September 8, 2011
Henry Clay presents a paradox. Modern Americans have forgotten Clay while remembering Andrew Jackson, his contemporary and rival. Clay's remarkably long career in American government, however, made him a dominant political figure in the first half of the 19th century. Clay represented Kentucky in either the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives for most of the years from 1806 to his death in 1852, becoming Speaker of the House on three separate occasions. He was also Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams, and unsuccessfully sought the presidency five times between 1824 and 1848.
In Henry Clay: The Essential American, Jeanne and David Heidler meet the challenge of making modern readers understand Clay's importance. Historians who have coauthored several books on America between the Revolution and the Civil War, the Heidlers demonstrate Clay's hold on Americans' affections by opening with an account of his death and funeral. Tellingly, it was Clay—not Jefferson, Madison, or Jackson—who was first accorded the honor of lying in state in the Capitol rotunda.
The Heidlers go on to show that Henry Clay was an essential American in both senses of the term: he embodied qualities that characterized the new nation, and his political exertions helped the young republic survive dangerous challenges and resist destructive temptations. Americans liked what they saw in Clay because they saw so much of themselves. Though never successful in his long quest for the presidency, Clay was in no sense the Harold Stassen of his time, a politician who wore out his welcome.
Clay's optimism and audacity helped America negotiate the end of the War of 1812 on favorable terms, despite America's weak position at the start of the peace talks. Few Americans were unacquainted with sorrow in those decades before modern medicine, but Clay bore exceptional grief with exceptional resilience—seven of his eleven children died during his lifetime. A self-made man, Clay's ascent to prominence resonated with a nation discarding a vestigial respect for inherited position, which still mattered after the founding era.
In his politics, Clay embodied the great tension facing America during his lifetime. He was deeply conflicted about the institution of slavery but adamant about preserving the Union. A slave owner who detested slavery, Clay was a leader of the American Colonization Society, which founded Liberia as a home where freed slaves could be "repatriated." Clay's refutation of the "positive good" defense of slavery was so powerful that Abraham Lincoln quoted it directly, and effectively, during his debates with Stephen Douglas. At the same time, his proposals on the spread of slavery to the territories were so equivocal that Douglas cited Clay in support of his plan to relax federal limits on the expansion of slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
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As bitterly divided as Lincoln and Douglas were in the decade following Clay's death, they agreed with him and each other on a crucial point: America somehow had to resolve the slavery dilemma, and that resolution could be effected only if America remained one country rather than split into two. Clay was the architect of compromises that averted disunion, fashioning agreements that were not rigorously logical, but deftly wove together conflicting political imperatives. In addition to his famous legislative compromises in 1820 and 1850 over slavery and territorial expansion, Clay, while serving in the Senate in 1833, found a way to defuse the crisis over "nullification." After South Carolina asserted a right to nullify federal laws it disliked—in this case a tariff that would have raised the price of manufactured goods—President Jackson threatened to enforce the collection of the tariff militarily. Clay brokered a compromise that gradually reduced the tariff over several years, during which South Carolina would continue to collect it. In exchange, Congress passed the "Force Bill," a resolution authorizing the president to call out the army should South Carolina attempt to interfere with duty collections. As with many compromises, both sides thought they had come out ahead: the South had altered a hated tax on imports, and the president had reasserted federal supremacy.
Clay's relentless and vociferous criticism of Andrew Jackson has often been dismissed as sour grapes. From the perspective of a man devoted to the perpetuation of the Union, however, one concerned that a popular military hero—an American Bonaparte—could overwhelm the fragile young republic, his opposition is more plausible and respectable. As Clay read Jackson's character, he saw a man so governed by his own passions and so good at reflecting the people's that he was inherently dangerous to constitutional government. The Heidlers' portrait of Jackson argues that Clay's fears were far from groundless.
Having seen several fledgling republics fall victim to military dictatorship, Clay believed a peaceful, stable, commercial republic was America's only hope for enduring. It was this desire to vindicate the founding, as both a practical enterprise that would benefit Americans and a moral ideal that would inspire mankind, that made Clay "essentially American." By no means a pacifist—Clay first rose to national prominence as the leader of the fiery "War Hawk" Congress in 1811—he nevertheless recognized that the essence of America was not glory and conquest, but progress and development. Clay believed in building America's economic system through "internal improvements" (we would call them "infrastructure"), which would bind the sections of the nation together and allow Americans to prosper by living peaceably with other nations and one another.
The prosperity Clay envisioned was not only an economic good in itself but a political one. A thriving America would be too busy, and have too much at stake, to permit disagreements over slavery to escalate into war. Instead, a prosperous nation would have the wherewithal to pursue a policy of gradual, compensated emancipation. One of the few ways Henry Clay's story is not tragic is that he died before it became clear that this lovely dream was impossible.