Our Collection

At the Institute’s core is the Gilder Lehrman Collection, one of the great archives in American history. More than 70,000 items cover five hundred years of American history, from Columbus’s 1493 letter describing the New World to soldiers’ letters from World War II and Vietnam. Explore primary sources, visit exhibitions in person or online, or bring your class on a field trip.

Clay, Henry (1777-1852) to John Switzer

High-resolution images are available to schools and libraries via subscription to American History, 1493-1943. Check to see if your school or library already has a subscription. Or click here for more information. You may also order a pdf of the image from us here.

Gilder Lehrman Collection #: GLC03725 Author/Creator: Clay, Henry (1777-1852) Place Written: Kentucky Type: Autograph letter signed Date: 19 May 1831 Pagination: 1 p. : address ; 25 x 20.2 cm.

Summary of Content: Written from Ashland, Clay's estate, to Switzer at Union Bridge, Frederick County, Maryland. Replying to a request from Switzer, Senator Clay discusses his opinions on colonization and slavery. Refers Switzer to an address he gave to the Colonization Society of Kentucky in 1829. Argues for leaving the decision of emancipation up to individual states. Attests that slavery can only be justified in America by necessity, if at all, and that Congress has no power to establish a system of emancipation.

Full Transcript: Ashland 19th May 1831
I recd. your letter 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 them 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.
I would refer you to a Speech which I addressed to the Colonization Society of K. in Decr. 1829, published in many of the prints, for my general views of the institution of slavery, and the remedy for the evils incident to it. And to the part I acted on the Missouri question for my opinion of the powers of the Genl. Government in regard to it.
The question of emancipation, immediate, or prospective, as a public measure, appertains, in my opinion, exclusively to the several States, each judging and acting for itself, in what slavery exists. More than thirty years ago I was in favor of the adoption in K. of a system similar to that which, at the instance of Franklin, had been previously sanctioned by Penn[s]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, on 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.
With great respect,
I am Your obt. Servt.
H. Clay
Mr John Switzer

Mr. John Switzer
Union Bridge
Frederick County
See More

People: Clay, Henry, 1777-1852
Switzer, John, 1806-1860

Historical Era: National Expansion and Reform, 1815-1860

Subjects: African American HistorySlaveryEmancipationAbolitionColonizationUS ConstitutionCongressLaw

Sub Era: Slavery & Anti-slavery

Order a Copy Citation Guidelines for Online Resources