Letter From Henry Clay to the Editors of the National Intelligencer Opposing the Annexation of Texas (1844)

Image: Texas coming in. 1844. Lithograph by James Baillie.
What reasons would the United States have to seek the annexation of Texas at this point, nearly a decade after it had declared its independence? What would the United States have done if the government of Texas had refused the terms of annexation, as some Texians wished to remain independent? What might have been the long-term effects of an independent Texas Republic on the future of slavery and U.S. security?
Why would Clay, who had strongly advocated the acquisition of Texas during the negotiations with Spain over what became the Transcontinental Treaty, now oppose it? Why did he fear that Britain or France might go to war with the United States on behalf of Mexico?

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In negotiating the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain (1819; final ratification 1821), President James Monroe had instructed Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) not to seek to acquire the territory known as Texas, which was part of Spanish Mexico. Monroe was concerned that possession of Texas would exacerbate the growing sectional differences over slavery. In 1835­–1836, a group of American settlers and Tejanos (Texas residents of Mexican descent) rebelled against the central Mexican government and declared independence. Their defiant resistance at the Alamo became part of American folklore. Many Americans wanted to annex the new Republic of Texas to the United States immediately, and that was also the objective of many—but not all—Texians, as they were known. But President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, decided not to pursue that course, fearing that the controversial issue of slavery in Texas, where the institution was legal, might derail the candidacy of his chosen successor, Martin Van Buren (1782–1862).

The desire among many Democrats for annexation remained strong, however. In 1844 President John Tyler, a Whig who favored expansion, secured a treaty of annexation with the government of Texas under which Texas would become a U.S. territory eligible for admission later as one or more states. The question took center stage in the presidential election of that year. In April 1844, before the terms of the treaty became publicly known, the presumptive Whig candidate, Henry Clay (1777–1852), set out his objections to annexation in a newspaper, in what became known as the Raleigh Letter. His objections included the probability of war with Mexico (which had not recognized Texas’ independence) and possibly with the European powers. Clay also warned of the disruptive effects on the Union caused by raising the slavery question. (Clay himself was a slaveholder, but he had spoken out against the institution, and he needed support from antislavery voters in the North without alienating the South.)

In June 1844, the Senate, with its Whig majority, soundly rejected Tyler’s Texas treaty. But the pro-annexation Democrat James Polk (1795–1849) narrowly defeated Clay in the election. The lame-duck Tyler successfully called on Congress to agree by a simple majority to annexation through a joint resolution. Efforts to give the president the option to seek to divide Texas into two states—one slave, one free—failed.

—David Tucker

Source: Henry Clay, “To the Editors of the National Intelligencer,” Washington National Intelligencer, April 27, 1844, p. 3, available at https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045784/1844-04-27/ed-1/seq-3/. Clay wrote his letter on April 17, but it was not published until April 27.

. . . The events which have since transpired in Texas are well known. She revolted against the government of Mexico, flew to arms, and finally fought and won the memorable Battle of San Jacinto, annihilating a Mexican army and making a captive of the Mexican president.[1] The signal success of that revolution was greatly aided, if not wholly achieved, by citizens of the United States, who had migrated to Texas. These successes, if they could not always be prevented by the government of the United States, were furnished in a manner, and to an extent, which brought upon us some national reproach in the eyes of an impartial world. And, in my opinion, they impose on us the obligation of scrupulously avoiding the imputation of having instigated and aided the revolution with the ultimate view of territorial aggrandizement. After the Battle of San Jacinto, the United States recognized the independence of Texas, in conformity with the principle and practice which have always prevailed in their councils of recognizing the government de facto, without regarding the question de jure.[2] That recognition did not affect or impair the rights of Mexico, or change the relations which existed between her and Texas. She, on the contrary, has preserved all her rights, and has continued to assert, and so far as I know, still asserts, her right to reduce Texas to obedience, as a part of the Republic of Mexico. According to late intelligence, it is probable that she has agreed upon a temporary suspension of hostilities; but, if that has been done, I presume it is with the purpose, upon the termination of the armistice, of renewing the war and enforcing her rights, as she considers them.

