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The Great White Hope

Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union

by Robert V. Remini
Norton, 818 pp., $35.00

It has always seemed rather a pity that Henry Clay, for all the times he tried between 1824 and 1848, never quite made it to the presidency. In all the gallery of public figures in the political life of antebellum America, probably none was referred to oftener than he, in his own day, by the designation of “Statesman.” There were not many so named, and with no other such figure is it so tempting to project a variety of might-have-beens. But while thousands everywhere adored Henry Clay, a good many others abominated him, and a sufficient number in between distrusted him just enough to supply the critical margin each time. The Statesman, no less than anyone else headed for prominence in the political climate of that era, had to be a man of intense ambition. The ways in which he was forced to adjust to that climate tended to have a bad effect on his character. So it evidently was with Henry Clay, as is heavily annotated by Robert V. Remini, his most recent and most schoolmasterly biographer.

The man’s talent was prodigally endowed. He had a superior intelligence, an abundance of social charm, instant reflexes in debate, a majestically resonant voice, and an ardently expansive vision of his country’s future. He flourished in what was then predominantly a speaking culture; his orations were signal events breathlessly awaited, stirring the galleries to transports of emotion. The legion of his followers included the rising Abraham Lincoln, who recalled Clay as “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life”—the reason being, according to his cousin Dennis Hanks, that he “all-ways Loved Hen Clays Speaches I think was the Cause Mostly.” Even Clay’s political enemies, with one or two fatal exceptions, found him irresistible. Just before his own death, the madcap John Randolph of Roanoke, with whom he had once fought a duel (happily neither managed to hit the other), visited the Senate on an evening when Clay was speaking. “Help me up,” he ordered. “I have come here to hear that voice.” To John C. Calhoun, Clay was a “bad man…. I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God! I love him.”

So why did he never get there? In the short—or shorter—run, two satanic forces were at work. One was an imperious ambition that could not contain itself, made little room for others, and was coupled with an egotism that knew no prudence. The other, beyond Clay’s or anyone’s reach, was the steadily widening rift between North and South, the root issue of which, however the modern historian may want to qualify it, was slavery. Clay’s loftiest title of honor in his own time and posthumously was that of the “Great Pacificator,” based on the major legislative compromises which he took the lead in fashioning in 1820, 1833, and 1850, and which were certainly critical in the two sections’ holding together politically as long as they did. But that fell a long step short of his ultimate aspirations. He yearned to preside over a seamlessly united and prosperous national commonwealth, and to shape with his own hands the means for making it ever more so. Instead, the time would shortly come when there could be no more compromising, and by 1861 no resolution except in blood. Nevertheless there may have been something in addition, running even deeper, that did Henry Clay and his followers in, of which more later.

Clay was born in 1777 in Hanover County, Virginia, the seventh in a family of nine children. His father, a Baptist minister and planter of moderate affluence, died when Henry was four, and his mother remarried the following year. His schooling was no more than adequate, the deficiencies of which he made up for himself by other means. In those days Patrick Henry was often to be heard in Hanover, on the stump or in court, an example that seems to have struck the young Clay with a special force. When his mother and stepfather departed for Kentucky, Clay stayed behind in Richmond to read law, most of it done under the benign tutelage of the great George Wythe, the state chancellor, professor of law and classics at William and Mary, and the most learned jurist in Virginia. Wythe saw to his entree in Richmond society and helped in his formation as a young man of polish and some cultivation. He was licensed as an attorney in 1797, seven months short of his twenty-first birthday. Immediately thereafter he too left for Kentucky, settling in Lexington and opening a practice there. In no time it became apparent that he could do almost anything he wanted with a jury.

Clay made his entrance in politics as a Jeffersonian Republican. He professed to remain one for some years thereafter, yet with his incipiently cosmopolitan temper he began edging away from the more parochial implications of Jeffersonianism fairly soon. He also sensed that it was in the state’s mercantile and banking community that his own most dependable backing was to be found. He was elected in 1803 to the General Assembly, where he masterminded the foiling of a populist drive to destroy the Kentucky Insurance Company, an institution that had a large share of the state’s banking business. The Assembly sent him to the United States Senate in 1806 to fill out an unexpired term, even though he was a year short of the minimum age of thirty, which nobody seems to have noticed. Actually he preferred the livelier House of Representatives, and he got his wish in 1811. In November of that year Henry Clay suddenly hurtled into an eminence he was not to relinquish until the end of his life.

By late 1811 the dithering of the Madison administration over the humiliations being heaped upon American ocean commerce by the British, together with their picking up hundreds of American seamen for forced service in the Royal Navy, had brought the national government into general contempt. Henry Clay and a cohort of newcomers—the “War Hawks,” of a generation that had just missed the Revolution—were determined to turn this around and to flog a bemused federal establishment into action. They got their leading spirit, Clay, elected as speaker, and Clay thereupon proceeded to invest the speakership with a power immensely beyond anything that had previously been claimed for it.

