Thursday, December 13, 2007

Henry Clay, President

Over at Civil War Talk some time ago, another member asked a "what if" question: how would history have changed if Henry Clay had been elected president? Could the Civil War have been avoided? What follows is a slightly modified and expanded version of my answer.

Boy, that's a tough "what if." I suppose the first issue is, when is it that Clay would have been elected? In my view, Clay's best chance of winning the presidency probably came in 1840 -- the year he wasn't nominated. This appears to be the opinion of both
Michael Holt and Merrill Peterson.

The Whigs held their convention at the beginning of December 1839. Clay had a plurality of the delegates on the first ballot, but Harrison ultimately garnered the nomination. There was a brief economic recovery in late 1839, and the perception at the time was that Harrison was more electable. In 1840, the economy collapsed again. If the Whigs had held their convention in mid-1840, the Whigs' concerns about electability would have been less, Clay would likely have been nominated and would likely have won.

Here's Peterson on Clay's reaction to his loss of the nomination and his chances of winning if he had been nominated:
Hearing the news at his hotel room in Washington, Clay could not conceal his disappointment. "My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them," he reportedly said. "I am the most unfortunate man in the history of parties: always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination, when I, or any one, would be sure of election." In this latter judgment he was undoubtedly correct. Regardless of his political liabilities, the Democratic depression combined with the appeal of the Whig economic program would have assured Clay's election in 1840.

So what would have happened if Clay had taken the presidential oath in March 1841, rather than Harrison (who died within a month and was succeeded by John Tyler)? Certainly Clay as president during 1841-45 would not have pressed for the admission of Texas as Tyler did during the latter half of his presidency, but after that it's hard to say. Would Clay have been re-elected in 1844? Presumably, the Whigs would have enacted their full economic package of legislation in 1841 under Clay, but there is no particular reason to think it would have speeded economic recovery. Would voters have become disenchanted and thrown the scoundrels out in 1844? Or would they have given Clay and the Whigs a second term in the belief that things were moving in right direction, however slowly?

Clay got the nomination in 1844, but his stance on the annexation of Texas lost him the election after the Democrats dumped Van Buren (who shared Clay's views on annexation) for Polk. Would the Dems have hit upon the same magic formula in our hypothetical world? Impossible to know. Assuming that they did not, let us posit that Clay remained for two terms, through March 1849. Then you're in such a different world that it's hard to know what would have happened. The economic recovery was well underway by 1848. Would the Whigs have gone from triumph to triumph based on their economic record? And if so, with whom? (Not Zach Taylor! Millard Fillmore?) Or would the Dems, desperate for victory, and anxious to avoid economic issues, have used Texas as their springboard to victory in 1852?

Meanwhile, none of this would have necessarily derailed the approaching crisis over Kansas. Perhaps if the Texas and Kansas issues had peaked at the same time, the war would have come sooner! Or perhaps not.

My head is spinning . . . .

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