Henry Clay (1777-1852)
Text by Thomas Rush
He was one of the most partisan, hot-headed, and polarizing politicians of his day. Yet he was also a statesman possessing an unsurpassed ability for brokering differences, for finding the middle ground, for soothing and consoling opposing passions into compromise and reconciliation. At one point in his career he was dubbed "The Dictator" by some of his Senate colleagues. But this political gut-fighter's most lasting fame and greatest contribution to his country was achieved in the role of "The Great Pacificator," the man who held together the Union.
Henry Clay failed in his all consuming ambition to become President of the United States. "I would rather be right than President," was his most famous remark, and probably one of the greatest utterances of political sour grapes of all time. Yet in failing in his fondest goal he became perhaps the foremost legislator America ever produced. He served as Speaker of the House longer than any man in the 19th Century, transforming the office from a mere presiding function into one of enormous power and influence. In 1957 a Senate committee, head by John F. Kennedy and charged with the task of honoring it's most distinguished past members, named Clay the greatest Senator in the country's history. His service to and impact on the country far exceeded, with one especially notable exception, that of nearly every President of his era.
We tend to remember and measure our history by our Presidents, in the steady rhythm of the office's constant four year electoral increments. Since we lack a monarch the men occupying the Presidency have become the embodiment of the nation, the most important ones especially so, and the definers of their epochs. Washington was The Father of The Country. Lincoln became The Great Emancipator and The Savior of The Union. We speak of The Age of Jefferson, The Age of Jackson, The Age of Roosevelt. There is The Reagan Era and The Kennedy Years. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are the embodiment of The Progressive Era. Eisenhower is the smiling grandfatherly icon of the 1950s. Even the negative history takes on a Presidential aura. Grant becomes of the poster boy for the corruptions of Gilded Age. Hoovervilles sprout across the landscape of The Great Depression. A haggard Lyndon Johnson reigns over the chaos and trauma of the Viet Nam Era. And a sullen Richard Nixon is wrapped in the purple robes of the Imperial Presidency, symbolizing the abuse of executive power arising from The Watergate Scandals.
But legislators tend to be generally forgotten. Few are remembered past their time and outside of the state or district they represented. There is no Senator's Day, no three day week-ends in honor of past members of the House of Representatives, no department store sales or car clearances in homage to The Congress. Perhaps a distinguished member ends up with a highway or a dam or a school named after him. Or a wing of a library at a university somewhere. Maybe a charitable or scholarly foundation is established in their honor, and as is often the case, the foundation achieves more lasting recognition than the person it was named after. Lasting historical fame for a politician seems to require the Presidential Seal.
And so it is with Henry Clay. Few Americans outside of his home state of Kentucky could identify him or attach any achievement to his name. Maybe they vaguely recall the name from some long ago high school class or college American History survey. Something about a compromise, or he ran for President and lost. (Someone once told me they thought he was a defensive back playing for the New England Patriots.) But generally speaking the man is almost totally forgotten by anyone who hasn't more than scratched the surface of our political history.
But those who do delve into the history, those that are drawn into the glimmering fires of America's glorious past, are inevitably aware of Henry Clay, and are almost always fascinated with him. They discover a towering, controversial figure boldly striding across the center stage of nearly a half century of America's early drama. He had a profound influence, not only on events and the men surrounding them, but in establishing the way government and politics is conducted. And the drama of his long life and the strength of his magnetic personality can pull irresistibly on anyone who cares to take more than just a superficial look.
In the era from 1810 through the early 1850s, the so called "Silver Age," only Andrew Jackson could be said to have had more impact. And perhaps this is where the problem of Clay's relative public obscurity lies. For Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay were bitter, acrimonious rivals, with Jackson proving to be the ultimate political winner of their long struggle. Clay was defeated and history usually most remembers the winners.
It may also have something to do with The Silver Age itself. Caught between the more glamorous Revolutionary and Founding period and the spectacular drama of the Civil War--the bloody birth and rebirth of the nation--it is often brushed aside. Lacking a Washington and Jefferson, a Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, it doesn't seem to tug on our emotions and sense of national curiosity to the extent the periods bracketing it always do. There seemingly is a lot less action and fewer obvious heros; but again, going beneath the surface one will find that this is not the case at all.
