Eulogy on Henry Clay (July 6, 1852)

Contributing Editors for this page include Jin Hong, Kory Loyola and Greg O’Reilly

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#62 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty—a strong sympathy with the oppressed every where, and an ardent wish for their elevation.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, July 6, 1852

The Lincoln Log, July 6, 1852

Close Readings


Posted at YouTube by “Understanding Lincoln” course participant Greg O’Reilly, August 2014. You can read a transcript of this video here.

Jin Hong, “Understanding Lincoln” blog post (via Quora), October 24, 2013

Kory Loyola, “Understanding Lincoln” blog post (via Quora), September 29, 2013

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How Historians Interpret

“Lincoln identified himself with Clay, and in this description of Clay’s patriotism he had perfectly described his own. Lincoln, too, loved America mostly because it was a country dedicated to freedom. Lincoln’s eulogy praises Clay as a moderate statesman who avoided the extremes of abolitionism on the one hand and proslavery militancy on the other. A practical politician himself, Lincoln characteristically defined his own positions as centrist. Even some of the specific issues that Lincoln would have to deal with in the future are prefigured in this remarkable oration. The eulogy goes on to credit Clay with taking a constructive interest in resolving the problem of American slavery. The plan Clay favored was compensated emancipation followed by the emigration of the freed people to designated overseas colonies such as Liberia. In years to come Lincoln would have occasion to entertain this proposal before abandoning it. The eulogy praises Clay’s great Missouri Compromise of 1820, and before long Lincoln would be defending that very compromise against first the Kansas-Nebraska bill and then the Dred Scott decision.”

—Daniel Walker Howe, “Why Abraham Lincoln Was a Whig,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Society 16 (1995).

“In 1852, he injected some political content into his eulogy on Henry Clay. After quoting the Great Compromiser’s eloquent defense of the American Colonization Society, Lincoln offered his own biting commentary on slavery: “Pharaoh’s country was cursed with plagues, and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea for striving to retain a captive people who had already served them more than four hundred years.” (This concern for divine punishment for the sin of slavery was to reappear in one of his greatest state papers, the second inaugural address.)”

— Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 9 (PDF), pp. 1034.

“Lincoln applauds Clay for envisioning national glory as something altogether different from military might and the projection of power throughout the globe. Rather Clay and Lincoln both envision glory in terms of America’s moral worth at home and its moral influence abroad. The true glory of America is measured by the extent to which it advances the cause of liberty as a ‘city upon a hill’ and ‘a light unto other nations.’ Following the Founder, Lincoln’s reflective patriotism applies these Puritan symbols to the American experiment in self-government. The republican critics of democracy said that it was prone to the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. In reply to these critics, Lincoln would subsequently characterize the Civil War as an ordeal that tested the viability of democracy. The success of failure of the American experiment would reverberate throughout the globe, providing hope or despair for the friends of freedom everywhere. Because Clay’s legacy belonged to the world as much as America, Lincoln proclaims him as, ‘freedom’s champion.’ As we may recall, Clay’s American System promised moral support for the fledgling democracies in Latin America who were struggling against Spain’s colonial domination. Lincoln also followed Clay and the Whigs in opposing the Democratic policies of Manifest Destiny and imperial expansion. Further consistent with what we have seen, Lincoln associates patriotism with the qualities of wisdom and intelligence. He admires Clay’s ‘wisdom and patriotism.’ And he extols his undeniable legacy ‘amongst intelligent and Patriotic Americans.’ The implication being that those who place sectional interest above devotion to the Union, whether they are northerners or southerners, are both unreasonable and unpatriotic.”

—Joseph R. Fornieri, Abraham Lincoln, Philosopher Statesman(Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), 157.

NOTE TO READERS

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Searchable Text

… Mr. Clay’s eloquence did not consist, as many fine specimens of eloquence does [do], of types and figures—of antithesis, and elegant arrangement of words and sentences; but rather of that deeply earnest and impassioned tone, and manner, which can proceed only from great sincerity and a thorough conviction, in the speaker of the justice and importance of his cause. This it is, that truly touches the chords of human sympathy; and those who heard Mr. Clay, never failed to be moved by it, or ever afterwards, forgot the impression. All his efforts were made for practical effect. 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. In the construction of his measures he ever carefully surveyed every part of the field, and duly weighed every conflicting interest. Feeling, as he did, and as the truth surely is, that the world’s best hope depended on the continued Union of these States, he was ever jealous of, and watchful for, whatever might have the slightest tendency to separate them.
Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty—a strong sympathy with the oppressed every where, and an ardent wish for their elevation. With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. Subsidiary to this was the conduct of his whole life. 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. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
That his views and measures were always the wisest, needs not to be affirmed; nor should it be, on this occasion, where so many, thinking differently, join in doing honor to his memory. A free people, in times of peace and quiet—when pressed by no common danger—naturally divide into parties. At such times, the man who is of neither party, is not—cannot be, of any consequence. Mr. Clay, therefore, was of a party. Taking a prominent part, as he did, in all the great political questions of his country for the last half century, the wisdom of his course on many, is doubted and denied by a large portion of his countrymen; and of such it is not now proper to speak particularly….
… Having been led to allude to domestic slavery so frequently already, I am unwilling to close without referring more particularly to Mr. Clay’s views and conduct in regard to it. He ever was, on principle and in feeling, opposed to slavery. The very earliest, and one of the latest public efforts of his life, separated by a period of more than fifty years, were both made in favor of gradual emancipation of the slaves in Kentucky. He did not perceive, that on a question of human right, the negroes were to be excepted from the human race. And yet Mr. Clay was the owner of slaves. 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. Those who would shiver into fragments the Union of these States; tear to tatters its now venerated constitution; and even burn the last copy of the Bible, rather than slavery should continue a single hour, together with all their more halting sympathisers, have received, and are receiving their just execration; and the name, and opinions, and influence of Mr. Clay, are fully, and, as I trust, effectually and enduringly, arrayed against them. But I would also, if I could, array his name, opinions, and influence against the opposite extreme—against a few, but an increasing number of men, who, for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and to ridicule the white-man’s charter of freedom—the declaration that “all men are created free and equal.” So far as I have learned, the first American, of any note, to do or attempt this, was the late John C. Calhoun; and if I mistake not, it soon after found its way into some of the messages of the Governors of South Carolina. We, however, look for, and are not much shocked by, political eccentricities and heresies in South Carolina. … But Henry Clay is dead. His long and eventful life is closed. Our country is prosperous and powerful; but could it have been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry Clay? Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us. But he is gone. Let us strive to deserve, as far as mortals may, the continued care of Divine Providence, trusting that, in future national emergencies, He will not fail to provide us the instruments of safety and security.
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