Henry Clay – The Great Compromiser, Part 3

Henry Clay

In 1832, Henry Clay made another try for the White House. He had succeeded John Quincy Adams as leader of the National Republican Party after Adams was defeated in 1828. Clay returned to the Senate in March 1831 and quickly took the lead in opposing President Andrew Jackson and his newly formed Democratic Party.

Andrew Jackson was a military hero of the War of 1812 and the Battle of New Orleans. Clay knew he could never defeat Jackson in a race of personality or personal popularity, so Clay needed an issue on which to focus his campaign. He chose as his issue the controversy surrounding the Bank of the United States. Jackson and the Democrats opposed the Bank, believing it benefited the rich at the expense of the common man. The Bank’s charter was due to expire in 1836, but Clay convinced Bank president Nicholas Biddle to apply for a new charter four years early, in 1832.

Congress passed the Bank bill and, as Clay knew he would, Jackson vetoed it. Clay now had his issue for the election of 1832. The National Republicans circulated Jackson’s veto message, but it backfired on them. The people approved of Jackson’s position, which pictured the Bank as a tool of the wealthy aristocracy. He called the paper money the Bank printed “rag money” and called for only silver and gold to be used as tender, as called for in the Constitution.

The National Republicans never had much of a chance, because regardless of Jackson and Clay trying to avoid personalities, Jackson was still very popular and many of the voters didn’t care about the Bank issue. Jackson won easily, 219 electoral votes to 49 for Clay. Clay continued to lead the National Republicans, which soon became the Whigs, in the Senate.

South Carolina, angered by the Tariff of 1828 (called the Tariff of Abominations in the South because of the high duties it placed on goods the South had to import) and an even higher tariff bill in 1832, threatened to nullify the 1832 tariff. (A tariff is a tax on imports which was the main source of revenue for the federal government, and was sometimes used to protect home industries by making imports cost more. The North tended to favor high, protective tariffs, and the South favored much lower tariffs for revenue only.) South Carolina passed the South Carolina Exposition, which declared the 1832 tariff null and void in South Carolina. Jackson’s fiery Vice President, John Calhoun of South Carolina, secretly authored the resolution. Now a lame duck (a politician finishing the end of his term after having not been re-elected), Calhoun became the first Vice President to resign in December 1832 in order to take a seat in the Senate from South Carolina.

South Carolina threatened to use force to prevent the tariff from being enforced in that state, and Jackson vowed to use force to enforce federal laws in South Carolina. He even promised to lead the troops personally. Speaking of the nullifiers, Jackson promised to “hang the first man of them I can get my hands on to the first tree I can find.” South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union if force was used, and Jackson called disunion by force treason. To avoid violence, Clay worked out a compromise tariff that satisfied both sides. Under the Compromise of 1833, or the Tariff of 1833, the Tariff of 1832 would remain in force, but tariff rates would be reduced each year for ten years. This compromise defused the situation for the time being and gained Clay renewed national fame and respect, but it did not settle the issue of nullification. It merely postponed the showdown.

After the election of 1832, Jackson took his overwhelming re-election as a mandate on the bank issue. He felt the people had voted their disapproval of the Bank, which he had intended to leave alone until its charter ran out in 1836. But now, he decided to kill the Bank. He prevented any further deposit of federal funds in the Bank, and ordered his Secretary of the Treasury to remove all federal funds. When his Secretary of the Treasury told him it was illegal, he fired the man. He did the same to the next Secretary of the Treasury when he also refused to remove federal funds from the Bank. He then appointed his Attorney General as interim Secretary of the Treasury. (An interim appointment is made when Congress is not in session, subject to Senate approval upon its return.) This interim Secretary of the Treasury, Roger Taney, did remove the funds.

When the Senate returned, they refused to confirm Taney, and the position was again vacant. In addition, led by Clay, the Senate passed a resolution of censure against Jackson calling his actions a tyrannical abuse of executive power.

Clay knew that Jackson was still enormously popular, and that he could appoint his own successor in 1836. Jackson secured the Presidential nomination for his Vice President, Martin Van Buren. Clay, knowing that Van Buren would win with Jackson’s support, did not seek the Whig nomination in 1836. Van Buren was elected, and was President when the Panic of 1837 brought on the first economic depression in our history. The Panic of 1837 was largely the result of Jackson’s and Van Buren’s policies in ending the Bank of the United States and the centralized financial control it exercised.

In 1840, Clay again sought the Whig nomination, but lost to General William Henry Harrison. The Whigs had decided to take a page out of the Democratic campaign book and nominated a popular war hero. Clay complained to his friends that when they had no chance, his supporters turned to him for help. But when virtually guaranteed a victory, they forgot about him.

Harrison was elected, and offered Clay a cabinet position, but Clay declined feeling he could run the country as the leader of the Senate. Clay antagonized the new President, and Harrison felt Clay was arrogant and presumptuous, and finally told him, “Mr. Clay, you forget that I am President.”

After a month, Harrison died and Clay’s friend John Tyler became President. Clay looked forward to better relations with the White House, but Tyler also found Clay arrogant and presumptuous. When Clay got Congress to pass his bill chartering another Bank of the United States, Tyler vetoed it. Clay, keeping his cool, passed another version, this one a compromise taking some of Tyler’s views into consideration. When Tyler vetoed the second Bank bill, Clay resigned from the Senate in protest and focused his entire energy on the election of 1844.

It was in the 1844 election that Clay came closest to winning what he most wanted, the Presidency of the United States. As the election approached, everyone assumed the two candidates would be former President Van Buren for the Democrats, and Henry Clay for the Whigs. The main issue was the annexation of Texas, which would immediately risk a war with Mexico and once again open the slavery issue. Both Clay and Van Buren agreed not to raise the Texas issue, but this agreement was meaningless as Van Buren lost the Democratic nomination to James K. Polk. Polk had come out squarely in favor of annexation, while Van Buren tried to avoid a definite stand but was eventually pinned down as being opposed. This left Clay running against a candidate taking a strong stand in favor of annexation of Texas, and territorial expansion in general. It would be a very close race.

In the next article, we will follow the exciting campaign of 1844, and the dramatic final episode of Henry Clay’s amazing career.