In 1832, Henry Clay addressed the Senate, expressing his hope that “some day,” America “would be rid of this, the darkest spot on its mantle,” speaking of slavery. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 586 quoting Life, Correspondence, and Speeches of Henry Clay, ed. Calvin Colton (New York, 1857), I, 189, 191.
When seeking the Whig Party’s nomination in 1839, however, he “determined to solidify his southern support,” and “decided this required a major policy address disavowing the abolitionists and distinguishing his own antislavery position from theirs.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 586.
Clay addressed the Senate on February 7, 1839, stating that slavery was an evil that Americans must tolerate nationally, waiting for states to address the issue, and there would be an economic impact to abolishing slavery, as he estimated slaves “represented $1.2 billion in capital.” Id. at 586-87 citing “On Abolition” (Feb. 7, 1839) in The Works of Henry Clay, ed. Calvin Colton (New York, 1857), VIII, 139-59. Summing up his policies, Clay said:
I am, Mr. President, no friend of slavery. The searcher of all hearts knows that every pulsation of mine beats high and strong in the cause of civil liberty. Wherever it is safe and practicable, I desire to see every portion of the human family in the enjoyment of it. But I prefer the liberty of my own country to that of any other people; and the liberty of my own race to that of any other race. The liberty of the descendants of Africa in the United States is incompatible with the safety and liberty of the European descendants. “On Abolition” (Feb. 7, 1839) in The Works of Henry Clay, ed. Calvin Colton (New York, 1857), VIII, 139-59.
Clay’s views represented “the starting point for Abraham Lincoln’s evolving views on slavery.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 587.
Whig Southerners agreed with Clay’s position, however, Whigs in the North were not so receptive. Ultimately, at the Whig convention, Clay only received votes from Rhode Island out of the northern states. Id. at 588. Despite Clay’s political skills and deft policymaking, not even he could overcome the sectionalism that had taken hold of America by the Election of 1840.
Clay, who had become a mainstay in American politics by 1839, best shows just how overtly divided the North and the South had become by the time that William Henry Harrison faced off with incumbent President Martin Van Buren in the Election of 1840. It was clear that slavery was a fundamental issue, as it had been for decades, dividing the country and fostering sectionalism. However, it was also clear that even the most skilled and admired politicians could not unite the country.