by David S. Heidler & Jeanne T. Heidler
Random House, 2010, 624 pp., $30
This past February, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) used his maiden speech on the Senate floor to attack one of his home state’s most cherished historical heroes. Standing at Henry Clay’s Senate desk, Paul criticized the legacy of the Great Compromiser. “Henry Clay’s life story is, at best, a mixed message”, Paul said.
Henry Clay’s great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war. Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have even encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance, during his fifty years of public life, of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself.
Paul admitted that there were no questions before the Senate with the same moral force as slavery; he nevertheless went on to pose a series of rhetorical questions about whether America’s current national debt problems might not be best solved by strong attachment to principles rather than compromise.
Paul’s speech raised eyebrows not merely because of its aggressive tone, unusual for freshman Senators, but also because his apparently abstract references to Clay were to many a sign of tensions between Paul and his senior colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell had favored a different candidate in Kentucky’s Republican primary and, more to the point of Paul’s message, he has often counted Clay among his political role models. A portrait of Clay adorns McConnell’s Senate office, and he once told an interviewer that Clay “understood the need for compromises that were truly important for the country. . . . I think that remains just as true today as it did in 1820 or 1850.”
Whatever his motives, Paul’s reference to Clay resonates in our current political climate, at least to the better-educated shard of the populace, for it is a climate marked in part by debate over the proper role of compromise in American political life at a time of near-unprecedented polarization between the major parties. It is also a time, as Jill Lepore illustrates in The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (2010), when politicians, particularly small-government conservatives, have made a habit of defending arguments with reference to the wisdom of the Founders.
Scholars are usually of two minds when historical figures are inserted into current debates. Historians certainly think it nice when history seems to matter, but they wince at its uses, which are problematic more often than not. Political rhetoric is about impression management, and speeches are more like sermons than lectures: The more intellectually serious and didactic they are, the less anyone seems to pay attention to them. Since most Americans do not remember historical figures clearly or well, passionate reference to the Founders and other national heroes too often allows emotion to trump accuracy. Frequently, the Founders’ invokers seek not genuine insight from the past but validation for present views.
All of which makes Rand Paul’s reference to Henry Clay both surprising and intriguing. Clay does not really fit the typical model of a Founding Father. Since he was never President, most Americans, excepting Kentuckians, perhaps, have never heard of him at all. Moreover, although Lincoln called Clay his “beau ideal of a statesman”, Clay does not fit into contemporary narratives of the Founders as champions of small government, either. He does matter, however, to anyone interested in the real meaning of the Civil War and in how to prevent new tragedies in America’s future. It is therefore a lucky stroke that the husband and wife team of David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, who have collaborated on several books on early 19th-century American politics, have written a lively biography of Clay brimming with historical fact and anecdote. While it perhaps falls short of being an intellectual masterstroke, Henry Clay: The Essential American offers a welcome introduction to his life and times.
Born in 1777 as a true child of the American Revolution, Clay became a leader of the successor generation as one of the “Great Triumvirate” along with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. He ran unsuccessfully for President three times and was controversially passed over for his party’s nomination twice more. Considering the many mediocrities and outright failures that held the presidency during Clay’s career—William Henry Harrison, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor come to mind—one cannot help but note the irony, for Clay was anything but mediocre. His rhetorical skill and relentless ambition made him a successful lawyer and a legendary member of both the House and the Senate. Although he did not grow up poor in Virginia (contrary to campaign propaganda that portrayed him as the “mill boy of the Slashes”), Clay could not rely on a large family fortune to support his political career. Instead, intelligence, personality and an advantageous marriage allowed him to rise to prominence in his adopted hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.
Clay aligned himself with the Jeffersonian Republicans as they routed the Federalists, first in the Kentucky legislature and then in Congress, and quickly became one of the Capitol’s rising stars. As Speaker of the House, he took an office that was largely ceremonial and used it to shape legislative debates. As one of the congressional “War Hawks”, he was a strong advocate of the War of 1812 as a means of asserting the new nation’s independence, and then became a member of the U.S. peace delegation to Ghent that negotiated the war’s end. By 1825, his relentlessly upward path led him to the State Department under his colleague at Ghent, President John Quincy Adams.
That posting as Secretary of State, an essential steppingstone to the presidency in the early Republic, became an albatross for Clay, however. Clay had finished a distant fourth in the 1824 presidential election, a contest decided by the House of Representatives. Disappointed supporters of Andrew Jackson, who won a plurality of the electoral vote but lost the vote in the House, claimed that Clay had supported Adams in return for the State Department position. Repeated denunciations of the “corrupt bargain” swept Jackson into office four years later and dogged Clay for the rest of his life. The Heidlers are at pains to absolve Clay of the charge of a flagrant quid pro quo, but as they acknowledge, the damage was done. Clay himself admitted that by agreeing to serve as Secretary he had “injured both [Adams] and myself”, and he “often painfully felt that I had seriously impaired my own capacity of public usefulness.”
