Many subsequent presidents have taken Abraham Lincoln as an exemplar of great leadership and character. The most historically minded among them, from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama, have dwelt on his keen grasp of America’s role in the advance of democracy.
Lincoln, for his part, took the famously unsuccessful Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay as his main model of political virtue. Starting out with little education or material resources — just like Lincoln — Clay had become a galvanizing legislator, charismatic speaker, and zealous booster of America’s destiny as the beacon of liberty.
His failure to reach the presidency, said Lincoln, did nothing to lessen his impact on his times. He combined three character traits that in Lincoln’s estimation were common enough singly, but rarely found in one man: eloquence, judgment, and implacable will.
Henry Clay is scarcely more than a name today. He is perhaps less well-known by Americans than the other two members of the mid-19th century “great triumvirate,” Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.
Webster can still get plaudits for memorable speechifying: his rousing “liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable,” etched beneath his massive bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park, is familiar to many. Calhoun is often touted for original political theorizing, especially his concept of the “concurrent majority.”
Clay suffers by comparison. His major achievement — helping to rein in sectional divisiveness for a third of a century — gradually faded from view after the Civil War undid it. And his curious status as an anti-slavery slave-owner strikes many people nowadays as thinly masked hypocrisy. Men like Clay and Thomas Jefferson are often said to have salved their consciences with airy proclamations about equality, while luxuriating from the labor of their chattels.
Yet in his lengthy 1852 eulogy for the departed Clay — a speech delivered in the same Springfield Hall of Representatives where his own body would lie in state in 1865 — Lincoln declared that Clay’s viewpoint on slavery was one of the primary reasons to admire him. It qualified as paradoxical, Lincoln conceded, but it was emblematic of Clay’s good judgment.
Clay understood, said Lincoln, that the abomination of slavery must be tolerated indefinitely: abolishing it right away would wreak havoc, creating problems for blacks and whites alike. There was no way “it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.”
In Lincoln’s assessment, Clay’s entire career sprang from an intense commitment to liberty. “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country… He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.” Most people loved their country chiefly because it was their home; Clay loved it chiefly because it was edging the entire world toward freedom for all.
Ironically, Clay’s enthusiasm for the spread of liberty made it easy for him to embrace the “colonization” movement — the campaign to mobilize freed American slaves to resettle in Africa. All he had to do was perceive black Americans as a maliciously abused people who had still managed to pick up the ideal of liberty from their Euro-American environment. They could voyage to their “native soil” across the sea as ambassadors of freedom.
At the end of his 1852 eulogy, Lincoln enthusiastically embraced Clay’s colonization program. Liberty for slaves would not come anytime soon, he knew, but when it did come, true liberty would have to occur in two stages. Individual manumission had to be followed by the release of the entire group from their captivity in theUnited States.
Somehow, Lincoln imagined, the relocation of three million black Americans “to their long-lost fatherland” in Africa might be accomplished “so gradually, that neither races nor individuals shall have suffered by the change.” They could then embark on a new chapter in the history of liberty: “the possible ultimate redemption of the African race and African continent.”
Like his model Clay, Lincoln was so blinded by the bright glow of liberty, and the role former slaves could play in extending it, that he couldn’t perceive a very plain truth: by 1852 Africa was no longer their “fatherland” or “native soil.”
In the last years of his life, Lincoln came to his senses on colonization. He may still have believed in it in the abstract, but he knew that African-Americans, while sometimes supportive of the idea, had largely repudiated it. Most black Americans took theUnited States as their homeland, and loved their country — and its ideal of liberty — in spite of the severe restrictions still placed upon their freedom.
On the evening of April 11, 1865, Lincoln delivered the last speech of his life to a large outdoor crowd at the White House. He endorsed the idea of giving the vote to some black men, signaling his awareness that African-Americans as a group would make their future — and help to spread the principle of liberty — in the United States, not in a foreign land.
John Wilkes Booth was standing in the crowd that night, aghast to hear the president put black men on the path to republican citizenship. Booth decided then and there to stop Lincoln in his tracks.