June, 1852— The page delivered the envelope to the young congressman from Ohio as he sat at his desk on the floor of the House of Representatives. The congressman was barely awake, his senses fading from a dreary debate on a bill to fund the War Department. It had already dragged on from morning into mid-afternoon, far longer than necessary, in his opinion, and still more of his colleagues were eagerly waiting their turns to speak. How they love to hear themselves talk, he thought, and such a waste of time. There would be no votes taken today. He gazed at the barely legible words scrawled on the envelope, “Hon. Montgomery Tolliver,” thinking that he recognized the feeble handwriting, especially the “H,” slanted and with a large loop. He quickly opened it and the brief note inside confirmed his suspicion. It was from his old boss, requesting a meeting at the National Hotel, today, if possible. He had not visited the gentleman for almost two months. As weak and sick as his host had been at that time, he thought it may have been their last visit, not wanting to impose again, unless invited. Perhaps the end was now near. He needed to go.
Monty, as everyone called him, left the House chamber, walked down the steps of the Capitol, and hailed a cabriolet. His eyes squinted from the brightness of the sun on the pleasant early June day. The oppressive swampiness for which Washington summers were known had not yet settled in. The ride to the National Hotel, located on Pennsylvania Avenue at Sixth Street, less than halfway to the White House, took only a few minutes. He entered the lobby, familiar to him from having stayed at the National for a couple of weeks at the beginning of his first term, until he found lodging in a nearby boardinghouse. Since then, he had been there for several dinner meetings, never developing a taste for the terrapin that was considered the specialty of the house. The handsome Ohioan, tall and square-faced, with chestnut hair and cornflower blue eyes, was known and liked by the staff, who took pride in recognizing every member of Congress who walked through their doors.
As he walked through the lobby toward the front desk, he overheard a group of men discussing the upcoming 1852 presidential election, which had just reached a crucial phase. Like most people in the nation’s capital, Monty lived and breathed politics.
“Nominating Pierce was an ingenious move by the Democrats. Lightning will strike again in November, as it did with Polk in ˈ44,” Monty heard one of the men seated on a stiff high back chair say, smugly, as he watched him bring his fat fingers to his mouth for a puff on his cigar.
“Will never happen. Polk had Jackson’s support. Old Hickory's dead and there's no one of stature this time among the Democrats to sell Pierce to the voters,” said another man on the adjacent sofa. “The Whigs meet next week and my money is on General Scott getting the nomination and winning the election.”
Monty had been hearing similar conversations everywhere he had been over the past few days. The previous week, he and most of the country had been shocked that the Democratic Party, at its convention in nearby Baltimore, had nominated as its standard-bearer, on the forty-ninth ballot, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. A former one-term senator, out of office for a decade and virtually unknown outside of New England (even Monty had barely heard of him), Pierce was the second dark horse candidate to have been nominated by the Democrats in the past eight years. In 1844, they had won the presidency with the similarly unknown James Polk.
“I’ll take that bet. You’re both wrong!,” he heard another man on the sofa state with confidence. “President Fillmore will be nominated by the Whigs and win it all. He’s done a good job and deserves a term of his own.”
Millard Fillmore, the sitting president, Monty thought to himself, America’s second accidental Whig president in a decade. At least Fillmore was truly a Whig, unlike the first one, John Tyler, who had betrayed the party and, in Monty’s opinion, the country. The mere thought of Tyler brought back dark memories, which he tried to quickly erase from his mind.
He approached the front desk and told the clerk whom he was there to see.
“Good afternoon congressman. Yes, I passed his note to the messenger this morning. He’s expecting you. Go right up, you know the way.”
Room 32 was a suite, one of the nicest in the hotel, with a large parlor room adjacent to the bedroom. He knocked on the door. After a few seconds, it was opened by a free Black servant, James Marshall, whom he had met during his last visit. Marshall, well-liked and a good companion, had been the old man’s valet for a year. His services had become more needed as his boss’s health had deteriorated. The room was dimly lit, its dark curtains drawn. Monty could not help sensing gloom as he walked in.
