SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES.
In the Senate of the United States on the 31st of March, 1842, Mr. Clay resigned his seat — addressing the Senate its follows:
Mr. Clay said, that before proceeding to make the motion for which he had risen, he begged leave to submit, on the only occasion afforded him, an observation or two on a different subject. It would be remembered that he had offered, on a former day, some resolutions going to propose certain amendments in the Constitution of the U. States. They had undergone some discussion, and he had been desirous of obtaining an expression of the sense of the Senate upon their adoption; but owing to the infirm state of his health, to the pressure of business in the Senate, and especially to the absence at this moment of several of his friends, he had concluded this to be unnecessary; nor should he deem himself called upon to reply to the arguments of such gentlemen as had considered it their duty to oppose the resolutions. He should commit the subject, therefore, to the hands of the Senate, to be disposed of as their judgment should dictate; concluding what he had to say in relation to them with the remark, that the convictions he had before entertained in regard to the several amendments, he still deliberately held, after all that he had heard upon the subjects of them.
And now, said Mr. Clay, allow me to announce, formally and officially, my retirement from the Senate of the United States, and to present the last motion I shall ever make in this body. But, before I make that motion, I trust I shall be pardoned if I avail myself of the occasion to make a few observations which are suggested to my mind by the present occasion.
I entered the Senate of the U. States in December, 1806. I regarded that body then, and still contemplate it, as a body which may compare, without disadvantage, with any legislative assembly, either of ancient or modern times, whether I look to its dignity, the extent and importance of its powers, or the ability by which its individual members have been distinguished, or its constitution. If compared in any of these respects with the Senates either of France or of England, that of the United States will sustain no derogation. With respect to the mode of its constitution, of those bodies I may observe that in the House of Peers in England, with the exceptions but of Ireland and of Scotland — and in that of France with no exception whatever — the members hold their places under no delegated authority, but derive them from the grant of the Crown, transmitted by descent, or expressed in new patents of nobility, while here we have the proud title of Representatives of sovereign States, of distinct and Independent Commonwealths.
If we look again at the powers exercised by the Senates of France and England, and by the Senate of the U. States, we shall find that the aggregate of power is much greater here. In all the members possess the legislative power. In the foreign Senates, as in this, the judicial power is invested, although there it exists in a larger degree than here. But, on the other hand, that vast, undefined, and undefinable power involved in the right to co-operate with the Executive in the formation and ratification of treaties, is enjoyed in all its magnitude and weight by this body, while it is possessed by neither of theirs; besides which, there is another of very great practical importance — that of sharing with the Executive branch in distributing the vast patronage of this Government. In both these latter respects, we stand on grounds different from the House of Peers either of England or France. And then as to the dignity and decorum of its proceedings, and ordinarily as to the ability of its members, I can with great truth declare that, during the whole long period of my knowledge of this Senate it can, without arrogance or presumption, sustain no disadvantageous comparison with any public body in ancient or modern times.
Full of attraction, however, as a seat in this Senate is, sufficient as it is to fill the aspirations of the most ambitious heart, I have long determined to forego it, and to seek that repose which can be enjoyed only in the shades of private life, and amid the calm pleasures which belong to that beloved word, “home.”
It was my purpose to terminate my connexion with this body in November, 1840, after the memorable and glorious political struggle which distinguished that year; but I learned soon after, what indeed I had for some time anticipated from the result of my own reflections, that an extra session of Congress would be called; and I felt desirous to co-operate with my personal and political friends in restoring, if it could be effected, the prosperity of the country by the best measures which their united counsels might be able to devise; and I therefore attended the extra session. It was called, as all know, by the lamented Harrison; but his death and the consequent accession of his successor produced an entirely new aspect of public affairs. Had he lived, I have not one particle of doubt that every important measure for which the country had hoped with so confident an expectation, would have been consummated by the co-operation of the Executive branch of the Government. And here allow me to say, only, in regard to that so much reproached extra session of Congress, that I believe if any of those who, through the influence of party spirit or the bias of political prejudice, have loudly censured the measures then adopted, will look at them in a spirit of candor and of justice, their conclusion, and that of the country generally, will be that if there exists any just ground of complaint, it is to be found, not in what was done, but in what was left unfinished.
Had President Harrison lived, and the measures devised at that session been fully carried out, it was my intention to have resigned my seat. But the hope (I feared it might prove a vain hope) that at the regular session the measures which we had left undone might even then be perfected, or the same object attained in an equivalent form, induced me to postpone the determination; and events which arose after the extra session, resulting from the failure of those measures which had been proposed at that session, and which appeared to throw on our political friends a temporary show of defeat, confirmed me in the resolution to attend the present session also, and, whether in prosperity or adversity, to share the fortune of my friends. But I resolved at the same time to retire as soon as I could do so with propriety and decency.
