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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Vindication of his Policy and Ambition

By Henry Clay (1777–1852)

[Second Speech on the Compromise Tariff Bill. 1833.—The Life and Speeches of Henry Clay. 1843.]

THERE are some who say, let the tariff go down; let our manufactures be prostrated, if such be the pleasure, at another session, of those to whose hands the government of this country is confided; let bankruptcy and ruin be spread over the land; and let resistance to the laws, at all hazards, be subdued. Sir, they take counsel from their passions. They anticipate a terrible reaction from the downfall of the tariff, which would ultimately re-establish it upon a firmer basis than ever. But it is these very agitations, these mutual irritations between brethren of the same family, it is the individual distress and general ruin that would necessarily follow the overthrow of the tariff, that ought, if possible, to be prevented. Besides, are we certain of this reaction? Have we not been disappointed in it as to other measures heretofore? But suppose, after a long and embittered struggle, it should come, in what relative condition would it find the parts of this confederacy? In what state our ruined manufactures? When they should be laid low, who, amidst the fragments of the general wreck, scattered over the face of the land, would have courage to engage in fresh enterprises, under a new pledge of the violated faith of the government? If we adjourn, without passing this bill, having intrusted the executive with vast powers to maintain the laws, should he be able by the next session to put down all opposition to them, will he not, as a necessary consequence of success, have more power than ever to put down the tariff also? Has he not said that the South is oppressed, and its burdens ought to be relieved? And will he not feel himself bound, after he shall have triumphed, if triumph he may in a civil war, to appease the discontents of the South by a modification of the tariff, in conformity with its wishes and demands? No, sir; no, sir; let us save the country from the most dreadful of all calamities, and let us save its industry, too, from threatened destruction. Statesmen should regulate their conduct and adapt their measures to the exigencies of the times in which they live. They cannot, indeed, transcend the limits of the constitutional rule; but with respect to those systems of policy which fall within its scope, they should arrange them according to the interests, the wants, and the prejudices of the people. Two great dangers threaten the public safety. The true patriot will not stop to inquire how they have been brought about, but will fly to the deliverance of his country. The difference between the friends and the foes of the compromise, under consideration, is, that they would, in the enforcing act, send forth alone a flaming sword. We would send out that also, but along with it the olive branch, as a messenger of peace. They cry out, the law! the law! the law! Power! power! power! We, too, reverence the law, and bow to the supremacy of its obligation; but we are in favor of the law executed in mildness, and of power tempered with mercy. They, as we think, would hazard a civil commotion, beginning in South Carolina and extending, God only knows where. While we would vindicate the federal government, we are for peace, if possible, union, and liberty. We want no war, above all, no civil war, no family strife. We want to see no sacked cities, no desolated fields, no smoking ruins, no streams of American blood shed by American arms!

I have been accused of ambition in presenting this measure. Ambition! inordinate ambition! If I had thought of myself only, I should have never brought it forward. I know well the perils to which I expose myself; the risk of alienating faithful and valued friends, with but little prospect of making new ones, if any new ones could compensate for the loss of those whom we have long tried and loved; and the honest misconceptions both of friends and foes. Ambition! If I had listened to its soft and seducing whispers; if I had yielded myself to the dictates of a cold, calculating, and prudential policy, I would have stood still and unmoved. I might even have silently gazed on the raging storm, enjoyed its loudest thunders, and left those who are charged with the care of the vessel of state, to conduct it as they could. I have been heretofore often unjustly accused of ambition. Low, grovelling souls, who are utterly incapable of elevating themselves to the higher and nobler duties of pure patriotism—beings, who, forever keeping their own selfish aims in view, decide all public measures by their presumed influence on their aggrandizement—judge me by the venal rule which they prescribe to themselves. I have given to the winds those false accusations, as I consign that which now impeaches my motives. I have no desire for office, not even the highest. The most exalted is but a prison, in which the incarcerated incumbent daily receives his cold, heartless visitants, marks his weary hours, and is cut off from the practical enjoyment of all the blessings of genuine freedom. I am no candidate for any office in the gift of the people of these States, united or separated; I never wish, never expect to be. Pass this bill, tranquillize the country, restore confidence and affection in the Union, and I am willing to go home to Ashland, and renounce public service forever. I should there find, in its groves, under its shades, on its lawns, amidst my flocks and herds, in the bosom of my family, sincerity and truth, attachment, and fidelity, and gratitude, which I have not always found in the walks of public life. Yes, I have ambition; but it is the ambition of being the humble instrument, in the hands of Providence, to reconcile a divided people; once more to revive concord and harmony in a distracted land—the pleasing ambition of contemplating the glorious spectacle of a free, united, prosperous, and fraternal people!