“Good afternoon. He sent for me,” he told Marshall. The servant recognized Monty, went to the door of the bedroom and announced the guest to the old man, who stirred in his bed, suddenly energized. He motioned for James to show the guest in and to leave the two alone.
“Monty! Thank you for coming so soon, I hope that my note did not alarm you.”
The man stretched out on the bed, propped up by pillows and surrounded by newspapers, looked better than expected. There he was, Monty’s hero and mentor, America’s greatest living statesman, Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.
The mere sight of the man still gave him chills. On the ride from the Capitol, Monty had reflected on Clay’s career. He had been at the forefront of every major issue in Washington City for the past forty years. As the youngest speaker of the House of Representatives in history, he made innovations to that office that forever increased its power and influence. He had been a peace negotiator in Ghent and helped draft the treaty that ended the War of 1812. Clay had successfully led through Congress the Compromise of 1820, easing sectional concerns over slavery for almost a generation. He had devised his American System, with tariffs and infrastructure improvements, to build the economy of the growing nation, and had served as secretary of state under the second President Adams. He moved to the Senate and, in 1833, crafted a way to diffuse the Nullification Crisis. Clay became a leader of the National Republican Party and, later, a founder and leader of the Whig Party. Now in the twilight of his career, he had recently worked tirelessly to pass the Compromise of 1850 through Congress, again, as in 1820, keeping the nation together as divisions over slavery between the North and the South had threatened to tear it apart. Over a career of working out and solving political issues, Clay had earned his nickname, The Great Compromiser. There had been setbacks too, multiple losses in presidential elections, never achieving his dream of becoming president of the United States. As he had once famously said, “I had rather be right than be president.” He had come so close. A shift of twenty-five hundred votes in New York in 1844 and history would have been different.
Fresh out of college in 1838 and a newcomer to Washington City, Monty had gone to work for the senator, and became what was in effect his chief of staff. After Clay initially left the Senate in 1842, Monty had stayed on in the capital for a few years, left to go back to Ohio, and now had returned to begin his own political career. Like Clay, he was a Whig, and proudly so. In 1849, Clay had returned to the Senate and had again become one of the nation’s most influential men. Monty always admired Clay’s love of country, his style and wit, and those intangible qualities that caused people to look at him and think, this is a leader.
Monty glanced at the newspapers strewn across the senator’s bed. “I see you’ve been reading about the Democratic convention. Interesting outcome.”
“Frank Pierce. God help us,” scoffed Clay. “What a stretch, even for the Democrats. Too fond of the bottle, from what I knew of him in his Senate days. A backbencher among backbenchers. Rarely spoke on the floor. Now, they think he can be president? Five days in a hot convention hall, and an itching to get back home, leads men to make strange decisions.”
“Seems like they would have been smarter to nominate Senator Cass again. A known entity.”
“Agreed. Of course, the joke may be on us. There may be a method to their madness. Remember, they beat me with that rascal Polk.”
“At least he had been the speaker, and a governor. People had heard of him outside of Tennessee. And you almost beat him.”
“You humor an old man, Monty. A shameful loss it was.”
The two exchanged pleasantries about family and mutual friends. Monty learned that the senator's son, Thomas, had arrived in May from Kentucky to help attend to him, to answer correspondence, and to report back to the rest of the family. Clay, Monty readily saw, was a shadow of his former self. Known as a great orator, the best of his generation, his voice was weak and raspy from the frequent coughing caused by the consumption that had sapped the strength from his once vigorous body. For six months now, since December, he had been holed up in this hotel, too weak to attend sessions of the Senate, save one brief time, and most assuredly unable to survive a trip home to Lexington and his beloved Ashland estate. His face was gaunt, his hair disheveled, but his blue eyes were still piercing. Monty could not help but recall the senator in his prime. More than six feet tall, he always stood ramrod straight, and his presence had dominated any room he entered.
The banter over, Clay became serious as he stared at his young friend. “Monty, I am a dying man and do not know how many more days I have. Before I leave this earth, I need to know the truth. Tell me about your plot to assassinate President Tyler back in 1844.”
Monty could feel the blood drain from his face as he heard the words. How did the old man know? Exactly what did he know? Dare he tell him the truth?