Madison, Clay and Huxley: June 29 is a day of passings

June 29, 2015

Three great historical figures passed on June 29 — and I’ll wager there are others, but I stumbled on these three in the past day.

  • James Madison, Father of the Constitution, and our fourth president
  • Henry Clay, who many including himself thought should have been president
  • Thomas Huxley, the scientist perhaps best known for his spirited defense of evolution theory and Charles Darwin against an ungrateful Bishop Samuel Wilberforce

Historian Michael Beschloss noted Madison’s passing:

Madison was born in 1751.

Henry Clay falls into that history between the founding and the Civil War, when he won the name “the Great Compromiser” for his ability to put together agreements and laws that patched things up for a while — holding the south in the union, but not giving in to expansions of slavery, for example.  Clay wanted to preserve the union, but he wanted full support from citizens in all corners of the nation. He wrote words perhaps relevant to political contretemps of today:

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.

“On the Compromise Resolutions,”
speech before the U.S. Senate,
February 5 and 6, 1850,
The Life and Speeches of Henry Clay (Littleton, Colorado: Fred B. Rothman, 1987), 2: 664.

Henry Clay died June 29, 1852, perhaps within weeks of this photo:

Henry Clay, photo by Mathew B. Brady between 1850 and 1852; Library of Congress archives.

Henry Clay, photo by Mathew B. Brady between 1850 and 1852; Library of Congress archives.

There’s a longer article on Clay’s amazing life and achievements at LOC’s “Today in History.” The Library of Congress also gives a brief summary of Clay’s history:

Republican Senator from Kentucky, 1806-1807, 1810-1811; Congressman, 1811-1814, 1815-1821, 1823-1825; U.S. Secretary of State, 1825-1829; Whig Senator, 1831-1842, 1849-1852; Democratic Republican candidate for President, 1824; National Republican candidate for President, 1832; Whig candidate for President, 1844.

Clay was born in 1777.

Thomas Huxley’s passing, on June 29, 1895, earns a spot on the calendar of events at Smithsonian.com

Thomas Henry Huxley, a British biologist and firm believer in evolution, dies at age 70. The greatest defender of Darwinism in Britain, he once said,

“The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.”

Thomas Henry Huxley, in an 1871 drawing by Carlo Pellegrini for Vanity Fair.

Thomas Henry Huxley, in an 1871 drawing by Carlo Pellegrini for Vanity Fair.

Huxley’s quote is one more indictment of people affected by the Dunning Kruger effect, something I just became aware of yesterday.  Yes, I need to source it better.

Upon reading Darwin’s big book, Origin of Species, Huxley wrote Darwin on November 23, 1859, one week after the book was published:

I finished your book yesterday. . . Since I read Von Baer’s Essays nine years ago no work on Natural History Science I have met with has made so great an impression on me & I do most heartily thank you for the great store of new views you have given me. . .
As for your doctrines I am prepared to go to the Stake if requisite. . .
I trust you will not allow yourself to be in any way disgusted or annoyed by the considerable abuse & misrepresentation which unless I greatly mistake is in store for you. . . And as to the curs which will bark and yelp — you must recollect that some of your friends at any rate are endowed with an amount of combativeness which (though you have often & justly rebuked it) may stand you in good stead —
I am sharpening up my claws and beak in readiness

  • Letter of T. H. Huxley to Charles Darwin, November 23, 1859, regarding the Origin of Species

Huxley, born in 1825, lived 70 great years in science.

Who else died on June 29 whom we should remember?


Voting in Fort Worth? Drop into the Amon Carter, see how campaigns worked in 1844

November 4, 2014

Election day art — well, this is campaign art, but part of that American tradition of highlighting the public nature of elections and campaigns.

Caption from the Dallas Morning News:  James Henry Beard’s The Illustrious Guest, depicting Henry Clay on the campaign trail in 1844, is on loan to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Caption from the Dallas Morning News: James Henry Beard’s The Illustrious Guest, depicting Henry Clay on the campaign trail in 1844, is on loan to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

Yes, there’s Henry Clay — maybe the man most-expected to become president who never did.  No, your high school history class probably didn’t cover Clay well, and most don’t today, either.  Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes may give him part of what he is due.

