During the tumultuous period when secession was imminent, Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln, two politicians with similar backgrounds, decided the course of American history. Since the birth of the United States, the North and South constantly clashed over key issues such as slavery, states’ rights, and the economy. Easing the tension between the regions was a top priority for Henry Clay, whose political career spanned approximately forty years over which he "saved" the Union three times. Lincoln, on the other hand, in some ways hastened secession and his election is considered by many to be its cause. Though similar men with similar beliefs and backgrounds, whereas Henry Clay prevented secession, Abraham Lincoln’s election acted as a catalyst to secession.
Clay and Lincoln's personal lives are very much comparable. Clay lost his father at age three, and Lincoln lost his mother when he was nine years old. Clay lived a good part of his life in Kentucky and represented the state in the House of Representatives; Lincoln was born in there. As far as schooling, neither man possessed much of a formal education. Both grew up without wealth or a prominent father and had to work for what they needed, eventually becoming lawyers, congressmen, and presidential candidates.
The men were also similar in their political careers and beliefs. They had practically identical stances on economic issues, colonization (Clay was president of the American Colonization Society – its purpose being to relocate African-Americans to Liberia – and Lincoln was an ardent supporter of the idea), and slavery. Clay is considered the founder of the Whig Party and Lincoln was a loyal Whig in Illinois. Both ran for president after serving in Congress: running as a Republican, Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860; Clay lost the elections of 1824, 1832, and 1844, running as a candidate for the Democratic Republican, National Republican, and Whig parties respectively. Though much more well-known throughout America, Clay failed to win the presidency three times while Lincoln was able to somehow secure it, his debates with Stephen A. Douglas during his senatorial campaign in 1858, boosting his popularity.
Lincoln had a great admiration for Clay. He "loved and revered" the older Whig as a "teacher and leader," and when Clay died in June of 1852, Lincoln gave a touching eulogy. He wrote: "Our country is prosperous and powerful; but could it have been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry Clay? Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us." His feelings towards Clay were ones of veneration. Abraham Lincoln idolized Henry Clay – he referred to him as his "beau ideal of a statesmen" – because they were indeed so incredibly similar. Regardless of all the similarities, because of the individual problems facing the nation during their respective careers, Clay and Lincoln had very different impacts on American history ("Abraham Lincoln's Eulogy").
The first time Clay dealt with the threat of Southern secession was in 1919, when Missouri requested statehood. It wanted to be admitted into the Union as a slave state, which would throw off the balance of the slave to free state ratio. The Northerners did not want to be outnumbered and claimed that Congress could declare that Missouri be a free state if admitted, but the Southerners believed that new states should be able to choose whether to allow slavery as the original thirteen did. Congress could not concur on what should be done for quite some time, but Henry Clay stepped in and helped reach an agreement in 1820. Missouri was admitted into the Union as a slave state and part of Massachusetts was made into the free state of Maine. It was decided that to avoid further debate when it came to new states wanting to enter the Union, slavery would not be legal above the 36º 30º line (Mansch 1).
Secession loomed again in 1832 when South Carolina attempted to nullify tariff acts passed by Congress that the state felt negatively affected its economy. Teaming up with then-vice president John C. Calhoun, Clay brokered a deal with both North and South by using his public relations skills and pushed through the Compromise Tariff of 1833 ("Henry Clay" 2).
Crisis was once again averted with the Compromise of 1850. The new territories obtained through the Mexican-American War resurrected the question of where slavery should be allowed in the United States. Clay created an omnibus bill covering the admission of California as a free state, creating the Utah and New Mexico territories with slavery to be determined by popular sovereignty, settling the border dispute between Texas and New Mexico, ending the slave trade in Washington, D.C., and making it easier for Southerners to recover fugitive slaves. Some congressmen were uncomfortable with passing the omnibus bill in case of an overlooked rider that would be detrimental to their region, but when Clay proposed the ideas as separate bills, all were passed (The Reader’s Companion 1).
Clay was given nicknames such as the "Great Compromiser" and the "Great Pacifier" because of his efforts to preserve the Union and appease both sides of each conflict. Through his compromises, Clay helped procure almost forty years of peace and unity that likely would have been filled with bloodshed had he not been in Congress to ease sectional tensions.
