The Sound and the Fury: Southern Voices in the United States Senate

Article excerpt

Thank you very much, Dr. Sansing, for the generous introduction. I am very grateful to Carolyn Vance Smith for inviting me again to participate in the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration. It's a pleasure to see all of you and to see the crowd grow and include students who come from throughout our state to enjoy being in Natchez for a day or two. One of the things I got to do on this trip was to have lunch at Shields Brown's house and recall how another U.S. Senator would often visit that house during his time of service in the Senate in Washington. He was the Kentucky senator, Henry clay.1 One of his favorite places was the home of William Bisland, "Mount Repose," as it's called. Bisland was a fan of clay's and thought he was one of the great leaders of our country, and he encouraged him to run for president. As a matter of fact, he committed to help with political campaign activities. And Henry clay did run for president. He became the Whig Party nominee for President of the United States. Bisland constructed a lane down the center of his property out to the main road and planted oak trees alongside the lane. He said, "When clay is elected president, I'm going to finish that lane with another line of trees coming up the other side and open the way so that people will come up directly to the house from the main road." Well, clay was never elected president, but if you'll go out to Mount Repose, you'll see there's just one line of trees and there's no lane that's open to the main road. But they still refer to those oaks as the clay Oaks in memory of Henry clay.

David and I were asked to talk about "The Sound and the Fury: Southern Voices in the United States Senate." Some people call Kentucky a border state, but Henry clay spoke with a "Southern voice." Some say they didn't know which side they were on in the Civil War. They were actually on both sides, I guess. But the point is that Henry clay was a distinguished Southerner and had so many friends in the South that we're going to claim him today, anyway.

I'm going to mention another story I came across about Clay from a book that was written by Senator Robert Dole when he was the Republican leader of the Senate. With some help from the Senate Historian, he compiled a book of notable events that have occurred in the Senate. In the book he described Henry Clay's remarks on the occasion of his announcing that he was retiring from the Senate, on March 31, 1842. I'm going to read from Dole's book:

When we think of the Senate's early years, we conjure up images of fiery oratory and impassioned debate. One such memorable event occurred on March 31, 1842. The occasion was Senator Henry Clay's retirement from the Senate, bringing to a close, at least for the time being, a congressional career that had spanned nearly forty years. Henry Clay chose to leave the Senate for several reasons: the sixty-three-year-old senator had been suffering from poor health, both physically and financially; his relations with longtime rivals John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster had become unusually acrimonious; two years earlier, he had been passed over for the Whig Party's presidential nomination and he was determined, as that party's most prominent leader, to consolidate his leadership, unite his party, and plan his 1844 presidential campaign from the comfort and security of his estate in Lexington, Kentucky. One biographer has called Clay's valedictory address "an epoch in the history of the republic." "At the time of my entry into this body," he [Clay] said, "which took place in December 1806," Clay began in a voice trembling with emotion, "I regarded it and I still regard it as a body which may be compared without disadvantage to any of a similar character which has existed in ancient or modern times. And now in retiring, I beg leave to deposit with it my fervent wishes that all the great and patriotic objects for which it was instituted may be accomplished, that the destiny designed for it by the framers of the Constitution may be fulfilled, that the deliberations now and hereafter in which it may engage for the good of our common country may eventuate in the restoration of its prosperity and in the preservation and maintenance of her honor abroad and her best interests at home. …