been coincidental with Clay’s return to the Senate, not because of it. Evidence indicates that Biddle’s course was his own, taken entirely independently of advice from Clay. It so happened that Clay by then agreed with Biddle that the time for recharter had arrived. Jackson’s December 1831 annual message indicated a softening position on the Bank, and everyone knew that Secretary of the Treasury McLane supported recharter and might take the lead on a bill allaying Jackson’s remaining objections. In addition, Biddle judged that Jackson was more likely to sign a recharter before rather than after the 1832 presidential election. He would not want to alienate Mid-Atlantic states, where the Bank was especially popular, and thereby put his reelection bid at risk. Clay saw the wisdom in Biddle’s calculation, though he was not as confident that Jackson would sign the recharter. On the other hand, Clay had done some calculating of his own. A Jackson veto was likely to throw those valuable Mid-Atlantic votes into Clay’s column.85

Congress took up recharter in January 1832, but an investigation into the Bank’s alleged misconduct delayed substantive debate until May when the charges were finally declared groundless. The ensuing discussion, however, was odd in that the Bank’s proponents made little effort to dispute objections to it. This passivity immediately raised speculation that Clay and the National Republicans actually wanted a Jackson veto in order to create an important campaign issue. Only circumstantial evidence supported that conclusion, but the evidence was nonetheless convincing. For example, Clay confided to friends that he expected a veto and that it would cost Old Hickory Pennsylvania at the very least. In addition, orchestrated moves to produce a formal rather than a “pocket” veto indicate that the National Republicans did not want recharter so much as they wanted to force Jackson’s hand.

The Constitution provides two ways for a bill to become law. One is straightforward: Congress passes the bill and the executive signs it. The other is indirect: if the president does not sign the bill within ten days, it becomes law without his signature—but only if Congress is still in session. Otherwise, the bill dies. If Congress does not adjourn within those ten days, a president wishing to kill a bill must formally veto it and return it to the legislature with an explanation. Traditionally, presidents had wielded the veto only when they believed a bill to be unconstitutional, meaning that the will of Congress as the voice of the people trumped policy differences. In any case, the veto message provided a point of departure for Congress either to override the veto with an extraordinary majority of two-thirds, or to tailor the bill to the president’s satisfaction. On the other hand, if Congress adjourns within the ten days and the bill expires without the president’s signature, the resulting “pocket veto” requires no message, in part because Congress cannot debate an override if it is not in session.

The Senate passed the bank recharter on June 11, 1832, but the House did not vote until July 3, a mere six days before scheduled adjournment. Clay worked with Webster to postpone the close of the session until July 16, forcing Jackson to provide a formal veto message. Clay clearly intended to run on this issue because he believed a presidential veto would prove immensely unpopular.86

Just as there was little doubt that Congress would pass the bill, there was little doubt that Jackson would veto it. Most of his cabinet, including his Treasury secretary, supported recharter, but Jackson would have died rather than sign a bill he correctly assessed as meant to embarrass him. Van Buren was at his side when the bill came to the White House on July 4, and Jackson snarled, “The bank is trying to kill me, Mr. Van Buren, but I will kill it.” Ignoring his official counselors, Jackson turned to his Kitchen Cabinet, which included men such as Amos Kendall and Francis Preston Blair. The clear, articulate prose in the veto message was certainly not Jackson’s, although it perfectly conveyed his attitudes. The primary authors were probably Amos Kendall; Jackson’s nephew and secretary, Andrew Jackson Donelson; and his attorney general, Roger B. Taney, the one member of the cabinet who approved of Jackson’s stand on the Bank. Because Kendall was so heavily involved, the veto was accordingly short on constitutional principles and long on populist propaganda.87

