Da Capo Press, 2015, 320 pages
A compelling new biography of America's most powerful speaker of the House, who held the divided nation together for three decades and who was Lincoln's guiding light.
In a little-known chapter of early American history, a fearless Kentucky lawyer rids Congress of corruption and violence in an era when congressmen debated with bullets as well as ballots. Harlow Giles Unger reveals how Henry Clay, the youngest congressman ever elected speaker of the House, rewrote congressional rules and established the speaker as the most powerful elected official after the president.
During five decades of public service - as congressman, senator, secretary of state, and four-time presidential candidate - Clay produced historic compromises that postponed civil war for 50 years. Lincoln called Clay "the man for whom I fought all my life".
An action-packed narrative history, Henry Clay is the story of one of the most courageous congressmen in American history.
Henry Clay is a relatively forgotten figure today, because he never became president, but in his day, he was a national figure with an enormous impact on American politics. Harlow Giles Unger has written quite a few books about the B-listers of American history, and as accompaniments to the presidential biographies I've been reading, they really fill in a lot of details.
Born in 1777 in Virginia, Henry Clay was more or less on his own from the age of 14. Like so many of our early statesmen, Henry Clay was complicated, a man of virtues and vices.
He got his start as a Kentucky lawyer. He was an able criminal attorney, and invented the insanity defense, when he got a woman off for killing her sister-in-law. He once told a grinning defendant, "Perhaps I save too many like you who ought to be hanged." He resigned as prosecutor rather than prosecute a slave who killed an overseer who was beating him. He often wrote about the injustices of slavery, and his desire that slavery should be abolished.
And yet (you may have seen this coming) he was a slave owner.
He was fond of drinking, gambling, and womanizing, habits he would continue during his long career in politics.
Something I really didn't appreciate until I started reading all these biographies of early American politicians was just how common dueling was in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the most famous duels was of course the fatal one between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but nearly every prominent man in this time period seemed to have been involved in a duel at some point in his life, even if it was just the threat of one.
Henry Clay challenged another legislator to a duel while speaker of the Kentucky state house. Despite firing three times at one another with intent to kill, both of them survived.
As a U.S. senator, he would fight another duel with Senator John Randolph of Virginia, over an insult issued on the Senate floor. Even though the Senate had rules specifically "privileging" speech on the floor so that senators couldn't challenge each other over insults during political debates, Randolph waived his privileges. He was in fact widely considered to be not right in the head, and Clay was mocked for challenging a crazy person to a duel, though once again, both of them survived, and they played cards together the next week. Honor culture was a hell of a thing.
"She was no great beauty, but he was no Adonis."
In 1799, Clay married Lucretia Hart, a homely girl with a rich father. This launched him into high society, and he began his political career in the Kentucky state legislature.
He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. He remained a practicing lawyer even after being elected to public office. His most famous client was Aaron Burr. Clay defended the former vice president against charges of treason for supposedly planning to create his own empire west of the Mississippi. (In fact, Burr probably was trying to do that, but Clay still believed the charges against him were bullshit and Thomas Jefferson was just trying to railroad him.) He was elected as Speaker of the House, becoming the youngest speaker ever, and the first (and only) freshman congressman to hold that office. As speaker, Clay would transform the House, turning it from what had been a bunch of presidential yes-men and lackeys into an independent branch that stood up against executive power.
John Q and Henry Clay did not start out as buds
In the middle of his long stint as a congressman, President Madison asked Clay to go to Europe with John Quincy Adams to try to negotiate an end to the War of 1812.
The negotiations were dragging, the Americans wanted to go home, and while John Quincy was up early in the morning to read his Bible, Clay and the other delegates would still be up after a late night of carousing and gambling. They thought John Quincy was a humorless Puritan scold, and John Quincy thought Clay was a redneck reprobate. But it was Clay's gregariousness that kept the tired and demoralized Americans from giving up, and Adams and Clay together eventually managed to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. They didn't exactly start as friends, but Adams and Clay would work together for the rest of their lives. 34 years later, as John Quincy Adams lay dying on the floor of the House chambers, Henry Clay would be overwhelmed with emotion as he said good-bye to his old friend and former president.
The "Corrupt Bargain"
After the Treaty of Ghent, though, Henry Clay was riding high on the public perception that they had "forced the British to surrender," even though the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the treaty had already been signed. But the hero of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, was also riding high. Clay didn't think being a military leader made someone qualified for public office, and he wasn't a supporter of Jackson's escapades during the Monroe Administration.
The first of Clay's four attempts to become president would be the election of 1824. He overestimated his own popularity, and finished an embarrassing fourth in a five-man race (John C. Calhoun would drop out), behind John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and an invalid William Crawford.
With the electoral votes split, the election was thrown to the House. Despite having no chance of winning himself, Clay was suddenly in a kingmaking position, since all the other candidates needed his support (and electoral votes). All of them, even Jackson, approached him, but it was after a private talk with John Quincy Adams that Clay threw his support behind Adams. Adams became President, he appointed Clay his Secretary of State, and Andrew Jackson denounced the "Corrupt Bargain." Clay and Jackson would be mortal political enemies forever after.
While Clay has to this day been accused of making a "Corrupt Bargain" to become Secretary of State (which, back then, was an even more powerful position than it is today, and was usually a stepping stone to the Presidency), in fairness, he and Adams had a lot of other reasons to team up. They had gotten to know each other back in Europe, and Adams supported Clay's "American System," which was an ambitious program to expand America's wealth and infrastructure with a combination of protective tariffs, a national bank, and a national transportation system. In fact, Clay had been inspired by the work of Alexander Hamilton, and he would also revive Hamilton's doctrine of "implied powers."
