Henry Clay

Henry Clay Writes a New York Supporter of His Resignation to the Most Bitter Defeat of his Career-- The Presidential Election of 1844

Henry Clay Writes a New York Supporter of His Resignation to the Most Bitter Defeat of his Career-- The Presidential Election of 1844


Bi-fold autograph letter signed. Penned to recto of the first page, balance of pages blank, and integral address leaf to verso of last page. Dated "Ashland December 2, 1844", and signed by Henry Clay as "H. Clay". Postmarked "Dec 3, Lexington KY". Near fine with expected folds with a remaining hole present from the opening of the letter along the red wax seal.


This letter is both sad and resolute even after a month's reflection on the "extraordinary circumstances" of his defeat. Clay had lost the election to Polk by the slimmest of margins: a total vote differential of 39, 490 out of 2,701,601 votes cast; and 170-105 in the Electoral College. James G. Birney, of the abolitionist Liberty Party received 62,103 votes and none in the Electoral College. New York, the subject of this letter, was narrowly carried by Polk by only 5,106 votes, 237,588 to 232,482. The crux was Birney's receiving 15,812 votes. Along with Pennsylvania and Michigan, New York turned the tide against Clay. "Had only a modest proportion of the Liberty Party's New York vote … gone instead to the Whigs, Henry Clay would have been elected President". Clay's frustration must have been monumental; if he "captured only a third of Birney's … votes in New York he would have won the election."


The letter reads:


"My Dear Sir,

I was happy to receive a letter from you, conveying an assurance that, altho we have been unexpectedly defeated, all our friends manifested fidelity to our cause. I had no reason to doubt that such was the fact. Only one contrary exclamation has been made to me, but as it was not specific, and was without any proof, it made no impression on me. We have failed, in consequence of the combination of the most extraordinary circumstances. I suppose that no alternative is left to us but that of submission as well as we can, adherence to our principles and to our organization, … our utmost endeavor yet to save our country. In the retirement, which I desire during the residue of my life, I can do but little. Whatever however I can do, in such a situation, will be done cordially.

                                                          I remain faithfully

                                                          Your friend,

                                                           H. Clay"


As brilliant a man as Clay was, the campaign of 1844 was likely his to lose, and lose he did. Clay had come out against tariffs and against Texas annexation and the extension of slavery. In the midst of the campaign he waffled and equivocated on the issues. He drove voters to Polk. However, in the late fall of 1844, Clay was confident he would win the key states of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. Of those he narrowly won Ohio.


After the election, the Whigs were totally demoralized. Millard Fillmore, who had lost his gubernatorial bid in New York with the anti-Clay vote, wrote Clay: 'May God save the country, for it is evident the people will not". Modern scholarship has suggested that the election may have been actually lost not because of Clay's inept campaign but rather the advent of the great number of new Democrats in New York (and elsewhere) engaged in massive voter fraud. Indeed, fraud or not, Democrats in New York mobilized many new immigrant voters. Most Whigs "placed the horrendous defeat directly on Clay's shoulders". The loss of the presidency caused Clay infinite pain, and echoing this letter, in a letter to Mary Bayard: 'I felt the severity of that blow, more perhaps because two weeks ago it was altogether by me here" Further reflecting this letter, Clay hoped "to spend the rest of my days in peace and quiet"


The seeds of dis-Union were planted in this election. Looking at a Democratic victory banner waving over the slave market in Washington, a Whig from Vermont bitterly exclaimed: "That flag means Texas, and Texas means civil war, before we have done with it". Two years later, Clay would write that if Polk had not won" "there would have been no annexation of Texas, no war with Mexico, no National debt … no imputation against us, by the united voice of all the nations of the earth, of a spirit of aggression and inordinate Territorial aggrandizement" Remini observes: "The only thing Clay did not mention, for the obvious reason that he was dead when it happened, was the real possibility, as some commentators later claimed, that there might never have been a Civil War"


Item: 65002

Price: $3,000.00
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Henry Clay
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