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Henry Clay on Slavery
Digital History ID 323

Author:   Henry Clay


Henry Clay favored colonization as the only workable solution to slavery--a position that would later be embraced by one of Clay's ardent admirers, Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). In this letter, Clay spells out the kind of cautious antislavery position that Garrison began denouncing in 1831.


I received your letter of the 6th inst. requesting my opinion on certain questions stated by you in respect to the African portion of our population. I have not time to discuss these at large and must therefore confine myself to a brief reply, upon the condition, suggested by yourself that my letter shall not be a subject of publication....

The question of emancipation, immediate or prospective, as a public measure, appertains, in my opinion, exclusively to the several States, each judging and asking for itself, in which slavery exists. More than thirty years ago I was in favor of the adoption in K[entucky] of a system similar to that which, at the insistence of [Benjamin] Franklin had been previously sanctioned by Penn[sylvani]a. I have never ceased to regret that the decision of this State was adverse to the plan.

Slavery is undoubtedly a manifest violation of the rights of man. It can only be justified in America, if at all, by necessity. That it entails innumerable mischiefs upon our Country I think is quite clear. It may become dangerous in particular parts of the Union. But the slaves can never, I think, acquire permanent ascendancy in any part.

Congress has no power, as I think, to establish any system of emancipation, gradual or immediate, in behalf of the present or any future generation. The several states alone, according to our existing institutions, are competent to make provision on that subject, as already intimated.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: Henry Clay to John Switzer

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