The Writings of Abraham Lincoln Vol. 1-7

Mr. Clay’s eloquence did not consist, as many fine specimens of
eloquence do, of types and figures, of antithesis and elegant
arrangement of words and sentences, but rather of that deeply
earnest and impassioned tone and manner which can proceed only
from great sincerity, and a thorough conviction in the speaker of
the justice and importance of his cause. This it is that truly
touches the chords of sympathy; and those who heard Mr. Clay
never failed to be moved by it, or ever afterward forgot the
impression. All his efforts were made for practical effect. He
never spoke merely to be heard. He never delivered a Fourth of
July oration, or a eulogy on an occasion like this. As a
politician or statesman, no one was so habitually careful to
avoid all sectional ground. Whatever he did he did for the whole
country. In the construction of his measures, he ever carefully
surveyed every part of the field, and duly weighed every
conflicting interest. Feeling as he did, and as the truth surely
is, that the world’s best hope depended on the continued union of
these States, he was ever jealous of and watchful for whatever
might have the slightest tendency to separate them.

Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep
devotion to the cause of human liberty–a strong sympathy with
the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation.
With him this was a primary and all-controlling passion.
Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. He loved
his country partly because it was his own country, and mostly
because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its
advancement, prosperity, and glory, because he saw in such the
advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty, human right,
and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen,
partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to
the world that free men could be prosperous.

That his views and measures were always the wisest needs not to
be affirmed; nor should it be on this occasion, where so many
thinking differently join in doing honor to his memory. A free
people in times of peace and quiet when pressed by no common
danger-naturally divide into parties. At such times the man who
is of neither party is not, cannot be, of any consequence. Mr.
Clay therefore was of a party. Taking a prominent part, as he
did, in all the great political questions of his country for the
last half century, the wisdom of his course on many is doubted
and denied by a large portion of his countrymen; and of such it
is not now proper to speak particularly. But there are many
others, about his course upon which there is little or no
disagreement amongst intelligent and patriotic Americans. Of
these last are the War of 1812, the Missouri question,
nullification, and the now recent compromise measures. In 1812
Mr. Clay, though not unknown, was still a young man. Whether we
should go to war with Great Britain being the question of the
day, a minority opposed the declaration of war by Congress, while
the majority, though apparently inclined to war, had for years
wavered, and hesitated to act decisively. Meanwhile British
aggressions multiplied, and grew more daring and aggravated. By
Mr. Clay more than any other man the struggle was brought to a
decision in Congress. The question, being now fully before
Congress, came up in a variety of ways in rapid succession, on
most of which occasions Mr. Clay spoke. Adding to all the logic
of which the subject was susceptible that noble inspiration which
came to him as it came to no other, he aroused and nerved and
inspired his friends, and confounded and bore down all
opposition. Several of his speeches on these occasions were
reported and are still extant, but the best of them all never
was. During its delivery the reporters forgot their vocation,
dropped their pens, and sat enchanted from near the beginning to
quite the close. The speech now lives only in the memory of a
few old men, and the enthusiasm with which they cherish their
recollection of it is absolutely astonishing. The precise
language of this speech we shall never know; but we do know we
cannot help knowing–that with deep pathos it pleaded the cause
of the injured sailor, that it invoked the genius of the
Revolution, that it apostrophized the names of Otis, of Henry,
and of Washington, that it appealed to the interests, the pride,
the honor, and the glory of the nation, that it shamed and
taunted the timidity of friends, that it scorned and scouted and
withered the temerity of domestic foes, that it bearded and
defied the British lion, and, rising and swelling and maddening
in its course, it sounded the onset, till the charge, the shock,
the steady struggle, and the glorious victory all passed in vivid
review before the entranced hearers.

