HENRY CLAY on Political Power


Henry Clay, a Kentuckian and owner of slaves, was a leading figure in American politics for some 40 years. He served as a member of the House of Representatives and of the Senate, Secretary of State and in various other domestic and diplomatic posts and ran for president several times. Known as "the Great Compromiser," he engineered many political agreements and on several occasions maneuvered situations that might have become crises into calmer circumstances.

Among his achievements were the Missouri Compromise of 1820, resolution of the Nullification crisis of 1832 and the Treaty of Ghent of 1814, where he was one of the American ministers.

Following are excerpts from  public statements that reflect his ideas on government and democracy.

[1834]   SIR, I am surprised and alarmed at the new source of executive power which is found in the result of a presidential election. I had supposed that the Constitution and the laws were the sole source of executive authority; that the Constitution could only be amended in the mode which it has itself prescribed; that the issue of a presidential election was merely to place the chief magistrate in the post assigned to him; and that he had neither more nor less power, in consequence of the election, than the Constitution defines and delegates. But it seems that if, prior to an election, certain opinions, no matter how ambiguously put forth by a candidate, are known to the people, these loose opinions, in virtue of the election, incorporate themselves with the Constitution, and afterward are to be regarded and expounded as parts of the instrument! . . .

[1840] Why is the plow deserted, the tools of the mechanic laid aside, and all are seen rushing to gatherings of the people? … In my deliberate opinion, the present distressed and distracted state of the country may be traced to the single cause of the action, the encroachments, and the usurpations of the executive branch of the government. . . .

The late President of the United States (Andrew Jackson) advanced certain new and alarming pretensions for the Executive Department of the government, the effect of which, if established and recognized by the people, must inevitably convert it into a monarchy. The first of these, and it was a favorite principle with him, was that the Executive Department should be regarded as a unit. By this principle of unity, he meant and intended that all the executive officers of government should be bound to obey the commands and execute the orders of the President of the United States, and that they should be amenable to him and he be responsible for them. Prior to his administration, it had been considered that they were bound to observe and obey the Constitution and laws, subject only to the general superintendence of the President, and responsible by impeachment, and to the tribunals of justice, for injuries inflicted on private citizens. . . .

But to construct the scheme of practical despotism while all the forms of free government remained, it was necessary to take one further step. By the Constitution, the President is enjoined to take care that the laws be executed. This injunction was merely intended to impose on him the duty of a general superintendence; to see that offices were filled; officers at their respective posts in the discharge of their official functions; and all obstructions to the enforcement of the laws were removed, and, when necessary for that purpose, to call out the militia. No one ever imagined, prior to the administration of President Jackson, that a President of the United States was to occupy himself with supervising and attending to the execution of all the minute details of every one of the hosts of offices in the United States.

Under the constitutional injunction just mentioned, the late President put forward that most extraordinary pretension that the Constitution and laws of the United States were to be executed as be understood them; and this pretension was attempted to be sustained by an argument equally extraordinary-that the President, being a sworn officer, must carry them into effect according to his sense of their meaning. The Constitution and laws were to be executed, not according to their import, as handed down to us by our ancestors, as interpreted by contemporaneous expositions, as expounded by concurrent 'Judicial decisions, as fixed by an uninterrupted course of congressional legislation, but in that sense in which a President of the United States happened to understand them!

To complete this executive usurpation, one further object remained. By the Constitution, the command of the Army and the Navy is conferred on the President. If he could unite the purse with the sword, nothing would be left to gratify the insatiable thirst for power. In 1833 the President seized the Treasury of the United States, and from that day to this it has continued substantially under his control. The seizure was effected by the removal of one secretary of the treasury, understood to be opposed to the measure, and by the dismissal of another who refused to violate the law of the land upon the orders of the President. . . .

The sum of the whole is that there is but one power, one control, one will in the state. All is concentrated in the President. He directs, orders, commands the whole machinery of the state. . . .

