The Presidential Elections of Henry Clay

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Henry Clay was a major candidate on three unsuccessful occasions, promoting his American System against Andrew Jackson and the Democrats.

Clay always thought nationally. He was a leading War Hawk in the legislature during the War of 1812. In 1820, he came up with the Missouri Compromise to cool down sectional hatred over slavery. He also formulated his American System, which aimed to economically unify and strengthen the country through a national bank, internal improvements, and protective tariffs. Clay had become an attractive presidential candidate by 1824.

1824 Corrupt Bargain

On the heels of the Financial Panic of 1819, the 1824 Presidential Election pitted four candidates: Clay, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William Crawford. Clay, the candidate of the West but seen by some as part of the corrupt eastern elite, finished fourth in the electoral college. No candidate had the required majority and the election was thrown to the House of Representatives, which would decide between the top three.

But Clay was still a factor. Thanks to House Speaker Clay lining up support, Adams won the election. A short time later, Adams nominated Clay for Secretary of State. When details of a private meeting between Adams and Clay came out, popular vote winner Jackson and his supporters cried “corrupt bargain!” Whether a deal was worked out is not clear, but Adams shared Clay’s national economic outlook.

1832 Bank Recharter

The Corrupt Bargain motivated the Jacksonians to defeat Adams in 1828. A coalition against President Jackson developed, calling themselves “National Republicans.” Clay was nominated by them for president in 1832. Sensing the nation favored the Bank of the United States, Clay decided to push through Congress a B.U.S. recharter bill four years early. With support from B.U.S. president Nicholas Biddle, Clay hoped this would pressure anti-bank Jackson to accept recharter during a national campaign.

The strategy backfired. Jackson vetoed the recharter bill and included a stirring veto message that condemned the B.U.S. as unconstitutional and as a despotic monopoly. According to historian Sean Wilentz, the message captured the public’s imagination- it was proof that Jackson was the people’s defender. Biddle used enormous resources on behalf of Clay, including reprinting 30,000 copies of the veto message before realizing it was popular. But Clay was crushed by Jackson 219-49 in the electoral college.

1844 Texas Annexation

Twelve years later, Clay still clung to his American System. Unanimously nominated by the Whigs, Clay believed the election hinged on economic or banking issues, according to Daniel Walker Howe. But the bickering Democrats, at their convention in Baltimore, united behind Jackson’s former lieutenant in the House, James K. Polk, and the issue of American annexation of Texas.

Clay warned, in his “Raleigh Letter” of April 17, that Texas annexation would bring war with Mexico and instigate sectional conflict. Later, seeing that his opposition to annexation was hurting him in the south, Clay’s “Second Alabama Letter” stated that he approved Texas annexation provided it could be done without dishonor or war. The equivocation harmed Clay in a close election, chasing northern abolitionists to the Liberty Party. Polk won the electoral college 170-105.

In his failed pursuit of the presidency, Clay was devoted to his American System. Already tainted by the so-called Corrupt Bargain, he used the national bank recharter as the center of his campaign in 1832, only to be foiled by Jackson’s populist veto. Then in 1844, the Democrats shifted from the issue of banking to Texas, pulling Clay from his core issues. The bottom line was, the majority of Americans did not embrace the American System.

Sources:

  1. Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought, Oxford: New York, 2007.
  2. Wilentz, Sean, The Rise of American Democracy, Norton: New York, 2005.