OTD in History… February 7, 1839, Senator Henry Clay declares I had rather be right than president

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

(Updated, original posted on the History News Network, February 4, 2008)

On this day in history, February 7, 1839, Henry Clay declares in the United States Senate “I had rather be right than president,” in a speech against petitions for the abolition of slavery, his speech would mark the end of his presidential aspirations in 1840. Historian Harlow Giles Unger in his book Henry Clay, America’s Greatest Statesman stated Clay “responded with one of the most prescient replies of his life — indeed, in the history of presidential politics.” (Unger) The venerable Whig Party politician and statesman Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky believed his time to win the presidency would finally be ripe in 1840. The former Secretary of State, Speaker of the House of Representatives and senator was known as the Great Compromiser for his work crafting three bills that averted a sectional crisis over slavery, “the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850.” Clay was a moderate when it came to slavery and his position aimed at averting a Civil War. Clay lived in a border state and spoke out against slavery, believed in colonization, however, he was a slaveholder.

Clay’s political positions on such issues as opposing preemption, fiscal policy supporting a Bank of the United States and slavery were in view of his American System, putting the national interest first. As Speaker of the House Clay’s American system emphasized transportation infrastructure, a central bank and protective tariffs, a position he modified with the Compromise of 1833. For the majority of Clay’s political career he believed he chose the route that was right rather best for his political future. As Kentucky State Historian James C. Klotter in his biography Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President notes, Clay “would rather be right than consistent.” As far back as his days as Speaker of the House after the War of 1812 and during the debate over the Bank of the United States, Klotter indicates Clay “knew that consistency would be the safest course politically, for change would bring censure in some circles. But to his credit, he now took the action he felt was necessary for the national well being.” (Klotter, 89) With his turn to support the Bank of the United States and later his positions on slavery Clay did what was right for the nation above what was best for his political ambitions.

There were many obstacles for Clay to win the Whig Party’s nomination in 1840; one of the most contentious issues in the country in the antebellum period was slavery. Klotter recounts, “Clay dearly wanted to be the nation’s leader. Still, in the two years leading up to the Whig nominating convention for the 1840 election, Senator Clay did not dodge controversial issues; rather he continued to take stands that could potentially cost him votes.” (Klotter, 244) Clay tried to take a centrist position on slavery, but accusations flew in both the North and the South that he favored extremes. In the North he was accused of “being ultra” in favor of Southern slaveholders. The South accused Clay of being an abolitionist who plotted secretly to abolish slavery. (Remini, 525)

Historian Robert Remini explains in his book Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, “It may have occurred to Clay that his apparent middle-of- the-road position invited attacks from both sides of the slavery question.” (Remini, 525) As Klotter concurs, “Clay tried to live in both the slavery and antislavery worlds. That stance left Clay open to attacks from all sides.” (Klotter, 246) One-time ally and political nemesis Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina broke with the Whigs and as Klotter recounts, Calhoun “tried to force Clay to choose one side or the other, thereby hurting Clay’s presidential hopes in one of the sections.” (Klotter, 247) Clay’s opposition to the Gag Rule “silencing the anti-Slavery voices,” some of Clay’s attacks against slavery in the South led to the charge he supported the abolitionists.

Clay felt the accusations that he was an abolitionist were detrimental to his chances for the presidency, and he needed to clarify his views on the slavery question. Clay intended to stick to his views regardless of the political consequences. As he famously said, “I had rather be right than president.” In order eventually to capture the nomination he needed support from Southern Whigs, but at the same time, he needed support from the Northern Quakers who were passive abolitionists. Unlike 1824 and 1836, Clay was trying a Southern strategy for the 1840 Whig nomination. In January 1838, Calhoun introduced six resolutions that would veer the Senate towards a pro-slavery position as he looked to set up a “sectional party” to propel his political aspirations. Clay knew that Calhoun’s “proposal was a trap.” However, Klotter points out, “Clay nevertheless took the bait that Calhoun dangled before him… Clay made the fateful decision to address the issue.” (Klotter, 247)

The most important aspect was to distinguish from the extreme abolitionists, the “ultras” which he did in a Senate speech on February 7, 1839. Clay’s speech, “Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery,” supposedly addressed a petition by Washington DC’s residents to abolish slavery in the district. Clay actually wrote the petition himself. The speech was Clay at his worse, which his supporters lamented. As Carl Schurz notes, “It was an apology for his better self. Formerly he had spoken as a born anti-slavery man, who to his profound regret found himself compelled to make concessions to slavery. Now he appeared as one inclined to deplore the attacks on slavery no less, if not more, than the existence of slavery itself.” (Schurz, 164)