There is less blood and less gun powdered in the Silver Age, but the political action is tumultuous and fortuitous; and the era is a treasure trove of colorful and fascinating American characters. Few periods can rival it for it's abundance of individuals of such riveting interest; in their personalities, in their characters, in their actions, and in their competing points of view and outlooks. Jackson, Clay, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Webster, Calhoun, Benton, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor, and these are just the politicians. We haven't even mentioned the writers and poets, the journalist and publishers, the bankers and industrialist, the gamblers and speculators and scoundrels and drunkards, the Indian fighters and Indian leaders, the slaves and slave masters, the social reformers and idealists, the farmers and laborers, the explorers and generals and pioneers that spread America from a narrow strip of land on the eastern corridor of the continent across the vast expanse of territory to the far reaches of the Pacific shore. And the generation of people and leaders that came after it; Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, Grant and Sherman, Lee and Stonewall Jackson, Fredrick Douglas and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain, were all a product of it, as we all, in so many ways, still are, whether we know it or not.
For it was the task of this generation and it's political leaders to build on the legacy left by the Founding Fathers, and not, as Professor Merrill D. Peterson pointed out, to make a union and a constitution, but to preserve them; and not to secure liberty and self-government, but to reinforce and embellish them. And that the path led eventually to civil war should not necessarily be seen as an indictment of failure against them, but viewed as a natural outgrowth of the conflicting interests that they had to deal with, leading to a final and firm establishment of what the Union and the United States of America was and is: one nation under a constitution with the people as sovereigns living under a Federal system of government.
And at the center of this drama stands the towering figure of
Henry Clay. He just may be the quintessential American politician,
encompassing all that implies, both good and bad.
His words could be inspiring and persuasive, pleading and cajoling and motivating others into courageous action, into doing the right thing. But he was also often full of blather and pomposity, disingenuousness and divisiveness, confusing the issues and his intent behind the smoke screen of his fiery rhetoric.
He could be terribly selfish and self-interested, yet he would sacrifice his most strongly held points of view when the integrity of the Union he so loved and so tried to shepherd were imperiled. The Union he put above all else.
He made a considerable amount of money as a lawyer and businessman and could have achieved even greater personal wealth for himself and his family had he not so ardently sought great political power. His farm, Ashland, was one of the finest estates of his era. Clay derived great pleasure from farming and raising livestock, but he sacrificed much of that enjoyment to his sense of duty and public service.
His record on slavery was mixed. He always condemned it, labeled it a great evil, a curse on both the slave and the master, once even tried to have it outlawed in his home state of Kentucky, and wished that the institution had never been established to blight the reputation of the country. How could we espouse ideals of liberty and self-determination to the rest of the world while we held other human beings in bondage? he often asked. His words and ideas were a major influence on Lincoln who would later often quote Clay on the subject. Yet Henry Clay himself owned up to 60 slaves at one point, and didn't believe that the black man could ever live in harmony with the white man. Clay wanted a gradual emancipation to take place, and as the President of the American Colonization Society, purposed to train them well, outfit them properly, and then send them back to Africa where he felt they would be happier. He was as much a racist as most 19th Century Americans were. But having said that, in the context of his times his views on slavery were considered progressive, especially for a slave holder. He was noted for his good and kind treatment of his Negroes and before he died he had emancipated most of them. He always feared the issue might rip the Union apart and spoke out against abolitionist and slavery expansionist alike, strongly condemning both. And he paid a high political price for his opinions, especially toward the end of his career. Clay was consistent in his views, but many thought he was deliberately straddling the issue. Abolitionist condemned him as a hypocrite while slave holding Southerners distrusted his "progressive" views and anti-slavery rhetoric. This combination probably cost him the presidential election in 1844.
