Henry Clay is one of the great statesmen in American history. It is not too broad a paint stroke to say that - without Clay - the Civil War would have been fought long before 1861 and well before the North would have had the strength to win it and preserve the Union. While Clay attempted to become President many different times, without success, he had more influence - save Lincoln - than any 19th century American president. Indeed, I've often felt that - had Clay won any of his attempts at the presidency - the Civil War would have started years before it did because Clay would not have been in Congress to keep the forces for disunion apart.
For me, the seminal text in Henry Clay historiography remains Robert Remini's 1992 biography, Henry Clay. The irony there is that Remini was a biographer of Clay's arch-nemesis, Andrew Jackson. After years of researching Jackson, however, Remini was enchanted by Clay and the result is a wonderful biography.
Harlow Giles Unger's Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman falls considerably short of Remini, but perhaps that is not fair - Remini set a pretty high bar. For those unfamiliar with Clay's story - and his story is the story of the first fifty-plus years of American post-Constitutional history - Unger's short biography does the job.
Before delving into the political, one of the lesser known aspects of Clay's life among the general public is the large number of great personal tragedies Clay suffered in his life. Six of his children died during his lifetime [Henrietta (1800-1801); Susan Hart (1805-1825); Anne Brown (1807-1835); Lucretia Hart (1809-1823); Henry Jr (1811-1847); and Eliza (1813-1825)]. In addition, in a two-week period in 1829, his mother, stepfather and brother all died. Because of the death of his children and many of their spouses, in the 1830s his wife, Lucretia, was often taking care of up to seven orphaned grandchildren at a time. For this reason, she never returned to Washington after the mid-1830s.
In terms of politics, Unger gets the thesis right when he notes, "Clay held the states together long enough for a new generation of Americans to emerge who embraced nationhood - and were willing to fight and die to preserve it."
Clay's major tool to keep the Union together was what came to be called the American System: a nation-spanning network of roads, bridges, and canals to link every state and territory with each other. The point of Clay's "American System" was to bind the United States politically, commercially and socially through a series of internal improvements [roadways, canals, etc.], the creation of universities, a tariff wall to protect American products, and using money from the sale of western lands to pay for those internal improvements.
After serving in the Kentucky legislature, Clay was elected to the U.S. House in 1811. Unger does an excellent job of capturing what the House looked like upon Clay's arrival: "Members walked in, out, and about at will, shouting to [or at] each other, shoving each other, oblivious to cries for order from the Speaker and appeals from colleagues to support legislative proposals. Unlike the dignified elite portrayed in history tomes and stately oil paintings, frontiersmen in buckskins chewed tobacco and shot spittle toward brass spittoons - sometimes hitting their mark."
Unger also accurately captures what Americans meant when they spoke of their "country" - they meant their state, not the U.S. As Unger notes, "Far from a single nation, the 'United' States were a loose association of semi-independent nations with few ties to hold them together..." Geography was also major impediment to fostering a sense of being one nation. As Unger notes, "In the best of weather Washington lay more than five days' travel from New York, ten days from Boston, and all but inaccessible from far-off Charleston, South Carolina."
Amazingly, Clay was immediately elected Speaker of the House upon his arrival on November 4, 1811 - the youngest man to ever hold that office and the only freshman congressman to ever do so.
Clay, John Calhoun and other young congressmen were largely responsible for providing the support - and, indeed, even the impetus - for U.S. entry into the War of 1812. Unger does a fine job of bringing to the fore one of the little known facts about that war: it needn't have happened. On June 23, 1812, the British Parliament voted to restore good relations with the U.S. by ending impressment of American sailors and other violations of international law about which America had long complained. But by then, the U.S. had already declared war. Unger explains that, once it became known in the U.S. that Parliament had yielded, "America's maritime and commercial states - Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Delaware - demanded that the federal government rescind its declaration of war and resume negotiations with the British..." But by that point the U.S. had suffered defeats on the battlefield that made it impractical to do so.
