CLAY, Henry. Autograph letter signed ("H. Clay") and intialed as Speaker of the House, to Benjamin Watkins Leigh (1781-1849), Washington, 22 December 1824. 2 pages, 4to (9 13/16 x 7 7/8 in.), silked.
"I WILL NOT CROSS PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE TO BE IN ANY OFFICE": CLAY DENIES INTEREST IN A CABINET POST TWO WEEKS BEFORE ACCEPTING A DEAL TO BECOME SECRETARY OF STATE
A very provocative letter relating to one of the most controversial actions in American political history: the so-called "corrupt bargain" by which Clay, in exchange for the post of Secretary of State, supported Adams in the House's run-off election. Since none of the four candidates in the 1824 election received a majority, the election was thrown into the House, and only the three candidates were to be considered in the House's votes. As the February balloting approached, Clay realized that his 37 electoral votes could prove decisive in the run-off between Adams, Crawford and Jackson. "The situation in Washington was ripe for intrigue, and Clay apparently saw no reason why he should not protect his future interests while also following his best judgment for the good of the country" (Watson, Liberty and Power, p. 81).
One and a half months before the crucial House vote, Clay describes the unsettled situation: "You have as much if not more at stake, as a member of the crew and part-owner of the Cargo, in the ship of state, as I have; but then you are a looker-on, whilst I am compelled to be an actor in the public concerns here. And an actor to such a scene!...An alternative made up of Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams! For to that we shall undoubtedly have to come, notwithstanding the infatuated hopes which are even yet cherished in regard to another. It is the issue...which has agitated the Country for the last two years, that I dreaded & distinctly foresaw but had not the power to prevent."
Referring to his refusal to support Crawford, Clay assures Leigh that he remains aloof from the dilemma: "I have taken no concern in the past events...I have not written or spoken a syllable, to the publication of which to the whole world, with its attending circumstances, I would object." Then, he emphatically states that he has no interest in a cabinet appointment in either the Adams or Jackson administration: "You say that 'you expect to find me at the board of general officers.' I would not cross Pennsylvania Avenue to be in any office under any Administration which lies before us." Rather pompously, he observes that, since leaving the House, he has been the recipient of "every kind of eulogism," and adds "To those who favor me with any portion of this regard, I can only say that the duty which I have to perform shall be fulfilled with an anxious and solemn determination to promote the public good, as I can discern it, and without the slightest reference to personal considerations." Finally, Clay asks Leigh to "cast the slightest light upon the dark and difficult path which I have to pursue."
Although Clay undoubtedly believed that Adams was the better candidate, he could not but consider which course would best serve his own quest for the White House, and he was aware that Jefferson, Madison and Monroe had all been Secretary of State before becoming President. On January 9, 1825, Clay and Adams reached an agreement: Clay would throw his electoral votes to Adams in return for his appointment as Secretary of State. Afterwards, an outraged Jackson assailed the election as a subversion of the democratic process and deplored the "corrupt bargain" between the two men.
Provenance: Sotheby's, 29 June 1982, lot 312.