He was always noted for his political acumen and skill, especially in marshaling his forces in Congress. But in the Presidential arena he was always outmaneuvered and was often his own worse enemy. It is amazing how many blunders he made in his quest for the Presidency, so much so that one almost has to question his reputed ability for political management. And he never seemed to adjust fully to the political changes that took place in America after 1824. In fact, he was the biggest victim of them. He was one of the most famous and popular public figures of the era, but he (perhaps rightly so) distrusted the democratic movement; and the people, sensing this, mistrusted him in return and rejected him 3 times for the nation's highest office. No American was ever better loved and received fewer votes than Henry Clay.
The most charming of fellows, a huge hit with the ladies, he
was the best of company, a manly man admired and liked by his
colleagues, friendly and congenial, always ready to put aside
political differences for a party, a card game, a good strong
drink. But when crossed, when angered, as he often was, Henry Clay
was ready to take to the field of honor for a duel, or to use his
eloquence and slashing, sarcastic wit to demean, defame, or destroy
his opponents. At times he mixed eloquence with arrogance to such
a degree that the combination could be reckless and destructive.
This was the element of his personality that lead to the
dictatorship charge, and in the long run it hurt his political
effectiveness. He could inspire great loyalty, even love, but for
all his enormous charm and magnetism he also hurt feelings,
engendered ire, and made lasting political enemies. "Mr. Clay, you
are much too impetuous," President Harrison once bellowed at him.
Only Daniel Webster could match him for his oratory. In an age when public speaking was not only a high art but a form of public and political entertainment, Clay was the chief practitioner. He had a voice like a pipe organ and an actor's sense of theatrics that stirred all who ever heard him. When Mr. Clay was going to speak the galleries would be packed to overflowing and would often have to be cleared because of the uproarious responses his speeches would receive.
And he had an intangible presence about him that drew people, even some of his opponents, under his spell. When a new member of the House was once asked if he wished to meet The Speaker he replied, "I do not wish to meet Mr. Clay. He is my opponent and I do not wish to subject myself to his fascination." His long time colleague and rival John C. Calhoun once supposedly remarked, "I don't like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God, I love him."
Andrew Jackson had no such positive feelings for him at all. Not a shred. He characterized him as "the basest, meanest, scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his god...," branded him "The Villain," a characterization taken up by many historians over the years, and stated near the end of his life that he only regretted that he had not shot Henry Clay and hanged John C. Calhoun. Of course Clay was no more generous himself, calling the President, among other things, "ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt, and easily swayed by the basest men around him," a characterization which another set of historians often applied to Jackson.
These two great leaders despised each other with a fury rarely approached in American history. Even Hamilton and Jefferson had better relations and more respect for each other. The irony is that Jackson and Clay, in many ways, were so much alike, not only in background and career, but, in some regards, in terms of temperament as well.
Jackson grew up much poorer and under cruder circumstances
than Clay did, though Henry didn't exactly come from a privileged,
sophisticated background. Both suffered the early loss of a parent
(in Jackson's case, both parents) and both had experienced
childhood terror inflicted by the hand of the British during the
Revolutionary war. In their youths both moved from an established
southern state into the wilds of the then West, and both men
quickly found success through the law in small frontier towns. Each
were involved in duels (Jackson actually killed one of his
opponents) and both found themselves connected with the shadowy
Aaron Burr during the former Vice President's western adventures.
These actions nearly aborted their careers. They both played a
major role in the War of 1812, gaining national fame and
recognition at about the same time; and they probably admired each
other to some extent until it became obvious that they were
becoming rivals as they vied to become the leading political leader
of The West. They both became the dominant figures around which two
major political parties, The Democrats and The Whigs, formed. Their
personalities were so strong and their personal followings so
vehement that they became the very personification of their
respective groups. The Jackson--Clay rivalry became the basis
around which the Second American Political Party system was
When Speaker Henry Clay attacked General Andrew Jackson's conduct of his military campaign in Florida in 1819 he created an enemy for life, and the Era of Good Feeling unraveled into an era of considerable bad feeling. Clay's true object was to pummel the Monroe Administration, which he detested, and to discredit Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, whom he perceived as his chief future rival for the Presidency. But Jackson, a man of great pride who could hate with a cold fury seldom equaled in American politics, was deeply offended, and never forgave Clay for using him as an instrument to attack Monroe and Adams. Over the next quarter century they would constantly be at each others throats. Clay continually slashed and defamed Jackson, and Jackson would have a major role in every one of Clay's failed attempts to gain the White House. Their personal rivalry and political competition became high historical drama with Jackson ultimately cast as the victor and Clay playing the role of the vanished. Jackson believed that he, as President, was the tribune of the people, the true representative of the national popular will. This view outraged Clay and his colleagues who held the conservative, Jeffersonian view that Congress was supreme, the true instrument of the people's voice in government. They charged Jackson with acting as a tyrant and trampling on the Constitution. "King Andrew the First" they called him; and Jackson certainly did expand the power, prestige, and prerogative of the office, setting prescadents for future chief executives to follow.
