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.

Clay’s term as secretary of state brought him no distinction. Mean-while the administration and its adherents, sapped by disloyalty and bleakly aware of how little they had in the way of a popular base, could not adequately rouse themselves for the exertions demanded by the approach of 1828. General Jackson nursed his wrongs and awaited his hour. The opposition formed in the Senate by Martin Van Buren had immobilized the executive power, while Van Buren’s organization in New York, finger raised to the wind, was putting its whole weight behind the Hero. “Strange! Wild! Infatuated!” marveled a Cincinnati newspaper. “All for Jackson!” Jackson’s victory over Adams in 1828 was the first popular landslide in a country-wide election.

What, then, of Henry Clay—Prince Hal, Harry of the West? Clay could not see what had happened as other than a gross perversion of the right ordering of things, and he said so with bitterness, wit, and eloquence nearly every time he sat down to write or rose to speak during all the eight years of the Jackson presidency. Admittedly he had a case, in view of the difficulty anyone might have, then or now, in finding anything the Jacksonians did to advance either the nation’s general welfare or its cultural tone. Clay could hardly have known, with nearly a quarter century of public life still ahead of him, always in the limelight, that his course had entered upon a downward slope never to be reversed. True, he would draw admiring crowds everywhere he went and every time he spoke. He would do and say States-manlike things. He would come to head a political party—the Whigs—that for two decades brought a tolerable balance to the contentions of the nation’s civic life. He would make five more bids for the presidency, on one or two occasions coming plausibly close. Yet the fascination he attracted in those crowds seemed always somehow divided: one part for the magnetism of his person, much the lesser part for what he might do with the power he was asking of them.

His judgment, in matters that affected his own ambition, was consistently bad. (The stock phrases Professor Remini keeps interspersing in the face of his own evidence—“shrewd…astute politician” and the like—aren’t persuasive.) The country had a central banking system which after some early ups and downs had settled into a proven usefulness by the 1820s under the able directorship of Nicholas Biddle. The Bank of the United States was not to come up for congressional recharter until 1836. Clay, its most influential supporter, knew that a majority in Congress, other things being equal, was favorably inclined. But what he could not or would not allow for was the folk-superstition in the country at large against all banks, first given voice by Jefferson in the early 1790s, reemerging with the Panic of 1819, and which dominated the credulous economic understanding of Andrew Jackson. Preparing to run against Jackson in 1832, Clay persuaded an initially uncertain Biddle to petition for early recharter, imagining that this would make a wonderful issue to embarrass Jackson in the election. The bill passed readily enough. But then Jackson’s Jove-like veto swept away all complexities as the people exulted in his slaying of the “hydra-headed Monster.” He smothered Clay by an electoral margin even greater than that of 1828 over Adams.

Still another case of self-destruction was Clay’s writing one public letter too many before the election of 1844. The great issue by then had come to be the annexation of Texas, out of which might be formed one or more slave states and which might at the same time kindle a war with Mexico, as of course it eventually did.

Clay’s views on slavery were reasonably humane for his time, and were sufficiently balanced as to arouse strong suspicions at either end of the scale of opinion, making for a somewhat fragile equilibrium. One of his earliest political acts had been to publish, in 1798, an address to the electors of Fayette County, Kentucky, deploring the evils of chattel bondage and urging that the legislature be empowered to undertake a program of gradual emancipation. Clay was a slaveholder himself, though a kindly one; he emancipated a number of his own slaves and fully expected that freedom for slaves everywhere would come about in time. On the other hand he denounced abolitionists as a threat to an unsteady peace, and he thought (as Lincoln never ceased to do) that the happiest solution would be to hustle all freed blacks out of the country and resettle them in Africa. (He served as president of the American Colonization Society for the fifteen years before his death.) An equivocal view to the modern eye, and so it appeared to abolitionists then. On the other hand many a Southerner suspected Henry Clay of being a closet abolitionist himself. Such was the tightrope facing the Statesman who in 1844 still dreamed of governing a happy and harmonious Union.

Clay and Van Buren—who was expected to be once more the Democratic nominee—rather liked each other; though rivals, they had a friendly visit at Clay’s home shortly after Clay’s resignation from the Senate in 1842. They seem to have agreed, whether by indirection or explicitly the record does not quite say, that each should present himself in the election as being opposed to the annexation of Texas. A professional and Statesmanlike understanding, certainly; and in the spring of 1844 letters to that effect from each appeared in the newspapers on the same day. But when the Democratic convention, charged up for annexation by an expiring but still oracular Jackson (“Texas must be ours”), pushed Van Buren aside for Old Hickory’s annexationist protégé James K. Polk, Clay had a case of cold feet, as well he might. Goaded by beleaguered Southern supporters, he wrote another letter—two in fact, both published, and both mighty shuffles on the Texas question. (He now had no “personal” objections to annexing Texas; if done “without dishonor” he would be “glad to see it.”) This was enough to whisk away the antislavery vote of New York, to lose the state and lose the election. The Statesman had been beaten once more, now by a nobody, and everyone knew it would be the last time.

