Henry Clay and the Coffin

We left off with the Gold Rush giving California urgent need of government, with New Mexico (then everything east of modern California and west of modern Texas, plus area Texas then claimed) in a similar, if nowhere near so extreme, state. To resolve the problem, the lame duck Polk administration proposed to the lame duck Congress governments for each area, as territories, and settling the slavery question by extending the Missouri Compromise line to the ocean.

Polk’s own Secretary of State, James Buchanan, had just lost the Democratic nomination on the Missouri Compromise line, so I don’t know who Polk thought would agree to that. Fistfights erupted in the House and Senate. Southerners shouted for secession. In the House, the Northern majority put forward the Wilmot Proviso and a territorial bill for a consequently free California. They also passed a resolution to ban the slave trade, but not slaveholding itself, in Washington. They thought about going that one extra step, long sought by abolitionists, but lacked the votes.

Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser

Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser

In the Senate, Kentucky’s Henry Clay stood to speak. Clay retired after not getting his party’s nomination in 1848 but returned to the Senate less than a year later. For decades one of the nation’s most prominent, powerful politicians, the Whig leader and perennial presidential candidate saw the Missouri Compromise passed. He negotiated the end of the Nullification Crisis. He favored expansion but opposed Texas annexation and the Mexican War, where he lost a son. The hemp planter from Kentucky owned sixty slaves but also founded the American Colonization Society to remove free blacks and slaves to Liberia. Aside slavery, Clay made John Quincy Adams president in 1824 and, while in the House, transformed the Speakership from a chiefly disciplinary role into the second most powerful office in the land.

Born during the revolution and first sitting as a Senator in 1806, a few months before he reached the required thirtieth year, the Great Compromiser stood to present one last compromise. As he did he held up a piece of wood that he told the Senate came from George Washington’s coffin. He had it from a supporter of his bid to have the government buy Mount Vernon. Short of a piece of the man himself, what more patriotic relic could an American politician have as a prop? Would slavery tear the nation the pieces? Would it undo the work of his father’s generation and bury it next to the sainted Washington? No. In its darkest hour the Great Compromiser, seventy-two and sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him, returned to save the Union one last time.

Clay put forward eight resolutions he drafted in late January in consultation with Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster, who had just as storied a history. After four years of nearly constant strife, it could all finally end with the Union saved. Clay aimed for the stars: “to settle and adjust amicably all existing questions of controversy between [the states], arising out of the institution of slavery, upon a fair, equitable, and just basis.” The Great Compromiser would make a permanent settlement on slavery his gift to posterity.

Clay lived those compromises himself as a slaveholder who supported restrictions on slavery and called it, years after such statements fell out of fashion, a temporary evil that could one day be gone. While Clay prevailed on Missouri and Nullification, he lost on Texas and Mexico and so would not come with the swagger of a constant victor. Representing Border State Kentucky, Clay’s career did not rest in the hands of proslavery absolutists who prevailed in the Deep South but rather with voters and fellow politicians who had a history of breaking with them. If anybody in America could save the Union in 1850, Henry Clay could.

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