General Jackson was a bold and fearless reaper, carrying a wide row, but he did not gather the whole harvest; he left some gleanings to his faithful successor; and he seems resolved to sweep clean the field of power. The duty of inculcating on the official corps the active exertion of their personal and official influence was left by him to be enforced by Mr. Van Buren, in all popular elections. It was not sufficient that the official corps was bound implicitly to obey the will of the President. It was not sufficient that this obedience was coerced by the tremendous power of dismission. It soon became apparent, that the corps might be beneficially employed to promote, In other matters than the business of their offices, the views and interests of the President and his-party.

They are far more efficient than any standing army of equal numbers. A standing army would be separated and stand out from the people, would be an object of jealousy and suspicion; and, being always in corps or in detachments, could exert no influence on popular elections. But the official corps is dispersed throughout the country, in every town, village, and city, mixing with the people, attending their meetings and conventions, becoming chairmen and members of committees, and urging and stimulating partisans to active and vigorous exertion. Acting in concert and, throughout the whole Union, obeying orders issued from the center, their influence, aided by executive patronage, by the Post Office Department, and all the vast other means of the executive is almost irresistible. . . .

But the Army and Navy are too small and, in composition, are too patriotic to subserve all the purposes of this administration. Hence, the recent proposition of the secretary of war, strongly recommended by the President, under color of a new organization of the militia, to create a standing force of 200,000 men, an amount which no conceivable foreign exigency can ever make necessary. It is not my purpose now to enter upon an examination of that alarming and most dangerous plan of the Executive Department of the federal government. It has justly excited a burst of general indignation; and nowhere has the disapprobation of it been more emphatically expressed than in this ancient and venerable commonwealth.

The monstrous project may be described in a few words. It proposes to create the force by breaking down Mason and Dixon's Line, expunging the boundaries of states; melting them up in a confluent mass, to be subsequently cut up into ten military parts; alienates the militia from its natural association; withdraws it from the authority and command and sympathy of its constitutional officers appointed by the states; puts it under the command of the President; authorizes him to cause it to be trained, in palpable violation of the Constitution; and subjects it to be called out from remote and distant places, at his pleasure, and on occasions not warranted by the Constitution! . . .

Let Mr. Van Buren be reelected in November next and it will be claimed that the people have thereby approved of this plan of the secretary of war. . . .

I have thus, fellow citizens, exhibited to you a true and faithful picture of executive power as it has been enlarged and expanded within the last few years, and as it has been proposed further to extend it. It overshadows every other branch of the government. The source of legislative power is no longer to be found in the Capitol but in the palace of the President. In assuming to be a part of the legislative power, as the President recently did, contrary to the Constitution, he would have been nearer the actual fact if he had alleged that he was the sole legislative power of the Union. How is it possible for public liberty to be preserved, and the constitutional distributions of power, among the departments of government, to be maintained unless the executive career be checked and restrained? . . .

And yet the partisans of this tremendous executive power arrogate to themselves the name of Democrats, and bestow upon us, who are opposed to it, the denomination of Federalists! . . .

What are the positions of the two great parties of the present day? Modern democracy has reduced the federal theory of a strong and energetic executive to practical operation. It has turned from the people, the natural ally of genuine democracy, to the executive; and, instead of vigilance, jealousy, and distrust, has given to that department all its confidence, and made to it a virtual surrender of all the powers of government. The recognized maxim of royal infallibility is transplanted from the British monarchy into modern American democracy; and the President can do no wrong!

This new school adopts, modifies, changes, renounces, renews opinions at the pleasure of the executive. Is the Bank of the United States a useful and valuable institution? Yes, unanimously pronounces the Democratic legislature of Pennsylvania. The President vetoes it as a pernicious and dangerous establishment. The Democratic majority in the same legislature pronounce it to be pernicious and dangerous. The Democratic majority of the House of Representatives of the United States declare the deposits of the public money in the Bank of the United States to be safe. The President says they are unsafe and removes them. The democracy say they are unsafe and approve the removal. The President says that a scheme of a subtreasury is revolutionary and disorganizing. The democracy say it is revolutionary and disorganizing. The President says it is wise and salutary. The Democracy say it is wise and salutary.

The Whigs of 1840 stand where the Republicans of 1798 stood, and where the Whigs of the Revolution were, battling for liberty, for the people, for free institutions, against power, against corruption, against executive encroachments, against monarchy.

