BLTC Press Titles

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Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

My Man Jeeves

P. G. Wodehouse

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Hermenie Templeton Kavanagh

The Diplomatic Background of the War

Charles Seymour

Memoir of Henry Clay

by Robert Charles Winthrop



To almost any eye which surveys dispassionately the field of our National History during the last sixty or seventy years, the stately figure of Henry Clay will come at once and prominently into view. No American eye will ever overlook it. No American pen will ever attempt to dwarf or disparage it. All that Webster was to the North, all that Calhoun was to the South, Clay was to the Great West; perhaps more than all.

Neither of these three remarkable men ever commanded the votes of the whole country, or grasped the coveted prize of the Presidency. But together — sometimes in opposition, sometimes in conjunction, and almost always in rivalry — they exercised an influence on public affairs far greater than that of any other three men of their times. They did not leave their peers. Thus far they have had no successors of equal individuality, prominence, and power.

Their last signal public efforts were made, side by side, in the Senate of the United States, in support of what were cabled the Compromises of 1850. Before two years more had elapsed, they were all three in their graves. Had their lives been prolonged, in health and strength, for another decade, the civil war might haply have been averted. Calhoun's doctrines of nullification and secession may have pointed and even led the way to that war, but he had far too much of that " wisdom which dwelleth with prudence" to have prompted or sanctioned it; while the giant arms of Webster and Clay would have held it in check as long as they lived. No other statesmen of that period had the prestige and the power to repress and arrest the strife of sections and of tongues which gradually brought on the struggle of arms, even had they desired to do so. The part, if not the art, of those who came after them, in all quarters of the land, seems rather to have been, consciously or unconsciously, to provoke and precipitate that terrible conflict between the North and the South, which was destined, by the good providence of God, to decide the question whether the American Union was strong enough to outlast the overthrow of African Slavery, and to maintain itself against all comers, domestic or foreign. All the world now rejoices in that decision, though all the world may not have sympathized with the spirit in which it was prosecuted, or in the precise steps by which it was reached. Henry Clay, certainly, would never have recognized such a conflict, in advance, as " irrepressible," nor ever have relaxed his efforts to preserve the Union without the effusion of fraternal blood. ,

In yielding to the call for a memoir of this great statesman, as a contribution to the present volume, I am well aware how utterly impracticable it will be to condense into a few pages any adequate notice of so long and varied a life. The most that can be attempted, or certainly the most that can be accomplished, is a cursory sketch of a grand career, with such personal reminiscences as may be recalled by one, who was in the way of witnessing, personally, no inconsiderable part at least of its later stages. It may serve as an index, if nothing more, for tiiose who are disposed to study his character and life more minutely hereafter. Mr. Clay, fortunately or unfortunately, was not of a nature to take any particular pains to keep the record of his own words or thoughts or acts, and he may thus fare less well with posterity than many of his inferiors. But his Life and Speeches have been worked up by others in at least two separate forms of two volumes each, and his Private Correspondence has been collected in still another volume ; while the Debates, and Journals, and Annals of Congress, and the pages of almost every biographical dictionary, contain ample reports and details of his sayings and doings.

Born in Hanover County, Virginia, in a neighborhood called "The Slashes," on the 12th of April, 1777, —less than a year after the Declaration of American Independence, — he would seem to have imbibed with his mother's milk the bold, independent spirit which pervaded the Colonies at that critical period. Bereaved of his father when only four years of age, he was left to pick up such crumbs of education as could be found on the earthen floor of a log school-house, under the tuition of a master of intemperate habits. The only tradition of his early childhood presents him on a bare-backed pony, with a rope-halter instead of a bridle, riding fearlessly and sometimes furiously, to a neighboring mill, to replenish his mother's meal-bag as often as it was empty. And thus young Harry became famous for twenty miles the country round about, as "the Mill Boy of the Slashes,"—a nickname which served his supporters a good turn afterwards, in more than one presidential campaign. We trace him next to Richmond, keeping accounts in a retail variety shop. But not long afterwards we find him employed as a copyist for the Clerk of the Courts and the AttorneyGeneral of the State, and as an occasional amanuensis for the illustrious Virginian Chancellor, George Wythe. In these relations he must have acquired the singularly neat and almost feminine hand, which may be seen alike in his earlier and later autographs. He was never one of those statists, of whom Shakspeare tells us, who " held it a baseness to write fair." In these relations, too, he undoubtedly became imbued with that love of legal study, on which he entered seriously at nineteen years of age, and which he prosecuted so successfully as to obtain a license to practise law before he was twenty-one. Above all, in these relations he acquired the friendship and confidence of George Wythe, who was not only one of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and a distinguished member of the Virginia Convention which ratified the Federal Constitution, of which he was an earnest advocate and supporter, but who signalized his love of human freedom by emancipating, all his negroes before his own death, and making provision for their subsistence. The influence of such a friendship and such an example could hardly fail to manifest itself in the future life of any one who enjoyed it. It was better than an education.

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