Important and exciting as was the war question of 1812, it never
so alarmed the sagacious statesmen of the country for the safety
of the Republic as afterward did the Missouri question. This
sprang from that unfortunate source of discord–negro slavery.
When our Federal Constitution was adopted, we owned no territory
beyond the limits or ownership of the States, except the
territory northwest of the River Ohio and east of the
Mississippi. What has since been formed into the States of
Maine, Kentucky and Tennessee, was, I believe, within the limits
of or owned by Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina. As
to the Northwestern Territory, provision had been made even
before the adoption of the Constitution that slavery should never
go there. On the admission of States into the Union, carved from
the territory we owned before the Constitution, no question, or
at most no considerable question, arose about slavery–those
which were within the limits of or owned by the old States
following respectively the condition of the parent State, and
those within the Northwest Territory following the previously
made provision. But in 1803 we purchased Louisiana of the
French, and it included with much more what has since been formed
into the State of Missouri. With regard to it, nothing had been
done to forestall the question of slavery. When, therefore, in
1819, Missouri, having formed a State constitution without
excluding slavery, and with slavery already actually existing
within its limits, knocked at the door of the Union for
admission, almost the entire representation of the non-
slaveholding States objected. A fearful and angry struggle
instantly followed. This alarmed thinking men more than any
previous question, because, unlike all the former, it divided the
country by geographical lines. Other questions had their
opposing partisans in all localities of the country and in almost
every family, so that no division of the Union could follow such
without a separation of friends to quite as great an extent as
that of opponents. Not so with the Missouri question. On this a
geographical line could be traced, which in the main would
separate opponents only. This was the danger. Mr. Jefferson,
then in retirement, wrote:

“I had for a long time ceased to read newspapers or to pay any
attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands
and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which
I am not distant. But this momentous question, like a firebell
in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered
it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed, indeed, for
the moment. But this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.
A geographical line coinciding with a marked principle, moral and
political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of
men, will never be obliterated, and every irritation will mark it
deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is
not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would to
relieve us from this heavy reproach in any practicable way.

“The cession of that kind of property–for it is so misnamed–is
a bagatelle which would not cost me a second thought if in that
way a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected,
and gradually and with due sacrifices I think it might be. But
as it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold
him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-
preservation in the other.”

Mr. Clay was in Congress, and, perceiving the danger, at once
engaged his whole energies to avert it. It began, as I have
said, in 1819 ; and it did not terminate till 1821. Missouri
would not yield the point; and Congress that is, a majority in
Congress–by repeated votes showed a determination not to admit
the State unless it should yield. After several failures, and
great labor on the part of Mr. Clay to so present the question
that a majority could consent to the admission, it was by a vote
rejected, and, as all seemed to think, finally. A sullen gloom
hung over the nation. All felt that the rejection of Missouri
was equivalent to a dissolution of the Union, because those
States which already had what Missouri was rejected for refusing
to relinquish would go with Missouri. All deprecated and
deplored this, but none saw how to avert it. For the judgment of
members to be convinced of the necessity of yielding was not the
whole difficulty; each had a constituency to meet and to answer
to. Mr. Clay, though worn down and exhausted, was appealed to by
members to renew his efforts at compromise. He did so, and by
some judicious modifications of his plan, coupled with laborious
efforts with individual members and his own overmastering
eloquence upon that floor, he finally secured the admission of
the State. Brightly and captivating as it had previously shown,
it was now perceived that his great eloquence was a mere
embellishment, or at most but a helping hand to his inventive
genius and his devotion to his country in the day of her extreme

After the settlement of the Missouri question, although a portion
of the American people have differed with Mr. Clay, and a
majority even appear generally to have been opposed to him on
questions of ordinary administration, he seems constantly to have
been regarded by all as the man for the crisis. Accordingly, in
the days of nullification, and more recently in the reappearance
of the slavery question connected with our territory newly
acquired of Mexico, the task of devising a mode of adjustment
seems to have been cast upon Mr. Clay by common consent–and his
performance of the task in each case was little else than a
literal fulfilment of the public expectation.

Mr. Clay’s efforts in behalf of the South Americans, and
afterward in behalf of the Greeks, in the times of their
respective struggles for civil liberty, are among the finest on
record, upon the noblest of all themes, and bear ample
corroboration of what I have said was his ruling passion–a love
of liberty and right, unselfishly, and for their own sakes.

