Daniel Webster of Massachusetts

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Daniel Webster circa 1847Daniel Webster of Massachusetts was an outspoken advocate for the shipping and industrial interests of his state. He was a powerful orator and was nationally known for his speaking ability. Webster was a prominent Whig who championed the elites of his region. “He was a thoroughgoing elitist, and he reveled in it,” says biographer Robert Vincent Remini.

Daniel Webster was born in Salisbury, New Hampshire in 1782. He and his nine siblings grew up on their parents’ farm, a small parcel of land granted to his father. His ancestors were among the early settlers of Salisbury.

Webster attended Phillips Exeter Academy, a preparatory school in Exeter, New Hampshire, before attending Dartmouth College. After he graduated from Dartmouth (Phi Beta Kappa), Webster was apprenticed to the lawyer Thomas W. Thompson in Salisbury. But his career was short lived as he left to support his older brother’s studies by working as a schoolteacher.

After a year, he returned to the law in 1802 and two years later he moved to Boston where he clerked for Christopher Gore. Gore’s practice encompassed international, national, and state politics. Webster learned about many aspects of the law and met many Massachusetts politicians. In 1805, he was admitted to the bar.

He returned to New Hampshire shortly after being admitted to the bar due to his father’s declining health. He set up a law practice in Boscawen but after his father’s death in 1896 he handed over his practice to his brother and moved to Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Daniel Webster was a Federalist who had been educated at the Federalist-leaning Dartmouth College. In 1807 Thomas Jefferson had pushed through the Embargo Act of 1807, stopping all trade to both Britain and France. As New England relied on commerce with the two nations, the region strongly opposed Jefferson’s attempt at “peaceable coercion.” Webster wrote an anonymous pamphlet attacking it.

The trouble between the United States and Britain escalated into the War of 1812. Webster gave a speech in the same year at the Washington Benevolent Society, a speech that proved critical to his career. The speech condemned the war and the violation of New England’s shipping rights that preceded it, but it also strongly denounced the extremism of those more radical among the unhappy New Englanders who were beginning to call for the region’s secession from the Union.

Webster’s outspokenness led to his election to the House of Representatives in 1812. He would remain in the House until March 1817. He was an outspoken critic of the Madison administration and its wartime policies, denouncing its efforts at financing the war through paper money and opposing Secretary of War James Monroe‘s conscription proposal.

Notable in his second term was his support of the reestablishment of a stable specie-based national bank; but he opposed the tariff of 1816 (which sought to protect the nation’s manufacturing interests) and House Speaker Henry Clay’s American System.

Webster did not seek a third term and he returned to his law practice which he moved from Portsmouth to Boston. He had married in 1808 and was to have four children with his wife Grace.

Webster was one of the foremost constitutional lawyers of the early 1800’s. He argued 223 cases before the Marshall Court, winning about half of them. Marshall patterned some of his Court decisions after Webster’s briefs, and Webster played a crucial role in helping many of the justices interpret matters of constitutional law. As a result many people began calling him the Great Expounder of the Constitution.

With the help of a coalition of Federalists and Republicans, Webster was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in June 1827. His first wife died in 1828 and he remarried a year later.

Webster became New England’s champion in the fight over the Tariff of 1828. Webster changed his position to support a protective tariff in 1828 explaining that after the failure of the rest of the nation to heed New England’s objections in 1816 and 1824, “nothing was left to New England but to conform herself to the will of others.” The region was heavily invested in manufacturing and he would not now do it injury.

Webster’s speaking ability came to the fore during the Nullification Crisis when he famously summed up his position in opposition to nullification of federal laws “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!”

In 1836, Webster was one of four Whig Party candidates to run for the office of President, but he only managed to gain the support of Massachusetts. This was the first of three unsuccessful attempts at gaining the presidency. In 1839, the Whig Party nominated William Henry Harrison for president. Webster was offered the vice presidency, but he declined.

However, Harrison appointed Webster as his Secretary of State, a position that he retained under John Tyler after Harrison’s death a month after his inauguration. In September 1841, an internal division amongst the Whigs over the question of the National Bank caused all the Whigs (except Webster who was in Europe at the time) to resign from Tyler’s cabinet.