From 1806, the period of my entry on this noble theatre, with short intervals, to the present time, I have been engaged in the public councils at home and abroad. Of the nature or the value of the services rendered during that long and arduous period of my life, it does not become me to speak; history, if she deigns to notice me, or posterity, if the recollections of my humble actions shall be transmitted to posterity, are the best, the truest, the most impartial judges When death has closed the scene, their sentence will be pronounced, and to that I appeal and refer myself. My acts and public conduct are a fair subject for the criticism and judgment of my fellow men; but the private motives by which they have been prompted, they are known only to the great Searcher of the human heart and to myself; and I trust I may be pardoned for repeating a declaration made some thirteen years ago, that, whatever errors — and doubtless there have been many — may be discovered in a review of my public service to the country, I can with unshaken confidence appeal to that Divine Arbiter for the truth of the declaration, that I have been influenced by no impure purposes, no personal motive — have sought no personal aggrandizement; but that in all my public acts I have had a sole and single eye, and a warm and devoted heart, directed and dedicated to what in my judgment I believed to be the true interest of my country.
During that period, however, I have not escaped the fate of other public men, nor failed to incur censure and detraction of the bitterest, most unrelenting, and most malignant character; and though not always insensible to the pain it was meant to inflict, I have borne it in general with composure, and without disturbance here, [pointing to his breast,] waiting as I have done, in perfect and undoubting confidence, for the ultimate triumph of justice and truth, and in the entire persuasion that time would, in the end, settle all things as they should be, and that whatever wrong or injustice I might experience at the hands of man, He to whom all hearts are open and fully known, would in the end, by the inscrutable dispensations of his providence, rectify all error, redress all wrong, and cause ample justice to be done.
But I have not, meanwhile, been unsustained, — Everywhere throughout the extent of this great continent, I have had cordial, warm-hearted, and appreciated my motives. To them, if language were susceptible of fully expressing my acknowledgements, I would now offer them as all the returns I have now to make for their genuine, disinterested, and persevering fidelity and devoted attachment. But if I fail in suitable language to express my gratitude to them for all the kindness they have shown me — what shall I say — what can I say at all commensurate with those feelings of gratitude which I owe to the State whose humble representative and servant I have been in this Chamber? [Here Mr. C.’s feelings appeared to overpower him, and he proceeded with deep sensibility and with difficult utterance.]
I emigrated from Virginia to the State of Kentucky now nearly forty-five years ago. I went as an orphan who had not yet attained the age of majority — who had never recognized a father’s smile, nor felt his caresses — poor — penny less — without the favor of the great — with an imperfect and inadequate education, limited to the ordinary business and common pursuits of life; but scarce had I set my foot upon her generous soil when I was seized and embraced with parental fondness, caressed as though I had been a favorite child, and patronized with liberal and unbounded munificence. From that period the highest honors of the State have been freely bestowed upon me; and afterward, in the darkest hour of calumny and detraction, when I seemed to be forsaken by all the rest of the world, she threw her broad and impenetrable shield around me, and bearing me up aloft in her courageous arms, repelled the poisoned shafts that were aimed at my destruction, and vindicated my good name against every false and unfounded assault.
But the ingenuity of my assailants is never exhausted, and it seems I have subjected myself to a new epithet, which I do not know whether it should be taken in honor or derogation: I am held up to the country as a ‘Dictator.’ A Dictator! The idea of a dictatorship is drawn from Roman institutions; and at the time the office was created, the person who wielded the tremendous authority it conferred, concentrated in his own person, an absolute power over the lives and property of all his fellow-citizens; he could raise armies, he could man and build navies; he could levy taxes at will, and raise any amount of money he might choose to demand; and life and death rested on his fiat. If I had been a Dictator, as I am said to have been, where is the power with which I was clothed? Had I any army? any navy? any revenue? any patronage? in a word, any power whatever? If I had been a Dictator, I think that even those who have the most freely applied to me the appellation, must be compelled to make two admissions: first, that my dictatorship has been distinguished by no cruel executions, stained by no blood, nor soiled by any act of dishonor; and, in the second place, I think they must own (though I do not exactly know what date my commission of Dictator bears — I imagine, however, it must have commenced with the extra session,) that if I did usurp the power of a Dictator, I at least voluntarily surrendered it within a shorter period than was allotted for the duration of the dictatorship of the Roman Commonwealth.
