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eighteen forty, as the administration of Martin Van Buren came closer to an end,
there was a widespread feeling that he had not been a strong president. He
seemed unable to make the people understand his policies. The opposition Whig
Party was happy over Van Buren's failures.
week in our series, Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant describe how the Whigs saw an
excellent chance in the upcoming election.
Whig leader in the Senate was Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay told a friend he was
sure he would be called on to serve as the Whig candidate for president. Other
Whig leaders were not so sure. They did not question Clay's ability to be
president. But he had been a candidate both in eighteen twenty-four and
eighteen thirty-two. And he had lost both times.
there was a growing political force in the United States that would not be
helpful to Clay's candidacy. That was the abolitionist movement, which opposed
slavery. Abolitionists did not like Clay, because he owned slaves.
dispute over slavery seemed to have been laid to rest for a time. But during
the eighteen thirties, it rose to the surface again. A major reason why the
dispute came alive again was cotton. Cotton plants spread across the states of
production had grown so heavily that it gave the south a one-crop economy.
Cotton depended on the labor of slaves. By the eighteen thirties, cotton
planters believed that without slavery, the whole economic system of the south
would lie in ruins. To them, slavery was no longer just a question of right or
wrong. It was a necessity for survival.
made the agricultural south economically dependent on the industrial north.
Northern ships carried southern cotton to the markets of Europe. Manufactured
goods needed in the South came from the North. The South put so much time and
energy into growing cotton, that it failed to give much thought to developing
industries of its own.
situation deeply troubled the political leaders of the South. What made things
worse was the fact that most of the federal government's financial aid for
public works went to the North.
there was the old dispute over import taxes. Taxes on foreign goods mostly helped
the manufacturers of the North. The taxes were to be lowered in eighteen forty-two.
But that was some time in the future. No one could be sure what would happen
then. Such was the general political and economic picture in the United States
when the abolitionist movement began to make itself felt.
beginning, the abolitionist movement was organized by religious groups. The
members of these groups believed there could be no compromise with evil. They
felt that slavery was evil. So slavery must go.
eighteen thirties saw the birth of anti-slavery societies in New York and New
England. The societies published newspapers and pamphlets. They began to flood
the country with pamphlets and anti-slavery petitions. The South tried to stop
the flow of this anti-slavery literature across the borders of southern states.
The Abolitionists, in turn, declared that such actions violated freedom of the
press and the constitutional right of petition. This was the beginning of a
long, bitter struggle. It lasted for twenty years. It finally split the Union.
had not as yet received major support from the people of the North. Many
northerners were hostile to them. But in eighteen thirty-six, the House of
Representatives declared that it would not listen to any anti-slavery
petitions. This became known as the "gag rule."
Senate did not pass such a rule. But the Senate still made it almost impossible
for anti-slavery petitions to come before it. Former President John Quincy
Adams, who was then a congressman, rose up in protest. He was not an abolitionist.
But he led a campaign against the gag rule. Adams said the rule was a violation
of the constitutional right to petition Congress. The gag rule made great
numbers of people in the North very angry. Because of it, these people began to
support the abolitionist movement.
increasing bitterness over the issue of slavery put Whig leader Henry Clay in a
difficult position. Clay was under pressure to make a decision on slavery, on
the abolitionists, and on the southern extremists.
did he stand? Senator Clay had always hated slavery, although he owned some
slaves himself. In a Senate speech in eighteen thirty-three, he called slavery
"this great evil ... the darkest spot in the map of our country."
feared that the dispute over slavery might destroy him as a political leader.
And, what was worse, he was afraid that it might destroy the nation. Clay was
an extremely strong believer in the Union.
opposed violent action. He thought the slow growth of public opinion was better
than violence in bringing about a solution to slavery. Clay hated the abolitionists
and the great noise they were beginning to make over slavery. He said they were
interfering with a southern institution and were forcing slavery into politics.
Slavery, he declared, did not belong in politics.
Clay was a national leader. He knew it would be bad to stand too strongly
opposed to the growing abolitionist movement. Clay also opposed the southern
senators who tried to prevent discussion of slavery. He said their position was
emotional and extreme. It was as bad as that of the abolitionists.
Senate did, in fact, discuss slavery, in a general way. It was concerned about
the legal position of the federal government in relation to slavery. Senator
John C. Calhoun of South Carolina offered a resolution for consideration. This
is what he said:
Union was created by an agreement among the states. Each state had the
constitutional right to complete control over its own institutions. It was the
job -- the duty -- of the government in Washington to protect that right. That
meant protection against any interference in the institution of slavery.
was most forceful when it came to slavery in the District of Columbia and in
the territories. He declared that any federal, state, or private interference
with slavery in those places was a direct and dangerous attack on the interests
of slave states. Calhoun said the South must not surrender an inch to the abolitionist
movement. "If we do," he said, "we are gone."
Clay did not like such extreme talk about states' rights. He became especially
angry when states talked about separating from the Union, instead of trying to
solve problems together.
Clay said, "is a terrible word. One's ears should not accept it. I desire
to see -- in continued safety and prosperity -- this Union, and no other Union.
I am opposed to all separate confederacies and to all sectional conventions.
This Union, this government, will do nothing to attack the rights and security
of the slave-holding states."
then offered his own resolution for Senate consideration. This is what he said:
had no legal power over slavery within the states. Therefore, petitions for the
abolition of slavery must be rejected, because Congress had no constitutional
right to act on them. The Senate approved Clay's resolution. It rejected the
one offered by Calhoun.
had acted as he did because he wanted to settle the dispute, and because he
loved the Union. He did so for personal political reasons, too. Clay had
defended the constitutional right of petition. That pleased the North. But he
also had used a legal move to block the Abolitionist Movement from bringing
anti-slavery petitions before Congress. That pleased the South.
believed he had protected his national position. He told a friend: "I have
acted in such a way that I lost nothing, either in the South or the North."
national election of eighteen forty got closer, the Whig Party felt more
hopeful. They began to believe they could defeat President Van Buren in his
attempt to win a second term. But they also began to turn away from Henry Clay
as a presidential candidate. The election of eighteen forty will be our story
Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Harry
Monroe and Kay Gallant. Transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs are
online, along with historical images, at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again
next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION - an American history series in VOA
This is program #67 of THE
MAKING OF A NATION