Still, Henry Clay’s final exit six years later in 1850 had about it a certain elegiac grandeur. Back again in the Senate, at seventy-three visibly marked for death by tuberculosis, the Great Pacificator was still the man preeminently looked to in the face of the crisis which by then had the nation teetering on disunion. The primary issue was that of how the territorial loot from Polk’s Mexican War was to be disposed of in regard to the status of slavery. The Compromise of 1850—magisterially seconded by Daniel Webster, he too at career’s end, and the details tidied up by Stephen A. Douglas, yet to reach the peak of his—was essentially Clay’s work, and his monument. By the time it all came apart a few years later with “Bleeding Kansas,” the Statesman had gone to his rest.

It’s all there, more or less, in Professor Remini’s new volume. What we are to make of it remains a suspended question. Once in a while a great subject can give wings to an otherwise modestly equipped author; in this case it appears not. The reader seeking to discern an overall shape in Clay’s extraordinary career is in for some drudgery picking it out of what is piled up here, with the important and the trivial all shoveled in together. The prose, despite many a garrulous heave to liven it up, induces gloom. In principle, Professor Remini’s 818 pages needn’t have seemed excessive. But just chopping off at least one bad habit might have left his book, with no sacrifice of substance, scarcely more than half that long. Again and again a statement or a quotation will be followed by a kind of nudging paraphrase at the same or greater length, the intention being to add force, the effect being to subtract what there was:

Only Clay refused to let it go. He would not walk away from it. He kept protesting his innocence—over and over and over. He never seemed to learn when the time had arrived to keep his mouth shut.

Some writers tend to be stingy with their adjectives. Not this one:

The one a hail-fellow, impetuous, enthusiastic, romantic, and highspirited, the other moody, remote, cautious, forbidding, and austere; the one charming, outgoing, funloving, and invariably optimistic and naturally buoyant, the other reserved, cold, standoffish, dour, and fatalistic. Clay was pragmatic and opportunistic; Adams, moralistic and self-righteous.

Other authors, in quoting something spoken, seem backward about making too many guesses about its tone or volume, especially if they weren’t there to hear it. But Professor Remini’s Statesmen aren’t to be so muzzled. “No,” he barked—or “bawled,” “bellowed,” and on through the alphabet…”screamed,” “shrieked,” “smirked,” “snapped,” “snarled,” “sneered,” “snickered,” “sniffed,” “snorted,” “stormed,” “wailed”—and finally—“whispered.”

Under this kind of drumming, how much can we really know, and what are we allowed to think for ourselves, about this man? Scholarship isn’t in question; all the sources have been checked, all archives visited. On some matters of professional courtesy historians tend to close ranks; no further effort on this subject, on this scale, is likely to occur for a long time.1 But meanwhile Henry Clay remains smaller than life, which has to be saddening to any spirit stirred to reverie by the high drama of missed possibility in the transactions of men, women, and nations. Still, in the search for why this undertaking should have turned out as it did there may be something more to look for, even beyond questions of literary competence.

Professor Remini begins his book with a rather jovial preface. He refers without apology to having spent most of his professional life writing about Andrew Jackson (a three-volume Life, together with eleven other books in which Jackson is the leading character), and reminisces with a chuckle about all the people who recoiled in dismay when he told them he was now writing one on Clay. They all thought he couldn’t possibly do it without prejudice. But this doesn’t worry him, nor does he think it should worry us, because “to begin with, I’ve always liked Henry Clay.” (So did various other Jacksonians in Clay’s own time, but no matter.) The implied reassurance is that there will be even-handed justice.

Actually I think there is, and I don’t believe that prejudice, in any ordinary sense, is at work here. But that could be just the trouble. There isn’t nearly enough “prejudice,” and the last thing Clay and Jackson need between them is even-handedness. These two represented divergent paths to the future, and you have to go with one or the other. Anyone who seeks to present Henry Clay in all his lights and shadows must be willing to feel, in unreserved wholeness of imagination, how it must have been to perceive Andrew Jackson as the towering menace, at a break-point in the nation’s life, to a spacious American destiny. The only present-day analogy I can think of is that of the worldly Democrat who turns his thoughts to the career of Ronald Reagan, and to what it im-plies for anything elevated in the American vision. Jackson was Reagan’s nineteenth-century functional counterpart, each the authentic echo of a groundswell voice, and voicing between them an interchangeably minimalist version of the public good: freedom from taxes, freedom from government, and—for the delegated authority—freedom from responsibility.