We are reproached with struggling for offices and their emoluments. If we acted on the avowed and acknowledged principle of our opponents, "that the spoils belong to the victors," we should indeed be unworthy of the support of the people. No! fellow citizens; higher, nobler, more patriotic motives actuate the Whig Party, Their object is the restoration of the Constitution, the preservation of liberty, and rescue of the country. If they were governed by the sordid and selfish motives acted upon by their opponents, and unjustly imputed to them, to acquire office and emolument, they have only to change their names and enter the presidential palace. The gate is always wide open, and the path is no narrow one which leads through it. The last comer, too, often fares best.

On a resurvey of the few past years, we behold enough to sicken and sadden the hearts of true patriots. Executive encroachment has quickly followed upon executive encroachment; persons honored by public confidence, and from whom nothing but grateful and parental measures should have flowed, have inflicted stunning blow after blow, in such rapid succession that, before the people could recover from the reeling effects of one, another has fallen heavily upon them. Had either of various instances of executive misrule stood out separate and alone, so that its enormity might have been seen and dwelt upon with composure, the condemnation of the executive would have long since been pronounced; but it has hitherto found safety and impunity in the bewildering effects of the multitude of its misdeeds.

The nation has been in the condition of a man who, having gone to bed after his barn has been consumed by fire, is aroused in the morning to witness his dwelling house wrapped in flames. So bold and presumptuous had the executive become that, penetrating in its influence the hall of a coordinate branch of the government by means of a submissive or instructed majority of the Senate, it has caused a record of the country to be effaced and expunged, the inviolability of which was guaranteed by a solemn injunction of the Constitution! And that memorable and scandalous scene was enacted only because the offensive record contained an expression of disapprobation of an executive proceeding.

If this state of things were to remain if the progress of executive usurpation were to continue unchecked, hopeless despair would seize the public mind, or the people would be goaded to acts of open and violent resistance. But, thank God, the power of the President, fearful and rapid as its strides have been, is not yet too great for the power of the elective franchise; and a bright and glorious prospect in the election of William Henry Harrison has opened upon the country.

The necessity of a change of rulers has deeply penetrated the hearts of the people; and we everywhere behold cheering manifestations of that happy event. The fact of his election alone, without reference to the measures of his administration, will powerfully contribute to the security and happiness of the people. It will bring assurance of the cessation of that long series of disastrous experiments which have so greatly afflicted the people. Confidence will immediately revive, credit be restored, active business will return, prices of products will rise; and the people will feel and know that, instead of their servants being occupied in devising measures for their ruin and destruction, they will be assiduously employed in promoting their welfare and prosperity. . . .

The first, and, in my opinion, the most important object, which should engage the serious attention of a new administration is that of circumscribing the executive power, and throwing around it such limitations and safeguards as will render it no longer dangerous to the public liberties. . . . With the view, therefore, to the fundamental character of the government itself, and especially of the executive branch, it seems to me that, either by amendments of the Constitution, when they are necessary, or by remedial legislation, when the object falls within the scope of the powers of Congress, there should be:

First, a provision to render a person ineligible to the office of President of the United States after a service of one term.

Much observation and deliberate reflection have satisfied me that too much of the time, the thoughts, and the exertions of the incumbent are occupied, during his first term, in securing his reelection. The public business, consequently, suffers; and measures are proposed or executed with less regard to the general prosperity than to their influence upon the approaching election. If the limitation to one term existed, the President would be exclusively devoted to the discharge of his public duties; and he would endeavor to signalize his administration by the beneficence and wisdom of its measures.

Second, the veto power should be more precisely defined and be subjected to further limitations and qualifications.

Although a large, perhaps the largest, proportion of all the acts of Congress passed at the short session of Congress since the commencement of the government were passed within the three last days of the session, and when, of course, the President for the time being had not the ten days for consideration, allowed by the Constitution, President Jackson, availing himself of that allowance, has failed to return important bills. When not returned by the President within the ten days, it is questionable whether they are laws or not. It is very certain that the next Congress cannot act upon them by deciding whether or not they shall become laws, the President's objections notwithstanding. All this ought to be provided for.