In 1842, he was the architect of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which resolved the Caroline Affair, established the definitive Eastern border between the United States and Canada (Maine and New Brunswick), and signaled a definite and lasting peace between the United States and Britain. Webster succumbed to Whig pressure in May 1843 and finally left the cabinet. Webster later served again as Secretary of State in President Millard Fillmore’s administration from 1850 until 1852.

Webster returned to the Senate in 1845,  where he opposed both the Texas Annexation and the resulting Mexican-American War for fear of its upsetting the delicate balance of slave and non-slave states.

In the United States presidential election, 1848, he sought the Whig Party’s nomination for the President but was beaten by the military hero Zachary Taylor. Webster was once again offered the Vice-Presidency, but he declined saying, “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin.” Taylor died 16 months after the inauguration, the second time a President who offered Webster the chance to be Vice President died.

During the debates over the Compromise of 1850, Webster once again exhibited his eloquence on the floor of the Senate. Webster gave one of his most famous speeches, later called the Seventh of March speech, characterizing himself “not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man but as an American…” In it he gave his support to the compromise, which included the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Webster returned to the State Department in July 1850 where he became embroiled in prosecutions of those who aided Shadrach Minkins in 1851 from Boston officials who intended to return Minkins to his owner. The juries convicted none of the accused. His popularity in New England fell to a low and he was passed over for the 1852 Whig nomination for the presidency.

A rump “Native American Party” put his name on the ballot without permission and he collected a few thousand votes, even though he died just before the election. Daniel Webster died on October 24, 1852 at his home in Marshfield, Massachusetts, after falling from his horse and suffering a crushing blow to the head, complicated by cirrhosis of the liver, which resulted in a cerebral hemorrhage.

The great irony was that his son Fletcher went on to serve as a Union Army infantry colonel in the Civil War that Webster tried to prevent. Fletcher Webster commanded the 12th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was killed in action on August 29, 1862, during the Second Battle of Bull Run.



John C. Calhoun: The Men who dominated National Life

This entry is part 13 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

John C. CalhounBefore we move on to the the last several events that led up to the Civil War, it is important that we look at the men who dominated national life and the Congress in the antebellum period. Their political careers overlapped and they had a huge impact on the history of the United States.

Let’s start with John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Born in South Carolina in 1782, Calhoun began his political career as a nationalist, modernizer, and proponent of a strong national government and protective tariffs. After 1830 while still holding national office as Vice President, Calhoun’s views evolved and he became a proponent of of states’ rightslimited governmentnullification and free trade.

Calhoun served in a succession of political offices starting in 1811 when he was sworn into the House of Representatives. He was to remain in the House for six years. He then was appointed Secretary of War in 1817 by President James Monroe.

As Secretary of War Calhoun proposed an expansible army similar to that of France under Napoleon, whereby a basic cadre of 6,000 officers and men could be expanded into 11,000 without adding additional officers or companies. Congress wanted an army to defend the nation in the event of war against Britain or Spain over Florida. Once the crisis was settled diplomatically the need subsided and Calhoun’s plans were shelved.

In 1825 Calhoun was elected Vice President by the House of Representatives in a landslide. He was to serve four years with John Quincy Adams and four years with Andrew Jackson. He was one of two vice presidents to serve under two different presidents.

Eventually, Calhoun split with Jackson over the policy of hard cash, which he felt favored Northern financial interests. Calhoun opposed an increase in the protective tariff. When his position was defeated he returned to his South Carolina plantation to write “South Carolina Exposition and Protest“, an essay rejecting the centralization philosophy.

This led to the theory of a concurrent majority through the doctrine of nullification,”the right of a State to interpose, in the last resort, in order to arrest an unconstitutional act of the General Government, within its limits.” Jackson, who supported states’ rights but believed that nullification threatened the Union, opposed it.

Calhoun and Jackson came to a breaking point over a previous recommendation when Calhoun was Secretary of War. In May 1830, Jackson discovered that Calhoun had asked President Monroe to censure then-General Jackson for his invasion of Spanish Florida in 1818.

Calhoun was then serving as James Monroe’s Secretary of War (1817–1823). Jackson had invaded Florida during the First Seminole War without explicit public authorization from Calhoun or Monroe. Calhoun’s and Jackson’s relationship deteriorated further. Calhoun defended his position and by February 1831 the break between the two men was irrevocable.