The President was held up by his supporters as the leader of a new democratic movement that promised to dislodge the entrenched and "corrupt" rule of America's financial and political elite. How much of Jackson's "man of the people" image was reality and not just the creation of propagandists like Amos Kendell and shrewd politicians like Martin Van Buren (and liberal historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.) is still debatable. As is Clay's genuine belief in Congressional superiority. Had Henry Clay in fact gained the Presidency there can be little doubt that he, like Jackson, would have been an aggressive and powerful chief executive.
And what kind of President would Henry Clay have made? It's hard to say and it's not really proper to speculate about history that never came to pass. Robert V. Remini, in his great biography of Clay, called it "an idle exercise," but admitted that the temptation is strong, and in Clay's case, difficult to resist.
In considering the 1824 election, Clay would have certainly been a much better party leader than John Quincy Adams, something which Adams was most lacking in. But it's doubtful that Clay would have had much more success in getting his programs across, and probably, considering the tenor of the times, would not have been re-elected in 1828.
He never stood a chance against Andrew Jackson in 1832 and suffered his most crushing defeat at Old Hickory's hand, so much so that it's hard to understand why Clay even attempted the fight. But had he been elected it's possible that the country may have been better off financially. Clay wouldn't have taken the rash actions Jackson did against the Bank of the United States which thrashed the currency and credit of the nation and played a large contributing factor in the depression of the late 1830s and early 1840s.
Clay narrowly lost to James K. Polk in 1844, and this was an election that he should have won and has the most personal responsibilty in for his own defeat, though he was disgracefully and unfairly slandered by his opposition. As it turned out Polk proved to be an extraodinarily successful President, perhaps the most underrated in history, securing Oregon, California, Texas, and the rest of the Southwest in between. It's hard to imagine what the United States may have been without him. But the Mexican War and Polk's expansionist policies were the fuse that ignited the events that led directly to the Civil War. Clay certainly would have handled the situation in Texas differently and quite possibly avoided what he called an "unnecessary and horrible war with Mexico." Thousands of Americans were streaming into California already, and when gold was discovered in 1848, the stream turned into a torrent. Mexico, which had only nominal control over the territory to begin with, probably would have lost it to the United States anyway. But the main result of the war and it's huge increase in territory was to set off in Congress a sectional struggle over the expansion of slavery that shattered the political parties and eventually the Union. Some commentators later claimed that had Henry Clay been elected in 1844 there may never have been a Civil War.
Perhaps Clay's greatest opportunity was the one he missed in 1840, and here the Whig Party must take the blame. 1840 was the Whigs' highwater mark. With the country reeling economicly and dissatisfied with the leadership of President Van Buren, they were poised to capture both the White House and Congress, and had their one great opportunity to enact their programs--Clay's programs-- into law. Nearly any Whig could have been elected that year, including Henry Clay.
But the party, through the manipulation and trickery of a few powerful Northern bosses, rejected Clay and went the Jacksonian route by nominating an old military leader, William Henry Harrison, the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. The stage was now set for what turned out to be one of the greatest blunders ever committed by a major American political party. The Whigs waged a campaign without a platform that relied on nonsense and hoopla to elect Harrison; the famous "Log Cabin and Hard Cinder" campaign of "Tippecanoe And Tyler Too." Harrison won a smashing victory over Van Buren, but died just 30 days after taking office. Suddenly John Tyler was President of the United States. A states-rights Virginian placed on the ticket to draw southern votes, Tyler had been an anti-Jackson Democrat who was far more in tune with John C. Calhoun's beliefs than with those of Clay and the Whigs. He and Clay were soon involved in a titanic struggle for power over policy and party leadership as the new President vetoed much of the Whig program. Thus, not only did Henry Clay lose his best chance of becoming President, but the Whig Party lost it's best opportunity to put forward it's vision for the country.
