June 9, 1842 – Henry Clay on “The Forces of Ignorance”

On this day in history, Henry Clay, in a speech delivered in Lexington, Kentucky, was looking back over his political career, and in particular, his fateful decision to accept the position of Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams. Followers of Andrew Jackson called this evidence of a corrupt political bargain that ensured the election of Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson. And Jackson and his friends never once let the issue die throughout Clay’s career.

Henry Clay represented Kentucky in the United States Senate several times throughout his public service career: from 1806 to 1807, 1810 to 1811, 1831 to 1842, and 1849 until his death in 1852. credit: United States Senate Historical Office

Henry Clay represented Kentucky in the United States Senate several times throughout his public service career: from 1806 to 1807, 1810 to 1811, 1831 to 1842, and 1849 until his death in 1852.
credit: United States Senate Historical Office

Clay acknowledged in this speech that he should not have taken Adam’s offer, because he did sense it might have negative repercussions. But he expressed “astonishment at the indefatigability with which the calumny was propagated, and the zealous partisan use to which it was applied, not only without evidence, but in the face of a full and complete refutation.” He went on to decry his own “under-rating of the power of detraction and the force of ignorance.”

That force was powerful indeed, and pretty much put an end to Clay’s ambitions to serve as president. Andrew Jackson, on the other hand, who was laughably more dishonorable than Clay, yet outraged at any hint of his own shortcomings, went on to become the seventh president of the United States, and to serve a much longer tenure as the fact of the twenty dollar bill.

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