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The Rise of the Second Party System
Digital History ID 321

Author:   Henry Clay


Over time, local and personal political factions coalesced into a new political party system. Three critical factors contributed to the creation of the second party system. The first was the financial panic of 1819, which resulted in demands for elimination of property qualifications for voting, new state constitutions, and political division over such issues as debt relief, banking and monetary policy, and tariffs.

A second source of political division was Southern alarm over the slavery debates in Congress in 1819 and 1820. Many Southern leaders feared that the Missouri crisis might spark a realignment in national politics along sectional lines. Many Southerners sought political alliances with the North. As early as 1821, Virginia Republicans opposed to high tariffs, a national bank, and federally-funded internal improvements had begun to form a loose alliance with Senator Martin Van Buren of New York and the Republican faction he commanded.

A third major source of political division was the selection of a presidential candidate. The Virginia dynasty of presidents, a chain that had begun with Washington and included Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, was at its end in 1824. Traditionally, the Republican party candidate was selected by a caucus of the party's members of Congress. At the 1824 caucus, the members chose William H. Crawford (1772-1834), a Georgian and Monroe's secretary of the Treasury. But not all Republicans supported this method of nominating candidates and therefore refused to participate.

When Crawford suffered a stroke and was left partially disabled, four other candidates emerged: Secretary of State John Quincy Adams; John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans and victor over the Creeks and Seminoles; and Henry Clay, the Kentuckian Speaker of the House.

In this letter, Clay assesses his chances for election and describes his stand on slavery and emancipation over the preceding 25 years. As the president and most famous leader of the American Colonization Society, Clay's views on slavery remained ambiguous.


Certainly it would have been more auspicious to my interests that the popular demonstrations made in Pennsylvania in favor of Genl. Jackson should have been given my support! But the next best thing to have happened is that which has already occurred....

The papers at Cincinnati, the principal point of unavailing opposition to me in Ohio, have begun to assume a friendlier tone and do harmonize more with the residue of that State. In short, every where in the West my ground is not only maintained, but there is a sensible & sure progress making in my prospects. My cause, perhaps, feels the want of some well established democratic press in the large cities to sustain it, as suggested by you, but this disadvantage is less, in consequence of the very great division among the presses there, and the reciprocal abuse which is so copiously lavished upon their respective favorites. Will not the moderate portion of the community, disgusted with those who are, at the same time, the objects of unmerited calumny and undeserved eulogy, finally rather concentrate their votes upon one who has been held up neither to their delectation nor idolatry?...

On the matter of fact, respecting the part which I asked on the question of Gradual Emancipation, debated in this state [Kentucky] many years ago, on which you desire information, I am sorry that I am not able to transmit you any from the record. All that I can communicate is preserved now by tradition, but is known to hundreds within and without this state. In 1798 and 1799 the question of a new Convention to amend and alter our State Constitution afflicted & divided this State. One of the grounds upon which it was supported and approached was that of introducing a provision similar to what is contained in your Abolition act, for the gradual emancipation of slaves. I took the side of a new Convention, and that of gradual emancipation. We carried the question of Convention, and then came on, in the year 1799, the election of members to it. Emancipation & antiemancipation tickets were formed. The greatest animation every where prevailed. I was then about 23, too young to be a member of the Convention; but I zealously supported the emancipation ticket, in all circles, public descriptions and news papers....We were opposed by...John Breckenridge, then the most powerful & prominent Citizen of this State.... The slave interest was too predominant for us and we were beaten at the elections, but in several important ones, we lost by very small majorities. My opinion is unchanged. I advised the Delegate from Missouri to strive to get a provision inserted in the Constitution of that State for gradual emancipation. The expediency of the measure, I think depends, in some degree, upon the relative proposition of the two races existing in any State in which it may be proposed. Here my opinion was and is that the African portion of the community is not so large as to make any hazard to the purity & safety of Society by a gradual and prepared emancipation of the offspring. However, should my friends think it useful to make any public allusion to the incident I have been relating, in my early life, perhaps it would not be proper to refer to present opinions, lest it should be said that these result from sinister motives.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Henry Clay to Thomas J. Wharton

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