In 1832, states’ rights theory was put to the test in the Nullification Crisis, after South Carolina passed an ordinance that nullified federal tariffs. Congress passed the Force Bill, which empowered the President to use military power to force states to obey all federal laws. Jackson sent US Navy warships to Charleston harbor, and even talked of hanging Calhoun. South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill.

Cooler heads prevailed and Congress passed the Compromise Tariff of 1833, a proposal by Senator Henry Clay to change the tariff law in a manner which satisfied Calhoun, who by then was in the Senate.

Calhoun ran for the Senate in 1832 and was elected by the South Carolina legislature. After the Compromise Tariff of 1833 was implemented, the Nullifier Party, along with other anti-Jackson politicians, formed a coalition known as the Whig Party. Calhoun would gain his most lasting fame and his most influence as a senator.

Calhoun led the pro-slavery faction in the Senate in the 1830s and 1840s, opposing both abolitionism and attempts to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories; actively anti-Wilmot Proviso. He was a major advocate of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which required the co-operation of local law enforcement officials in free states to return escaped slaves.

In a famous speech on the Senate floor on February 6, 1837, Calhoun asserted that slavery was a “positive good.” He rooted this claim on two grounds: white supremacy and paternalism.

“I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good… I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse… I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other.”

Calhoun cooperated with Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren, who became president in 1837. Democrats were very hostile to national banks, and the country’s bankers had joined the opposition Whig Party. The Democratic replacement was the “Independent Treasury” system, which Calhoun supported and which went into effect.

Calhoun, like Jackson and Van Buren, attacked finance capitalism, which he saw as the common enemy of the Northern laborer, the Southern planter, and the small farmer everywhere. He therefore united these groups under the banner of the Democratic Party.

Van Buren’s successor was William Henry Harrison, a Whig, who died a mere month after taking office. He was succeeded by John Tyler, a former DEmocrat, who appointed Calhoun as Secretary of State in 1844. Calhoun would serve in that position for less than a year but had a huge impact on American foreign policy.

He was able to resolve  the Oregon boundary dispute, claimed by both Britain and the U.S. Calhoun compromised by splitting the area down the middle at the 49th parallel, ending the war threat.

Tyler and Calhoun, who were both Southerners, were eager to annex the independent Republic of Texas. Texas was slave country and the Southerners wished to bring Texas into the Union as a slave state. When the Senate could not muster a two-thirds vote to pass a treaty of annexation with Texas, Calhoun devised a joint resolution of the Houses of Congress, requiring only a simple majority. Texas joined the Union and war broke out with Mexico in 1846.

Meanwhile, Calhoun had resigned as Secretary of State in March 1845 and returned to the Senate in November of the same year. Calhoun by then believed that the country was threatened by a totally corrupt party system. He believed that in their lust for office, patronage and spoils, politicians in the North pandered to the antislavery vote, especially during presidential campaigns, and politicians in the slave states sacrificed Southern rights in an effort to placate the Northern wings of their parties.

He was the driving force behind the drafting and publication of the “Address of the Southern Delegates in Congress, to Their Constituents.” It listed the alleged Northern violations of the constitutional rights of the South, then warned southern voters to expect forced emancipation of slaves in the near future, followed by their complete subjugation by an unholy alliance of unprincipled Northerners and blacks, and a South forever reduced to “disorder, anarchy, poverty, misery, and wretchedness.”

By 1850, Calhoun was gravely ill with tuberculosis. During the debate over the Compromise of 1850, which Calhoun rejected, he was so ill that one of his colleagues read his speech, calling upon the Constitution, which upheld the South’s right to hold slaves; warning that the day “the balance between the two sections” was destroyed would be a day not far removed from disunion, anarchy, and civil war.

John C. Calhoun died on March 31, 1850 in Washington. He was returned to Charleston and interred in the St. Philip’s Churchyard.



The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slaves in antebellum America-The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850The most divisive law of the antebellum period was easily the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 just as the Dred Scott decision was the most divisive court ruling. The law was passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 along with five other specific laws that attempted to maintain the balance between slave states and free states.

The act was passed by the was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-76 on September 18, 1850. It was immediately signed by President Millard Fillmore. It was a successor to the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. That law  was written with the intention of enforcing Article 4, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which required the return of runaway slaves.

It sought to force the authorities in free states to return fugitive slaves to their masters. But officials in Northern states used a variety of means to circumvent the earlier law. They passed “personal liberty laws“. These laws mandated a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could be moved and others forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of alleged fugitive slaves. In some cases, juries refused to convict individuals who had been indicted under the Federal law.

