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Jan 22, 1812 Henry Clay's Speech


On January 22, 1812, Henry Clay descended from the Speaker's chair to give a speech in favour of the establishment of a navy. Clay was already a noted orator. He was also on his way to become one of the dominant American politicians of the nineteenth century with only the presidency eluding his grasp. His speeches fuelled the inflammatory calls for war with Britain. Steven Watts, in The Republic Reborn (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987), has an extended analysis of Henry Clay and his January 22 speech. At page 88, he writes:
...His speeches on the eve of the war with Great Britain passionately appealed for Americans to realise the vitality of their prosperous republican society. Yet the inflammatory rhetoric could have misled the casual listener, because from beneath these paeans to American strength flickered flames of doubt about the character and moral fibre of the self made American. While not strong enough to incinerate the larger structure of confidence in American society as a whole, these misgivings caused the Kentuckian considerable discomfort. Clay's own words revealed that by 1812 he had grown deeply afraid that commercial prosperity had inadvertently rendered Americans a dissipated, flabby, even contemptible, people. This fear of American weakness, often advanced in only indirect or half-consciously fashion, drove the Kentuckian to endorse war as an exercise in regeneration of character as much as demonstration of national strength.
Part of Henry Clay's speech reads as follows:
Gentlemen fear that if we provide a marine it will produce collisions with foreign nations, plunge us into war, and ultimately overturn the Constitution of the country. Sir, if you wish to avoid foreign collision you had better abandon the ocean; surrender all your commerce; give up all your prosperity. It is the thing protected, not the instrument of protection, that involves you in war. Commerce engenders collision, collision war, and war, the argument supposes, leads to despotism. Would the counsels be deemed wise of that statesman who should recommend that the nation should be unarmed --that the art of war, the martial spirit and martial exercises. should be prohibited--and that the great body of the people should be taught that national happiness was to be found in perpetual peace alone? No, sir. And yet every argument in favor of a power of protection on land applies, in some degree, to a power of protection on the sea. Undoubtedly a commerce void of naval protection is more exposed to rapacity than a guarded commerce; and, if we wish to invite the continuance of the old, or enaction of new, unjust edicts let us refrain from all exertion upon that element where they operate and where, in the end, they must be resisted.
For my part, I do not allow myself to be alarmed by those apprehensions of maritime power which appeared to agitate other gentlemen. In the nature of our Government I behold abundant security against abuse. I would be unwilling to tax the land to support the rights of the sea, but would draw from the sea itself the resources with which its violated freedom should at all times be vindicated. While this principle is adhered to there will be no dandier of running into the folly and extravagance which so much alarm gentlemen; and, whenever it is abandoned, whenever Congress shall lay burdensome taxes to augment the navy beyond what may be authorized by the increased wealth, and demanded by the exigencies of the country, the people will interpose, and, removing their unworthy Representatives, apply the appropriate corrective. I cannot, then, see any just ground of dread in the nature of naval power. It is, on the contrary, free from the evils attendant upon standing armies. And the genius of our institutions--the great representative principle, in the practical enjoyment of which we are so eminently distinguished--affords the best guaranty against the ambition and wasteful extravagance of government.
I am far from surveying the vast maritime power of Great Britain with the desponding eye with which other gentlemen behold it. I cannot allow myself to be discouraged at the prospect even of her thousand ships. This country only requires resolution, and a proper exertion of its immense resources, to command respect and to vindicate every essential right. If we are not able to meet the wolves of the forest, shall we put up with the barking of every petty fox that trips across our way? Because we cannot guard against every possible danger shall we provide against none? I hope not. I have hardly expected that the instructing but humiliating lesson was so soon to be forgotten which was taught us in the murder of Pierce; the attack on the Chesapeake; and the insult offered in the harbor of Charleston, which the brave old fellow that commanded the fort in vain endeavored to chastise.
Gentlemen refer to the period of 1798, and we are reminded of the principles maintained by the opposition at that time. I have no doubt of the correctness of that opposition. The naval schemes of that day were premature, not warranted by the resources of the country, and were contemplated for an unnecessary war into which the nation was about to be plunged. I have always admired and approved the zeal and ability with which that opposition was conducted by the distinguished gentleman now at the head of the treasury. But the state of things is totally altered. What was folly in 1798 may be wisdom now. At that time, we had a revenue only of about six millions. Our revenue now, upon a supposition that commerce is restored, is about sixteen millions. The population of the country, too, is greatly increased--nearly doubled--and the wealth of the nation is, perhaps, tripled. While our ability to construct a nave is thus enhanced, the necessity for maritime protection is proportionately augmented. Independent of the extension of our commerce, since the year 1798, we have had an addition of more than five hundred miles to our coast, from the bay of Perdido to the mouth of the Sabine--a weak and defenseless accession, requiring, more than any other part of our maritime frontier, the protecting arm of government.



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