The Bank, said the message, was unconstitutional because Jackson said it was. It dismissed Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland by insisting that the president was the equal and possibly the superior of the judiciary in weighing the constitutionality of legislation. The message took some pains to show how precedent was largely immaterial in making such determinations, implying behind the thinnest veneer of legal reasoning that the president’s personal preference, a sort of constitutional intuition, was most important. As an effective political statement rather than a sound legal argument, the veto excelled. It condemned the Bank as a tool of plutocrats, a dangerous monopoly, an anti-American establishment that relied on foreigners, particularly Britons, to form a substantial number of its stockholders. Jackson’s constitutional objections were half-baked, and his populist attack was patently unfair and relied on shameless distortions of a well-run, efficient financial institution, but that did not matter. The veto portrayed him as a champion of the common folk, ever vigilant as their protector against privilege and predatory interests. In that regard, it was a political masterpiece. It also clearly implied that the members of Congress who wanted recharter were not just enemies of the people’s interests, but enemies of the people. Although he had gotten what he wanted, the implication that supporters of the BUS were cynical and corrupt made Henry Clay hopping mad.88

The veto itself also left him greatly alarmed. When the Senate began debating it on July 11, Webster took the lead for the BUS by presenting a lengthy history of the Bank’s usefulness in promoting a healthy economy and the case for its constitutionality, but the following day, Clay raised the larger issue of executive responsibility and legislative supremacy. Jackson, he said, had used the veto in a way the Framers never envisioned. Clay was quite correct in assessing Jackson’s veto message as a momentous expansion of presidential power. In more than forty years of constitutional government, presidents had vetoed legislation on only ten occasions, and each of those had derived almost entirely from questions of constitutionality. Jackson had referred to the Constitution in his message, but he essentially objected to the recharter of the Bank because he found the Bank personally objectionable. This was a vast assumption of executive prerogative. Jackson effectively amplified the president’s power to the equivalent of two-thirds of Congress and made the executive branch of government an entity with potentially imperial authority over both the legislature and the courts.

Clay warned the Senate. Jackson’s presumption that his constitutional judgment was superior to that of Congress amounted to a treacherous act of executive usurpation, the sort of overreach Americans had found despicable in a king and should find no less appalling in a president. Those legislators who had voted for the Bank’s original charter and had voted to recharter were the people’s representatives, subject to the people’s approval or rejection, and were consequently far more qualified than Jackson to make those judgments. How dare Andrew Jackson, Clay thundered, question the motives of any duly elected member of Congress for supporting the Bank?89

The next day, Thomas Hart Benton responded for the administration and was particularly provocative in taking Clay to task for making remarks “wanting in courtesy, indecorous, and disrespectful to the Chief Magistrate.” Clay slowly rose from his seat and demanded the floor to dispute Benton’s remarks and especially to answer his personal criticism, which was the part of Clay’s reply that everyone would recall.90 He could not allow Benton to instruct him “in etiquette and courtesy,” Clay said with mock innocence, because, after all, he was not sure which of Benton’s opinions about the president to adopt. Should it be the one in which Benton “complained of the President beating” his brother “after he was prostrated and lying apparently lifeless,” or the one when Benton predicted that if Jackson were elected, congressmen would have to arm themselves?91

Benton took the floor. He admitted to an earlier “personal conflict” with Jackson, but they had fought as men. He denied ever making the statement that Jackson’s election would require congressmen to carry weapons. Clay whirled. He drew the words out slowly in a measured cadence: “Can the Senator throw his eyes on me—will he look in my face and assert that he never used language similar to that imputed to him?” Benton, “after a pause,” shook his finger at Clay and said, “He could—he could.” Clay’s eyes narrowed as he said, again slowly, “Can the Senator look me in the face and say he did not make use of such language?” Benton repeated that he had not. Clay asked a third time. Benton for a third time said no. Clay abruptly sat down, but Benton kept talking, quickly working himself into a stew. He would pin this “atrocious calumny” to Clay’s sleeve, he shouted, and “it would stick, stick, stick there, and there he wished it to remain.”