Henry Clay was certainly a coercive presence. Yet one needs reminding that for all Clay’s preoccupation with his ambitions, he had to represent not only himself but something much beyond himself. The Whig impulse—the Whig party, the Whig persuasion—is a large subject with its own logic, yet one not to be dissociated from the trajectory taken by the career of its most prominent member. The Whig persuasion in its most authentic and least compromised form was hardly the same thing as what the Whigs themselves kept doing to adulterate their own conception of an ideal public universe. But in whatever form, it represented a sharp variant from anything that might be called Jacksonism.

The standard term once applied, less self-consciously than it is now, to the political climate of the 1830s and 1840s was “Jacksonian Democracy.” Much is still to be said for the term’s aptness, though its most critical function might need to be located a little off center from where it customarily has been. What the Jacksonian persuasion in its most positive form principally made a place for was a vastly widened range of individual appetites, hitherto excluded by the civic values of a former age, for public office. The consequence was surprisingly not anarchy but a network of loyalties—the mass political party—whose claims could supersede those of wealth, prior service, or even proven talent, on a man’s path to preferment. This web of lesser careers attached to the fortunes of higher ones, reaching all the way up to the presidency, proved to be the main unifying force in regulating political contention in antebellum America and for protecting what peace there was in the three decades before 1860. How well such a system was equipped to deal with issues of public policy, exposed as it was to every wind of popular sentiment, is of course another question. There is nonetheless an implied historical lesson. For all the system’s faults, its stabilizing capacity, as presciently envisioned by a Martin Van Buren, still merits reflection. We would still do well to let the claims of party come first, and not let them be overborne by the coercions of outside power—those of corporate money and the primaries system—in policing as well as promoting political careers.

But while the Jacksonian persuasion signified a deep transformation of civic norms, the Whig impulse reflected an equally deep and equally innovative change in social and economic values. Behind it was a settled confidence in the capacity of the new forces of industry and technology to enhance the lives of an entire society. The habits of mind, of discipline and work, supposedly best adapted to the optimum functioning of a society so organized were cultivated with extraordinary success and in a remarkably short time. Those who took the lead in bringing about such a transformation tended oftener than not to be Whig types. The great paradox, however, is that although the resulting mentality—of prudence, deferred gratification, punctual hours, and blameless living—came to be so enveloping as to allow little space for the growth of any but a bourgeois understanding of social and economic reality, in a political form the Whig persuasion could never make itself a majority force.2

If it had, there would undoubtedly have been a concerted effort to enact into law and policy the elements of a general design for releasing and controlling those energies thought to be most conducive to the prosperity, enlightenment, and well-being of an emergent capitalist order. The result, if successful, would presumably be an infrastructure of transportation (roads, canals, railways), sound banking, nascent industry protected in its early growth from indiscriminate foreign competition, public education, and a measured program for allocating the uses of the public domain. The implications would clearly be to give a certain direction to national growth; the initiative would be more centralized than anything previously conceded to the national government; and there would be a degree of supervision by the national authority hitherto wholly unfamiliar to a dispersed and still predominantly rural population.

Still, the Jackson administration and its rustic constituency pretty much swept all such tendencies off the table. Jackson vetoed five internal improvements bills on the ground that by encroaching on the concerns of the states with works within their borders Congress exceeded its constitutional powers, and that in any case appropriations for such purposes led to more abuses than any good they did. The President’s ignorance in matters of public finance was breathtaking. His destruction of the Bank of the United States (whose powers were “unauthorized by the Constitution, subversive of the rights of the States, and dangerous to the liberties of the people”) and subsequent transfer of government funds to state banks (the S&Ls of their day) were followed by inflationary convulsions. The tariff, whatever its economic utility as a regulatory device, became a political football. Projects for the establishment of public education, promoted by highbrow reformers, were consistently voted down in local communities and state legislatures by coalitions of tax-allergic non-Whigs. Policy on the public lands, other than forcibly removing Indians from them, merely drifted.