Despite all this defeat Henry Clay never stopped reaching for the Presidency. He made one last attempt for the Whig nomination in 1848. But at age 71 and carrying all the heavy baggage of his long career and his 3 defeats, he was again rejected by the Whigs in favor of another military hero. Many of his friends in the party could not bear to see Clay subjected to a fourth humiliating defeat, and others lusted for the victory they felt a military leader could bring them. So General Zachary Taylor, a man who had never voted in his life and who had no stated party affiliation, was nominated and elected in 1848. His lack of political experience did not bode well as the country lurched into a crisis that threaten to tear the Union apart.
The fruits of victory from the late Mexican War were now beginning to poison the system. The Wilmot Proviso and California's application for admittance into the Union as a free state fractured the Congress along sectional lines, with the South threatening to withdraw from the Union. The inexperienced Taylor was overpowered by the situation.
Henry Clay was able to provide one last great service to his
country. Returned by Kentucky to the Senate in 1849, the old
political warrior was 72, weak and enfeebled by the tuberculosis
that would soon kill him, and determined to do whatever he could to
preserve the Union. Enlisting the support of his old Whig rival
Daniel Webster, Clay put together legislation that would eventually
be known as the Compromise of 1850.
This complex series of measures gave something and demanded something from all parties and sections of the country. After a few years it too unraveled in the political quagmire of the late 1850s. But the net affect of the Compromise was to forestall Southern secession for another decade. This gave the North a chance to develop enough economically and politically to withstand the Civil War and allowed the time necessary for Abraham Lincoln to emerge. So in a very real way it did help to save the Union.
With the passage of the Compromise Henry Clay was hailed a hero. He could spend the time remaining to him basking in the glory of the nation's gratitude. When he died in Washington on June 29th, 1852, he was given a hero's send off. Clay was the first American to lie in state in the capital rotunda, and over the next two weeks his body was carried from city to city in a grand procession that was a precursor of Lincoln's funeral.
The Civil War would reveal the limits of Clay's compromises. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision both effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise, and the Fugitive Slave provisions of the Compromise of 1850 proved to be more divisive than conciliatory. His solutions were not prefect, as he would have been the first to admit, and they eventually broke down under the tremendous twin stresses of slavery and states-rights. But they were noble, patrotic attempts to bring fractious elements together for the benefit of the whole.
Had Clay lived for another decade there can be no doubt that he would have fought to the bitter end to preserve the Union and avoid civil war. "It has been my invariable rule to do all for the Union," he stated in 1844. "If any man wants the key to my heart, let him take the key of the Union, and that is the key to my heart." "I know no North, no South, no East, no West," he proclaimed during the Compromise debate. The dissolution of the Union meant civil war, he warned. Secession was treason. He always saw the United States as one nation, not as a group of independent states banded together with the option to leave at will, and always fought for what he thought best for the whole. When the war finally did come his home state of Kentucky, which he had so profoundly left his imprint on, chose to stay with the Union, despite being a slave holding state. Doubtlessly Henry Clay would have done likewise.
So his image recedes into the distant past, his fame only secure with the historians and the history buffs. If he had succeeded in becoming President he would surely be better remembered, even to the point where prehaps his likeness would have been craved into a mountainside somewhere or engraved on some of our currency. But even without the Presidency he deserves our recognition. He was one of our greatest and most important early leaders and one of the truly fascinating characters of our amazingly dynamic past. The general public may not remember or care about Henry Clay anymore, but they should know that he, in his lifetime, cared deeply about them. As he gazed about the countryside of antebellum America he saw the value and potential of the nation and spent his life attempting to secure it's future promise.