October 08, 2015


Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. By Harlow Giles Unger. Da Capo. $25.99.

     Compromise is a dirty word in Washington, D.C., nowadays, a sign of weakness and being untrue to one’s principles. Those principles may, of course, change as it is expedient to have them change, for example in running for the nation’s highest office. Long gone are the days in which anyone would be naïve and simplistic enough to declare, “I’d rather be right than president.” How long gone are they? They disappeared after February 7, 1839, the day on which Henry Clay uttered those very words.

     Clay (1777-1852) is one of the most famous early politicians of the United States, and a somewhat enigmatic one. He was a Virginia-born slaveholder (he had 60 slaves) who strongly opposed slavery (he wanted to free the slaves and return them to Africa) even in the knowledge that his position would likely cost him the presidency that he wanted so much to win. His 1839 remark was about being correct regarding the evil of slavery – but some saw the comment as sour grapes, not a ringing denunciation of an institution from which Clay benefited even as he decried it.

     Nominated three times for the presidency (1824, 1832, 1844), Clay never attained it; some say that if he had become president, there would have been no Civil War – that he was the only person who might have averted it. This feeling is based on his reputation as “The Great Pacificator” or “The Great Compromiser”: he was architect of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (admitting Missouri to the Union as a slave state and balancing it with Maine as a free state), the Compromise of 1850 (which admitted California as a free state and cleared up four years of political infighting dating to the Mexican-American War), and other compromises in 1821, 1833 and 1836. There is a notion that Clay might have found a way around the apparently irreconcilable demands of North and South, much as he found a way to get the Compromise of 1850 through Congress by taking a large bill and breaking it down into small component pieces that could pass even though the larger version could not. Or, the thinking goes, Clay might have used something like his American System to bind the nation. This was, among other things, a network of federally financed roads, canals and railways linking the states, a system that Clay managed to push through and expand into 20 states despite widespread state opposition to what was seen as a federal takeover of state-level rights and responsibilities.

     Harlow Giles Unger, frequent chronicler of early American political life, brings his usual lucidity and attentiveness to detail to Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman. Unger strongly believes in his subtitle, but it carries some unintended irony in the form of President Harry Truman’s remark that “a statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years,” which was later echoed in the Bloom County comic strip as: “A statesman is a dead politician. Lord knows we need more statesmen.” Unger sees Clay as having been a highly admirable political figure throughout his life, not merely becoming one in hindsight. He regards Clay as someone aware of the fact that intractable problems have no solutions, only compromises, and a man who tried to follow his personal human values even when they cost him his ambitions, notably that of the presidency. Unger makes much of Abraham Lincoln’s high regard for Clay, noting that Lincoln voted for Clay in 1832 and worked for Clay’s campaign in 1844. Unger traces Lincoln’s famous remark to the New York Tribune about slavery directly to Clay – that is the comment that Lincoln made about being focused on saving the union, whether that meant freeing all slaves, freeing no slaves, or freeing some and leaving others alone. And Unger points out that some of Clay’s accomplishments in the political sphere have stood the test of time: for example, he remains the youngest-ever Speaker of the House of Representatives and, indeed, is largely responsible for making that position the powerhouse it has remained until today. It is also interesting that in 1809, Clay was elected at age 29 to fill retiring Senator John Adair’s unexpired term – even though the constitutionally required age was 30. Either no one noticed or no one was bothered by this.

     Interspersing stories about Clay’s political acumen with tales of his difficult personal life, including long-term poor health and the death of all six of his daughters by 1835, Unger also shows that today’s depths of political enmity have their roots in the early years of the United States: Clay threw his votes in the 1824 presidential runoff election (which was decided in the House of Representatives) to John Quincy Adams and against Andrew Jackson, whom Clay considered too uneducated and temperamental to be president. Adams later made Clay his Secretary of State, and Jackson condemned the arrangement as a “corrupt bargain,” starting a campaign that undermined Adams’ presidency, eventually led to Jackson’s ousting of Adams (and Clay) in the 1828 election, and later led to Jackson (1767-1845) working successfully against Clay’s own presidential ambitions. In a sense, Clay’s troubles outlived him: once the Civil War erupted, one of his sons died fighting for the North and one died fighting for the South. And Clay’s legacy? It can certainly be argued that in the long run, the very long run, Clay’s economic and political vision of the United States was to a large degree fulfilled. But Unger makes no attempt to craft a Clay legacy, beyond Clay’s influence on Lincoln. Certainly there is no one in modern American politics who would qualify as a “great compromiser,” or who would consider it an honor to be known by that sobriquet.

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