Clay sprang from his chair and raised his voice too, shouting that “he returned the charge of calumny to the senator from Missouri.” Jacksonian senator Littleton Waller Tazewell of Virginia, temporarily presiding, ruled the debate out of order and told Clay to sit down. Clay protested that he wanted to explain his remarks. Tazewell insisted that “no further explanation will be heard from the gentleman from Kentucky.” Clay demanded to know on what grounds he was being ruled out of order. His inappropriate language, said Tazewell. Clay sputtered that Benton’s language had been just as objectionable. Very well, said Benton, and he promptly apologized to the Senate, admitting that his language had been out of order. Clay gave up. He wearily offered a similar apology to the Senate but added, “For the Senator from Missouri I have none.”92

The Senate did not override the veto. The date of the vote, Friday, July 13, might have struck some as a significant indicator of the legislature’s luck. Jackson was on his way to striking down twelve congressional enactments, more than all his predecessors combined. The stroke of a pen had effectively demoted Congress to a potentially subordinate role in the lawmaking process, depending on the whim of the president, a change that would have profound repercussions for constitutional government, as Clay warned.

The capital, however, was too preoccupied with the current drama staged by Benton and Clay to worry much about such abstractions. For days following their angry exchange, rumors swirled that they would fight a duel, and not until the two headed home did the gossiping stop.93

THESE QUARRELS EXHAUSTED Clay. The battles over the tariff and the Bank had taxed his failing stamina to the breaking point, and he longed to be at Ashland. On the way home from Washington, he, Lucretia, and little Henry Duralde stopped at White Sulphur Springs for a brief rest. The Clay caravan was “a strange medley,” as he described it, consisting of “four servants, two carriages, six horses, a Jack ass [recently purchased for his mule-breeding business], and a Shepherds dog.” The resort’s owner, James Caldwell, a close friend and political supporter, had gladly prepared comfortable accommodations for everyone, for Clay was a regular guest. He had visited the Kentucky or Virginia springs during the hot summer months for years, because they were on cooler high ground. Sometimes called simply the Virginia Springs, White Sulphur was not luxurious, but it did provide a pleasant, rustic setting nestled in mountains for congenial groups to gather. During this stay, Clay impressed the son of Washington architect Benjamin Latrobe as “certainly the most pleasant man I ever was in company with.”94

The override vote was a symbolic gesture at most, a ploy by National Republicans to emphasize Jackson’s stand on the Bank, which they expected voters to punish with telling and possibly decisive disapproval. Biddle thought the veto displayed “all the fury of a chained panther biting the bars of his cage,” and Clay believed it would certainly damage the president with the business and manufacturing communities. He was likely correct that more Americans approved of the BUS than actively loathed it, but he never understood how Jackson’s veto message resonated with the common voter and how successful Jackson had been tying the National Republicans to special interests and painting them with the brush of corruption.95

Ever the optimist, he hoped that from the sanctuary of Ashland he could direct a successful campaign based on a popular appeal to the American System. If he could convince New England, hold the Mid-Atlantic, and make inroads in the West, he thought that he just possibly had a chance.96 He nevertheless needed the Antimasons to abandon their independent campaign and join National Republicans if he were to have any hope of defeating Jackson. He told his operatives to refrain from criticizing Wirt. Instead, he sought to find common ground and show the Antimasons that only unity could lead them to victory. Wirt finally came to his senses to promote fusion. Although efforts in New York gained some ground, most Antimasons remained wary of National Republicans, who they suspected were under Masonic control.97

Even had these fractured factions united, they could never have matched the effectiveness of the Jacksonians. Van Buren had built the Democrat House, and operatives like Kendall ran it. The vulpine Kendall directed the central Hickory Club in Washington that disseminated information to local counterparts throughout the country. Clay was well aware of the deficiencies in the National Republican organization, such as it was, and he tried to persuade friends to get out his message and work to turn out voters, but all efforts were too little as well as too late.98 Meanwhile, he was barely able to keep up with the Jacksonian press’s relentless smears. Blair’s Globe invented a story that in 1809, after Clay’s duel with Humphrey Marshall, he had recovered from his wound at a friend’s home, where he had repaid his host’s kindness by fleecing him at brag, merrily taking money the man could not afford to lose. Clay refuted the story in the National Intelligencer and for good measure branded as a lie the Globe’s claim that the bullet recently removed from Jackson’s left arm was from a wound he had suffered in the service of the country. Jackson, said Clay, had actually taken that bullet in the infamous Nashville street brawl with the Bentons in 1813.99