The Missouri Supreme Court routinely held that voluntary transportation of slaves into free states, with the intent of residing there permanently or definitely, automatically made them free. The Fugitive Slave Law dealt with slaves who went into free states without their master’s consent. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), that states did not have to offer aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves, greatly weakening the law of 1793.

The Southern states saw the non-cooperation of Northern states as a means of gradually bleeding away their property rights. In some cases Southern slaveholders organized raids into Northern states in order to capture fugitive slaves.

In 1847 and 1849, planters from Bourbon and Boone Counties in northern Kentucky led raids into Cass County, Michigan to recapture runaway slaves. The raids failed of their objective but strengthened Southern demands for passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 gave the Southerners in Congress the opportunity to strengthen the earlier law. The new law made any Federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $28,000 in present-day value).

Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf.

In addition, the law made any person aiding a fugitive slave subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Meanwhile, officers who captured fugitive slaves were entitled to to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The opportunities for the abuse of the law were rampant. Being unable to testify in court many free blacks were captured and transported South to spend years in slavery even though they were free. The case of Solomon Northup, free-born black man from New York State is just one among many. His story was told in 12 Years a Slave, a book that he wrote after he was freed by a court in Louisiana.

In November 1850 Vermont’s  legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves. This law rendered the federal Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable in Vermont and caused a storm of controversy nationally because it was a “nullification” of federal law, a concept that had become highly charged in debates over slavery.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court  declare the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional in 1854, as a result of a case involving fugitive slave Joshua Glover, and Sherman Booth, who led efforts that thwarted Glover’s recapture. Ultimately, in 1859 in Ableman v. Booth the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state court.

In November 1850 Vermont’s  legislature approved the “Habeas Corpus Law,” requiring Vermont judicial and law enforcement officials to assist captured fugitive slaves. This law rendered the federal Fugitive Slave Act effectively unenforceable in Vermont and caused a storm of controversy nationally because it was a “nullification” of federal law, a concept that had become highly charged in debates over slavery.

In essence the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made every person who aided or assisted a runaway slave into a criminal. It’s enforcement in the North brought the issue of slavery home to citizens there. Abolitionists were faced with the prospect of breaking the law or going against their personal beliefs. Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 was one response to the law.

Abolitionists continued to aid runaway slaves and after the signing of the law Canada became a destination of choice. There the former slaves would enjoy absolute freedom without a fear of being returned to their former state of slavery.





The Politics of Slavery: 1835-1854

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Slavery in America

After the Missouri Compromise, events took the politics of slavery off center stage, replaced by American relations with Mexico. In 1835-1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico and began the fight that would lead to the eventual forming of the Republic of Texas. One of the reasons that the Texans pushed for independence was that the state that it belonged to, Coahuila y Tejas, endorsed a plan for the gradual emancipation of the state’s slaves in 1827, which angered many slaveholding settlers who had moved to Texas from the South.

By 1845, Texas had consented to annexation by the United States. This action spawned a number of border disputes with Mexico, leading to the Mexican-American War that lasted from April 25, 1846 to February 2, 1848.

Mexican Cession Map-The Politics of Slavery: 1835-1854The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, ended the war and gave the U.S. undisputed control of Texas, established the U.S.-Mexican border of the Rio Grande River, and ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. In return, Mexico received US $18,250,000 and the U.S. agreed to assume $3.25-million in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens.

The territorial gains from the Mexican-American War was to create a new set of slave-state-free state conflicts between the North and the South. Both sides tried to gain the upper hand with various attempts to either expand slavery or curtail the institution.

The Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery in any territory to be acquired from Mexico in the Mexican-American War or in the future, including the area later known as the Mexican Cession, but which some proponents construed to also include the disputed lands in south Texas and New Mexico east of the Rio Grande.

The Proviso was an amendment that David Wilmot, a Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, introduced the amendment on August 8, 1846 as a rider on a $2,000,000 appropriations bill intended for the final negotiations to resolve the Mexican–American War, despite the fact that this was only 3 months into the 2 year war. It passed the House but failed in the Senate, where the South had greater representation. Reintroduced in February 1847, it again passed the House and failed in the Senate. In 1848, an attempt to make it part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo also failed.