Nevertheless, Clay continued to make himself useful to the public, especially by brokering compromises between North and South on issues related to slavery, most famously in the Compromises of 1820 and 1850. As one of the leaders of the Whig Party, Clay found himself opposing Jackson, his epigones and the populist politics that Old Hickory represented. It is ironic that the great hero of the 1812 war that Clay had so strongly welcomed became his greatest opponent, and it is even more ironic that the two self-made men from the frontier ended up on opposite sides of American politics. They had much in common, from their ambition to their rough habits to their predilection for duels. Jackson was willing to charge Clay with a wide range of real and imagined transgressions against American values, but unlike many of his allies, he never criticized Clay for his notorious 1825 duel with John Randolph.
What separated Clay and Jackson were their different visions of the relationship of America’s past to its future. Jackson claimed to represent the people in the name of the Jeffersonian model of sturdy rural individualism, and railed against an enfeebled, self-interested Eastern urban elite. Clay had begun his career as a Jeffersonian Republican, but by 1812 he had linked his nationalist foreign policy to calls for a stronger national government under the guidance of a managerial elite. Positions that many Republicans in the 1790s like James Madison had opposed when they were advanced by arch-Federalist Alexander Hamilton—for example, a protective tariff, federally funded internal improvements and even a second Bank of the United States—were welcomed by Clay and the younger generation once Madison had started his second term and the Federalist Party had disappeared as a political force. These were the central elements of what Clay called the American System, an ideal that envisioned a Federal government that encouraged and managed America’s growth and expansion. An unacknowledged heir of Hamilton, Clay became a strong believer in the flexibility of the Constitution’s “necessary and proper” clause, which gave the Federal government wide, though not infinite, latitude in defending the national interest.
Clay’s American System put him at odds with many in his home region, which was just one aspect of the contradictions in which he entangled himself as he struggled against Jackson. Even though Jackson was a decade older than Clay, his appeals to the common people and anti-elitist rhetoric made Old Hickory an avatar of a new politics that Clay could not bring himself to accept. The Whig Party was at best ambivalent about the growing influence of the common man.
Clay did not mind playing the part of a man of the people when it suited him, however. To the reserved New England Puritan John Quincy Adams, Clay was, as the Heidlers remind us, “an eloquent man, with very popular manners and great political management”, someone with “all the virtues indispensable to a popular man . . . and the sort of generosity which attaches individuals to his person.” Yet, intoned Adams, Clay was only “half-educated.” As a famously emotional extemporaneous speaker, he could get caught up in the sentiments of the moment. In one 1844 speech he denounced President Tyler and encouraged his supporters to “pick up your Whig flints and try your Rifles again.” He later admitted to a friend that he had gone too far, making him the first but not the last American politician to regret “lock and load” rhetoric.
For all his frontier charm, however, Clay was a creature of the deferential political system that had nurtured him, one that viewed the Congress as supreme, the Cabinet as a panel of independent equals and the President as a largely apolitical magistrate rather than a naturally partisan initiator of policy. Although he rarely presented his ideas in systematic fashion, never writing memoirs or longer theoretical works, Clay feared that a strong President whose power rested on the enthusiasm of the masses could smother the Congress and be dangerous for the Republic. Thus when Jackson vetoed the charter of the Bank of the United States based upon political rather than specific constitutional objections, Clay accused him of arrogating to the President the powers of a king. The populist efficiency of the Democratic Party that celebrated Jackson angered and frustrated Clay, leading him to charge that they had “without the smallest pretense of right to the denomination, erroneously assumed the name of Democrats, and . . . under color of that name . . . made rapid and fearful progress in consolidating an elective monarchy.”
Clay never did warm to the more rough and tumble politics of the Jacksonian era, proclaiming at one point to a friend that the presidency “never possessed any charms in my sight which could induce me to seek it by unworthy means, or to desire it but as the spontaneous grant of those who might alone bestow it.” This was the basis of his commitment to both national government and to whatever compromises might be necessary to preserve the Union. As the Heidlers describe him, Clay
sincerely believed that restraint and cooperation would best secure the country and promote its welfare, and came to abhor extremism. Intelligent, informed men could always reach an agreement in Clay’s political world, as long as they negotiated in good faith.
That commitment to moderation gained him criticism from opponents on both sides, especially on the slavery question, which led to Clay’s most famous bon mot: “I had rather be right than be President.”
With his belief in the importance of elite management, Clay was in some ways a Progressive avant la lettre, and his passionate commitment to the Union made him “an ideologue of the center.” The Heidlers admit that he was “a truly strange amalgam.” As they put it,
he exemplified the political past because of his preference for the staid traditions of Madison and Monroe’s time. Yet he also foreshadowed the future by extolling the virtues of planned progress, the idea that the government was not only empowered but obligated to perform economic functions that individuals could not or that private corporations would not.