Also, Clay already despised Andrew Jackson.
Unfortunately, John Quincy Adams proved to be an unsuccessful president. The country did not embrace the "American System" he and Clay championed, and Adams lost reelection to Andrew Jackson.
Henry Clay was elected to the Senate, and made his second bid for president running against Andrew Jackson in 1832.
On the campaign trail, Clay thought he was winning. He was a great speaker and he drew huge crowds who laughed at all his jokes and applauded his speeches.
Unfortunately, as Unger points out, campaign speeches were one of the few forms of entertainment rural Americans had in the early 1800s, and cheering for Clay didn't mean they were going to vote for him. When the votes came in, Jackson had crushed him.
The Great Triumvirate
Andrew Jackson had dumped his vice president, John C. Calhoun, so Calhoun returned to the Senate, and along with Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun became the "Great Triumvirate" who dominated the Senate for the next 18 years. During this period, Clay gained a reputation for engineering brilliant compromises — between the North and the South, between abolitionists and slave-owners, mostly — and won the title of the "Great Pacificator." Although he was well respected, his compromises actually tended to piss off both sides, while holding the Senate together — barely. He also became the de facto head of the newly-formed Whig party, which was an unsteady alliance of anti-Jacksonians that never really coalesced as a political party.
In the election of 1840, Clay sought the nomination of the Whigs. He thought he was the obvious candidate, but he was backstabbed by the party bosses, who wanted someone more malleable than Clay in the White House. Clay nonetheless loyally supported President-elect Harrison, only for Harrison to die a month into office and be replaced by Vice President Tyler, who then turned on the Whigs.
On his fourth attempt at the presidency, Clay ran against James K. Polk in 1844, a nobody, or so he thought. Once again, he thought he had it in the bag, only to open the newspaper after election day and learn that Polk had narrowly defeated him.
Clay returned to the Senate, where he served until failing health forced him to resign. His crowning achievement was the Compromise of 1850, which narrowly prevented a schism between North and South. Clay would die believing he'd saved the Union. During his last run for the presidency, "Clay Clubs" had sprung up all over the country, and one enthusiastic local chapter head was a young Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln would later cite Clay frequently as inspiration for his own political ideals and even borrow Clay's words for his speeches.
The Great Compromiser
Henry Clay was known as "The Great Pacificator" or "The Great Compromiser" for his repeated feats of bipartisan negotiation. His great objective was to preserve the Union. As he put it (and as Abraham Lincoln would later echo), he wanted to end slavery, but that was less important than holding the country together, which meant somehow placating both abolitionists and slave owners. He managed to do it for a while, kind of. Had he become President, he might have managed it a while longer, possibly delaying the Civil War. But the South eventually seceding was almost certainly inevitable.
Like a lot of slave-owning statesmen, Clay spent a lot of time in his final years trying to make some kind of amends for owning slaves. In 1816 he had helped establish the American Colonization Society, whose goal was to liberate slaves and send them back to Africa to found a free state. He advocated "gradual emancipation." He considered himself a "good" master, and by the standards of his time, he was. He freed several of his slaves during his lifetime, and he freed the rest of them in his will.
Which brings us to the problem with Clay, and my main criticism of Unger as a biographer.
"I had rather be right than president."
In 1839, Clay would make a speech on the Senate floor in which he was trying to stake out a centrist position between the abolitionist "ultras" and the pro-slavery South. "I had rather be right than president" proved to be prophetic, both in 1840 and again in 1844, where his position against Texas annexation was probably what cost him the election to Polk. In fact, his compromises, while making him a great and respected statesman, were acts of political calculation and not moral courage.
In all of Harlow Unger's biographies, he's covered the life and times and political views of his subjects very thoroughly, but never critically. On the one hand, I don't want to read an overly-opinionated biographer who puts his own political slant on history, and we don't need historians to remind us that slavery was bad. But I do think there is room to question some of the assumptions made by his subjects, whereas Unger simply praises his greatness. No questions are raised as to whether Clay's compromises were either morally or historically correct decisions.
Clay's early arguments against abolition, and his later arguments against "immediate" abolition, were predicated on the common blind spot that even many abolitionists had, that abolition meant throwing freed slaves out on the streets to fend for themselves. The idea that, having enslaved them and profited from their labor, your responsibility to your former slaves might extend beyond simply freeing them, never seems to have occurred to Clay, or his fellow morally-anguished slave-owners like James Madison and James Monroe.
Reading between the lines, he was also kind of a crappy father. Emotionally distant from his sons and his daughters, he only ever became close with his youngest. He and Lucretia suffered repeated tragedies as several of their children died young, one son became an alcoholic, and another, who'd suffered a head injury as a boy, became increasingly erratic and violent until he ended up confined in an insane asylum for the rest of his life. These things obviously were not all Clay's fault, but for all his affection for his wife and children, he wasn't the greatest family man.
After Clay's death, two of his sons who had attended West Point would both die in the Civil War — one fighting for the North, one fighting for the South.
Henry Clay might have been a great president. He'd probably at least have been a good one. He was certainly a character, and my criticism of Unger's biographical style notwithstanding, he was definitely worth reading about.
Also by Harlow Giles Unger: My reviews of John Quincy Adams and Lion of Liberty: Patrick Henry and the Call to a New Nation.
My complete list of book reviews.