I give some thought to Henry Clay from time to time, the great compromiser, “America’s greatest senator.” What I see is a man with little or no interest in history and even less understanding of it or, at least, the consequences of ignoring it, who made a career fomenting crises, then jumping in before the shooting started and winning glory for quelling the actions of “mad men”, thus averting the near disasters he was instrumental in creating.
With the South Carolina Ordnance of Nullification, the Jackson administration had two months to come up with a plan to address the Carolinians’ grievances, either by reforming the tariff or by taking military action against the state. Now, I don’t know if those were the only options, but they were the ones being looked at. Despite the bluster that accompanied Jackson’s threatening Proclamation to the People of South Carolina on 10 December 1832, Jackson did embark on a fix by drawing up a reform tariff that only a Democrat could possibly love (I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek). That task was assigned to Gulian Verplanck a four-term Democratic congressman from New York and a member of Van Buren’s camp. Verplanck was a devoted free-trader and the new chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. What he came up with was a tariff bill designed to rid the treasury of its surplus and return the tariff to the original 1816 level—the post-War-of-1812 tariff passed to protect the young Republic from designs Britain (or any European power for that matter), still had on what now belonged to the United States. Twelve years later, that tariff had mushroomed into the protective Tariff of Abominations behind which Northern industry sat fat and getting fatter while the rest of the nation, in particularly the vocal South, suffered the price.
Touted as the Administration’s offer, the Verplanck Bill was actually Van Buren’s Bill, and I do believe the verdict is still out as to whether or not Jackson wanted it to pass, but rumor was he didn’t. Given his nationalist leanings that was probably the case. South Carolina’s representative on this matter was her senator, John C. Calhoun, who had personal as well as professional conflicts with both Jackson and Van Buren. Supporters of the American System, of course, spurned the bill. Under it, protection for American industry would have been withdrawn within two years. Leading Southerners such as Littleton Tazewell and John Tyler of Virginia, and Robert Hayne of South Carolina, all opposed to the protective tariff, had for years suggested a gradual reduction in the tariff as a concession to Northern manufacturers (who, it should be remembered, felt the tariff was the patriotic duty of the rest of the nation—and the South dared “offer a concession” in the process of eliminating it? Why the very nerve!). No such option was being offered here. National Republicans feeding off the American System never wanted protection to end and weren’t the least bit interested in sacrificing their interests to appease South Carolina.
Henry Clay, despondent over his electoral defeat in 1832, initially displayed only fleeting interest in the crisis, but once confronted with the Verplanck Bill, he was faced with the stark reality of saving the Union by sacrificing the American System—that’s really the choice the Verplanck Bill offered. As representatives of the New England/Pennsylvania manufacturers were gearing up to do battle against the Verplanck Bill (early winter of 1833), Clay introduced a compromise tariff bill that called for the gradual reduction in the protective tariff over a period of seven years, at the end of which the tariff would be reduced to revenue only and protection ended. Clay argued that after seven years, businesses should be able to hold their own. Needless to say, Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster and the interests he served were appalled at the thought of ending protection and still more so at Clay’s apparent betrayal of the system he had so strongly supported. They would never willingly abandon protection. Clay countered, apologizing that in reality nothing could bind Congress seven years down the road.
Clay’s excuse speaks volumes. This was why strict construction/limiting the Federal government to its delegated responsibilities was so important. Once the precedent was set, proponents saw no limit to the tariff’s possibilities until South Carolina challenged its constitutionality. Reading Clay’s words, it’s obvious he intended the compromise to be temporary, designed only to meet current exigencies. Once the climate calmed, the National Republicans could again raise the issue of the protective tariff.
Webster, seeking his own leadership role among the National Republicans, now balked at Clay’s leadership and forsook the compromise, twisting support for the tariff as patriotism and in accordance with the Constitution. For Webster and other radical National Republicans (probably those with Federalist blood flowing through their veins), abandoning protection was tantamount to treason.
Given Webster and New England’s reaction to the plan, Clay shelved it, and the House began debate on the Verplanck/Van Buren Bill knowing it would not get out of the Senate, even if it did make it out of the House. By now it was January, and the nullifiers in South Carolina were calling for secession if Jackson dared to defy their Ordinance of Nullification. Secession was a more extreme measure than what Calhoun anticipated, his goal being to prove “interposition” a viable recourse for a state when faced with federal overreach. Along the periphery, folks were starting to believe Jackson might take military action against South Carolina, and politically, given Jackson’s nationalism and aggressive stance toward a sovereign state, a growing rift was fracturing the Democratic Party across the South.
