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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

He was as much the perfect parliamentarian as Gladstone


man fills so large a space in American politics for a full generation that some attempt must be made to give a picture of him. Yet a just account of his character is not easy to give. It would be simple enough to offer a superficial description, favourable or hostile, but not one that would account for all his actions. Perhaps the best analysis would begin by showing him as half the aboriginal Westerner and half the Washington politician. In many ways he was very Western. He had a Westerner's pugnacity, and at the same time a Westerner's geniality and capacity for comradeship with men. He had to the last a Westerner's private tastes--especially a taste for gambling--and a Westerner's readiness to fight duels. Above all, from the time that he entered Congress as the fiercest of the "war hawks" who clamoured for vengeance on England, to the time when, an old and broken man, he expended the last of his enormous physical energy in an attempt to bridge the widening gulf between North and South, he showed through many grievous faults and errors that intense national feeling and that passion for the Union which were growing so vigorously in the fertile soil beyond the Alleghanies. But he was a Western shoot early engrafted on the political society of Washington--the most political of all cities, for it is a political capital and nothing else. He entered Congress young and found there exactly the atmosphere that suited his tastes and temperament. He was as much the perfect parliamentarian
as Gladstone. For how much his tact and instinct for the tone of the political assembly in which he moved counted may be guessed from this fact: that while there is no speech of his that has come down to us that one could place for a moment beside some of extant contemporary speeches of Webster and Calhoun, yet it is unquestionable that he was considered fully a match for either Webster or Calhoun in debate, and in fact attained an ascendancy over Congress which neither of those great orators ever possessed. At the management of the minds of men with whom he was actually in contact he was unrivalled. No man was so skilful in harmonizing apparently irreconcilable differences and choosing the exact line of policy which opposing factions could agree to support. Three times he rode what seemed the most devastating political storms, and three times he imposed a peace. But with the strength of a great parliamentarian he had much of the weakness that goes with it. He thought too much as a professional; and in his own skilled work of matching measures, arranging parties and moving politicians about like pawns, he came more and more to forget the silent drive of the popular will. All this, however, belongs to a later stage of Clay's development. At the moment, we have to deal with him as the ablest of those who were bent upon compelling the President to war.

Between Clay and the British Government Madison's hand was forced, and war was declared. In America there were widespread rejoicings and high hopes of the conquest of Canada and the final expulsion of England from the New World. Yet the war, though on the whole justly entered upon, and though popular with the greater part of the country, was not national in the fullest sense. It did not unite, rather it dangerously divided, the Federation, and that, unfortunately, on geographical lines. New England from the first was against it, partly because most of her citizens sympathized with Great Britain in her struggle with Napoleon, and partly because her mercantile prosperity was certain to be hard hit, and might easily be ruined by a war with the greatest of naval powers. When, immediately after the declaration of war, in 1812, Madison was put forward as Presidential candidate for a second term, the contest showed sharply the line of demarcation. North-east of the Hudson he did not receive a vote.

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