restricted access America's Long Eulogy for Compromise: Henry Clay and American Politics, 1854-58
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America's Long Eulogy for Compromise:
Henry Clay and American Politics, 1854-58

On January 30, 1854, Stephen Douglas rose in the U.S. Senate to defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act against the harsh criticisms voiced by six fellow congressmen in their "Appeal of the Independent Democrats." The bicameral coalition had charged Douglas with violating "a sacred pledge" made in the 1820 Missouri Compromise that slavery would never be allowed to enter any territory lying above 36° 30'. Understanding the national import of these accusations, Douglas chose to justify his proposed bill by claiming that with the Compromise of 1850 Henry Clay had altered the very tradition of compromise he had upheld since 1820. Recognizing that the Missouri Compromise had done little to permanently resolve the contentious slavery issue, Douglas asserted, Clay and his fellow leaders had adopted a more permanent solution. Referring to the land acquired from Mexico, he claimed that the shapers "of the compromise measures of 1850" had not sought "a mere miserable expedient to apply to that territory" but a permanent resolution to the perpetual problem facing the Union. Certainly, a temporary fix had not been the last wish of "the eminent and venerable Senator from Kentucky," who "came here and sacrificed even his last energies upon the altar of the country." Believing Clay's method of compromise had done nothing but prolong the sectional battle, Douglas boldly claimed that the Great Compromiser himself had recognized the need to replace his practice of constantly renegotiating sectional demands with a single, unifying principle. Clay and his fellow leaders had therefore based the Compromise of 1850 upon "certain great principles, which would avoid the slavery agitation in all time to come."1

In these statements, Douglas claimed that the Great Compromiser, the first American ever to receive the honor of lying in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, had abandoned the very form of compromise for which he was so beloved and embraced the "great universal principle" of popular sovereignty in its stead. This provocative depiction of the Kentuckian's last great compromise rippled from the Senate chamber across the nation, as [End Page 28] Douglas Democrats embraced popular sovereignty and Douglas's opponents decried his disturbing disruption of Henry Clay's legacy. From 1854 to 1858, Americans participated in a long eulogy for Clay's compromise tradition, turning away from any attempts at real compromise while drawing on Clay to validate their own principles. By 1858, most Democrats and Republicans believed each of their respective platforms presented a viable moderate substitute to any negotiated compromise, and the door to any effective bipartisan agreement on slavery had closed.2

Long before his death on June 29, 1852, Americans had celebrated Henry Clay as an embodiment of the spirit of compromise. When the nation reeled in its first prolonged political battle over slavery in 1820, Clay had utilized his position as Speaker of the House to negotiate an agreement between northerners and southerners. The sudden conflict had disturbingly reignited the turbulent slavery issue, yet Clay's efforts also ushered a particular method of compromise to the forefront of American political culture, enshrining it as an essential tradition in the Union. The final settlement did not force either side to compromise its principles but managed to satisfy both pro- and antislavery forces. Most noticeable was Clay's remarkable ability to act as nonpartisan negotiator. Explicitly setting aside his own highly partisan principles in open displays of unionist devotion, he modeled a form of compromise that compelled his countrymen to the bargaining table. After the passage of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, Americans began to distinguish Clay as the Great Compromiser who, unlike most partisan politicians, proved ever ready to sacrifice his personal principles to salvage the nation from internal strife. This reputation only grew with the 1833 passage of a tariff compromise meant to rid the Union of the distressful nullification debate.3

When the slavery question once again threatened to divide the nation in 1850, Americans turned to Clay for assistance in organizing the territories acquired from Mexico. Pulling himself from the restful quiescence of Ashland, his Kentucky estate, the old and withered retiree rose...