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Unit 3: Abolition and the Civil War

Suggested Activities

Statesmen Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun

Era 4: Expansion and Reform
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction

  1. From colonial times through the mid-nineteenth century, people believed that a person's character and personality could be conveyed through his or her portrait. This portrait of Henry Clay was commissioned by political supporters who hoped that Clay would be the Whig Party presidential candidate in 1844. Considering the political climate of the times, especially the increasing conflicts between North and South, what character traits might Henry Clay have hoped that his portrait would communicate to voters? Explain your answers. If you were running for President of the United States today, what aspects of your personality would you want an artist to capture in a portrait of you?
    [Standard 2—historical comprehension]

At the time of his nomination as the Whig Party candidate for the 1844 presidential election, Clay had recently resigned from the Senate after serving as Kentucky's senator for eleven years, where he led an uphill fight against the policies of the Jacksonians. Clay was an ardent nationalist and had worked diligently to preserve the Union throughout his thirty-year career in the House and the Senate. He was known as "The Great Pacificator" because of his contributions to three important compromise plans to balance the rights of free and slave states. Clay would most likely have hoped that his "presidential" portrait would have communicated to voters his fairness, his devotion to the Union, and his ability to mediate between opposing sides of an issue. In addition, Clay would probably have wanted his portrait to express that he had been a wise and committed public servant and a strong advocate of national improvements beneficial to all parts of the country.

Henry Clay (1777–1852)
John Neagle (1796–1865)
Oil on canvas, 1842

  1. Henry Clay was an important promoter of three compromise plans throughout his career in the United States House and Senate. In chronological order, describe what the three plans were, and explain how Clay's support for each of them helped maintain (temporarily) a strong American union.
    [Standard 1—chronological thinking],

Missouri Compromise, 1820: This agreement, worked out in the House and Senate, allowed Maine to be admitted to the Union as a free state, allowed Missouri to be admitted without restrictions on slavery, and banned slavery in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase territories north of Missouri's southern border. The arguments leading up to the Missouri Compromise brought to a head the extreme differences between the North and South on the issue of slavery. The compromise measures kept the conflict over the extension of slavery relatively quiet until the repeal of the Missouri Compromise by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

Compromise of 1833: In response to the Tariff Act of 1832, South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification, which declared that the federal tariff laws were null and void. The state also threatened to resist by force any federal attempt to enforce the tariff. President Andrew Jackson led the charge in introducing a bill that gave the President authority to use armed forces to execute the laws. Henry Clay helped prepare a compromise to the Tariff Act that would be more acceptable to the South. The compromise tariff was approved in 1833 and prevented South Carolina from, in essence, seceding from the Union by rising up against the federal government.

Compromise of 1850: This crisis arose from the request of the territory of California to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Clay brokered a compromise that allowed California to be admitted as a free state, while the territories of New Mexico and Utah were organized with the slave question left open. In addition, the slave trade was prohibited in the District of Columbia, and more rigorous application of fugitive slave laws was promoted.

  1. John C. Calhoun was an ardent nationalist (regarded as the "intellectual father of United States nationalism") until the 1830s, at which time he became a supporter of nullification. Research the nullification crisis of 1832–1833 and explain Calhoun's position, identifying the factors that caused him to reject nationalism. Was Calhoun an effective spokesman for the majority of southern states on this issue? What was the outcome of the crisis?
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

Calhoun was an early supporter of the War of 1812 against Britain and, while serving in the House of Representatives, promoted such projects as a national bank, a permanent road system, and a standing army. He was described by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams as "above all sectional and factious prejudices." In the early 1830s, however, after serving as Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, Calhoun became a proponent of states' rights, believing that each state was sovereign and that any one state could declare an act of Congress unconstitutional (the theory of nullification). Calhoun, in protest against the 1832 Tariff Act, led South Carolina in an attempt to nullify the act. Although this crisis was eventually settled through the Compromise of 1833, Calhoun continued to be concerned with protecting slavery, which he feared could some day be abolished by a northern majority in Congress.

Despite Calhoun's passionate commitment to slavery, most southern states disagreed with his theory of nullification. Although he desperately tried to unify the South in its opposition to the North's challenge to slavery, Calhoun did not promote secession and, in fact, continued to be devoted to preserving the Union.

John C. Calhoun (1782–1850)
George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–1894)
Oil on canvas, circa 1845

  1. Shortly before his death, John C. Calhoun is reported to have said, "If I am judged by my acts, I trust I shall be found as firm a friend of the Union as any man in it." How can you reconcile this statement by Calhoun with his belief in states' rights and his support of slavery? If Calhoun had been alive at the start of the Civil War, do you think he would have sided with the Union or the South? Explain your response.
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

Calhoun was clearly devoted to both the Union and the South and attempted to preserve the Union by agreeing to the demands of the South. Before his death, Calhoun predicted that the dissolution of the Union would occur around 1862. One could argue that such a loyal southerner, who staunchly defended both slavery and the sovereignty of states, would have sided with the South in the Civil War. However, it could also be theorized that Calhoun's early commitment to nationalism, and his belief that the South might not be victorious in conflict against the North, would have caused him to support the preservation of the Union.

  1. It has been theorized that Calhoun's political actions in the 1830s and 1840s contributed greatly to the beginning of the Civil War and that Clay's political actions during the same time period may have delayed the Civil War by ten years. Do you agree with these statements? Can the contributions of one person have such a forceful impact on the course of national events? Select one of these positions and write a defense or rebuttal of it.
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

John Calhoun spent much of his tenure in the Senate protecting the institution of slavery and working to unite the South against abolitionist attacks. His belief in nullification may have sidetracked the South from unifying against a common enemy, however, and his ardent defense of slavery certainly stirred up strong anti-southern feelings in the free states. While it is possible that Calhoun's provocative role throughout the many years of sectional conflict may have prevented nonviolent compromise between the North and South, it is likely that Calhoun would argue that the measures he supported actually prevented armed conflict from happening sooner.

Henry Clay's gift for negotiating compromises between the North and South helped maintain a balance between slave states and free states and may very well have averted the start of the Civil War by several years. Clay's dedication to nationalism through many public policies may also have helped keep the Union intact. However, it should be considered that by working to please both the North and the South, Clay might have missed an opportunity to become a formidable leader of the North. Had he unified the North in opposition to slavery, weakened the South with restrictions, and prevented the admission of more slave states, it is possible that the perceived strength of the Union might have made war unthinkable to the South.

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