Clay resigned from Congress in 1814 to serve on the peace committee sent to Europe to negotiate an end to the war. The result of the war was status quo antebellum. It was a useless war, but as Unger notes, "...Americans - almost unanimously - deluded themselves into calling it a great victory."
One of the major problems with Unger's work is his treatment of slavery and African Americans. He often writes as if he is living in the 1950s. Throughout the book, he is an apologist for Clay's own slaveholding and for slavery in general - a truly incredible offering from an author in 2015. In discussing Clay's hypocrisy [a slaveholder who 'opposed' slavery], Unger actually writes: "Publicly [Clay] called slavery 'a deep stain upon the character of our country,' but privately he insisted that slaves were better off under his care than anywhere else - as indeed, they probably were [my italics]." That's right: Unger says the slaves were probably better off under Clay's ownership than anywhere else. He wrote that in 2015. Not 1815.
Another example of Unger's 19th century view of African Americans: "Unlike the North, the South had no towns or cities to absorb slaves in industries and apprenticeship programs. The South was agricultural. The road out of one plantation led only to the road into the next; unskilled slaves had no recourse but to work the land. Emancipation would leave untold thousands of unskilled men, women, and children without work, without homes, with no place to go or means of survival." Unger then has the audacity to call Clay's slaves "all deeply loyal" - as if they had a choice! Writing about Clay's work on his plantation after "retiring" from Congress in 1821, Unger says, "...Clay set slaves to work. A carpenter and painter restored the house and outbuildings while others worked on lawns and gardens - mowing, weeding, planting or transplanting dogwoods, hollies, and a small forest of flowering trees and ornamental shrubs....As [Clay] increased his crops, he doubled the number of slaves to about two dozen, buying some, selling others, leasing a few and trading less capable slaves for stronger or smarter ones." Again, Unger is writing for a 1950s audience. Indeed, many times in the book, rather than calling them "slaves" he calls them "workers" as in "...[Clay] threw himself into farm work, helping workers repair, renovate, and improve..."
Clay's retirement in 1821 - like most of them - was short-lived. His constituents returned him to the House in an election in August 1822 - where the House elected him Speaker again. Clay had tremendous success during this run. He was able to get President James Monroe to sign a major internal improvements bill and a high tariff. With that success, the Kentucky legislature nominated Clay for President in 1824. With no political parties at the time, six states chose nominees by legislature. In other states, voters chose electors committed to a particular candidate.
The outcomes and subsequent dealings in the campaign of 1824 would prove to be the end to any hope Clay had of ever becoming president, although he could not know it at the time. Rather than campaign, Clay spent most of the time at home in Kentucky. He believed that none of the candidates - himself, John Quincy Adams, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson - would get a majority of electoral votes and that the tally would go before the House to decide. Based on his support in the House, he figured, he could secure the Presidency there.
Clay made a mistake. Not about the race going into the House, it did - with no one getting a majority of electoral votes. But the Constitution says that only the top three electoral vote-getters are to be considered and Clay finished fourth with only 37 electoral votes [compared to Jackson's 99, 84 for Adams and 41 for Crawford]. In the popular vote, there was no doubt: Jackson won 153,000 popular votes compared to 114,000 for Adams, and 47,000 each for Clay and Crawford.
In the House, each state would get one vote. Although out of the running, Clay was going to make a president based on his power in the House. Clay told his friend, Virginia Judge Francis T. Brooke, that Crawford's health [he'd had a paralyzing stroke] made him ineligible and as for Jackson, "I cannot consent to the election of a military chieftain." Clay told Francis Preston Blair, "I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans [in 1815] qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy."
It would be Adams, then. In reality, there was never any other possible choice for Clay. There was no way that Clay was going to support Jackson - whom he loathed. Clay asked for a meeting with Adams on January 9, 1825. Clay told Adams that he would support him.
