The Great White Hope

Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union

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

Henry Clay
Henry Clay; drawing by David Levine

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…

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