At present, a bill returned by the President can only become a law by the concurrence of two-thirds of the members of each house. I think if Congress passes a bill after discussion and consideration, and, after weighing the objections of the President, still believes it ought to pass, It should become a law provided a majority of all the members of each house concur in its passage. If the weight of his argument and the weight of his influence conjointly cannot prevail on a majority, against their previous convictions, in my opinion, the bill ought not to be arrested. Such is the provision of the constitutions of several of the states, and that of Kentucky among them.

Third, the power of dismission from office should be restricted, and the exercise of it be rendered responsible.

The constitutional concurrence of the Senate is necessary to the confirmation of all important appointments; but, without consulting the Senate, without any other motive than resentment or caprice, the President may dismiss, at his sole pleasure, an officer created by the joint action of himself and the Senate. The practical effect is to nullify the agency of the Senate. There may be, occasionally, cases in which the public interest requires an immediate dismission without waiting for the assembling of the Senate; but in all such cases the President should be bound to communicate fully the grounds and motives of the dismission. The power would be thus rendered responsible. Without it, the exercise of the power is utterly repugnant to free institutions, the basis of which is perfect responsibility, and dangerous to the public liberty. . . .

Fourth, the control over the Treasury of the United States should be confided and confined exclusively to Congress; and all authority of the President over it, by means of dismissing the secretary of the treasury or other persons having the immediate charge of it, be rigorously precluded.

You have heard much, fellow citizens, of the divorce of banks and government. After crippling them and impairing their utility, the executive and its partisans have systematically denounced them. The executive and the country were warned again and again of the fatal course that has been pursued; but the executive nevertheless persevered, commencing by praising and ending by decrying the state banks. Under cover of the smoke which has been raised, the real object all along has been, and yet is, to obtain the possession of the money power of the Union. That accomplished and sanctioned by the people-the union of the sword and the purse in the hands of the President effectually secured-and farewell to American liberty.

The subtreasury is the scheme for effecting that union; and, I am told, that of all the days in the year, that which gave birth to our national existence and freedom is the selected day to be disgraced by ushering into existence a measure imminently perilous to the liberty, which, on that anniversary, we commemorate In joyous festivals. Thus, in the spirit of destruction which animates our rulers, would they convert a day of gladness and of glory into a day of sadness and mourning. Fellow citizens, there is one divorce urgently demanded by the safety and the highest interests of the country - a divorce of the President from the Treasury of the United States.

And, fifth, the appointment of members of Congress to any office, or any but a few specific offices, during their continuance in office and for one year thereafter, should be prohibited.

This is a hackneyed theme, but it is not less deserving of serious consideration. The Constitution now interdicts the appointment of a member of Congress to any office created, or the emoluments of which have been increased while he was in office. In the purer days of the republic, that restriction might have been sufficient; but in these more degenerate times, it is necessary, by an amendment of the Constitution, to give the principle greater extent.

These are the subjects, in relation to the permanent character of the government itself, which, it seems to me, are worthy of the serious attention of the people and of a new administration. There are others of an administrative nature which require prompt and careful consideration.

First, the currency of the country, its stability and uniform value, and, as intimately and indissolubly connected with it, the insurance of the faithful performance of the Fiscal services necessary to the government should be maintained and secured by exercising all the powers requisite to those objects with which Congress is constitutionally invested. These are the great ends to be aimed at; the means are of subordinate importance. Whether these ends, indispensable to the well-being of both the people and the government are to be attained by sound and safe state banks, carefully selected and properly distributed, or by a new Bank of the United States, with such limitations, conditions, and restrictions as have been indicated by experience, should be left to the arbitrament of enlightened public opinion.

Candor and truth require me to say that, in my judgment, while banks continue to exist in the country, the services of a Bank of the United States cannot be safely dispensed with. I think that the power to establish such a bank is a settled question; settled by Washington and by Madison, by the people, by forty years' acquiescence, by the judiciary, and by both of the great parties which so long held sway in this country. I know and I respect the contrary opinion which is entertained in this state.

