By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Random House, New York, 595 pages, $30.
Editors’ Note: This article has been updated to reflect a Correction.
Of the many Americans who have aspired in vain to occupy the White House, none has contributed more to our politics and government than Henry Clay (1777-1852). In “Henry Clay: The Essential American,” David and Jeanne Heidler offer new insight into the life and times of a politician who revealed his character in the enduring declaration, “I had rather be right than be president.”
The authors disregard Alice’s classic admonition to “begin at the beginning.” They do the opposite. They start with an account of Clay’s death and what followed. The cortège bearing his coffin made its roundabout way from Washington, D.C., to Lexington, Ky. where burial took place. At each stop en route, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Buffalo and Cleveland, a crowd of thousands turned out to pay respects to the departed statesman. The Heidlers thus show in advance the reverence, affection and gratitude that Americans had come to feel toward the man whom The New York Times eulogized as “too great to be president.”
It was in Hanover County, Va., that Clay was born, grew up and studied law. At the age of 22, he moved to Kentucky. By the time he got seriously involved in politics, Clay had made a name (and a fortune) for himself as a trial lawyer. He successfully represented, for example, Aaron Burr in two grand jury investigations into Burr’s alleged conspiracy to set up a separate republic in the western United States and attack Mexico. Clay later expressed regret at having defended one who by then he had decided was guilty.
In Washington, Clay had a long, variegated career. He spent more than a decade in the House of Representatives, where at 34 he was the youngest person ever elected speaker. He served as secretary of state under President John Quincy Adams. He helped negotiate the face-saving Treaty of Ghent, which terminated the War of 1812. He first represented Kentucky in the Senate in 1810-11. He did so again from 1831 to 1842 and from 1849 until his death, resuming the practice of law in the interim.
In the legislative branch, Clay played parts in a list of historic events. In the House, he led a faction called the “War Hawks.” They whooped it up for war with Great Britain and succeeded in starting a conflict that, as this review has noted, Clay helped end. As a senator, he came up with a compromise that solved the nullification crisis of 1832-33. There, South Carolina had provoked the threat of armed federal intervention by claiming the right to veto acts of Congress that it deemed unconstitutional.
Congress enacted the Compromise of 1850 in Clay’s absence. The book leaves little doubt, however, that the result evolved from a two-day address by Clay on the Senate floor that the authors call “one of the finest, most masterful orations of his career.” Although, as the authors put it, “deeply flawed in many ways,” the Compromise of 1850 postponed for more than a decade the outbreak of armed strife between North and South.
First in the election of 1824, Clay ran time after time for president. He came closest to success when the Whig Party accorded him its nomination in 1844. Optimism prevailed, but the proposed annexation of Texas, which Clay opposed, combined with other problems to give the election to Democrat James K. Polk. The latter went on to start (by “pretexts,” say the Heidlers) and mastermind the Mexican War. Clay made one last try in 1848. This time the Whig nomination went to war hero Zachary Taylor.
Readers who deplore the bad manners and partisanship of today’s actual and would-be public servants will find out from this book that the good old days of American politics have not vanished. They never existed. The authors, accomplished historians, characterize the campaign of 1828 as “arguably the most vicious presidential election in the history of American politics.”
As secretary of state, Clay was astonished at “the volume of personal attacks and pure fabrications hurled at the administration.” Most historians, the book goes on later, “have insisted that hullabaloo and flummery dominated the 1840 [presidential] campaign.”
The authors repeatedly note the importance that Clay’s engaging personality and sense of humor played in his successes. They bring out as well his imperfections. They depict him as an inveterate gambler (“He always wins,” his wife Lucretia would say in his defense), a heavy (although rarely if ever irresponsible) drinker, possessed of what could be judged harshly as a foppish attraction to fine, imported clothing. As a lawmaker, he was often accused, especially by his adversaries, of an arrogant, dogmatic and dictatorial manner. A sharp temper and a talent for vituperation resulted in at least two challenges to duels.
Throughout his adult life, moreover, Henry Clay owned slaves. He inherited two and acquired many more by purchase as his farm outside Lexington prospered and expanded. Yet Clay publicly criticized slavery as morally wrong. He opposed immediate abolition but advocated the gradual, compensated elimination of involuntary servitude. He favored colonizing liberated blacks. He treated his own slaves humanely, freed some of them during his lifetime and the rest in his will.
Still, the authors call “hypocritical” his condemnation of an institution from which he was profiting. They call this inconsistency “nothing short of tragic, a fundamental flaw in an otherwise good and decent man.”
The book is long and exhaustively detailed. Yet that does not make for difficult reading. On the contrary, the reader grows better and better acquainted with one whose life, personal and professional, included so many twists and turns, ups and downs. That acquaintanceship develops an interest, a curiosity into what will happen next. This reviewer, for one, counts as time well spent the hours he devoted to learning about Henry Clay and his times.
One cannot understand the antebellum history of the United States, when the issue of human slavery was steadily tearing the country in two, without knowing something about Henry Clay. The Heidlers’ intensive, well-written and thoroughly documented study provides the ideal opportunity to acquire that knowledge, not just painlessly but enjoyably.
Walter Barthold has retired from the practice of law in New York City.