The early news from state elections in the late summer did not bode well for Clay. The Kentucky governor’s race set a dismal pattern of defeat. Fraud abounded as Jacksonians came into southern Kentucky from Tennessee to stuff ballot boxes, sometimes so exuberantly that tallies in several counties exceeded the number of eligible voters. Clay had no solution for such brazen tactics, and he was reduced to urging his friends to work all the harder for the main contest in the fall. He seems to have realized, though, that no amount of work would make a difference. As the campaign neared its end, he had to quash a new wave of rumors spread by Blair’s operatives in Kentucky that he had withdrawn from the race. It seemed they never slept.100

Returns from the presidential canvass at the end of October quickly revealed that he had lost the election; the only hope that remained was that Antimasons would be as much a spoiler for Jackson as for Clay, preventing a majority in the Electoral College, but that was a slim possibility at best. Adding to the unhappy prospect of inevitable defeat, erstwhile supporters asked Clay to withdraw in favor of Wirt should Jackson fail to receive a majority of the electoral votes. That humiliation proved unnecessary, though the request certainly wounded Clay’s feelings.101

Jackson’s popular vote percentage declined 1.8 percent from his margin over Adams in 1828, but his victory in the Electoral College was devastating. A coalition of National Republicans and Antimasons would not have made the slightest difference. Jackson won walking away. Clay took only Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, giving him a mere 49 electoral votes. Jackson had 219.102 Depressed and humiliated, Clay seriously considered resigning from the Senate to make way for John J. Crittenden, but Crittenden persuaded him to reconsider. As Clay prepared to travel to Washington, he was nonetheless sick at heart.103

Clay regretted Jackson’s victory more bitterly than he did his own defeat. During the campaign, he had fearfully weighed the prospect of another four years under Jackson and concluded that “a real crisis in our Republic has arrived.”104 He regarded “the reign of Jackson” as just that: a tenure marked by the growing supremacy of the executive, “the reign of corruption & demoralization.” In the process, shuddered Clay, Andrew Jackson had “put a pick axe at the base of every pillar that supports every department and every valuable institution in the Country.” He could not comprehend why the country abided it, could not fathom why the people had confirmed it.105 “The dark cloud,” Clay said, “ … has become more dense, more menacing[,] more alarming.”106

THOUGH NOT FOR lack of trying, Clay would never win the presidency. Instead, he remained in the Senate for the next ten years, went into retirement for seven years, and returned to the Senate in the final days of his life. The Senate became his political home, and he left his mark indelibly on it. He served on, and often chaired, virtually every standing committee. He brought finely honed parliamentary talents to bear, employed charm, used sarcasm, and hurled invective to wield a level of influence that made him peerless in the annals of the upper house of the national legislature. He sincerely believed that restraint and cooperation would best secure the country and promote its welfare, and he came to abhor extremism. Intelligent, informed men could always reach an agreement in Clay’s political world, as long as they negotiated in good faith. That was the reason he found the changes wrought by Jacksonian politics so disturbing. Physical intimidation and character assassination were not the stuff of reason; they were not the marks of good faith.107

As he returned to Washington in December, he was therefore troubled to his very core. Fifteen-year-old James Brown Clay was his only companion, for Lucretia did not make the trip. Racked by guilt over leaving Theodore, she refused to suffer that gloom again in dreary, contentious Washington. Clay planned to send James on to Boston to learn the workings of a mercantile firm, leaving Clay alone in the capital during the bleak winter.108 He tried to remain cheerful and labored to put the best face on the election. He felt “entitled to your congratulations for our recent political defeat,” he told a friend. “Jackson had so completely put every thing into disorder, that we should have found it very difficult to mend fences and repair injuries.”109 His lighthearted manner was more than ever a mask of smiles.

