In February, 1839, Henry Clay delivered a speech in the United States Senate, which was intended to smooth away the difficulties which his moderate opposition to the encroachments of slavery had erected in his path to the presidency. His calumniation of O’Connell called out the following summary of the career of the great Irish patriot. It was published originally in the Pennsylvania Freeman of Philadelphia, April 25, 1839.
Perhaps the most unlucky portion of the unlucky speech of Henry Clay on the slavery question is that in which an attempt is made to hold up to scorn and contempt the great Liberator of Ireland. We say an attempt, for who will say it has succeeded? Who feels contempt for O’Connell? Surely not the slaveholder? From Henry Clay, surrounded by his slave- gang at Ashland, to the most miserable and squalid slave-driver and small breeder of human cattle in Virginia and Maryland who can spell the name of O’Connell in his newspaper, these republican brokers in blood fear and hate the eloquent Irishman. But their contempt, forsooth! Talk of the sheep-stealer’s contempt for the officer of justice who nails his ears to the pillory, or sets the branding iron on his forehead!
After denouncing the abolitionists for gratuitously republishing the advertisements for runaway slaves, the Kentucky orator says:–
“And like a notorious agitator upon another theatre, they would hunt down and proscribe from the pale of civilized society the inhabitants of that entire section. Allow me, Mr. President, to say that whilst I recognize in the justly wounded feelings of the Minister of the United States at the Court of St. James much to excuse the notice which he was provoked to take of that agitator, in my humble opinion he would better have consulted the dignity of his station and of his country in treating him with contemptuous silence. He would exclude us from European society, he who himself, can only obtain a contraband admission, and is received with scornful repugnance into it! If he be no more desirous of our society than we are of his, he may rest assured that a state of perpetual non- intercourse will exist between us. Yes, sir, I think the American Minister would best have pursued the dictates of true dignity by regarding the language of the member of the British House of Commons as the malignant ravings of the plunderer of his own country, and the libeller of a foreign and kindred people.”
The recoil of this attack “followed hard upon” the tones of congratulation and triumph of partisan editors at the consummate skill and dexterity with which their candidate for the presidency had absolved himself from the suspicion of abolitionism, and by a master-stroke of policy secured the confidence of the slaveholding section of the Union. But the late Whig defeat in New York has put an end to these premature rejoicings. “The speech of Mr. Clay in reference to the Irish agitator has been made use of against us with no small success,” say the New York papers. “They failed,” says the Daily Evening Star, “to convince the Irish voters that Daniel O’Connell was the ‘plunderer of his country,’ or that there was an excuse for thus denouncing him.”
The defeat of the Whigs of New York and the cause of it have excited no small degree of alarm among the adherents of the Kentucky orator. In this city, the delicate Philadelphia Gazette comes magnanimously to the aid of Henry Clay,–
“A tom-tit twittering on an eagle’s back.”
The learned editor gives it as his opinion that Daniel O’Connell is a “political beggar,” a “disorganizing apostate;” talks in its pretty way of the man’s “impudence” and “falsehoods” and “cowardice,” etc.; and finally, with a modesty and gravity which we cannot but admire, assures us that “his weakness of mind is almost beyond calculation!”
We have heard it rumored during the past week, among some of the self- constituted organs of the Clay party in this city, that at a late meeting in Chestnut Street a committee was appointed to collect, collate, and publish the correspondence between Andrew Stevenson and O’Connell, and so much of the latter’s speeches and writings as relate to American slavery, for the purpose of convincing the countrymen of O’Connell of the justice, propriety, and, in view of the aggravated circumstances of the case, moderation and forbearance of Henry Clay when speaking of a man who has had the impudence to intermeddle with the “patriarchal institutions” of our country, and with the “domestic relations” of Kentucky and Virginia slave-traders.