If to have sought, at the extra session and at the present, by the co-operation of my friends, to carry out the great measures intended by the popular majority of 1840, and to have desired that they should all have been adopted and executed; if to have anxiously desired to see a disordered currency regulated and restored, and irregular exchanges equalized and adjusted; if to have labored to replenish the empty coffers of the Treasury by suitable duties; if to have endeavored to extend relief to the unfortunate bankrupts of the country, who had been ruined in a great measure by the erroneous policy, as we believed, of this Government; if to seek to limit, circumscribe, and restrain executive authority; if to retrench unnecessary expenditure and abolish useless offices and institutions; if, while the public money is preserved untarnished by supplying a revenue adequate to meet the national engagements, incidental protection can be afforded to the national industry; if to entertain an ardent solicitude to redeem every pledge and execute every promise fairly made by my political friends with a view to the acquisition of power from the hands of an honest and confiding People; if these objects constitute a man a Dictator, why, then, I suppose I must be content to bear, though I still only share with my friends, the odium of the honor or the epithet, as it may be considered on the one hand or the other.
That my nature is warm, my temper ardent, my disposition, especially in relation to the public service, enthusiastic, I am fully ready to own; and those who supposed that I have been assuming the dictatorship, have only mistaken for arrogance or assumption that fervent ardor and devotion which is natural to my constitution, and which I may have displayed with too little regard to cold, calculating and cautious prudence, in sustaining and zealously supporting important national measures of policy which I have presented and proposed.
During a long and arduous career of service in the public councils of my country, especially during the last eleven years I have held a seat in the Senate, from the same ardor and enthusiasm of character, I have no doubt, in the heat of debate, and in an honest endeavor to maintain my opinions against adverse opinions equally honestly entertained, as to the best course to be adopted for the public welfare, I may have often inadvertently or unintentionally, in moments of excited debate, made use of language that has been offensive, and susceptible of injurious interpretation towards my brother Senators. If there be any here who retain wounded feelings of injury or dissatisfaction produced on such occasions, I beg to assure them that I now offer the amplest apology for any departure on my part from the established rules of parliamentary decorum and courtesy. On the other hand, I assure the Senators, one and all, without exception and without reserve, that I retire from this Senate Chamber without carrying with me a single feeling of resentment or dissatisfaction to the Senate or to any one of its members.
I go from this place under the hope that we shall, mutually, consign to perpetual oblivion whatever personal collisions may at any time unfortunately have occurred between us; and that our recollections shall dwell in future only on those conflicts of mind with mind, those intellectual struggles, those noble exhibitions of the powers of logic, argument, and eloquence, honorable to the Senate and to the country, in which each has sought and contended for what he deemed the best mode of accomplishing one common object, the greatest interest and the most happiness of our beloved country. To these thrilling and delightful scenes it will be my pleasure and my pride to look back in my retirement.
And now, Mr. President, allow me to make the motion which it was my object to submit when I rose to address you. I present the credentials of my friend and successor. If any void has been created by my own withdrawal from the Senate, it will be filled to overflowings by him; whose urbanity, whose gallant and gentlemanly bearing, whose steady adherence to principle, and whose rare and accomplished powers in debate, are known already in advance to the whole Senate and country. I move that his credentials be received, and that the oath of office be now administered to him.
In retiring, as I am about to do, for ever, from the Senate, suffer me to express my heartfelt wishes that all the great and patriotic objects for which it was constituted by the wise framers of the Constitution may be fulfilled; that the high destiny designed for it may be fully answered; and that its deliberations, now and hereafter, may eventuate in restoring the prosperity of our beloved country, in maintaining its rights and honors abroad, and in securing and upholding its interests at home. I retire, I know, at a period of infinite distress and embarrassment. I wish I could take my leave of you under more favorable auspices; but, without meaning at this time to say whether on any or on whom reproaches for the sad condition of the country should fall, I appeal to the Senate and to the world to bear testimony to my earnest and anxious exertions to avert it, and that no blame can justly rest at my door.
May the blessing of Heaven rest upon the whole Senate and each member of it, and may the labors of every one redound to the benefit of the nation and the advancement of his own fame and renown. And when you shall retire to the bosom of your constituents, may you meet that most cheering and gratifying of all human rewards — their cordial greeting of ‘Well done, good and faithful servants.’
After six years in retirement, and having failed to win the presidency in 1844 or the presidential nomination in 1848, Henry Clay did in fact return to the Senate and took a leading role in the Compromise of 1850. Henry Clay died in 1852.
Tomorrow: a final verse