In fact, his response to a major emerging crisis threatening the Union revealed the level of his disenchantment and disengagement. Late that fall, just after the election, South Carolina nullified the tariffs of 1828 and 1832. Many had assumed the nationalism exhibited by congressional majorities would cow South Carolina radicals, but it had only enraged them. South Carolinians trooped to the polls to approve a convention, and on November 24, 1832, it passed an ordinance nullifying the tariffs and setting February 1, 1833, as the day collections would end in South Carolina. John C. Calhoun resigned from the vice presidency, and the South Carolina legislature promptly held a special election to place him in Robert Y. Hayne’s Senate seat, vacated when Hayne was elected governor, signs that the Nullifiers were running things in the Palmetto State and that Calhoun had finally, irrevocably transformed into a sectionalist.110

Andrew Jackson’s initial response to South Carolina’s defiance puzzled Clay. On December 4, the president’s annual message contained a relatively mild endorsement of states’ rights as a principle, which hardly seemed appropriate in light of what had just happened. Clay was made no happier, though, when six days later Jackson issued a crackling proclamation threatening force if South Carolina did not rescind nullification. Clay suspected that Jackson’s belligerence would only cause South Carolina to dig in its heels, and he was not alone in fearing that the crisis could bring on civil war, a brushfire that could spread beyond South Carolina to unite the entire South and destroy the Union. Noting the geography involved in coercing South Carolina with a federal military force, one Nullifier boasted, “To reach us, the dagger must pass through others.”111

Clay initially stood apart from the dispute. In fact, he left Washington as it was heating up, ostensibly to start James on his way to Boston. After sending James to Massachusetts, Clay tarried in Philadelphia at the home of friends. His absence from the capital was distressing to his allies. Many believed only Henry Clay could avert a clash between Jackson and the Nullifiers. As the days passed, Clay’s protectiveness of the protectionist principle began to reemerge, and he finally resolved that South Carolina could not be allowed to bully the rest of the country, and Jackson must not be goaded into destroying it. He slowly roused himself to do something to save it. He was still in Philadelphia when he began drafting a modified tariff.112

When Clay returned to Washington, a sharp reduction of the tariff was already under debate in the House. Gulian Verplanck, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, was its principal author. Verplanck, a New York intellectual descended from Dutch patroons, dabbled in literary criticism and displayed fierce political independence. He had broken with Jackson over the Bank, but the administration’s desire to resolve the crisis with South Carolina had forced it to swallow hard and back Verplanck’s tariff proposal. That bill would have reduced tariff rates immediately and within a year all but eliminated them as a protective measure for domestic manufactures. Not only would this have been a decisive blow to the American System, Clay feared it would cause manufacturing regions to consider disunion. He also believed the carrot of tariff reduction significantly weakened the stick of threatened force, an incongruity that confirmed rather than discredited nullification. Indeed, Jackson was tending toward wild contradictions with his policies that tried to balance states’ rights, overawe Nullifiers, and placate Indian removal proponents. At the same time that the president was threatening to quash nullification with the army, he was supporting Georgia’s defiance of the Supreme Court in its efforts to expel Cherokee Indians from the state. Given this muddled situation, Clay found it sensible to propose his own tariff. He did not like the Verplanck bill because it undermined protection, but it also had administration support, causing him to oppose it from reflex. The Nullification Crisis presented him with an opportunity to renew his opposition to the Jackson administration and to earn praise for saving the Union. He marshaled his allies.113

Jackson asked Congress to pass a Force Bill giving him authority to coerce tariff collection in South Carolina. Nullifiers were sporting revolutionary cockades and oiling firearms, but calmer South Carolinians were taking pause over the possibility of Charleston in ruins and federal soldiers in charge. The state indefinitely extended its February 1, 1833, deadline for abolishing the tariff, a major conciliation that showed a real desire for a compromise solution. In Washington, however, debates over the Force Bill brought tempers to such a pitch that many began to doubt that there was a solution to prevent Jackson’s irresistible force from catastrophically meeting nullification’s immovable object. Clay hastily weighed the chances for compromise, especially one undertaken against the active opposition of the administration. He did not have the votes.114