But, in my deliberate view of the matter, the power to establish such a bank being settled, and being a necessary and proper power, the only question is as to the expediency of its exercise. And on questions of mere expediency, public opinion ought to have a controlling influence. Without banks, I believe we cannot have a sufficient currency; without a Bank of the United States, I fear we cannot have a sound currency. But It is the end, that of a sound and sufficient currency, and a faithful execution of the fiscal duties of government, that should engage the dispassionate and candid consideration of the whole community.

There is nothing in the name of the Bank of the United States which has any magical charm, or to which any one need be wedded. It is to secure certain great objects, without which society cannot prosper; and if, contrary to my apprehension, these objects can be accomplished by dispensing with the agency of a Bank of the United States and employing that of state banks, all ought to rejoice and heartily acquiesce, and none would more than I should.

Second, that the public lands, in conformity with the trusts created expressly or by just implication on their acquisition, be administered in a spirit of liberality toward the new states and territories, and a spirit of justice toward all the states.

The land bill, which was rejected by President Jackson, and acts of occasional legislation will accomplish both these objects. I regret that the time does not admit of my exposing here the nefarious plans and purposes of the administration as to this vast national resource. That, like every other great interest of the country, is administered with the sole view of the effect upon the interests of the party in power. A bill has passed the Senate and is now pending before the House, according to which, $40 million are stricken from the real value of a certain portion of the public lands by a short process; and a citizen of Virginia, residing on the southwest side of the Ohio, is not allowed to purchase lands as cheap, by half a dollar per acre, as a citizen living on the northwest side of that river. I have no hesitation in expressing my conviction that the whole public domain is gone if Mr. Van Buren be reelected.

Third, that the policy of protecting and encouraging the production of American industry, entering into competition with the rival productions of foreign industry, be adhered to and maintained on the basis of the principles and in the spirit of the compromise of March 1833.

Protection and national independence are, in my opinion, identical and synonymous. The principle of abandonment of the one cannot be surrendered without a forfeiture of the other. Who, with just pride and national sensibility, can think of subjecting the products of our industry to all the taxation and restraints of foreign powers, without effort on our part to counteract their prohibitions and burdens by suitable countervailing legislation? The question cannot be, ought not to be, one of principle but of measure and degree. I adopt that of the compromise act, not because that act is irrepealable, but because it met with the sanction of the nation. Stability, with moderate and certain protection, is far more important than instability, the necessary consequence of high protection. But the protection of the compromise act will be adequate, in most, if not as to all interests.

The 20 percent which it stipulates, cash duties, home valuations, and the list of free articles inserted in the act for the particular advantage of the manufacturer, will insure, I trust, sufficient protection. Altogether, they wi 'II amount probably to no less than 30 percent, a greater extent of protection than was secured prior to the act of 1829, which no one stands up to defend.

Now the valuation of foreign goods is made not by the American authority, except in suspected cases, but by foreigners and abroad. They assess the value and we the duty; but as the duty depends, in most cases, upon the value, it is manifest that those who assess the value fix the duty. The home valuation will give our government what it rightfully possesses, both the power to ascertain the true value of the thing which it taxes as well as the amount of that tax.

Fourth, that a strict and wise economy in the disbursement of the public money be steadily enforced; and that, to that end, all useless establishments, all unnecessary offices and places, foreign and domestic, and all extravagance, either in the collection or expenditure of the public revenue, be abolished and repressed.

I have not time to dwell on details in the application of this principle. I will say that a pruning knife, long, broad, and sharp, should be applied to every department of the government. There is abundant scope for honest and skillful surgery. The annual expenditure may, in reasonable time, be brought down from its present amount of about $40 million to nearly one-third of that sum.

Fifth, the several states have made such great and gratifying progress in their respective systems of internal improvement, and have been so aided by the distribution under the deposit act that, in future, the erection of new roads and canals should be left to them, with such further aid only from the general government as they would derive from the payment of the last Installment under that act, from an absolute relinquishment of the right of Congress to call upon them to refund the previous installments, and from their equal and just quotas to be received by a future distribution of the net proceeds from the sales of the public lands.

And, sixth, that the right to slave property, being guaranteed by the Constitution, and recognized as one of the compromises incorporated in that instrument by our ancestors, should be left where the Constitution has placed it, undisturbed and unagitated by Congress.

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