But there he is, campaigning in 1844, out on the road.  Actually, he’s at the hotel, reading a newspaper — and everyone else stares.  Some people bring their children to see the
Great Clay.

It was Clay’s third run at the presidency, at to be his last.  He ran on the Whig Party ticket, a party that would crash and burn within the decade, sinking from electoral politics forever.  (Millard Fillmore would be last Whig President, ascending from the vice presidency on the death of Zachary Taylor; Taylor was the last elected Whig President.) Clay was amply qualified on paper, and in the minds of most people, to be president.

Henry Clay, Sr. (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852) was an American lawyer, politician, and skilled orator who represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives. He served three different terms as Speaker of the House of Representatives and was also Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829. He lost his campaigns for president in 1824, 1832 and 1844.

In 1824, he ran behind Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. In what Jackson later called the Corrupt Bargain, when no candidate got a majority in the electoral college, and the election went to the House of Representatives (where each state gets one vote!), Clay pulled out, and let it be known that he favored Adams, who had run behind Jackson.  Adams was elected, and appointed Clay to be Secretary of State, the most common stepping stone to the presidency. (Was there a deal cut between Adams and Clay? No evidence can ever quash the suspicions of Jackson and his supporters.)

In 1832, older, wiser, from the Senate and as founder of the Whig Party, Clay ran and lost to Jackson, who won his second term.

In 1844 Clay was 67 years old.  The presidency was open.  Clay sought to walk the fence between groups who favored abolishing slavery, and groups who insisted slavery was necessary for the economy.  He opposed annexing new lands to the U.S., in order to preserve the balance between slave and non-slave states in Congress, especially the Senate.  James K. Polk, a young protege of Andrew Jackson, was chiefly unknown.  But Polk endorsed the idea of the nation’s “manifest destiny,” meaning he supporting annexing lands, sorting out slave/non-slave issues later.  Polk didn’t talk about his views on slavery in territories, and that was enough to mollify anti-slave forces in the party; but Polk was a slave holder, and that encouraged partisans on the other side to believe he’d favor them.  Polk won 49.5% of the popular vote, Clay 48.1%; Clay captured 170 electoral votes when 138 were needed to win.

Clay was, no doubt, more hopeful at the time the painting conveys.

Notice Clay seems to travel alone.  There is not gaggle of reporters, no clutch of campaign aides.  There is no one to fetch the great man a newspaper so he can remain cloistered in his hotel room. It was, in all ways, a much different time.  Voting in the election itself ran for a month, from early November to early December.  How that would have frustrated the television networks!

The painting, on loan to and on display in Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, came to light due to an owner’s bringing it to the Antiques Road Show of PBS, in 2008.  Amon Carter’s curators, always alert to American art and art of the west, worked to get it on display.  That story is told nicely by University of Texas at Dallas art historian Rick Brettell in the Dallas Morning News.

The painting represents the well-dressed — note the red silk living of his top coat — Sen. Henry Clay from Kentucky in the middle of a common tavern during his final run for office. He is at a stop on the campaign trail — his luggage is piled up on the right — and is catching up on the news in front of a stove. The tavern itself is respectable, and one small child, representing the future, looks intently at Clay, while two women and another child peep in curiously from the door. The entire painting projects an air of democratic common sense.

The painting actually focuses on the class differences between Clay and his constituents and represents the great politician as being out of touch with “the American people” — lost in his paper. Clay was a member of the American party that was dominant in the early 19th century and was called the Democratic-Republican Party. He had become a Whig long before the 1844 election, which he lost to James Polk.

With his beautiful clothes and his disdain for those around him, he is as out of touch as many of today’s politicians with their wealthy backers and super-PACS. What we learn from this trenchant analysis of 19th-century politics is that history does repeat itself. Interestingly, Clay, as a slave owner, opposed the annexation of Texas to the republic, a major issue in the election of 1844, for fear that it would exacerbate the debate about slavery then raging in America. How right he was.

Had Clay won instead, would Texas be a part of the U.S. today? Something to ponder on election day 2014 — or to visit, if you’re voting in Fort Worth.

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