Having been led to allude to domestic slavery so frequently
already, I am unwilling to close without referring more
particularly to Mr. Clay’s views and conduct in regard to it. He
ever was on principle and in feeling opposed to slavery. The
very earliest, and one of the latest, public efforts of his life,
separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both made in
favor of gradual emancipation. He did not perceive that on a
question of human right the negroes were to be excepted from the
human race. And yet Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. Cast into
life when slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he
did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it
could be at once eradicated without producing a greater evil even
to the cause of human liberty itself. His feeling and his
judgment, therefore, ever led him to oppose both extremes of
opinion on the subject. Those who would shiver into fragments
the Union of these States, tear to tatters its now venerated
Constitution, and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather
than slavery should continue a single hour, together with all
their more halting sympathizers, have received, and are
receiving, their just execration; and the name and opinions and
influence of Mr. Clay are fully and, as I trust, effectually and
enduringly arrayed against them. But I would also, if I could,
array his name, opinions, and influence against the opposite
extreme–against a few but an increasing number of men who, for
the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and to
ridicule the white man’s charter of freedom, the declaration that
“all men are created free and equal.” So far as I have learned,
the first American of any note to do or attempt this was the late
John C. Calhoun; and if I mistake not, it soon after found its
way into some of the messages of the Governor of South Carolina.
We, however, look for and are not much shocked by political
eccentricities and heresies in South Carolina. But only last
year I saw with astonishment what purported to be a letter of a
very distinguished and influential clergyman of Virginia, copied,
with apparent approbation, into a St. Louis newspaper,
containing the following to me very unsatisfactory language:

“I am fully aware that there is a text in some Bibles that is not
in mine. Professional abolitionists have made more use of it
than of any passage in the Bible. It came, however, as I trace
it, from Saint Voltaire, and was baptized by Thomas Jefferson,
and since almost universally regarded as canonical authority`All
men are born free and equal.’

“This is a genuine coin in the political currency of our
generation. I am sorry to say that I have never seen two men of
whom it is true. But I must admit I never saw the Siamese Twins,
and therefore will not dogmatically say that no man ever saw a
proof of this sage aphorism.”

This sounds strangely in republican America. The like was not
heard in the fresher days of the republic. Let us contrast with
it the language of that truly national man whose life and death
we now commemorate and lament: I quote from a speech of Mr. Clay
delivered before the American Colonization Society in 1827:

” We are reproached with doing mischief by the agitation of this
question. The society goes into no household to disturb its
domestic tranquillity. It addresses itself to no slaves to
weaken their obligations of obedience. It seeks to affect no
man’s property. It neither has the power nor the will to affect
the property of any one contrary to his consent. The execution
of its scheme would augment instead of diminishing the value of
property left behind. The society, composed of free men,
conceals itself only with the free. Collateral consequences we
are not responsible for. It is not this society which has
produced the great moral revolution which the age exhibits. What
would they who thus reproach us have done? If they would
repress all tendencies toward liberty and ultimate emancipation,
they must do more than put down the benevolent efforts of this
society. They must go back to the era of our liberty and
independence, and muzzle the cannon which thunders its annual
joyous return. They must renew the slave trade, with all its
train of atrocities. They must suppress the workings of British
philanthropy, seeking to meliorate the condition of the
unfortunate West Indian slave. They must arrest the career of
South American deliverance from thraldom. They must blow out the
moral lights around us and extinguish that greatest torch of all
which America presents to a benighted world–pointing the way to
their rights, their liberties, and their happiness. And when
they have achieved all those purposes their work will be yet
incomplete. They must penetrate the human soul, and eradicate
the light of reason and the love of liberty. Then, and not till
then, when universal darkness and despair prevail, can you
perpetuate slavery and repress all sympathy and all humane and
benevolent efforts among free men in behalf of the unhappy
portion of our race doomed to bondage.”

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