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Henry Clay ALS, Responding to St. Nicholas Society Speech, Takes a Jab at Martin Van Buren
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This letter is addressed to the president of the St. Nicholas Society of the City of New York, Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, and signed twice within the text as “H. Clay” and “H. C.” Clay thanks Verplanck for sending a copy of his recent speech to the Society’s annual meeting, praises it for its substance and cleverness, and wishes Verplanck could change places with President Martin Van Buren.

HENRY CLAY. Autograph Letter Signed, to Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, December 30, 1837, Washington, DC. 1 p., 8¼ x 10¼ in.

Inventory #27308       Price: $950

Complete Transcript
H. Clay presents his respectful compliments to H.E. the President of the St Nicholas Society, with cordial thanks for the opportunity afforded to him of perusing the President’s late admirable ‘communication’ to the annual meeting of the Society. It far surpasses, in humor, in wit, in sound common sense, and in Statesmanlike views that of the Chief Magistrate of all these United States President Martin Van Buren. And H.C. regrets that there cannot be instantly an exchange of positions between these two high dignitaries. He does not know that the St. Nicholas Society would gain by the transposition, but he is sure that the U. States would.

He tenders to the President of the St Nicholas Society the compliments of the Season.

                                                                                    Washington 30th Decr 1837

Historical Background
American author Washington Irving, with the financial backing of John Jacob Astor and other prominent New Yorkers, organized The St. Nicholas Society of the City of New York in 1835 for historical and social purposes. Its membership consists of descendants of men who lived in the State of New York before 1785. Gulian Crommelin Verplanck was the second president of the society, serving from 1837 to 1841. In 1837, the Society held its annual meeting at the new Delmonico’s Restaurant on December 6.[1]

The program began with the reading of letters from President Martin Van Buren, former President John Quincy Adams, Senator Daniel Webster, Winfield Scott, James Fenimore Cooper, and others, and a series of toasts. The president then delivered an address, “replete with wit, classical allusion, and antiquarian reminiscences.”

In his presidential address, Verplanck waxed poetical and at length on the history of New York City: “The most important part of the exclusively domestick or internal concerns of this society have been wisely confided to your board of stewards—the sage framers of our constitution having, doubtless, foreseen that their duties were always of too delicate a nature, as well as frequently too arduous to be safely intrusted to any single individual. The result of the recent labours of those high functionaries have been spread before you, in extenso, this evening, and have received, as they deserved, your marked and unqualified approbation. It is due to them to inform you that this happy result has not been attained without profound and arduous research, as well as eminent natural talent and happy disposition for such studies. Indeed, I can assure you, from the report of the other dignitaries of the society, as well as from a personal visit of inspection of my own, that the splendid success you have this day witnessed, cost our stewards many midnight consultations over the wines and cookery of the Messrs. Delmonico, who have been selected as our agents on this occasion.... But there is another point of view in which they have covered themselves with glory—and for this they merit and should receive the special thanks of this fraternity. It is the wise and patriotick selection of the locality they have chosen. You well remember that, in former years, we have assembled on the joyous return of this day, at the City Hotel in Broadway, a house well worthy, in point of splendour and accommodation, to receive us, but situated quite out of the town, being many rods to the north of the ancient city walls, where Wall-street now runs.... But our present board of stewards, strong in the love of their original native city, have come back to the classick ground of New- York history. They have ‘hung out our banner on the outward walls’ of the good old city of Stuyvesant, where you have this day seen it wave its broad folds in triumph. Our armorial bearing, the Beaver, that appropriate symbol of New-Amsterdam, seems to rejoice in the recovery of his ancient domain. Yes, brethren, here is the classick ground of our city; nor is there any single spot of it around which more numerous patriotick associations twine and cluster, than the very place on which we are met. A few yards to the north of us ran the old palisadoed city wall; around the lot occupied by this tasteful and commodious hotel, wound, in olden times, the Burgher’s Path.... Just behind us was the old Stadt-house, where Kieft and Von Twiller held their courts.... Here, too, we behold the scene of some of the first successful struggles of the revolution in this city, headed by the glorious Hamilton, the eloquent Governeur Morris, and the high-minded, fearless Marinus Willett. Within a stone’s throw to the north-west of us, on the south side of Wall-street, stood the house where Hamilton toiled to build up the dilapidated credit of the Union; a little farther to the west, on this side of Broadway, was the solid and massive stone mansion of our Christian Cato, John Jay. Near to us, too, is the site of the old Federal Hall, where Washington was inaugurated as first president of the United States, and where assembled the first congress under the present constitution—a congress illustrated by the wisdom and eloquence of Madison and Sherman, and Ames, in the house of representatives; and of Paterson, and Ellsworth, and Johnson, and King, and Schuyler in the senate. Yes, gentlemen, this is our classick ground, and I congratulate you on your return to it. This is the Palatine Hill of our commercial Rome.”