Webster’s ambitions were well-served by the crisis. Within the National Republican Party, Clay had Webster checked, but Webster was not above changing affiliations. At Jackson’s request, Edward Livingston, his secretary of state, approached the Massachusetts Senator for help in framing the Force Bill. Webster complied. Calhoun referred to Webster’s Force Bill as the Revenue Collection Bill, a bill to make war on a sovereign state. For Calhoun, the issue was a theoretical one—what the central government could and could not do under the Constitution. The Senate majority, seriously lacking in theorists, placed little merit on the theoretical. The Force Bill passed.
Now here’s the question: With the Force Bill passed and the Verplanck Bill on the verge of defeat, why did Henry Clay waltz in again with yet another compromise designed to be acceptable to the administration, to South Carolina and with, at least, a chance of making it through Congress? In The Great Triumvirate Merrill Patterson suggests he acted out of fear for the American System at the hands of the Jackson administration. That, yes, but I think in the wake of his disastrous showing in the 1832 election, Clay realized he needed Southern electoral support. Certainly the Southern Democrats accused him of that course as did the New England manufacturers, so mine is not an original thought. Another point was that Clay suspected South Carolina preferred anyone but Jackson get credit for the compromise; likewise, Webster believed Clay would come up with anything to get credit for the settlement of the crisis. When Clay approached Calhoun, the latter jumped at the hope of resolving the crisis.
Clay’s new plan was the same basic one he’d offered back in January (it was mid-February by then, and Congress was scheduled to adjourn the first week of March). The current plan took the Tariff of 1832, with major modifications, and tacked on a gradual reduction, down to the revenue level, over a period of nine and a half years (to 1 January 1842) at which time it was to revert to a revenue-only tariff with the understanding the rate could change depending on the needs of the government (not private industry). Proponents of the American System accused Clay of abandoning the economic program he had created. Clay countered that nullification was not the threat to the American System, Jackson was.
Clay argued, as he had a month earlier, that in nine plus years the manufacturers should be able to stand alone without the aid of government—and hinted again that a lot could happen over almost ten years—how does one hold Congress to an agreement made almost a decade earlier? Clay was merely pushing the issue down the road to relieve the immediate crisis. With the protective tariff, a precedent had been set and would be forever abused. Clay argued that for the next near decade the North would have its protection and the South would faithfully do its duty believing the end of the thing was in sight.
In debate, Clay challenged Webster’s writing the Force Bill to wage a bloody war against the people of South Carolina, yet was now unwilling to offer this compromise to accompany the threat and return the nation to peace and stability? To Webster and his constituents in the Northeast, the compromise tariff neutered the Force Bill and surrendered protection under intimidation. Despite Webster’s protest, the package passed, and the Enforcement Bill and the Compromise Bill went out together.
Calhoun rushed home to South Carolina where the compromise was considered a victory. [And I guess it was...something gained—a distant light at the end of a long, long tunnel, perhaps? Certainly Calhoun had shown “nullification” could get a reaction, if nothing else. The settlement of the affair puts me in mind of Mao Tse-tung’s adage of “two steps forward (for proponents of the American System) and one step back.”] The South Carolina legislature repealed its Ordinance of Nullification, then a few days later declared the Enforcement Bill null and void. The latter was a matter of necessity. No matter how one cut it, the Force Bill implied the central government could, at its discretion, interfere in sovereign states on matters outside the scope of its limited powers.
Meanwhile back in Washington, Clay’s hopes for Jackson’s “alienation” again failed to bear fruit, because the state righters who broke with Jackson did not rally to the National Republican cause. (You know, those same National Republicans some members of which had just concocted the Force Bill calling for the invasion of South Carolina by Federal troops? Oh, duh.)
Still, something significant had occurred. When Congress reconvened in December of 1833, six Southern senators had defected the Jackson camp and now identified themselves as independents. In addition, South Carolina sent two nullifiers. The make-up of the Senate stood at twenty National Republicans, twenty Jacksonians, and those eight independents, who held the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.
And they all had another executive crisis to deal with. Next time.
Thanks for reading,