A New Biography of Henry Clay Illustrates His Ability to Compromise

Posted May 10, 2010 at 3:45pm

As a young lawyer in Springfield, Ill., Abraham Lincoln struggled to come up with a fitting eulogy for Henry Clay, not just because of his personal admiration for the Kentucky Senator, but also because Lincoln was acutely aware of what Clay meant as a champion of the Union and human freedom.

After poring over Clay’s speeches, Lincoln wrote of his political idol: “The spell — the long-enduring spell — with which the souls of men were bound to him is a miracle,” Lincoln said on July 6, 1852, in the state House of Representatives. “Who can compass it?”

On one hand, Clay led a productive life that traced a nation from its founding to its international establishment. On the other hand, Clay’s significance was not yet fully understood, particularly by Lincoln, until many years later, when the South rose against the North.

David and Jeanne Heidler make a valiant effort at unveiling the man behind the Union’s preservation in “Henry Clay: The Essential American.” The book is a classic biography, tracing Clay’s life from his birth on April 12, 1777, at the beginning of a nation, until his death on June 29, 1852. The Heidlers, both university historians, write with strong prose and superb research.

For a man on the national stage for 50 years, it’s no exaggeration to submit Clay as the most important political figure of the mid-19th century. But the Heidlers go back further. You meet Clay born in Hanover County, Va., to John and Elizabeth Clay, both of whom “were notably fiery patriots in a region known for its radicalism.” Readers are given a glimpse into Clay’s servitude to legal mastermind George Wythe, a Richmond judge who selected Clay for his superior penmanship.

Along with the vignettes into Clay’s childhood, early adulthood and Congressional dominance, it’s a treat to also catch glimpses into how America evolved as a nation throughout the 19th century.

If there is a fault to the book, though, at 567 pages, the amount of detail can get a little overwhelming.

Along with Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster and the paragon of Southern agriculture and slavery, South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, the three Senators would come to be termed the “Great Triumvirate.” Clay was a state legislator, rose to Speaker of the House and ran for president three times, losing to John Quincy Adams, James Polk and Zachary Taylor. That losing streak gave way to Clay’s famous pronouncement, “I would rather be right than be president.”

As much as the Heidlers’ title would suggest otherwise, the essential nature of Clay is deceiving — it was the lawmaker’s ambiguity that marked him as the symbol of a country that was in national upheaval. Clay grew up in the South. But during his long career, his roots would rest with the West in Kentucky. He despised slavery, a decidedly Northern sentiment, yet owned slaves, an institution that intertwined him with the South.

Clay’s national mark came through a trait that is often absent from Capitol Hill today: compromise. In many ways, it was Clay’s willingness to negotiate that permitted the United States to endure until it fought the Civil War. Even with Clay’s leadership on the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which admitted Maine as a slavery-free state and permitted slavery and statehood to Missouri, the fires of the institution didn’t diminish as the decades passed.

Slavery was compounded by dramatic economic change, which drew fault lines regionally, pitting the North’s insatiable hunger for cotton against the South’s need to expand to fresh soil. In 1850, Clay again attempted to hold the nation together, which delayed Southern secession for 10 years.

As much as Clay is remembered for his compromise and fierce determination to tackle tough problems in preserving the Union, it is tempting to ask who could be the Henry Clay of today. It is no easy question.

Clay was tied to his nation in a way that can’t be said of many lawmakers today. As the authors note, “Losing Henry Clay was a uniquely personal event for the nation because his life had been the mirror of his country and its aspirations.”