Because of his fidelity to Clay and his ideals, it is possible that Lincoln went into politics with the same goals of preventing secession and easing sectional tensions as his mentor. However, it is also possible that Lincoln was willing to be the one who brought about secession. His political genius is often overshadowed by the legends making him out to be a great liberator and person of impeccable morality; the possibility that Lincoln wanted to play a part in the disintegration of the Union so he could help put it back together again cannot be overlooked. If Lincoln did indeed share Clay's goals, he failed. If his intention was the latter, he succeeded. Perhaps it was a combination of the two, but in either case Lincoln acted as a catalyst for war.
Abraham Lincoln's debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 brought Lincoln to the attention of the nation. Lincoln and Douglas spoke about their ideas and positions on all of the issues of the day, especially slavery and the equality of African-Americans. Lincoln's views on slavery were those of the Republican Party: states where slavery already existed should be allowed to continue the practice, but the spread of slavery westward should be ceased (The Reader's Companion 2). As far as equality for African-Americans, Lincoln had at one time sought colonization, but did not believe that African-Americans were truly equal to whites (Jordan).
As happens in modern politics, Lincoln's positions were greatly exaggerated to the point that many (even members of his own party) believed he was an abolitionist and believed in complete equality for African-Americans. This amplification of his stance on the practice wound up being a dangerous one that practically caused secession. So many southerners in high places believed that Lincoln wanted emancipation that they considered his election a danger to the Southern way of life. Exaggeration of Lincoln’s position on slavery and equality for African-Americans worried the South and prompted the threat of secession if Lincoln was elected. In the minds of the southern leaders, the only way to save the South was to avoid being under the rule of a man thought to be out to undermine their economy and traditions (Mansch 68).
Lincoln was elected, carrying eighteen states and earning 180 electoral votes. South Carolina, seemingly the firebrand of the South, considered Lincoln’s election the last straw. No more would secession be just a threat; it would now become a reality. On December 24th, 1860, South Carolina created the "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. In this document, South Carolina states that the North "has invested a great political error" in the election of Lincoln and that they have elected a "man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery" ("South Carolina Secession Causes"). The South Carolinians gave Lincoln’s election as one of the causes of their leaving the Union and claimed that since Lincoln had declared in his House Divided speech of 1858 that the United States could not "endure permanently half slave, half free" it was only a matter of time until Lincoln would use his presidential power to eradicate slavery ("'House Divided' Speech").
Lincoln's election was inevitable due to the climate of the times, and so was eventual bloodshed for the same reason. However, Lincoln acted as a catalyst, willingly or not, just by running for president of the United States of America. His election was what prompted South Carolina to finally secede; soon came conflict at Fort Sumter, and ultimately civil war.
Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln’s political careers wound up with very different results, despite all of their parallels. This is even evident in their nicknames: Henry Clay – the "Great Pacifier" – mollified the country with his talents of seeing both sides of the argument and encouraging the North and South to give and take in order to come to an agreement; Abraham Lincoln – the "Great Emancipator" – and his election gave the South a reason to secede, freeing them from what they considered oppression.
Many things about the period of the Civil War are controversial and oft-debated, especially the exact roles that certain figures played. However, it is indisputable that Clay had a large part in delaying secession. It is also indisputable that Lincoln’s election is one of the main reasons that South Carolina seceded in 1860, causing other southern states to follow suit.
With the Missouri Compromise, Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850, Clay postponed secession. It is possible that secession was unavoidable by the time Lincoln ran for president (and thus he should not be blamed for secession), but the election of Lincoln provoked secession. No matter the intentions of Clay and Lincoln, their actions are how they are judged today and have resulted in their respective places in history.
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Holt, Michael. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
"'House Divided' Speech." The History Place.com 8 Jan. 2008. <http://www.historyplace.com/lincoln/divided.htm>.
Jordan, Brian. "Clay and Lincoln." Email to Sarah Adler. 19 Dec. 2007.
Mansch, Larry. Abraham Lincoln, President Elect. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc, 2005.
"South Carolina Secession Causes." Son of the South.net 8 Jan. 2008. <http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/secession_causes.htm>.
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