The Compromise of 1850 was an extremely complex and comprehensive attempt to resolve many of the differences between the North and the South. A package of 5 bills it was passed in September 1850. Each of the five bills in some way touched on the slavery issue.

The bills can be summarized in brief:United States 1850-1853 Map-The Politics of Slavery: 1835-1854

  • California was admitted to the Union as a free state.
  • The slave trade was abolished (the sale of slaves, not the institution of slavery) in the District of Columbia.
  • The Territory of New Mexico (including present-day Arizona) and the Territory of Utah were organized under the rule of popular sovereignty. This meant that the citizens of the territories could decide whether to be slave states or free.
  • A harsher Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the Senate 27-12, and by the House 109-75.
  • Texas gave up much of the western land that it claimed and received compensation of $10,000,000 to pay off its national debt.

The opinions of historians on the Compromise of 1850 vary widely. Some say that it postponed the Civil War for a decade. It was during this decade from 1850 until 1860 that the Northwest grew dramatically and became firmly allied politically with the Northeast. The decade also brought about the dissolution of the Whig Party with its replacement in the North by the new Republican Party and in the South by the Democrats.

Others point out that the Fugitive Slave Law polarized and divided the North and the South. The northern reaction to Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most obvious response to the law.

The delay of hostilities by a decade allowed the further industrialization of the North with its many more miles of railroad, steel production, modern factories, and population than the South which was tied to its rural, slave-based economy.

In 1854, the Ostend Manifesto was a document that outlined the reasons why Cuba should be acquired by the United States. The main driving forces behind this document were the debates over slavery in the United States, Manifest Destiny, and the Monroe Doctrine. It ignited the north-south fight over the expansion of slavery once again. During the period that would come to be known as Bleeding Kansas, it served as a rallying cry for the enemies of the Slave Power. The movement to annex Cuba wasn’t effectively ended until after the American Civil War.


Was the Civil War inevitable?

This entry is part 18 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

John Brown interior engine of the engine houseA cautionary note about the inevitability of events before we begin. We in 2014 have the advantage at looking at events in reverse. Our ancestors had no such advantage. They lived the events that we now study and took each event as it came. in 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed the various participants had no idea that it would begin a train of events that led to the Civil War.

In order to answer the question, “Was the Civil War inevitable?” one must first look at the writing of the Constitution and the three-fifths compromise that was included in the original document. Without an understanding of this fatal compromise between the North and the South everything that followed doesn’t make any real sense.

The three-fifths compromise of 1787 called for slaves to be counted at a ratio of three-fifths for representation purposes in the House of Representatives. Since slaves could not vote, slave states would thus have the benefit of increased representation in the House and the Electoral College.

Delegates opposed to slavery proposed that only free inhabitants of each state be counted for apportionment purposes, while delegates supportive of slavery, on the other hand, opposed the proposal, wanting slaves to count in their actual numbers. The compromise which was finally agreed upon of counting “all other persons” as only three-fifths of their actual numbers.

This compromise reduced the representation of the slave states relative to the original proposals, but improved it over the Northern position. An inducement for slave states to accept the Compromise was its tie to taxation in the same ratio, so that the burden of taxation on the slave states was also reduced.

In real terms, the three-fifths compromise gave the Southern states substantial power in the House of Representatives. In 1793 Southern slave states had 47 members but would have had 33 had seats been assigned based on free populations. In 1812, slave states had 76 instead of the 59 they would have had. In 1833, they had 98 instead of 73. As a result, Southern states had disproportionate influence on the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War.

Just as important, the Southern States had an outsize number of presidents until the Civil War. Of the first 15 Presidents, nine were born in the South. Of those nine,  seven were born in Virginia.

What did this all mean in terms of legislation? The Southern states began every legislative debate in the House with a built-in advantage. This gave them better tariffs, in most cases, better representation at all levels of the federal government and laws that gave the South almost everything that they wanted.

The various slave versus free compromises in 1820 and 1850 allowed slavery to spread into states that the South could reasonably hope for. Even though they were unable to vote Kansas into the Union as a slave state they were able to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. Roger Taney, the slave-holding Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, presided over the court when it handed down the Dred Scott decision.

The period from 1787 to 1860 was one of turmoil and tension in the United States. Each side attempted to gain the advantage over the other. The South saw the abolition of slavery as an end to their rural way of life. Everything in the Southern culture was dependent on slavery. The agricultural products that enabled white Southerners to live in prosperity, cotton, tobacco, rice and peanuts, was dependent on slave labor.