Worse, the emergency was making otherwise reliable friends behave unpredictably. Clay’s longtime ally Daniel Webster was suddenly attending dinners at the White House, supporting the provocative Force Bill, and joining manufacturing-state legislators to oppose tariff reductions. As Clay frantically sought allies in the deteriorating situation, the emergency also had the effect of finally forming a coalition of the most unlikely bedfellows. Henry Clay and the nationalists joined with John C. Calhoun and his extreme states’ rights faction. Although Calhoun’s people much preferred the Verplanck tariff to anything Clay might propose, the administration’s support of it made them reject it out of hand, for Calhoun was intent on depriving Jackson of any credit for solving this crisis. Webster’s rebuff forced Clay’s agents into conversations with Calhoun to arrange a meeting that some called Clay’s “great leap across the Potomac.” At odds for years and openly estranged since 1824, Clay and Calhoun at first sat in stilted silence, and once begun, their discussion proceeded in fits and starts. The possibility of federal bayonets flashing in Carolina, however, was a terrific incentive to let bygones, for a time, be bygones, and soon the two were making progress. Clay emerged from these discussions at last prepared to propose a compromise, because he was confident that Calhoun would support it. Clay could only pray that Calhoun would be enough.115

Meetings between moderate states’ rights men and moderate tariff proponents worked out the details, and Clay took the measure of his odd assortment of allies to compose a bill. On February 11, as the Senate braced for another long and contentious debate over the Force Bill, Clay gained the floor and stood stock-still as the murmuring chatter in the chamber fell to a hush. He announced that he would present a formal compromise proposal the following day. He sat down. Debate proceeded, but there was a palpable change in the chamber, a sense of many releasing a nervous sigh, eyes closed, whispering to themselves, At last.

Clay opened the day’s business on February 12. His proposal was decidedly different and far more drastic than the one he had begun drafting in Philadelphia in December. His earlier plan had been to leave all current duties in place until 1840. After that year, tariffs would have ceased their protective function and only generated revenue. Clay explained this new plan for several hours. He would lower duties beginning in 1834. The rates currently over 20 percent would be gradually reduced over the next six years to bring all down to a 20 percent ceiling by 1840. They and any rates below the 20 percent cap would remain frozen for two additional years. After 1842, the tariff would exclusively raise revenue. Rather than the Verplanck bill’s immediate reduction, gradual declines would allow manufacturers to prepare for disappearing protection.116

As Clay finished his presentation and asked “leave” to present his bill formally, administration supporters prepared to pounce, if only to keep Clay from gaining plaudits for breaking the impasse. Senator John Forsyth of Georgia objected to giving Clay “leave” to do anything, and Samuel Smith ground his axe from the clash the previous spring to lodge an objection as well. John Holmes of Maine exclaimed in frustration that never in his Senate career had he “heard an objection made to a motion of leave.” Jacksonian senators glowered across the aisle, ready to gain the floor and join the orchestrated plan to block Clay at the outset, but the chair recognized Calhoun. The gallery watched the South Carolinian rise from his desk. Clay’s eyes were on him, and the chamber fell suddenly silent, like a church in prayer. Calhoun slowly but firmly declared that he supported Clay’s motion. Spectators in the gallery were not aware that the two had made an arrangement. Now, as Calhoun spoke, they heard his words in amazement and immediately exploded into loud cheers, stamping, whistling, and raising such a noise that only the threat of eviction caused the celebration to end. Clay had seized the momentum from the administration. As Calhoun took his seat, Clay’s eyes were upon him.117

The work on compromise then began in earnest, and just as Clay suspected, the easy part of the process, while pleasantly dramatic, was over, and the difficult business of addressing specifics was just beginning. Clay was agreeably surprised that President Pro Tempore Hugh Lawson White appointed a congenial select committee to write the bill, made Clay its chairman, and resisted White House pressure to load it with administration supporters. Jackson and White were friends as well as fellow Tennesseans, but White was also highly principled and extremely alarmed over South Carolina’s defiance and Jackson’s promise of force. Not only did White ignore Jackson’s directive, he appointed staunch Clay ally John Clayton and Clay’s unexpected ally Calhoun to the committee. Jackson would never forgive White for this, but freed from exasperating obstructionism, the committee worked both swiftly and productively. It had to, because the Twenty-second Congress was due to adjourn on March 2.