The War of 1812 would undoubtedly have occurred without Henry Clay, though a complex historical script would have had to be rewritten to have it come out the way it did. By 1814 a disposition toward peace was becoming more and more evident on both sides, and President Madison appointed a five-member commission to negotiate a settlement with a British delegation at Ghent in the Netherlands. It included some very strong personalities and a high measure of talent—John Quincy Adams, Albert Gallatin, and Henry Clay—and the peace treaty they extracted from the British was favorable beyond all expectations. It was received in the United States to the accompaniment of church bells and universal rejoicing. It also marked the beginning of a new era in Anglo-American relations, one in which the United States was for the first time taken seriously as a sovereign entity.

By the same token, Henry Clay’s own prospects had reached a kind of early meridian, shimmering with promise. And already a vision of the great prize had begun to eat at his vitals and to corrode his judgment. He had persuaded himself that it was he above all others who was entitled to be named secretary of state in the new Monroe administration, that office having become, through the precedent of Madison and Monroe, the stepping-stone to the presidency. When John Quincy Adams received the appointment instead, the mortified Clay, who had resumed the speakership in 1815 and would hold it off and on for the next ten years, undertook a vindictive opposition to all the policies of the administration. At the same time his speeches, correspondence, and private gossip reeked with calumnies of John Quincy Adams. Smoothing all this over with Adams a few years later for his own purposes took some doing, though Clay proved blandly equal to it. Meanwhile the portentous Missouri Compromise of 1820, which recognized for the first time that the admission of territories to statehood could henceforth never be considered apart from the question of whether they would or would not be slave states, was primarily the work of Henry Clay. He became the “Great Compromiser,” a title from here on emblematic of both his public and his inner life.

Eighteen twenty-four may be seen retrospectively as Henry Clay’s year of doom. In that year emerged the baleful nemesis who, living and dead, would pursue him to his very end: Andrew Jackson. Clay’s own private demon had a major share in making him so, though another turn of the wheel might have brought it out otherwise. There were four separate contenders in the presidential election of 1824, nominated in haphazard ways at a time prior to the introduction of party conventions. They were Andrew Jackson, a folk-figure grown into a fable in the decade since his smashing of the British invasion at New Orleans; Adams, the secretary of state, coauthor of the Monroe Doctrine, whose treaty with Spain in 1819 constituted an acquisition of new territory in the Southwest comparable to the Louisiana Purchase; William H. Crawford, the secretary of the treasury and favorite of the primitive states’-rights Republicans; and Henry Clay. None had a majority of either the popular or electoral vote, though Jackson was well ahead of the others in both. For such a case the Twelfth Amendment provided that the election go into the House of Representatives, to be decided among the first three. Clay was fourth, and thus out. But that Andrew Jackson, an untutored military chieftain with no other qualifications, should even be thought of for the nation’s highest office—whatever the deluded caprices of the people—was beyond Clay’s comprehension.

As speaker and as head of the Kentucky delegation Clay was preeminently situated to influence the outcome. He determined to throw his support to Adams, it being all but certain that his reward could be no less than the appointment of secretary of state, presumably giving him the inside track for the next time around. Jackson, when told of the result, muttered: “So…the Judas of the West has closed the contract and will receive the thirty pieces of silver. His end will be the same.” Jackson, as grim a hater as any man of his time, would see to it that the curse of the “Corrupt Bargain” should follow Henry Clay until the sound of the last trumpet.

The Adams administration was one of the least successful in the history of the American presidency. It was an inbetween time with regard to party formation. Federalism by then was fully dead; the Republican coalition that had spoken for the country in 1800 with the accession of Jefferson had deteriorated into factions with the disappearance of an opposition; the Jacksonians were not yet Democrats, though they shortly would be; and the Adams-Clay-Webster contingent, with little or no cohesion, were by no means yet Whigs. Adams himself, willfully disinclined to accept the future importance of parties, would do nothing to give his regime a coherent organization. At the same time he announced a highminded program which would have required all the resources and conviction of a united following to give it the least chance of fruition. It was a combination of Clay’s “American System” of public works (roads, canals, and other internal improvements) and encouragement of domestic manufacturing through protective tariffs, together with Adams’s own outline for the promotion of science and learning through the erection of observatories and a national university. Deep skepticism within the cabinet itself, and hoots of derision in Congress and everywhere else, made it evident that no such lofty design would go anywhere. It could even be conjectured that it was Henry Clay’s attachment to a national vision of this sort—quite aside from anything so far mentioned—that would do the most to keep him, in some profounder way, at odds with his times.

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