On January 24, 1825, Clay got the Kentucky House delegation to announce it would cast its vote for Adams even though Kentucky's legislature had given them express instructions to vote for Jackson [not to mention the fact that Adams had not won a single Kentucky electoral vote]. On February 9th Adams won in the House on the first ballot. Then, on February 14th, Adams named Clay Secretary of State, launching a firestorm that would follow Clay for the rest of his life. Years later, Clay admitted, "It would have been wiser and more politic to have declined the office of Secretary of State. Not that my motives were not as pure and as patriotic as ever carried any man into public office."
Here, Unger presents an interesting argument: despite common belief that Clay asked for the State Department in return for his support of Adams, Unger believes it was Adams who offered it and - most importantly - that Clay did not jump at the offer right away. Unger says that Clay knew that accepting the position could be political suicide, "but [Clay] believed that the only hope for establishing the American System and cementing the Union was as Secretary of State. Then the most powerful post after the presidency, the Secretary of State in the 1820s wielded powers variously held in the twenty-first century by the secretaries of. Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Transportation, and Energy..." It was for the American System, Unger argues - as well as the fact that the State Department had launched the last three presidencies [James Madison, Monroe and Adams] - that Clay accepted Adams' offer.
Unger accurately points out, however, that, "Adams and Clay did not seem to understand that objections to the American System lay not in the proposal itself but in the cession of state powers to the federal government it required." Plus, "Federal highways and waterways, [opponents] feared, would open routes both for federal troops to march in and for slaves and poor whites to march out....The American System threatened the future of slavery and the wealth of the southern oligarchy by opening the South to transportation, commerce, education, ideas, competition, and emancipation."
The result was four miserable years for both Adams and Clay followed by a landslide victory for Jackson in 1828.
Kentucky sent Clay back to Washington in 1832, this time in the Senate, where he became Majority Leader. This after he was again nominated for President by the Republicans [soon to be the Whigs]. The corrupt bargain and Jackson's popularity gave the latter another landslide, winning 210 electoral votes to Clay's 49.
Despite another presidential loss, Clay once again stepped forward to prevent what could have been the start of the Civil War. South Carolina had threatened secession after 'nullifying' a tariff bill. To diffuse the crisis, Clay worked with John Calhoun to get a compromise. Clay proposed gradual changes in rates. The Clay-Calhoun plan would reduce tariffs on a handful of imports deemed essential to the southern economy but gradually reduce all other tariffs over a decade, until 1842, when they would drop to 20% They'd be high enough to offer some protection while keeping prices reasonable. As Unger notes, "The compromise offered a little to everyone without giving everything to anyone." On March 1, 1833, Clay's Compromise Tariff passed. In return, South Carolina repealed its ordinance of nullification.
Meanwhile, Jackson's ridiculous, childish and dangerous 'killing' of the Bank of the United States [BUS] created a national financial collapse. It provided Clay, Calhoun and Daniel Webster with the momentum to create the Whig Party in opposition. Clay brought into the Whig party a coalition: remnants of the Anti-Masons, Democrats opposed to Jackson's bank policy, northern and southern industrialists [who favored tariff protection] supporters of state sovereignty and Republicans who had supported Adams' and Clay's American System.
As the 1840 election neared, Clay - who had done more than anyone to preserve the Union - found that that willingness to compromise would cost him the nomination. As Unger notes, "New York State's Whig leaders [discounted Clay]....by citing political compromises as having turned [Clay] into a political liability as a presidential candidate. Although they agreed he had saved the Union, the benefits of every compromise have political costs, and voters often tend to remember the costs more than the benefits. Few Americans treasured Union as much as he." Indeed, Unger maintains that, "Neither southern slaveholders nor northern abolitionists, therefore, saw preservation of the Union as a reason to modify their political positions: indeed, many saw considerable advantages to North-South separation."
