For some reason this week I feel compelled to turn to the pages of history.  While some have suggested that Andrew Jackson was the key to preventing the American Civil War, I would like to throw the name of his contemporary Henry Clay into the ring.  Clay spent decades in service to the federal government in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams.  He earned the nickname of the Great Compromiser due to his involvement with three agreements that postponed the Civil War:

  • Missouri Compromise: brought Maine into the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, with the rest of the Louisiana Territory below the 36°30′ line open to slavery
  • Compromise of 1833: resolved the nullification crisis begun when South Carolina defied the federal tariff by gradually reducing the tariff rates to prevent its secession
  • Compromise of 1850: adeptly ushered a set of 5 bills through Congress by breaking up the omnibus bill and instead getting each section to vote in favor of the elements they supported, thereby getting the entire package enacted:
    • California entered the Union as a free state
    • established popular sovereignty for the remaining territory won during the Mexican War, meaning the residents would be able to determine whether the territories would practice slavery
    • the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia
    • resolved the borders of Texas and the federal government took over its debt
    • enacted a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act to counteract the work of abolitionists who had been helping slaves escape to the North

In his February 5-6 speeches to garner support for the Compromise of 1850, Clay concluded with these words, captured in the Appendix to the Congressional Globe:

“I conjure gentlemen–whether from the South or the North, by all they hold dear in this world–by all their love of liberty–by all their veneration for their ancestors–by all their regard for posterity–by all their gratitude to Him who has bestowed upon them such unnumbered blessings–by all the duties they owe to themselves–by all these consideration I implore them to pause–solemnly to pause–at the edge of the precipice, before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken in the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.

“. . . I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the Union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”

Henry Clay died in June 1852.

For his part, here are some of the actions and events that shaped the uneven legacy of Andrew Jackson:

  • Fought against the Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
  • Defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812
  • Invaded Spanish Florida and fought against the Seminole Indians
  • Owned slaves on his Tennessee plantation the Hermitage
  • Advocated for the power of the “common man” in politics
  • Vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the U.S. as a means of fighting economic privilege
  • Authorized the Indian Removal Act
  • Refused to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Worcester v. Georgia) that denied Georgia authority over tribal lands belonging the Cherokee
  • The combination of the prior two actions set the stage for the forced removal of Cherokees to the west of the Mississippi River that became known as the Trail of Tears after more than a quarter of the Cherokee population died during this journey.

Jackson died in June 1845.

The Civil War began in April 1861.