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Two Men One Ideal

By Beatriz Martos
Understanding Lincoln Summer 2016

Source: NY Public Library Digital Collection

Mr. Clays predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human
liberty---a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their
elevation (Lincoln 1852a).
Lincolns Eulogy on Henry Clay (July 6, 1852) [1] not only honored one of the greatest
statesmen of his time, but was an opportunity for him to reveal within a public forum his own
similar beliefs and views about slavery, emancipation, and the preservation of the Union of
States guided by constitutional principles. As Lincoln delivered the eulogy, honoring Clays
support for the containment of slavery in new territories, it mirrored his own political thoughts
regarding slavery; an issue that was rapidly painting the political landscape in the 1850s.
In 1852, Lincoln was a practicing lawyer in Springfield, Illinois who by then had served a single
term in Congress as a representative from Illinois between 1847 to 1849, and had previously
served four terms (1834 1842) in the Illinois State Legislature where he resided. Lincoln had
followed and admired Henry Clays distinguished career as a fervent Whig politician from
Kentucky whose outspoken statements on the evils of slavery and the need for its containment
reflected his own. Considered one the most influential statesmen of his time, Clay was a lawyer,
planter, politician, and great orator representing Kentucky as both a Senator and House
Representative in Congress who gave numerous speeches and participated in negotiations which
led to compromises regarding the issues of slavery and its expansion into new territories. Clay
had earned the nicknames the Great Compromiser and The Great Pacificator for his role in
negotiating and presenting legislation which led to the Missouri Compromises of 1820 and 1850,
as well as quelling the tension during the Nullification Crisis. These events would help postpone
the inevitable escalation of a bloody Civil War during a time of divisiveness over slavery.
Although Clay was also known for his economic programs or the American System which
promoted internal improvements; the development of transportation systems that would link
the Norths manufacturing centers with the agricultural South, a National Bank, and protective
tariffs, these accomplishments were not mentioned in Lincolns eulogy. On July 6, 1852, when
Lincoln delivered his Eulogy on Henry Clay (July 6, 1852) at a memorial service in Springfield,
Illinois, he instead spoke about Clays views on slavery and colonization. It reflected
Lincolns own struggle with an issue of increasing importance. Lincoln understood that slavery

had the potential to divide the nation and its expansion would soon bring him back to the
political arena in 1854 with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.
Lincoln referred to Clay as my beau ideal of a statesman [2] who placed the importance of
democratic ideals and the preservation of the Union as his primary goal in politics. As early as
1845 in a letter addressed to Williamson Durley [3], Lincoln argued that if the Liberty Party
representing abolitionists from the North had voted for Henry Clay as a Whig in the presidential
election of 1844, the extension of slavery would have been prevented. As members of the Whig
Party, Lincoln and Clay both attached themselves to the foundational ideals of democracy
embodied in the symbolic words of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created
equal. Henry Clays depiction of slavery as a foul blot [4] who stated that if he could be
instrumental in eradicating this deepest stain upon the character of the country, .. [4], he would,
was the impetus that drove both politicians to work towards achieving the elimination of slavery
within the framework of the democratic system and the Constitution that embodied it. Lincoln,
who had supported Henry Clay in his first failed presidential campaign in 1844, believed a strong
position on slavery and its containment would lead to its gradual decay.
The eulogy began with a reference to the trials of the first colonists from England and the
historical circumstances in which Clay had been born into. It then continued by giving a factual
summary of Henry Clays life. He then described the character traits that made Henry Clay stand
out: oratorical eloquence, excellent judgment, and will [5]. It was not what Clay said, but how
he said it that made him a great public speaker. Many of these same qualities were characteristic
of Lincoln himself.
It is probably true he owed his pre-eminence to no one quality, but to a fortunate combination
of several. He was surpassingly eloquent; but many eloquent men fail utterly; and they are not,
as a class, generally successful. His judgment was excellent; but many men of good judgment,
live and die unnoticed. His will was indomitable; but this quality often secures to its owner
nothing better than a character for useless obstinacy. These then were Mr. Clay's leading
qualities. No one of them is very uncommon; but all taken together are rarely combined in a
single individual; and this is probably the reason why such men as Henry Clay are so rare in the
world (Lincoln 1852a).
Lincoln went on to state that:
He never spoke merely to be heard. He never delivered a Fourth of July Oration, or an eulogy
on an occasion like this. As a politician or statesman, no one was so habitually careful to avoid
all sectional ground. Whatever he did, he did for the whole country (Lincoln 1852a).
He was stating here that Clay was not a passionate orator who stirred emotions from his
audience, but whose use of eloquence, diplomacy, and his ability to convince others to
compromise made an impact on those who heard him. Clays avoidance of sectionalism would
reflect in Lincolns own cautious use of diplomacy in his future political career as the country
would endure a Civil War which would test his leadership qualities to preserve the Union. Ten
years later in 1862, Lincoln would state in a Letter to Horace Greely [6] that his paramount
object in the struggle was to save the Union, and not to either save or destroy slavery.