In the speech, Clay claimed the only thing he had in common with the abolitionists was “abhorrence of slavery,” but their positions were entirely different, and in no way did he identify with them. Clay hoped this would put the speculation to rest that he harbored secret abolitionist desires. He laid out in the speech the history of the “peculiar institution,” the constitutional and legal questions surrounding it, and the course of action that should be taken to resolve slavery. It was here that he distinguished himself most from the abolitionists while attacking their solution to the slavery problem. As Remini indicates, Clay charged that abolitionists were “setting back emancipation half a century” by their agitation. (Remini, 526)

Still, he believed that emancipation was not the answer. Clay claimed he did not believe that blacks and whites could live in racial harmony, as abolitionists claimed. As Thomas Brown writes, Clay believed that the “Freed slaves would flood the North, compete with white laborers, and drive down their wages, or the country, would be convulsed by interracial warfare as blacks and whites sought to preserve the purity and separateness of the races.” (Brown, 144) Clay was concerned that a power struggle would lead to a war between the races, especially since the slaves outnumbered whites in some Southern states. Clay believed that this power struggle would lead to Civil War, and suggested that the status quo was the best approach to take to the slavery question. “It is not better for both parties that the existing state of things should be preserved, instead of exposing them to the horrible strives and contests which would inevitably attend immediate abolition.” (Remini, 526)

According to Clay “time” was the solution that would eventually end slavery, stating, “Providence will cure all-abolition nothing. It may ruin all; it can save none.” (Remini, 526) He then proceeded to make a plea to the ultra-abolitionists to cease their crusade for the sake of the country. “I beseech the abolitionists themselves, solemnly to pause in their mad and fatal course,” he stated. Clay continued: “Amid the infinite variety objects of humanity and benevolence which invite the employment of their energies, let them select some one more harmless, that does not threaten to deluge our country in blood.” (Remini, 526)

The reactions to Clay’s speech were far ranging. For the most part the speech boosted Southerners’ opinion of Clay. As Shurz writes, “Clay received his reward — or punishment — immediately.” (Shurz, 166) After he finished speaking Calhoun lauded Clay, praising him for understanding the dangers of the abolitionist movement. Carl Schurz in his biography of Clay believed Calhoun stood up “as if to accept his surrender.” Remini describes Calhoun’s enthusiasm as “So spontaneous, so sincere, so fervent … that some wondered if another political alliance between northern money and southern cotton had been struck.” (Remini, 526) This alluded to the “corrupt bargain” of 1825, which handed John Quincy Adams the Presidency despite the fact that Andrew Jackson won the popular vote. Calhoun proclaimed, “I heard the Senator from Kentucky with pleasure. His speech will have a happy effect, and will do much to consummate what had already been so happily begun and successfully carried on to a completion.” (Shurz, 167) Clay wanted the nomination so much that he had to take Calhoun’s humiliating words without saying anything. As Schurz explains, “Calhoun assigned to him a place in his church on the bench of the penitents, and the candidate for the presidency took the insult without wincing.” (Shurz, 168)

Despite his speech, Southerners still believed he showed “antislavery feelings.” The speech offended the abolitionists, giving Clay the results he was looking for, distancing himself from them. Clay hoped his speech would increase his support among those he needed to help him garner the nomination. Still it was a turn off to many Northerners, who saw Clay as a slavery supporter who argued if in the Deep South he would not support emancipation in the South. The New York Colored American called Clay “a great advocate of human liberty in talk, a human enslaver in practice.” (Klotter) Clay supporters like James G. Birney and John Greenleaf Whittier, who “once idolized Clay, now cast him off as something loathsomely hypocritical.” (Remini, 526) Clay claimed he was not surprised by the response. “My abolition Speech was made after full deliberation. I expected it would enrage the Ultra’s more than ever against me, and I have not been disappointed.” (Remini, 527)

The negative reaction or the long-term consequences should have not surprised Clay. Before he delivered it, he read it to Senator William C. Preston of South Carolina, and several of his friends and colleagues to get their opinion. They believed that “The speech bears all the marks of that careful weighing of words characteristic of a candidate ‘defining his position’ on a delicate subject.” (Schurz, 164) One of the men believed it could have a negative impact on his presidential prospects, offending both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery factions. Upon hearing this Clay proclaimed the classic phrase he is most remembered for: “I trust the sentiments and opinions are correct, I HAD RATHER BE RIGHT THAN BE PRESIDENT.” Remini describes it as “the immortal utterance, the classic rejoinder, one that quickly entered the lexicon of American politics and was always associated with Clay’s name.” (Remini, 527)

Senator Preston repeated these words in a speech to a Whig rally in Philadelphia the following month announcing the phrase to the public. Then almost immediately Clay’s words were the talk of the nation, the newspapers reprinted his speech, and citizens found it to “noble and patriotic” and appropriate, while critics and “hard-nosed” politicians laughed upon hearing it. (Remini, 527) Clay may have wanted to be right, but he also wanted the presidency, and his chances were slipping from him. Polls were not in the Whigs favor and neither the possibility of his nomination, the speech and his party and Democrats held his two previous failed campaigns against him. As Klotter analyzes, “They cried out that the “worn out” Clay had lost twice and would not win now, that the opposition of abolitionists and anti-Masons meant he would not carry the North, that his land policy would doom him in the West, that his antislavery sympathies would cost him the South. Furthermore, his critics charged his “odious” American System would drive away states’ rights advocates, his supposed moral transgressions (including in the recent Graves duel) would hurt with all who considered a person’s moral fitness important for the presidency, and the ‘oft-refuted charge of bargain, intrigue and mismanagement’ would continue to damage him.” (Klotter, 250)