He drew reluctantly to a close, “Solemnly protesting, in his own name and that of his successors in his high office, against the fact of his finishing his annual speech within the hour, being hereafter taken as a precedent to deprive him of his unquestionable constitutional right of indefinite prolixity, he said that though he did not hold brevity of speech to be any necessary duty of the President of the St. Nicholas Society, yet, strict punctuality in his engagements undoubtedly was. It so happened that, by an arrangement with the St. Nicholas Society of Albany, it was stipulated that precisely at the hour which had now arrived, a toast should be given from the chair, expressive of the respect entertained by us for that elder association, who had first founded the brotherhood of St. Nicholas on this side of the Atlantick.”[2]

The St. Nicholas Society, still active today, preserves historical and genealogical records of Dutch-ruled New Amsterdam and English-ruled New York. Its annual dinner has hosted notable speakers, such as Daniel Webster, Mark Twain, President Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, John D. Rockefeller Jr., Fiorello La Guardia, Walter Cronkite, David McCollough, and others.

Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky was a vocal critic of President Martin Van Buren. Clay and other Whigs insisted that the economic policies of President Andrew Jackson, which Van Buren continued, had caused the Panic of 1837. Clay promoted his American System of tariffs, internal improvements, and public land sales as a means of recovery, but President Van Buren insisted on “strict economy and frugality” in federal expenditures.

Henry Clay (1777-1852) was born in Virginia and studied law in Richmond. Admitted to the bar in 1797, he began a practice in Lexington, Kentucky. He was elected as a Democratic Republican to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate, where he served from 1806 to 1807, despite being under the required age of thirty years. He represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate from 1810 to 1811. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1811 to 1814, when he resigned to negotiate a peace treaty with Great Britain. He served again in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1815 to 1821 and 1823 to 1825. During his tenure in the House, Clay served as the Speaker three times (1811-1814, 1815-1820, and 1823-1825). In 1824, Clay was one of four candidates to receive electoral votes in the presidential election, but his support for John Quincy Adams gave the election to Adams in the House of Representatives, denying Andrew Jackson the presidency. Clay resigned from the House of Representatives to serve as Secretary of State for Adams from 1825 to 1829. After Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, Clay became the leader of the National Republicans and ran for president against Jackson in 1832. He was instrumental in forming the Whig Party in the 1830s in opposition to Jackson’s policies. The Whigs selected war hero William Henry Harrison over Clay as their candidate for president in 1840. After Harrison’s sudden death and President John Tyler’s defection or return to the Democratic party, the Whigs returned to Clay as their presidential candidate in 1844, but he lost to Democrat James K. Polk. Clay again served in the U.S. Senate from 1831 to 1842, and from 1849 until his death. In his term in the Senate, he was a principal architect of the Compromise of 1850.

Gulian Crommelin Verplanck (1786-1870) was born in New York City to a descendant of Dutch colonists and graduated from Columbia College in 1801. He read law with Edward Livingston and was admitted to the bar in 1807. Verplanck served in the New York State Assembly from 1820 to 1823 and then won election as a Jacksonian Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1825 to 1833. In his last Congress, he served as the Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means. He parted with President Jackson over Jackson’s war with the Second Bank of the United States, and in 1834, Verplanck was the nominee of the emerging Whig Party for mayor of New York City. He lost by a few hundred votes to Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence. Verplanck served in the New York Senate from 1838 to 1841. He supported Whig and Democratic candidates for the presidency over the next twenty years, then returned to the Democratic Party in the 1850s. From 1846 until his death, he served as President of the Board of Commissioners of Immigration, and also participated in the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868.

Condition: Flattened mail folds; light toning and soiling; a few small tears at the right edge.

[1] Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas, is observed on December 5 or 6 in Western Christian countries.

[2] “The St. Nicholas Society of New-York,” The New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts, vol. 15, no. 26, December 23, 1837, p204/c1-p205/c3.

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