Lincoln continued:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free
country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in
such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature
(Lincoln 1852a).
Lincoln had not yet returned to the political arena in 1852, but the eulogy spoke for the ideals
that would define his career two years later. By referring to liberty and rights as human, he was
emphasizing the fact that the Constitution protected the rights of all citizens who lived in the
country and that this was a political ideal that had been embedded in the democratic experiment.
Not only was democracy aimed to prove the capability of a people to govern themselves [7] as
he stated in his Lyceum Address in 1838, but was based on the idea that all men are created
equal. These were the guiding principles that needed to be protected and defining who was
considered human was the question at stake.
As Lincoln continued his eulogy, he focused on Clays views regarding slavery; the divisive
issue which was questioning the future integrity of the nation. He expressed a need to clarify and
almost apologize that although Clay was a slave owner he . was on principle and in feeling,
opposed to slavery and did not perceive, that on question of human right, the negroes were to
be excepted from the human race. and was cast into life where slavery was deeply imbedded
into the culture. He was a product of his environment, Lincoln claimed and his efforts to promote
gradual emancipation in Kentucky reflected his true values regarding slavery. He described the
two opposing sectional groups which had taken hold in the young Republic; the extreme
abolitionists of the North, and the pro-slavery groups of the South. Henry Clay, Lincoln noted,
opposed both for the sake of maintaining the Union and followed a centrist approach of
compromise. Again, Lincoln would echo Clays advocacy to preserve the Union in a speech
he gave in Peoria, Illinois [8] as he prepared for his return to political life.
Cast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not perceive,
as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a
greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself. His feeling and his judgment, therefore,
ever led him to oppose both extremes of opinion on the subject (Lincoln 1852a).
Clays involvement as one of the founders of the American Colonization Society in 1816,
promoted the idea of gradual emancipation in combination with the colonization of emancipated
black slaves to another continent. Colonization was the answer to the social issues that may
result from the integration of emancipated blacks into society. He felt that taking any radical
position to emancipation would open the possibility of racial inequalities or a complete
dismantling of the Union as a consequence of Southern opposition which Clay hoped to avoid.
As Lincoln continued his political career, he would honor Clays legacy through his own antislavery politics using compromise as a way to move towards a resolution that would save the
Union, abolish slavery, and maintain the democratic ideals established by the Founders.
Although Clay never lived to see the outcome of Lincolns accomplishments, his deep influence
on Lincolns views on slavery can not be underestimated.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXaVaplUd3Y

Works cited:
[1] Eulogy on Henry Clay (July 6, 1852) Abraham Lincoln, Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6,
1852." Daily Report. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 July 2016.
[2 ] Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln
[3] http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/40360 "Abraham Lincoln to Williamson Durley,
Springfield, Illinois, October 3, 1845." Daily Report. House Divided Project, n.d. Web. 19 July
2016.
[4 ] Colton, Calvin. "Full Text of "The Speeches of Henry Clay"" Full Text of "The Speeches of
Henry Clay" A.S. Barnes & Co. - NY 1857, n.d. Web. 10 July 2016.
[5] Lincoln, Abraham. "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln - Volume 2." Eulogy on Henry
Clay - July 6, 1852. N.p., n.d. Web. Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
[6] http://housedivided.dickinson.edu/sites/lincoln/letter-to-horace-greeley-august-22-1862/
Lincoln, Abraham. "Letter to Horace Greeley (August 22, 1862)." Lincolns Writings. House
Divided Project, n.d. Web. 19 July 2016.
[7] Lincoln, Abraham. "Lyceum Address (January 27, 1838)." Lincolns Writings. N.p., n.d. Web.
11 July 2016.
[8] http://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/40536 Much as I hate slavery, I would consent
to the extension of it rather than see the Union dissolved, just as I would consent to any GREAT
evil, to avoid a GREATER one.