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HENRY CLA Y.
HE close of the war removes the period preceding it to a
great distance from us, so that we can judge its public men as though we were the “posterity” to whom they sometimes appealed. James Buchanan still haunts the neighborhood of Lancaster, a living man, giving and receiving dinners, paying his taxes, and taking his accustomed exercise; but as an historical figure he is as complete as Bolingbroke or Walpole. It is not merely that his work is done, nor that the results of his work are apparent; but the thing upon which he wrought, by their relation to which he and his contemporaries are to be estimated, has perished. The statesmen of his day, we can all now plainly see, inherited from the founders of the Republic a problem impossible of solution, with which some of them wrestled manfully, others meanly, some wisely, others foolishly. If the workmen have not all passed away, the work is at once finished and destroyed, like the Russian ice-palace, laboriously built, then melted in the sun. We can now have the requisite sympathy with those late doctors of the body, politic, who came to the consultation pledged not to attempt to remove the thorn from its flesh, and trained to regard it as the spear-head in the side of Epaminondas, - extract it, and the patient dies. In the writhings of the sufferer the barb has fallen out, and lo! he lives and is getting well. We can now forgive most of those blind healers, and even admire such of them as were honest and not cowards; for, in truth, it was an impossibility with which they had to grapple, and it was not one of their creating.
Of our public men of the sixty years preceding the war, Henry Clay was certainly the most shining figure. Was there ever a public man, not at the head of a state, so beloved as he? Who ever heard such cheers, so hearty, distinct, and ringing, as those which his name evoked? Men shed tears at his defeat, and women went to bed sick from pure sympathy with his disappointment. He could not travel during the last thirty years of his life, but only make progresses. When he left his home the public seized him and bore him along over the land, the committee of one State passing him on to the committee of another, and the hurrahs of one town dying away as those of the next caught his ear. The country seemed to place all its resources at his disposal; all commodities sought his acceptance. Passing through Newark once, he thoughtlessly ordered a carriage of a certain pattern : the same evening the carriage was at the door of his hotel in New York, the gift of a few Newark friends. It was so everywhere and with everything. His house became at last a museum of curious gifts. There was the counterpane made for him by a lady ninety-three years of
and Washington's campgoblet given him by a lady of eighty; there were pistols, rifles, and fowling-pieces enough to defend a citadel; and, among a bundle of walking-sticks, was one cut for him from a tree that shaded Cicero's grave. There were gorgeous prayer-books, and Bibles of exceeding magnitude and splendor, and silver-ware in great profusion. On one occasion there arrived at Ashland the substantial present of twenty-three barrels of salt. In his old age, when his fine estate, through the misfortunes of his sons, was burdened with mortgages to the amount of thirty thousand dollars, and other large debts weighed heavily upon his soul, and he feared to be compelled to sell the home of fifty years and seek a strange abode, a few old friends secretly raised the needful sum, secretly paid the mortgages and discharged the debts, and then caused the aged orator to be informed of what had been done, but not of the names of the donors. “ Could my life insure the success of Henry Clay, I would freely lay it down this day," exclaimed an old Rhode Island sea-captain on the morning of the Presidential election of 1844. Who has forgotten the passion of disappointment, the amazement and despair, at the result of that day's fatal work? Fatal we thought it then, little dreaming that, while it precipitated evil, it brought nearer the day of deliverance.
Our readers do not need to be reminded that popularity the most intense is not a proof of merit. The two most mischievous men this country has ever produced were extremely popular, — one in a State, the other in every State, — and both for long periods of time. There are certain men and women and children who are natural heart-winners, and their gift of winning hearts seems something apart from their general character. We have known this sweet power over the affections of others to be possessed by very worthy and by very barren natures. There are good men who repel, and bad men who attract. We cannot, therefore, assent to the opinion held by many, that popularity is an evidence of shallowness or ill-desert. As there are pictures expressly designed to be looked at from a distance by great num-bers of people at once, — the scenery of a theatre, for example,
so there are men who appear formed by Nature to stand forth before multitudes, captivating every eye, and gathering in great harvests of love with little effort. If, upon looking closely at: nese pictures and these men, we find them less admirable than they seemed at a distance, it is but fair to remember that they were not meant to be looked at closely, and that “scenery” hasas much right to exist as a Dutch painting which bears the test of the microscope.
It must be confessed, however, that Henry Clay, who was for twenty-eight years a candidate for the Presidency, cultivated his popularity. Without ever being a hypocrite, he was habitually an actor; but the part which he enacted was Henry Clay exag-gerated. He was naturally a most courteous man; but the con-sciousness of his position made him more elaborately and universally courteous than any man ever was from more good-nature. A man on the stage must overdo his part, in order not to seem. to underdo it. There was a time when almost every visitor to the city of Washington desired, above all things, to be presenteo: to three men there, Clay, Webster, and Calhoun, whom to hara seen was a distinction. When the country member brought for ward his agitated constituent on the floor of the Senate-chamber
and introduced him to Daniel Webster, the Expounder was likely enough to thrust a hand at him without so much as turning his head or discontinuing his occupation, and the stranger shrunk away painfully conscious of his insignificance. Calhoun, on the contrary, besides receiving him with civility, would converse with him, if opportunity favored, and treat him to a disquisition on the nature of government and the “ beauty” of nullification, striving to make a lasting impression on his intellect. Clay would rise, extend his hand with that winning grace of his, and instantly captivate him by his all-conquering courtesy. He would call him by name, inquire respecting his health, the town whence he came, how long he had been in Washington, and send him away pleased with himself and enchanted with Henry Clay. And what was his delight to receive a few weeks after, in his distant village, a copy of the Kentuckian's last speech, bearing on the cover the frank of “H. Clay”! It was almost enough to make a man think of “running for Congress ”! And, what was still more intoxicating, Mr. Clay, who had a surprising memory, would be likely, on meeting this individual two years after the introduction, to address him by name.
There was a gamy flavor, in those days, about Southern men, which was very pleasing to the people of the North. Reason teaches us that the barn-yard fowl is a more meritorious bird than the game-cock; but the imagination does not assent to the proposition. Clay was at once game-cock and domestic fowl. His gestures called to mind the magnificently branching trees of his Kentucky forests, and his handwriting had the neatness and delicacy of a female copyist. There was a careless, graceful ease in his movements and attitudes, like those of an Indian chief; but he was an exact man of business, who docketed his letters, and could send from Washington to Ashland for a document, telling in what pigeon-hole it could be found. Naturally impetuous, he acquired early in life an habitual moderation of statement, an habitual consideration for other men's self-love, which made him the pacificator of his time. The great compromiser was himself a compromise. The ideal of education is to tame men without lessening their vivacity, - to unite in them the freedom, the dig.