Soon after the speech, Clay felt the backlash. First Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts charged that Clay caused the Whigs to lose the 1838 election in Maine, and that the party should instead support a candidate who had more appeal, such as General William Henry Harrison. Webster was deliberately mounting a campaign against Clay, even going as far as to blame him for losing Harrison’s state, Ohio, in the 1838 election. According to David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler in their book, Henry Clay: The Essential American “Webster remained bitter over the Harrison and White candidacies in 1836, and he sustained toward Clay a special resentment for not supporting him in that contest.” (Heidler, 285) At the Anti-Mason National Convention in November 1839, the group nominated Harrison for President and Webster for Vice-President. Whigs in the North, Abolitionists, and anti-Masons preferred Harrison as a presidential candidate to Clay.

Another candidate who drew support was General Winfield Scott, whose military record was akin to Andrew Jackson. Webster campaigned for the nomination but he was only competitive in New York. Webster’s pursuit would only split the Whig Party, and in the spring 1838, Clay had a discussion with Webster about his chances of capturing the nomination. Heidler points out “Clay did not seem to realize the perverse pleasure Webster took in remaining a candidate solely to obstruct him.” (Heidler, 287) Despite not having a chance for the Whig nomination Webster remained a “putative candidate” and only took himself out of the running for the Whig nomination when he departed for England in 1839. Still Clay believed the nomination was his. As he wrote, “Moderation, conciliation, and decision, but above all firmness and decision should be our course. May it be guided by wisdom and lead to victory.” (Remini, 531) Even before the Whig Convention, Clay lost New York’s support, and the state nominating conventions in the fall of 1838, New York and Ohio handed victories to Harrison. As Brown explains, Thurlow Weed thought, “Clay had gone too far in his attacks [on abolitionists].” (Brown, 145) Both Weed and Thaddeus Stevens were Anti-Mason leaders, and wanted anybody but Clay as the nominee; they devised a plan to strip Clay of his 254-delegate majority.

A friend of Webster’s, Peleg Sprague, introduced a motion that changed the voting. Each state would choose three delegates to a committee; the committee in turn would ask their state which candidate they preferred. A vote would be held in private, and when there was a state consensus, the delegates would report it to the full convention. Clay’s supporters could not stop the motion even through it was obviously designed to strip Clay of the nomination, and soon Clay’s majority melted. Stevens and Weed preferred Harrison to Scott or Clay, but Scott’s candidacy seemed to benefit from their maneuvering. To counter this, Stevens released to the delegates a letter Scott wrote to Francis Granger that appeared favorable to the abolitionists. This was enough to damage Scott’s prospects and give Harrison–the least controversial choice–the nomination. Clay’s chance to capture the Presidency had ended.

Anti-Masons and abolitionists, the two groups Clay alienated with his February 7, 1839 speech, controlled the Whig Party. However, Clay says Remini, “also had a hand in engineering his [own] defeat. His Senate speech on February 7, 1839, against the abolitionists, more than any other single factor, undoubtedly prevented him from gaining a single northern state at the convention ‘except glorious Rhode Island.’ ‘I had rather be right than President,’ Clay had announced. So be it, responded the delegates.” (Remini, 554) Henry Clay would live to regret his words on the Senate floor, because ultimately they caused him to lose the nomination he wanted more than anything did.

Despite never becoming president, Clay was a towering figure and leader in American politics during the antebellum period. Unger notes, “Abraham Lincoln called Clay the ‘ideal’ statesman — “the man for whom I fought all my humble life. His views and measures were always the wisest.” In many ways Henry Clay grew more powerful than the President, reforming Congress and deciding — as House and Senate leaders still do — which bills emerge from debate to become the law of the land. A Quixotic champion of two irreconcilable political views — national unity and emancipation of slaves — his loathing of slavery cost him the presidency four times, but, as he put it, ‘I’d rather be right than president.’” (Unger)

SOURCES AND READ MORE

Brown, Thomas. Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Clay, Henry, and Calvin Colton. The Works of Henry Clay. New York: Barnes & Burr, 1863.

Heidler, David S, and Jeanne T. Heidler. Henry Clay: The Essential American. New York: Random House, 2010.

Klotter, James C. Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Remini, Robert V. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Schurz, Carl. Life of Henry Clay: In Two Volumes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915.

Unger, Harlow G. Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. New York: Da Capo Press, 2015.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education and political journalism