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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
From the Lexington ‘Speech on Retirement to Private Life’
By Henry Clay (1777–1852)
 
IT would neither be fitting, nor is it my purpose, to pass judgment on all the acts of my public life; but I hope I shall be excused for one or two observations which the occasion appears to me to authorize.  1
  I never but once changed my opinion on any great measure of national policy, or on any great principle of construction of the national Constitution. In early life, on deliberate consideration, I adopted the principles of interpreting the federal Constitution which have been so ably developed and enforced by Mr. Madison in his memorable report to the Virginia Legislature; and to them, as I understood them, I have constantly adhered. Upon the question coming up in the Senate of the United States to re-charter the first Bank of the United States, thirty years ago, I opposed the re-charter upon convictions which I honestly entertained. The experience of the war which shortly followed, the condition into which the currency of the country was thrown without a bank, and I may now add, later and more disastrous experience, convinced me I was wrong. I publicly stated to my constituents, in a speech in Lexington (that which I made in the House of Representatives of the United States not having been reported), my reasons for that change, and they are preserved in the archives of the country. I appeal to that record, and I am willing to be judged now and hereafter by their validity.  2
  I do not advert to the fact of this solitary instance of change of opinion as implying any personal merit, but because it is a fact. I will however say that I think it very perilous to the utility of any public man to make frequent changes of opinion, or any change, but upon grounds so sufficient and palpable that the public can clearly see and approve them. If we could look through a window into the human breast and there discover the causes which led to changes of opinion, they might be made without hazard. But as it is impossible to penetrate the human heart and distinguish between the sinister and honest motives which prompt it, any public man that changes his opinion, once deliberately formed and promulgated, under other circumstances than those which I have stated, draws around him distrust, impairs the public confidence, and lessens his capacity to serve his country.  3
  I will take this occasion now to say, that I am and have been long satisfied that it would have been wiser and more politic in me to have declined accepting the office of Secretary of State in 1825. Not that my motives were not as pure and as patriotic as ever carried any man into public office. Not that the calumny which was applied to the fact was not as gross and as unfounded as any that was ever propagated. Not that valued friends and highly esteemed opponents did not unite in urging my acceptance of the office. Not that the administration of Mr. Adams will not, I sincerely believe, advantageously compare with any of his predecessors, in economy, purity, prudence, and wisdom. Not that Mr. Adams was himself wanting in any of those high qualifications and upright and patriotic intentions which were suited to the office….  4
  But my error in accepting the office arose out of my under-rating the power of detraction and the force of ignorance, and abiding with too sure a confidence in the conscious integrity and uprightness of my own motives. Of that ignorance I had a remarkable and laughable example on an occasion which I will relate. I was traveling in 1828 through—I believe it was Spottsylvania County in Virginia, on my return to Washington, in company with some young friends. We halted at night at a tavern, kept by an aged gentleman who, I quickly perceived from the disorder and confusion which reigned, had not the happiness to have a wife. After a hurried and bad supper the old gentleman sat down by me, and without hearing my name, but understanding that I was from Kentucky, remarked that he had four sons in that State, and that he was very sorry they were divided in politics, two being for Adams and two for Jackson; he wished they were all for Jackson. “Why?” I asked him.—“Because,” he said, “that fellow Clay, and Adams, had cheated Jackson out of the Presidency.”—“Have you ever seen any evidence, my old friend,” said I, “of that?”—“No,” he replied, “none,” and he wanted to see none. “But,” I observed, looking him directly and steadily in the face, “suppose Mr. Clay were to come here and assure you upon his honor that it was all a vile calumny, and not a word of truth in it, would you believe him?”—“No,” replied the old gentleman, promptly and emphatically. I said to him in conclusion, “Will you be good enough to show me to bed?” and bade him good-night. The next morning, having in the interval learned my name, he came to me full of apologies; but I at once put him at his ease by assuring him that I did not feel in the slightest degree hurt or offended with him….  5
