Patriot, Statesman, Gentleman

Book cover
Henry Clayby By David S. Heidler And Jeanne T. HeidlerRandom House. 624p $30

In 1897 an impatient House of Representatives proposed some joint resolutions of Congress to assert more legislative initiative in foreign affairs. Many representatives felt that neither the Democratic president, Grover Cleveland, nor the Republican president-elect, William McKinley, were aggressive enough with Spain concerning its suppression of rebellion in its colony of Cuba. The more cautious Senate, protective of its monopoly over treaty ratification, produced a “Memorandum Upon the Power to Recognize the Independence of a New Foreign State,” which both reiterated the collaboration of the president and the Senate in any such recognition and sought to discover the historical source inspiring the erroneous resolutions. It was Henry Clay (1777-1852), who “always maintained that the clause that Congress had the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations gave Congress the power to recognize the independence of a foreign country.”

This citation, preserved in a diplomat’s report stored in the British national archives, summarizes Clay’s career and international fame. He wanted to be president but lost three elections. His hope was to be the president who upheld the supremacy of constitutional government against presidential supremacists like Andrew Jackson. David and Jeanne Heidler show how this position reflected Clay’s understanding of himself as a politician of the second generation under the Constitution, anxious to both preserve the system and make his own contribution to it.


Clay had an outstanding constitutional education under George Wythe, a neglected founding father who was the first law professor in the United States. Four years as Wythe’s assistant gave Clay insights into both national origins and possibilities. Clay admired Congress because he felt it epitomized the constitutional and social diversity that Wythe felt would put the new nation at the service of all humanity. Clay would pass on this respect for the unity of differences to his own admirer, the young Abraham Lincoln.

Clay achieved legislative mastery in both House and Senate. He revolutionized the office of speaker of the house by making it a position of advocacy rather than an impartial presiding post on the Westminster model. Initially this change helped to lead the nation into an unprepared-for war with Great Britain. But the new role for the speaker endured, and Clay became one of the negotiators of peace. He more and more learned to combine advocacy with fairness, winning personal friends even among political opponents as intense as his archenemy Martin Van Buren. The authors suggest that the nation today needs more such friendships among its politicians.

As senator, Clay’s greatest moment was probably the crisis of 1833, when South Carolina threatened to nullify federal tariff law. Weeks after a landslide defeat for the presidency, Clay struck the crucial compromise between those who wished to employ military threats against South Carolina and those who wanted to repeal the tariff completely. A native Virginian who lived in Kentucky, Clay had both Southern and Western connections. He understood the limits of sectionalism, as he also showed in the Missouri crisis of 1820 and the California crisis of 1850. The desire to transcend sectionalism also contributed to his outspoken advocacy for linking the nation by a federally sponsored system of roads, canals and a national bank.

By contrast, Clay felt that his Whig Party was too prone to deal with sectionalism through vagueness of rhetoric. The result was the election of two ambivalent presidents, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, with Clay cast aside. He remained forthright, however. It was a blunt criticism of both slaveholding and abolitionist extremists in 1839 that led to his famous observation that he would rather be right than be president.

The epic mistake of Clay’s career was the decision to accept an appointment as secretary of state after supporting John Quincy Adams’s election as president by the House of Representatives (since no one had a majority in the Electoral College). It was not a corrupt act. Clay genuinely feared the alternative, Jackson, as a potential American Napoleon. He was more compatible with Adams on issues. Neither Adams nor Clay ever understood the catastrophic effect that the combination of Clay’s support for Adams and Adams’s subsequent appointment of Clay as secretary of state had upon public opinion. Like other great legislators, Clay took for granted that an honest parliamentary majority would automatically look wise before the nation. Here is the reason for his failure to become president.

That the authors of this biography are a married couple (scholars of pre-Civil War America and co-authors of The War of 1812) brings it special strengths, especially in depicting Clay’s emotional life. A fundamental difference with Jackson, for example, was that the general took all political differences personally while Clay did not. Clay’s wife, Lucretia, remained secluded but provided indispensable support in private. She helped Clay through a religious conversion after they lost a son in the Mexican War.

Some historians believe that Clay’s compromises helped the Union to win the Civil War by delaying that conflict until the North was strong enough to prevail. The Heidlers have shown us a deeper contribution. Clay got a young nation talking about what it wanted to become. It did not always accept the specifics of his vision, but the very discussion increased its sense that it was a nation worth preserving. In this manner, Clay vindicated his mentor Wythe and made things easier for his disciple Lincoln.

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