This narrative shows the present actual condition of Texas, so far as I have information about it. If it be correct, Mexico has not abandoned, but perseveres in the assertion of her rights by actual force of arms, which, if suspended, are intended to be renewed. Under these circumstances, if the government of the United States were to acquire Texas, it would acquire along with it all the incumbrances which Texas is under, and among them the actual or suspended war between Mexico and Texas. Of that consequence there cannot be a doubt. Annexation and war with Mexico are identical. Now, for one, I certainly am not willing to involve this country in a foreign war for the object of acquiring Texas. I know there are those who regard such a war with indifference, and as a trifling affair, on account of the weakness of Mexico, and her inability to inflict serious injury upon this country. But I do not look upon it thus lightly. I regard all wars as great calamities, to be avoided, if possible, and honorable peace as the wisest and truest policy of this country. What the United States most need are union, peace, and patience.

Nor do I think that the weakness of a power should form a motive, in any case, for inducing us to engage in or to depreciate the evils of war. Honor and good faith and justice are equally due from this country toward the weak as toward the strong. And, if one act of injustice were to be perpetrated toward any power, it would be more compatible with the dignity of the nation, and, in my judgment, less dishonorable, to inflict it upon a powerful than upon a weak foreign nation. Have we any security that countless numbers of foreign vessels, under the authority and flag of Mexico, would not prey upon our defenseless commerce in the Mexican Gulf, on the Pacific Ocean, and on every other sea and ocean? What commerce, on the other hand, does Mexico offer, as an indemnity for our losses, or the gallantry and enterprise of our countrymen? This view of the subject supposes that the war would be confined to the United States and Mexico as the only belligerents. But, have we any certain guaranty that Mexico would obtain no allies among the great European powers? Suppose any such powers, jealous of our increasing greatness, and disposed to check our growth and cripple us, were to take part in behalf of Mexico, in the war, how would the different belligerents present themselves to Christendom and the enlightened world? We have been seriously charged with an inordinate spirit of territorial aggrandizement; and, without admitting the justice of the charge, it must be owned that we have made vast acquisitions of territory within the last forty years. Suppose Great Britain and France, or one of them, were to take part with Mexico, and by a manifesto, were to proclaim that their objects were to assist a weak and helpless ally to check the spirit of encroachment and ambition of an already overgrown Republic, seeking still further acquisitions of territory, to maintain the independence of Texas, disconnected with the United States, and to prevent the further propagation of slavery from the United States, what would be the effect of such allegations upon the judgment of an impartial and enlightened world?

Assuming that the annexation of Texas is war with Mexico, is it competent to the treaty-making power to plunge this country into war, not only without the concurrence of, but without deigning to consult Congress, to which, by the Constitution, belongs exclusively the power of declaring war.[3]

I have hitherto considered the question upon the supposition that the annexation of Texas is attempted without the assent of Mexico. If she yields her assent, that would materially affect the foreign aspect of the question, if it did not remove all foreign difficulties. On the assumption of that assent, the question would be confined to the domestic considerations which belong to embracing the terms and conditions upon which annexation is proposed. I do not think that Texas ought to be received into the Union, as an integral part of it, in decided opposition to the wishes of a considerable and respectable portion of the confederacy.[4] I think it far more wise and important to compose and harmonize the present confederacy than to introduce a new element of discord and distraction into it. In my humble opinion, it should be the constant and earnest endeavor of American statesmen to eradicate prejudices, to cultivate and foster concord, and to produce general contentment among all parts of our confederacy. And true wisdom, it seems to me, points to the duty of rendering its present members happy, prosperous, and satisfied with each other, rather than to attempt to introduce alien members, against the common consent, and with the certainty of deep dissatisfaction. Mr. Jefferson expressed the opinion, and others believed, that it never was in the contemplation of the framers of the Constitution to add foreign territory to the confederacy, out of which new states were to be formed.[5] The acquisition of Louisiana and Florida may be defended upon the peculiar ground of the relation in which they stood to the states of the Union. After they were admitted we might well pause awhile, people our vast wastes, develop our resources, prepare the means of defending what we possess, and augment our strength, power, and greatness. If hereafter further territory should be wanted for an increased population, we need entertain no apprehensions but that it will be acquired by means, it is to be hoped, fair, honorable, and constitutional.