Then Clayton tried to insert home valuation into the bill, and everything threatened to fall apart. Clayton wanted the value of imports to be set upon arrival in American ports rather than the usual practice of having valuation occur at the point of export. The change would not only give American customs officials control over the process, it would also mean higher tariff collections. Calhoun flatly said home valuation was unacceptable because it would raise the price of imports. He threatened to withdraw his support from the entire compromise, but Clayton was unyielding. Home valuation, he insisted, was the least Congress could do for manufacturers. Home valuation, insisted Calhoun, placed southern farmers in an even greater bind by jacking up prices in an overly protected market. Clayton lost the battle, for Calhoun was too valuable to be crossed, and the bill came out of committee without the offending proposal.118

Jackson refused to endorse the bill, but neither did he try to block it. In the end, he realized that Clay had lured all opponents, including him, into a game of brag in resolving this dispute. The apparent alliance between Clay and Calhoun, however fragile and opportunistic, also worried him. The most he could wring as a concession from Congress was the Force Bill, which Jackson insisted upon as the quid pro quo for Clay’s tariff. Clay shrank from placing that power in the president’s hands, but he also knew there was no point in cornering Andrew Jackson. Removing the tariff as a source of friction with South Carolina would eliminate the need for coercion, making the Force Bill wholly symbolic. Upon that rationale, Clay did not object to it as part of a compromise package.119

In the meantime, other predicaments arose quite unexpectedly. When the constitutional requirement that revenue measures must originate in the House troubled some senators, Clay coordinated a bit of procedural cunning that recalled his days as Speaker. He had the bill rushed over to Kentucky congressman Bob Letcher, who promptly gained the floor, ostensibly to propose an amendment to the Verplanck bill but actually to recommend replacing it with Clay’s compromise. The House was sick of debating its bill and was visibly relieved to pass Clay’s with a 119 to 85 vote. The bill hurtled back to the Senate. By then, night sessions had become the only way to complete the work, and it was late when the Force Bill came up for a vote. Clay rarely attended night sessions because the fumes from the Senate’s oil lamps made it difficult to breathe, but other reasons probably had more to do with his absence during the Force Bill vote. He was always able to make the truthful, if technical, claim that he had supported the compromise tariff without actually voting for the Force Bill.

Clay thus emerged from the crisis as a friend to the South by reducing the tariff and not voting for the Force Bill. Calhoun had reason to dispute Clay’s allegiance to southern interests, however. During the debates, Clay had waited for just the right moment to restore home valuation by way of an amendment. Calhoun sat smoldering, realizing that the wily Kentuckian had also lured him into a game of brag by waiting until the last minute to spring this change. Calhoun could either accept home valuation or scuttle the compromise and risk federal force in South Carolina. He ultimately voted for the tariff. As for Jackson, he signed both bills, though he made a point of signing the Force Bill first. Many southerners would never forget that bit of symbolism, and it immediately drove some from Jackson’s camp. Time and circumstance would place them in Clay’s, where they did not really belong philosophically and where they would eventually cause a great deal of confusion and trouble.120

Jackson did not sign a third piece of legislation from that congressional session. Clay had reintroduced his land revenue distribution bill in the Senate. As before, it proposed dividing revenue from the sale of public lands among the states according to population. In addition to providing money for state funding of internal improvements, Clay’s distribution plan would have prevented surpluses in the federal Treasury, making a tariff indispensable in generating needed revenue. The measure again passed the Senate, and this time around, the House as well. The roughly simultaneous passage of distribution and the Compromise of 1833 made the former erroneously seem a third element, along with the tariff and the Force Bill, of the legislative parcel. More than a few consequently thought that Jackson was obligated to sign the distribution bill in return for the Force Bill, and Congress wearily adjourned the day after sending him the bills. Jackson signed the tariff and the Force Bill. He pocket vetoed distribution.121