  If to have served my country during a long series of years with fervent zeal and unshaken fidelity, in seasons of peace and war, at home and abroad, in the legislative halls and in an executive department; if to have labored most sedulously to avert the embarrassment and distress which now overspread this Union, and when they came, to have exerted myself anxiously at the extra session, and at this, to devise healing remedies; if to have desired to introduce economy and reform in the general administration, curtail enormous executive power, and amply provide at the same time for the wants of the government and the wants of the people, by a tariff which would give it revenue and then protection; if to have earnestly sought to establish the bright but too rare example of a party in power faithful to its promises and pledges made when out of power: if these services, exertions, and endeavors justify the accusation of ambition, I must plead guilty to the charge.  6
  I have wished the good opinion of the world; but I defy the most malignant of my enemies to show that I have attempted to gain it by any low or groveling arts, by any mean or unworthy sacrifices, by the violation of any of the obligations of honor, or by a breach of any of the duties which I owed to my country….  7
  How is this right of the people to abolish an existing government, and to set up a new one, to be practically exercised? Our revolutionary ancestors did not tell us by words, but they proclaimed it by gallant and noble deeds. Who are the people that are to tear up the whole fabric of human society, whenever and as often as caprice or passion may prompt them? When all the arrangements and ordinances of existing organized society are prostrated and subverted, as must be supposed in such a lawless and irregular movement as that in Rhode Island, the established privileges and distinctions between the sexes, between the colors, between the ages, between natives and foreigners, between the sane and the insane, and between the innocent and the guilty convict, all the offspring of positive institutions, are cast down and abolished, and society is thrown into one heterogeneous and unregulated mass. And is it contended that the major part of this Babel congregation is invested with the right to build up at its pleasure a new government? that as often, and whenever, society can be drummed up and thrown into such a shapeless mass, the major part of it may establish another and another new government in endless succession? Why, this would overturn all social organization, make revolutions—the extreme and last resort of an oppressed people—the commonest occurrences of human life, and the standing order of the day. How such a principle would operate in a certain section of this Union, with a peculiar population, you will readily conceive. No community could endure such an intolerable state of things anywhere, and all would sooner or later take refuge from such ceaseless agitation in the calm repose of absolute despotism….  8
  Fellow-citizens of all parties! The present situation of our country is one of unexampled distress and difficulty; but there is no occasion for any despondency. A kind and bountiful Providence has never deserted us; punished us he perhaps has, for our neglect of his blessings and our misdeeds. We have a varied and fertile soil, a genial climate, and free institutions. Our whole land is covered in profusion with the means of subsistence and the comforts of life. Our gallant ship, it is unfortunately true, lies helpless, tossed on a tempestuous sea amid the conflicting billows of contending parties, without a rudder and without a faithful pilot. But that ship is our country, embodying all our past glory, all our future hopes. Its crew is our whole people, by whatever political denomination they are known. If she goes down, we all go down together. Let us remember the dying words of the gallant and lamented Lawrence, “Don’t give up the ship.” The glorious banner of our country, with its unstained stars and stripes, still proudly floats at its mast-head. With stout hearts and strong arms we can surmount all our difficulties. Let us all, all, rally round that banner, and finally resolve to perpetuate our liberties and regain our lost prosperity.  9
  Whigs! Arouse from the ignoble supineness which encompasses you; awake from the lethargy in which you lie bound; cast from you that unworthy apathy which seems to make you indifferent to the fate of your country. Arouse! awake! shake off the dewdrops that glitter on your garments, and once more march to battle and to victory. You have been disappointed, deceived, betrayed; shamefully deceived and betrayed. But will you therefore also prove false and faithless to your country, or obey the impulses of a just and patriotic indignation? As for Captain Tyler, he is a mere snap, a flash in the pan; pick your Whig flints and try your rifles again.  10
 
 
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