Indeed it is clear that Clay was one of the few leaders at the time who wanted reconciliation. In fact, Unger argues that some wanted dissolution of the Union, seeing it as the only peaceful resolution possible - the only way to avoid civil war. In writing about political leaders of the time, Unger notes, "Far from seeking national reconciliation and unity, [Thurlow] Weed, [William] Seward and [John] Tyler saw disunion and separation of North and South as a peaceful solution to the national conflict over slavery and state sovereignty. All three considered Clay a political liability, given his efforts to reconcile the two regions." They were not the only ones. Pennsylvania's Thaddeus Stevens was equally determined to block Clay's nomination. "With most Americans blaming [President] Van Buren for the economic collapse [of 1837], the Whigs believed victory a certainty, and the Stevens-Weed bloc wanted a man in the White House whom they could control - they knew no one could 'control' Clay but Clay." Thus William Henry Harrison was their choice, and he took the nomination from Clay, winning the White House over Van Buren in November 1840.
Harrison's death only a month into office left Tyler as President. He refused to bend to Whig leaders, who drummed him out of the party. Again, Clay would run for President. In February 1842, he resigned from the Senate to begin his presidential campaign. Clay went on a cross-country tour to promote the American System and his candidacy. Unger argues that part of the campaign was designed to, "expose emancipation as far more complex than" most imagined. Well received, Unger argues that nonetheless, "Clay evidently misinterpreted the good will of his audiences, however." While they respected and admired him, and while they enjoyed the pageantry of his visit, it didn't mean they were going to vote for him.
And, indeed, more didn't than did. The turnout for the 1844 election was an incredible 79% of eligible voters. James K. Polk won 1,339,494 popular votes and 170 electoral votes [15 states]; Clay won 1,300,004 popular votes, and 105 electoral votes [11 states]; while James Birney's single-issue [abolition] Liberty Party won 62,054 and - according to Unger - cost Clay the election. Unger argues convincingly that Birney's votes were, "almost entirely ultra-abolitionist - who cost Clay victories in New York and Pennsylvania, key states that would have earned [Clay] the presidency."
Polk's presidency saw the Mexican-American War and a strong expansion of American territory. Indeed, had he not committed himself to a single-term when first elected, it is most likely that Polk would have easily been reelected in 1848. Amazingly, even after all of the defeats, Clay remained the favored [and assumed] nominee for the Whigs in 1848. Even though by now Clay had finally accurately sensed the mood of the country and it's aversion to reconciliation, he couldn't help himself. At this point, it was not personal ambition so much as a belief that he and he alone could save the Union and he could only do so from the White House.
And yet...the Whigs would not allow it. As Unger writes of the Whigs, "Although Henry Clay had been able to unite them against Jackson, Van Buren, and Tyler, he had never been able to unite enough of them for Henry Clay." At the convention, Whigs again turned to a military hero - this time Zachary Taylor. Despite pleas from supporters, Clay refused to run as an independent. Taylor went on to win the presidency.
The Kentucky legislature again returned Clay to the Senate in 1849. It would be there - in 1850 - that Clay would present his final compromise, this time on the issue of California and the expansion of slavery. Clay presented his compromise in five resolution on January 29, 1850: 1) California would enter the Union as a free state; 2) Utah and New Mexico would enter as territories [not states]; settlers there would eventually determine whether slavery was to be permitted; 3) Abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia; 4) Tightening of the Fugitive Slave Act; 5) Texas to abandon claims to territory in New Mexico in exchange for $10 million. Although supported by many, President Taylor was inclined to veto the bill if it reached him. He never got the chance. He died on July 9, 1850, after a short - and some still say 'mysterious' - illness. With Taylor dead, it fell to new President Millard Fillmore, who eagerly signed the bill that became known as the Compromise of 1850. With it, Unger writes, "Clay - and the nation - believed he had fulfilled his dreams of saving the Union without civil war."
Henry Clay died on June 29, 1852, "believing he had saved the Union," as Unger notes. Of course, we know that it simply delayed by eleven years what had long been inevitable. Yet that delay was crucial to the eventual Union victory. Such an event was possible in 1865. It would not have been possible in 1821, 1833, 1844, or 1850. The time that Henry Clay "bought" was crucial. Although his version of the Union differed considerably from ours - specifically in regard to African Americans - we nonetheless owe Clay a great debt of gratitude. He once said, "I would rather be right than be President."
That was, perhaps, his greatest compromise.