It was a small victory for Old Hickory, but Clay’s overall triumph was spectacular. Only four months earlier, he had lost the presidency in a humiliating landslide. Now he was being hailed as the nation’s savior. A few die-hard protectionists were bitter about his compromise tariff, but he could counter that Verplanck’s would have been worse. Jackson’s support of the Verplanck tariff indicated a willingness to abandon protection and alienate voters in manufacturing regions. Clay’s success also revived National Republican fortunes, while Jackson’s behavior left many southerners disenchanted with him and distrustful of his presidential power. A strange and loose coalition of Jackson’s old enemies and former friends grew out of the clashes over banking, the tariff, states’ rights, Indian removal, and nullification. Divergent interests saw something larger than a mere broker in Henry Clay as he fashioned the Compromise of 1833. Collaboration rather than quarrels could succeed in preventing bloodshed and preserving the Union. It was not the final time the Union in crisis would nervously wait for him to take the floor, listen to him with eyes closed, and sigh in relief, At last.122

ONE DAY IN mid-January, Clay had tried to lighten the mood in the Senate by introducing a petition from two fellow Kentuckians, Leonard Jones and Henry Banta. They were asking for a federal land grant “to extend and propagate their discovery” of eternal life. Jones and Banta, in fact, claimed they were living proof of that discovery. The Senate was already laughing as Clay admitted that he was presenting this petition to avoid risking its authors’ “endless enmity,” but as his colleagues and the gallery gradually realized his joke, the hilarity swelled, and even Clay’s opponents had to shake their heads, smiling. He could pull off that sort of thing with a flawless delivery, the sonority of his voice making the absurd sound plausible.123

Possibly John Randolph was there that day in the gallery. If so, he would have enjoyed the amusing scene. The years intervening between his duel with Clay and the winter of 1833 had been unkind to Randolph. In 1829, Old Hickory had sent him to Russia as U.S. minister, but his health soon forced him to come home. Dissipation and devolution became his principal companions as his incipient lunacy led to frequent episodes of outright madness. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1833, but he was in wretched health. If Randolph saw the amusing scene about everlasting life, it would have been ironic. He was dying.

Friends on at least one occasion did bring Randolph to the Senate gallery, which in those days was situated on the Senate floor just behind the members’ desks. Randolph looked ghastly and could only walk while grasping the arms of companions. He had resolved to leave Washington for England to restore his health, but he wanted to visit the Senate to “hear that voice once again.” He was talking about Henry Clay.

Randolph had his companions prop him up so that he could see Clay as well as hear him. When Clay finished speaking, he walked from the rows of desks into the gallery and stood next to Randolph’s chair. He quietly asked about Randolph’s health, and Randolph squeaked that he was “a dying man.” Clay laughed gently. The response was something of a Randolph trademark, a reply that for years had been his spontaneous retort to routine greetings. Randolph looked up at Clay and wheezed that he had come to the Senate just to see him, to hear him, one last time. Clay sat beside him and they spoke in low tones until Randolph motioned that he was tired and wanted to go. Clay took his hand. They did not need to say farewell to know it was good-bye.

Andrew Jackson’s plan to coerce South Carolina appalled John Randolph because he saw it as infringing on states’ rights. “There is one man, and one man only, who can save the Union—that man is Henry Clay,” John Randolph said.124 The irreversible descent continued as he traveled to Philadelphia. He talked of his famous duel with Clay, repeating that he would never have done anything to cause Lucretia or her children pain. On the other hand, Randolph sadly noted that nobody would have particularly cared if Clay had killed him, a sentiment he had brooded over for years. That April night before the duel in 1826, James Hamilton had listened to John Randolph say he could not bear to think of Lucretia and the children crying over Clay’s grave, “but when the sod of Virginia rests on my bosom, there is not one in this wide world, not one individual, to pay this tribute upon mine.”125

John Randolph died in Philadelphia on May 24, 1833. There were no heirs. His physical deformity would have made them out of the question even if he had ever found someone to marry him. His principal legacy consequently consisted of a handful of colorful quotations, an eccentric allegiance to antique Republicanism, a reputation for mad dissipation and relentless self-destruction, and a vacated plantation with a darkened tumbledown house, its fields full of weeds, its slaves emancipated by a will that also funded their passage to the free states. In a way, a less obvious but no less important legacy was Henry Clay, the only man John Randolph believed could save the Union. Because Randolph had held his pistol skyward that April afternoon seven years earlier, the Western Star lived. Lucretia Clay and her children had not suffered. The Union was safe. That was something worth remembering, something noble and good to cherish, as Randolph heard “that voice” one last time.

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