Henry Clay of Kentucky

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series The Seven Days Battles

Henry Clay in the SenateHenry Clay of Kentucky was another politician who dominated the antebellum period. He began his political career as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, became a National Republican and eventually helped found the Whig party. He was to serve most of his adult life as a legislator.

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777 at the Clay homestead in Hanover County, Virginia. His father, at the time of death, owned 22 slaves which made him a member of the planter class. Clay’s father was also a Baptist minister. Unfortunately, he died when Henry was 4 years old leaving him two slaves. Henry’s mother inherited most of the remaining slaves and 464 acres of land.

Elizabeth Clay remarried Capt. Henry Watkins, who was an affectionate stepfather. Henry Watkins then moved the family to Richmond, Virginia. Clay’s stepfather secured employment for the young man at the Virginia Court of Chancery, where he displayed an aptitude for law.

There he became friends with George Wythe. Hampered by a crippled hand, Wythe employed Clay as his secretary, a position that he held for four years. Clay “read the law” under Wythe and Virginia Attorney General, Robert Brooke. It was a common practice of the time and by 1797 he was admitted to practice law.

In the same year Clay relocated to Lexington, Kentucky where he met and married Lucretia Hart in 1799. They would have 12 children together, 7 of whom died before him. Clay soon established a reputation for his legal skills and courtroom oratory. Some of his clients paid him with horses and others with land.

Clay came to own town lots and the Kentucky Hotel. By 1812 he owned a 600 acre plantation where he grew tobacco and hemp. At the peak of operations Clay owned 60 slaves.

In 1803 Clay began his political career when he was elected to the state legislature. As a legislator, Clay advocated a liberal interpretation of the state’s constitution and initially the gradual emancipation of slavery in Kentucky, although the political realities of the time forced him to abandon that position.

In 1806 Clay was appointed as one of Kentucky’s two senators. Clay was below the constitutionally required age of thirty but no one complained. He served for less than a year in his first time in the Senate.

Clay left the Senate in 1807 and was reelected to the state legislature. The representatives elected Clay the Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Clay introduced a bill in January 1809 that required members to wear homespun suits rather than British broadcloth. Every member but two voted for the bill.

However, Humphrey Marshall objected and he almost came to blows with Clay on the Assembly floor. Clay challenged Marshall to a duel.The two men met and both were slightly wounded.

In 1810 Clay was again appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat but again he only served for a year. In the summer of 1811, Clay was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was chosen Speaker of the House on the first day of his first session, something never done before or since. During the fourteen years following his first election, he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership.

Clay revolutionized the power of the Speaker, making it the second most powerful position in the country next to the president. He immediately appointed members of the War Hawk faction (of which he was the “guiding spirit”) to all the important committees, effectively giving him control of the House.

He was opposed to the National Bank in part because of his personal ownership of several small banks in Lexington. Later, he was to change his position and support the Second Bank of the United States.

The War Hawk faction advocated a declaration of war against the British because of their repeated violations of United States maritime rights and its treatment of US sailors. They also feared that Britain had designs on the Old Northwest Territory. After the war, Clay was one of the peace negotiators who negotiated the the Treaty of Ghent and signed it on December 24, 1814. He then remained in Europe to negotiate a commerce treaty with Great Britain.

In 1816, Clay was one of the founders of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. The society founded Monrovia in what would later be Liberia.

In the same year, he joined John C. Calhoun to pass the Tariff of 1816 as part of the national economic plan Clay called “The American System.” It was an attempt to protect American manufacturers from being undercut by their British counterparts.

In 1820, Clay engineered the “Missouri Compromise“. It brought in Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state (thus maintaining the balance in the Senate, which had included 11 free and 11 slave states), and it forbade slavery north of 36° 30′ (the northern boundary of Arkansas and the latitude line) except in Missouri.

The Presidential election of 1824 was one of the most unusual in American history. The Democratic-Republican Party had driven all opposition from the field but four candidates ran for the Presidency, including Clay himself.

No candidate secured a majority and the tie between the two front runners, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, was broken in the House of Representatives. Clay used his position to secure the victory for Adams but when he was appointed Secretary of State his opponents accused him of a corrupt bargain. He served from 1825 until 1829.