It is useless to disguise that there are those who espouse and those who oppose the annexation of Texas, upon the ground of the influence which it would exert, in the balance of political power, between two great sections of the Union. I conceive that no motive for the acquisition of foreign territory would be more unfortunate, or pregnant with more fatal consequences, than that of obtaining it for the purpose of strengthening one part against another part of the common confederacy. Such a principle, put into practical operation, would menace the existence, if it did not certainly sow the seeds of the dissolution of the Union. It would be to proclaim to the world an insatiable and unquenchable thirst for foreign conquest or acquisition of territory. For if today Texas be acquired to strengthen one part of the confederacy, tomorrow Canada may be required to add strength to another. And, after that might have been obtained, still other and further acquisitions would become necessary to equalize and adjust the balance of political power. Finally, in the progress of this spirit of universal dominion, the part of the confederacy which is now weakest would find itself still weaker from the impossibility of securing new theaters for those peculiar institutions which it is charged with being desirous to extend.[6]

But would Texas ultimately really add strength to that which is now considered the weakest part of the confederacy? If my information be correct, it would not. According to that, the territory of Texas is susceptible of division into five states, of convenient size and form. Of these, two only would be adapted to those peculiar institutions to which I have referred; and the other three, lying west and north of San Antonio, being only adapted to farming and grazing purposes, from the nature of the soil, climate, and productions, would not admit of those institutions. In the end, therefore, there would be two slave and three free states added to the Union. If this view of the soil and geography of Texas be correct, it might serve to diminish the zeal both of those who oppose and those who are urging annexation.

Should Texas be annexed to the Union, the United States will assume and become responsible for the debt of Texas, be its amount what it may. What it is, I do not know certainly; but the least I have seen it stated at, is thirteen millions of dollars. And this responsibility will exist whether there be a stipulation in the treaty or not, expressly assuming the payment of the debt of Texas. For I suppose it to be undeniable, if one nation becomes incorporated in another, all the debts, obligations, incumbrances, and wars of the incorporated nation become the debts, obligations, incumbrances, and wars of the common nation created by the incorporation.

If any European nation entertains any ambitions upon Texas, such as that of colonizing her, or in any way subjugating her, I should regard it as the imperative duty of the government of the United States to oppose to such designs the utmost firm and determined resistance, to the extent of appealing to arms, to prevent the accomplishment of any such designs. The Executive of the United States ought to be informed as to the aims and views of foreign powers with regard to Texas, and I presume that, if there be any of the exceptionable character which I have indicated, the Executive will disclose to the coordinate department of the government, not to the public, the evidence of them.[7] From what I have seen and heard I believe that Great Britain has recently formally and solemnly disavowed any such aims or purposes—has declared that she is desirous only of the independence of Texas, and that she has no intention to interfere in her domestic institutions. If she has made such disavowal and declaration, I presume they are in the possession of the Executive. . . .

. . . I consider the annexation of Texas, at this time, without the assent of Mexico, as a measure compromising the national character, involving us certainly in a war with Mexico, probably with other foreign powers, dangerous to the integrity of the Union, inexpedient in the present financial condition of the country, and not called for by any general expression of public opinion.

  1. 1. Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794–1876), who led Mexican forces against the Texian Army. He was captured after the decisive Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836.
  2. 2. De facto recognition acknowledges only that a government, in this case of Texas, exercises control over a territory. De jure recognition is more formal, usually a precursor to the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
  3. 3. According to the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, Congress alone has the power to declare war, although the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.
  4. 4. Clay uses the term “confederacy” here in reference to the union of states forming the United States. It should not be confused with the Confederate States of America, which sought to achieve independence during the Civil War.
  5. 5. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) served as president from 1801 to 1809, when the Louisiana Territory was purchased from France. See Letter to John Breckinridge
  6. 6. “Peculiar institutions” referred to the system of slavery in the southern states.
  7. 7. Clay is presumably indicating that the information should be provided in confidence to Congress.
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