The Heidlers do not say this explicitly, but in a sense Clay was a link in time between Hamilton and Theodore Roosevelt, upholding the tradition of judicious Federal activism.
Clay’s last public efforts on behalf of the Compromise of 1850 cemented his position as an advocate of national unity above all else. His stirring denunciation of secessionist rhetoric echoes in a melancholy tone when one considers the enormity that tore the nation apart less than a decade after his death, but its power is undeniable. Thus Clay: “I say in my place never! Never! NEVER! Will we who occupy the broad waters of the Mississippi and its tributaries consent that any foreign flag shall float . . . upon the turrets of the Crescent City—never—never!”
In bringing Henry Clay to life, the Heidlers have burnished the image of the Great Compromiser. They exonerate Clay of the worst charges made against him in life and go out of their way to highlight his personal warmth and the close love between him and his reclusive wife, Lucretia. The couple had ten children together; most of them died before their parents. Their family life, however, remained a mystery even to their contemporaries. At times the Heidlers try too hard, which weakens the credibility of their analysis. Some figures often only appear as foils for the basically good and admirable Clay: the idiosyncratic John Randolph, Clay’s congressional antagonist; newspaperman and propagandist Amos Kendall, who got his start as family tutor to the Clay children before becoming an implacable journalistic foe in the service of Jackson; Whig rival and colleague Daniel Webster; or even Andrew Jackson himself. This is unfortunate, even if it is a common flaw in many biographies. Clay was a complex figure: a largely self-made man who became the leader of the elitist Whigs; a slaveholder who resisted the nullificationist and secessionist activities of his erstwhile friend Calhoun; a strong advocate of the Union who brokered compromises that ended up merely delaying civil war and possibly making it more bitter and protracted. At the time of his death, he was hailed as a great legislator, yet the public that celebrated him in death never granted him the Republic’s highest office in life. Clay is interesting and his life is especially illuminating precisely because of his flaws and contradictions; he does not need to have the deck stacked hagiographically in his favor.
On slavery, the ostensible source of Rand Paul’s critique, the Heidlers do not let Clay completely off the hook, but they consistently seek to put him in the best light. Clay was often of two minds on slavery, criticizing both Southern fire-eaters and Northern abolitionists in his efforts to encourage compromise. Nevertheless, in practice he tolerated and supported the peculiar institution. He often called slavery regrettable but owned slaves until the end of his life. Like most of his contemporaries, in his heart he did not believe that blacks could be equal to whites, even after emancipation. As President of the American Colonization Society, he advocated instead the return of freed slaves to Africa. The Heidlers’ excessively sympathetic conclusion is: “That Henry Clay continued to own slaves while condemning slavery was nothing short of tragic, a fundamental flaw in an otherwise good and decent man.” Such phrases could apply to the United States as a whole before 1865, even as they could accurately describe the author of the Bill of Rights himself, George Mason. But the Heidlers’ references to “tragedy” are not enough to excuse or properly explain the existence and persistence of slavery in Clay’s time. Nor should an honest historical assessment try to have it any other way.
Even with its flaws, readers interested in the history of antebellum America should welcome the Heidlers’ effort. It should also remind attentive readers who want to move beyond the hit-and-run historical references so common in contemporary political debate that the will of the Founders was not so clear even when the Founders’ own direct heirs still walked the earth. As Clay’s career demonstrates, there was as much debate over the proper role of government in the economy and society then as now, even if the particular details of policy have changed. This is both a comforting and distressing truth. Walter McDougall’s trenchant assessment of the conflict between Jackson and Clay in Throes of Democracy (2008) summarizes the challenge of reconciling politics and history:
Jackson shared Clay’s devotion to national unity, but otherwise used executive power to quash managed expansion of growth and opportunity. Clay stood for one sort of capitalism, which was associated with the North but which the South needed too, in his judgment. Jackson stood for another sort of capitalism, which was associated with southern planters and homesteaders but which had little to offer the Northeast or the emerging Northwest. Clay ached for a vibrant future; Jackson clung to a dead Jeffersonian past.
Politics does not always reward those who speak for the future. History has largely vindicated Clay’s vision, though the prophet has received little credit. As McDougall presents it and as the Heidlers make painfully clear, Clay discovered that the American public was much more willing to embrace the Jeffersonian fantasy of America as a land of rural yeomen individualists than to reinvent the national future as times required. Clay would have recognized the Tea Party’s nostalgic undertow from our own time. As the country moved toward a more activist Federal government and an urban industrial economy, most Americans recognized that development haltingly, grudgingly and regretfully. Many still speak as though returning to the certainties of a pre-industrial arcadia only requires an embrace of the wisdom of America’s Founders. A closer look at Henry Clay complicates that comforting fiction.