CLAY, Henry (1777-1852), American Statesman. Autograph letter signed ("H Clay") to Philip S. Galpin, Joseph F. Babcock and Thomas R. Trowbridge, Ashland, [KY], 17 December 1844. 3½ pages, 4to, in very fine condition, quarter red morocco slipcase.
CLAY'S ELOQUENT PROFESSION OF THE AMERICAN SYSTEM IN THE WAKE OF HIS DEFEAT IN THE ELECTION OF 1844
A superb Clay letter offering an unusually detailed statement of Whig principles and goals penned only a month after his third and final attempt to gain the presidency. Henry Clay rose to prominence in Washington promoting a political agenda which became known as the American System, much of which ultimately was incorporated in the Whig Party platform. After his election defeat at the hands of James Polk who ran upon an expansionist platform, Clay responds to an endorsement from a Whig delegation in New Haven, Connecticut: "The particular spirit, manifest in the whole of them, is worthy of Connecticut, worthy of its renowned seat of learning [Yale], and worthy of the Whig cause...I share with you, gentlemen, in regrets on account of the unexpected issue of the recent election." Defeated in part by an anti-tariff sentiment in the nation, Clay promptly criticizes the recent political fluctuation on the critical issue of protection: "The Southern and Southwestern portions of the Union had been reproached at the North for want of sufficient interest and sympathy in its welfare. Yielding to the joint influence of their own reflections and experience, the Slave States were fast subscribing to the justice and expediency of a Tariff for Revenue, with discriminations for protection. At such an auspicious moment, instead of cordially meeting the Slave States and placing the principle of protection upon impregnable and durable ground, a sufficient number of the Free States, to be decisive of the contest, abandoned what was believed to be their own cherished policy and have aided, if not in its total subversion, in exposing it to imminent hazard and uncertainty." Clay laments the failure to establish a strong tariff: "Discouragement has taken the place of confidence...enterprise is checked, and no one knows to what employment he can now safely direct his exertions. Instead of a constantly augmenting home market, we are in danger of experiencing its decline, at a time when the foreign market is absolutely glutted with American productions. Cotton especially, which is now selling at a lower price than was ever before known...The final and not distant result will be, especially if large importations shall be stimulated by low duties, a drain of the Specie of the Country, with all its train of terrible consequences." Acknowledging a second pillar of his American System, increasing the selling price of western lands to supplement revenues for the Government, Clay notes that such a policy would have proven favorable: "If the cause of the Whigs had triumphed, the distributions of the proceeds of the sales of the public lands would have been secured, and that great national inheritance would have been preserved for the benefit of the present and future generations."
Clay offers a grandiose statement of Whig principles: "[Whig policies] have aimed at the purity of the Government, the greater prosperity of the People, and additional security to their liberties and to the Union. And, with all, the preservation of the peace, the honor and the good faith of the Nation." Responding to the expansionist policy of the Democrats who eyed Mexico, and foreshadowing the dispute over slavery which would arise from it, Clay notes with dismay: "The Whigs were most anxious to avoid a foreign war, for the sake of a acquiring a foreign territory, which, under the circumstances of the acquisition, could not fail to produce domestic discord, and expose the character of the country, in the eyes of an impartial world, to severe animadversions."
Ultimately, the expansionist goals of the Polk Administration did lead to war with Mexico. As he had predicted, the southwestern lands which the United States acquired at the war's conclusion renewed the sectional dispute over slavery's expansion. Only the work of Henry Clay, who created the Compromise of 1850, held off secession and civil war for a decade.