He was returned to the Senate in 1831 and stayed in that position until 1842. At the time South Carolina had precipitated the “Nullification Crisis” in opposition to the Tariff of 1828, dubbed the “tariff of abominations” which raised tariffs considerably in an attempt to protect fledgling factories built under previous tariff legislation. Clay was able to step in to the crisis and gradually reduce the tariff duties and defuse the volatile situation.

During this period Clay became one of the founders of the Whig party in opposition to the policies of Andrew Jackson. In 1832, the Whigs nominated him as their candidate for president but Jackson crushed him 55% to 37%. In 1840, he was again a candidate for the presidency but he was defeated at the convention by William Henry Harrison who defeated the incumbent Martin Van Buren. Harrison died a month after his inauguration and was succeeded by John Tyler.

In 1844, Clay was nominated by the Whigs against James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate. Clay lost in part due to national sentiment in favor of Polk’s “54°40′ or Fight” campaign.

After losing the Whig Party nomination to Zachary Taylor in 1848, Clay decided to retire to his Ashland estate in Kentucky. Retired for less than a year, he was in 1849 again elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. Returning to the SEnate, Clay helped to engineer the Compromise of 1850.

The initial attempt to pass an omnibus bill fail when Clay’s own Whig party voted overwhelmingly against it. He promised to persevere but weakened by tuberculosis he left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island. Stephen A. Douglas separated the bills and guided them through the Senate.

Clay continued to serve both the Union he loved and his home state of Kentucky. On June 29, 1852, he died of tuberculosis in Washington, D.C., at the age of 75. Clay was the first person to lie in state in the United States Capitol. Clay’s headstone reads: “I know no North — no South — no East — no West.” His will freed all of his slaves.




The Fugitive Slave Act and the Compromise of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act

and the Compromise of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was one of the most controversial laws passed during the antebellum period. Part of the Compromise of 1850, many historians believe that the act fueled the fires of abolition in the North. In the South it was looked upon as a law that protected the property of Southern slave owners.

Slave Kidnap Poster from BostonAmerica in the middle of the 19th century was a divided country, half slave and have free. The Federal authorities practiced a delicate balance act in order to maintain between the two halves of the country. For the admission of slave state to the Union a free state had to join at the same time.

The Compromise of 1850 between the two sections of the country was a group of five different bills that attempted to codify into law the legal status of the territories that were gained from the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. All of the bills were passed into law in September 1850.

The first bill pertained to the state of Texas. In return for surrendering all claims to New Mexico and the lands north of the Missouri Compromise line, Texas’ massive public debt was transferred to the Federal government. Texas retained its control over El Paso and the Texas Panhandle.

This was followed by the admission of California as a wholly free state into the Union. The Southerners wanted slavery to be allowed in California below the 35th parallel. This unworkable demand was not approved.

The South avoided the Wilmot Proviso that would have banned slavery in any territory that was acquired from Mexico in the Mexican War or in the future, including the area later known as the Mexican Cession. Some proponents construed this to also include the disputed lands in south Texas and New Mexico east of the Rio Grande. New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory could have voted to join the Union as slaves but their terrain was not conducive to the plantation system that used slaves to cultivate the land.

The fourth bill was the Fugitive Slave Act that ignited Northern public opinion. It required all Federal judicial officials in all states and territories toBefore the Compromise of 1850 assist in the apprehension of all fugitive slaves and assist in their return to their rightful owners. This included even states and territories that were free. They were required to do so on the word of the claimant. Any official that did not do so was liable to a $1,000 fine. The slave or suspected slave was not allowed a jury trial and could not testify on his or her own defense. Anyone who materially assisted a fugitive slave was liable to six months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

Ordinary citizens could be impressed into a posse whether they agreed or not. They could be compelled to assist in the apprehension, imprisonment and return of fugitive slaves to their owners. If a freedman was accused of being a fugitive slave her or she could not even fight After the Compromise of 1850extradition into slavery. The critical provision requiring that ordinary citizens to act as slave catchers turned Northern public opinion against the law. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a reaction to the law and outraged Southerners.

The final bill outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia, but not slavery. Southerners were violently opposed to this bill but they were outvoted.

Rather than calm the tensions in the country the Fugitive Slave Act exacerbated the friction between the opposing sections: slave and free and ultimately led to the long slide to Civil War.