Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
By Carl Schurz (18291906)
[Born in Liblar, near Cologne, Germany, 1829. Died in New York, N. Y., 1906. Life of Henry Clay. 1888.]
HIS most potent faculty has left the most imperfect monuments behind it. He was without question the greatest parliamentary orator, and one of the greatest popular speakers, America has ever had. Webster excelled him in breadth of knowledge, in keenness of reasoning, in weight of argument, and in purity of diction. But Clay possessed in a far higher degree the true oratorical temperament,that force of nervous exaltation which makes the orator feel himself, and appear to others, a superior being, and almost irresistibly transfuses his thoughts, his passions, and his will into the mind and heart of the listener. Webster would instruct and convince and elevate, but Clay would overcome his audience. There could scarcely be a more striking proof of his power than the immediate effect we know his speeches to have produced upon those who heard them, compared with the impression of heavy tameness we receive when merely reading the printed reports.
In the elements, too, which make a man a leader, Clay was greatly the superior of Webster, as well as of all other contemporaries, excepting Andrew Jackson. He had not only in rare development the faculty of winning the affectionate devotion of men, but his personality imposed itself without an effort so forcibly upon others that they involuntarily looked to him for direction, waited for his decisive word before making up their minds, and not seldom yielded their better judgment to his will-power.
While this made him a very strong leader, he was not a safe guide. The rare brightness of his intellect and his fertile fancy served, indeed, to make himself and others forget his lack of accurate knowledge and studious thought; but these brilliant qualities could not compensate for his deficiency in that prudence and forecast which are required for the successful direction of political forces. His impulses were vehement, and his mind not well fitted for the patient analysis of complicated problems and of difficult political situations. His imagination frequently ran away with his understanding. His statesmanship had occasionally something of the oratorical character. Now and then he appeared to consider it as important whether a conception or a measure would sound well, as whether, if put into practice, it would work well. He disliked advice which differed from his preconceived opinions; and with his imperious temper and ardent combativeness he was apt, as in the struggle about the United States Bank, to put himself, and to hurry his party, into positions of great disadvantage. It is a remarkable fact that during his long career in Congress he was in more or less pronounced opposition to all administrations, even those of his own party, save that of Jefferson, under which he served only one short session in the Senate, and that of John Quincy Adams, of which he was a member .
On the other hand, he never sought to organize or strengthen his following by the arts of the patronage-monger. The thought that a political party should be held together by the public plunder, or that the party leader should be something like a paymaster of a body of henchmen at the public expense, or that a party contest should be a mere scramble for spoils, was entirely foreign to his mind, and far below the level of his patriotic aspirations.
It has been said that Clay was surrounded by a crowd of jobbers and speculators eager to turn his internal improvement and tariff policies to their private advantage. No doubt those policies attracted such persons to him. But there is no reason for suspecting that he was ever in the slightest degree pecuniarily interested in any scheme which might have been advanced by his political position or influence. In no sense was he a money-maker in politics. His integrity as a public man remained without blemish throughout his long career. He preserved an equally intact name in the conduct of his private affairs. In money-matters he was always a man of honor, maintaining the principles and the pride of a gentleman. The financial embarrassments which troubled his declining days were caused, not by reckless extravagance, nor by questionable speculations, but by the expenses inseparable from high public station and great renown, and by engagements undertaken for others, especially his sons. He was a kind husband, and an indulgent father. There is ample evidence of his warm solicitude as to the welfare of his children, of his constant readiness to assist them with his counsel, and of his self-sacrificing liberality in providing for their needs and in aiding them in their troubles .
The desire of so distinguished a political leader to be President was natural and legitimate. Even had he cherished it less ardently, his followers would have more than once pushed him forward. But no one can study Clays career without feeling that he would have been a happier and a greater man if he had never coveted the glittering prize. When such an ambition becomes chronic, it will be but too apt to unsettle the character and darken the existence of those afflicted with it by confusing their appreciation of all else. As Cæsar said that the kind of death most to be desired was a sudden one, so the American statesman may think himself fortunate to whom a nomination for the presidency comes, if at all, without a long agony of hope and fear. During a period of thirty years, from the time when he first aspired to be Monroes successor until 1848, Clay unceasingly hunted the shadow whose capture would probably have added nothing either to his usefulness or his fame, but the pursuit of which made his public life singularly restless and unsatisfactory to himself. Nor did he escape from the suspicion of having occasionally modified the expression of his opinions according to supposed exigencies of availability. The peculiar tone of his speech against the Abolitionists before the campaign of 1840, his various letters on the annexation of Texas in 1844, and some equivocations on other subjects during the same period, illustrated the weakening influence of the presidential candidate upon the man; and even his oft-quoted word that he would rather be right than be President was spoken at a time when he was more desirous of being President than sure of being right .
Whatever Clays weaknesses of character and errors in statesmanship may have been, almost everything he said or did was illumined by a grand conception of the destinies of his country, a glowing national spirit, a lofty patriotism. Whether he thundered against British tyranny on the seas, or urged the recognition of the South American sister republics, or attacked the high-handed conduct of the military chieftain in the Florida war, or advocated protection and internal improvements, or assailed the one-man power and spoils politics in the person of Andrew Jackson, or entreated for compromise and conciliation regarding the tariff or slavery; whether what he advocated was wise or unwise right or wrong,there was always ringing through his words a fervid plea for his country, a zealous appeal in behalf of the honor and the future greatness and glory of the Republic, or an anxious warning lest the Union, and with it the greatness and glory of the American people, be put in jeopardy. It was a just judgment which he pronounced upon himself when he wrote: If any one desires to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of this Union will furnish him the key.