Capitalism and democracy evidently do go together, and are probably mutually indispensable. In America they came into full being almost simultaneously. Had they not, the historical consequences for the public welfare—as, say, in Germany or Japan, societies that became modern by way of a paternalistic past—might have been somewhat different. At any rate the energies and appetites of either one, when regularly turned loose unmediated upon the other, from Jacksonian times to the present, appear to have produced a dynamic that has been debilitating and corrupting to both. Meanwhile a mentality willing to tolerate government as a morally authoritative third force has seldom had a more than fitful existence. The Whig party of Henry Clay’s time had illusions—they too no more than fitful—of becoming such a force.

Why did the Whigs fail? One answer might simply be that they were unlucky. They succeeded only twice in capturing the presidency; both times their incumbent died in office, preventing any extended and coordinated exercise of executive and legislative responsibility. And, as earlier noted, their ablest leader, Clay, never got there at all. Yet the other answer, and probably the better one, is that things would have turned out more or less that way no matter what, and that the Whigs had it coming. They saw no other choice (there may not have been one) than to turn the Jacksonians’ own bucolic style against them by adopting it themselves.

In 1840, this time ignoring their Statesman, they raised up William Henry Harrison, a one-time military hero by then a bit shopworn, and paraded him to victory amid the raucous symbolism of hard cider, log cabins, and coonskin caps. In view of the financial panic that had clouded all of Van Buren’s single term, any Whig—Clay included—could certainly have won it in 1840. Harrison’s vice-president, John Tyler, who succeeded him after Harrison’s scant month in the chair, turned out to be no Whig at all. A narrow Virginia states’-righter, nominated only for having had a falling-out with Jackson, Tyler spent much of his presidential time thereafter vetoing bills sponsored by Henry Clay. The Whigs’ other winner in 1848 was Zachary Taylor, another military man whose innocence of economic questions was fully the equal of Jackson’s, and whose political acumen was far less. A recent theory has conjectured that Taylor was poisoned. A likelier one would be that he was struck down by the finger of Providence while preparing to flatten Henry Clay’s final act, the Compromise of 1850.

The Whigs, even in their years of greatest strength, never campaigned on the basis of their real convictions. If they had, their following might well have been even less than it was. As for Henry Clay, perhaps the most that can be said—though that could be saying a great deal—is that in some dim way he represented the path not taken.

Is it a path beyond regaining? A modern-day Whig—say, a Felix Rohatyn—might still hope not. Whether the Jacksonians currently ruling in Washington have even thought of the question, much less asked it, is doubtful. Even by Clay’s own time it may have been too late. It could be that the path actually taken had already been pointed out a generation earlier by Thomas Jefferson himself, the serene philosopher of having your cake and eating it. Jefferson in his First Inaugural announced in accents of benign reassurance that the only thing by then needed to complete our blessings and “make us a happy and prosperous people” was simply

a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and labor, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government….

  1. 1

    Another angle, however, perhaps even something quasi-fictional, might be welcome. (I can imagine Gore Vidal doing it about right.) Every detail needn’t be literally exact; some things can’t be. For instance what Henry Clay may have done with his time after dark, during the long absences from his family, isn’t of course as important as his daylight doings; still, the imagination roves. There was some prurient talk among his contemporaries; otherwise the record is blank. True, Clay had an eye for a pretty face, and women seem to have been attracted to him. But maybe only at a distance: what kind of distance? If he made his entrance at a ball or reception as many times as Remini says he did “with a belle on each arm,” it’s doubtful how much could have happened afterward. (Gum disease, bad breath? He did seem to suck a lot of peppermint.) Let fancy take flight.

  2. 2

    Whig types” can refer to a spectrum ranging all the way from the evangelist Charles Finney to the Boston Associates (founders of Lowell and Holyoke) including also the editors of the leading popular magazines—especially those aimed at women, who were given a special preceptorial part to play in the new differentiation of labor. And it was almost a miracle that Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography should not have come to light until the opening of this era, just in time to become a kind of inspirational manual for making out in it.

    There are several “persuasion” books relating to this period that are helpful in puzzling out the differences between two mass political constituencies in a society whose social and economic value-system was becoming more and more standardized, and in discerning the ways in which they did and didn’t overlap: Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford University Press, 1957), the earliest (Meyers coined the term) and in some ways the most original; Daniel W. Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (University of Chicago Press, 1979); Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party (Columbia University Press, 1985); Lawrence F. Kohl, The Politics of Individualism: Parties and the American Character in the Jacksonian Era (Oxford University Press, 1989); and Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846 (Oxford University Press, 1991). Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815–1837 (Hill and Wang, 1978) is a fascinating local study that describes with great precision the various (largely Whiggish) influences that converged to shape up household and workplace in Rochester.