Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Henry Clay on the War of 1812 and the Restoration of America’s National Character

by Michael Kaplan

On September 15, 1815, at New York City’s Tammany Hall, the leading lights of the city’s political establishment, from both parties (Jeffersonian Republican and Hamiltonian Federalist), gathered to honor tw0 of the returning peacemakers of 1814. Albert Gallatin and Henry Clay, along with John Quincy Adams who remained in Europe, had negotiated the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812 without forcing America to make any humiliating concessions to Great Britain. After listening to toasts in tribute to the nation, himself, Galatin, the military heroes of the war, Clay rose to offer his toast: “The eighth of January 1815!”

Clay’s toast to Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans was not unexpected that day. It only seems surprising in historical hindsight. For Henry Clay, Jackson’s triumph over the British, and the War of 1812 in full, had vindicated America’s national character. Clay, who would soon become Jackson’s bitter rival, had, like Jackson, been an outspoken advocate for war in 1812. Clay and Jackson shared a belief in America’s manifest destiny to expand across the continent, and of war as a means to assert national honor and vindicate the national character. The war, capped by Jackson’s victory, fulfilled Clay’s hopes for a revitalization of America’s republican institutions and character. Despite numerous errors, hardships, and setbacks—American victories were few and far between—the federal government had shown that it could defend the nation and lead it to victory, which was the main purpose for which it had been established. “The effects of the war” Clay told a banquet audience in Lexington, Kentucky in October 1815,

are highly satisfactory. Abroad, our character, which at the time of its declaration was in the lowest state of degradation, is raised to the highest point of elevation. It is impossible for any American to visit Europe, without being sensible of this agreeable change, in the personal attentions which he receives, in the praises which are bestowed on our past exertions, and the predictions which are made as to our future prospects.
Well, everyone does love a winner.

(Henry Clay, “Speech Delivered at a Public Dinner at Lexington, Given in Honor of Mr. Clay, October 7, 1815,” The Works of Henry Clay: Comprising His Life, Correspondence, and Speeches, Calvin Colton, ed. [10 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904], Vol. 6, p. 73.)

Clay expanded on his ideas of national renewal and greatness in a speech before Congress the following January.

Have we gained nothing by the war? Let any man look at the degraded condition of this country before the war—the scorn of the universe, the contempt of ourselves—and tell me, if we have gained nothing by the war? What is our present situation? Respectability and character abroad; security and confidence at home. If we have not obtained, in the opinion of some, the full measure of retribution, our character and Constitution are placed on a solid basis, never to be shaken.
Clay celebrated national glory as the most important achievement of the war. Clay would never have called himself a Jacksonian, but, at least at this point in his long career, he shared the Jacksonian conception of national honor and glory and its central importance in shaping the national character.

The glory acquired by our gallant tars, by our Jacksons and our Browns on the land, is that nothing? True, we have had our vicissitudes—that there were humiliating events which the patriot could not review without deep regret. But the great account, when it came to be balanced, thank God, would be found vastly in our favor.
Clay continued to emphasize national glory as the engine of history and the glue of national character. He proclaimed that Jackson’s triumph at New Orleans, and the triumph of the other heroes of the war, would be rallying points for America’s national identity and history every bit as important as Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Yorktown. Indeed the American victories in the War of 1812 would achieve an importance in history equal to the stand of the Spartan 300 against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Is there a man . . . who would have obliterated from the pages of our history the brilliant achievements of Jackson, Brown, Scott, and the host of heroes on land and sea . . . ? Is there a man who could not desire a participation in the national glory acquired by the war?—yes, national glory; which however the expression may be condemned by some, must be cherished by every genuine patriot. What do I mean by national glory? Glory such as Hull, of the Constitution, Jackson, Lawrence, Perry, have acquired. And are gentlemen insensible to their deeds? to the value of them in animating the country in the hour of peril hereafter? Did the battle of Thermopylae preserve Greece but once? While the Mississippi continues to bear the tributes of the Iron mountains, and the Alleghany to her delta and to the Gulf of Mexico, the 8th of January shall be remembered, and the glory of that day shall stimulate future patriots, and nerve the arms of unborn freemen, in driving the presumptuous invader from our country’s soil.
Again, Clay saw glory and patriotic sacrifice as the life blood of the nation, the very building blocks of its character.

Every act of noble sacrifice to the country—every instance of patriotic devotion to her cause—has its beneficial influence. A nation’s character is the sum of its splendid deeds. They constitute one common patrimony—the nation’s inheritance. They awe foreign powers. They arouse and animate our own people.
Commodore Stephen Decatur’s exploits against the Muslim Barbary states in North Africa, which had been capturing American seamen and holding them for ransom, was further evidence of America’s rising national glory.

The days of chivalry are not gone. They have been revived in the person of Commodore Decatur, who in releasing from infidel bondage Christian captives—the subjects of a foreign power—and restoring them to their country and their friends, has placed himself beside the most renowned knights of former times. I love true glory. It is this sentiment which ought to be cherished; and in spite of the cavils and sneers and attempts to put it down, it will finally conduct this nation to that height to which God and nature have destined it.
(Henry Clay, “Speech on the Direct Tax, and the State of the Nation After the War of 1812, January 1816,” Works of Henry Clay, Colton, ed., Vol. 6, pp. 90-91.)

Clay’s call for national glory and sacrifice was all the more ironic, or compelling, given the increasing individualism of Americans in their pursuit of happiness and wealth. Clay himself was a hustler second to none in his own pursuit of wealth and power. One lesson Clay drew from the war was that national greatness rested on economic foundations. Clay had adopted Alexander Hamilton
’s vision that economic development was key to America’s place in the world. Clay’s great brainchild, the American System, which he first proposed as legislation in the House of Representatives in 1816, would empower the federal government to foster the development of a modern capitalist economy (the Market Revolution). For Clay economic development, individual liberty, and national greatness went hand in hand. The American System, Clay believed, would tie the individual pursuit of happiness to the quest for national greatness.

Henry Clay was the greatest American statesman never to become president (though not for lack of trying). He and Andrew Jackson would fight their most bitter battles over such parts of the American System as internal improvements, the Second Bank of the United States, tariffs, and federal support of manufactures. Yet both men and their supporters, indeed all Americans, believed in both capitalism and national greatness. Jacksonian Democrats and Clayite Whigs all wanted to develop America, the faster the better. No region of the nation was opposed to economic development or capitalism. Where Jacksonians and Whigs differed was over the proper role of the federal government in promoting economic development. Jacksonians feared that centralization of economic power in the federal government would create a closed aristocracy of wealth, where well-connected insiders would close off opportunity to the average American. Jacksonians feared “crony capitalism” as we would say today (see: bank bailouts, 2009).

© 2010 Michael Kaplan


  1. If Jackson didn't like Crony Capitalism, then he probably would not like Fox News!

  2. "Clay and Jackson shared a belief in America’s manifest destiny to expand across the continent, and of war as a means to assert national honor and vindicate the national character."
    I find this sentence to be troubling. Coupling Clay's support for Manifest Destiny and his beliefs about the different outcomes of the War of 1812 and how they were favorable to the Union, tacitly suggests that Clay was hawkish on war and in support of conquest by force, which of course he was not.

    1. Furthermore, stating that Clay believed that war was a means to assert national honor and vindicate character is also a careless allegation. I read Clay's words to be an interpretation on how the public reacts to the outcomes of war, not a belief in war as a way to influence the public. I understand that these are almost identical statements, but there is an important distinction there. Clay would have never of used war to assert national honor or as a way to manipulate public sentiment in any way.