Why Henry Clay? An Essay by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Many Americans do not know this extraordinary person, which is a pity. Many years ago, a conference gave us the opportunity to visit his grave and his home. A friend accompanied us to the cemetery where we stood before the large vault with its imposing column topped by a statue of Clay, his right arm partially extended, entreating during one of his famous orations. The day was raw, and a dirty cotton sky sent down a misty drizzle that glossed the marble with a wet patina. In the back portion of the vault, a marble slab held one of Clay’s most famous quotes: “I had rather be right than be President.” Our friend, who inclines to the acerbic, muttered, “Nothing about a corrupt bargain?” We laughed.
Yet later as we walked through the house named Ashland, we paused over the twin legacies of Clay’s fateful decision in 1825 and of his unstinting labor to improve and sustain his country. His behavior in 1825 fastened upon him--presumably forever, if our companion’s remark was any evidence--the infamy of the “Corrupt Bargain.” His work for the country revealed the great poignancy of his generation, the futility of practical politics clashing with grave moral imperatives. He sought the presidency and was labeled a schemer; he compromised for the Union and was lauded as a statesman. Which one was the real Henry Clay? In this book we try to answer that question.
His personal life, for instance, presents intriguing clues. Clay married what many described as an ugly girl, possibly only for the status and influence her family imparted, but there is no evidence that he ever strayed from her bed and considerable proof (they had eleven children) that he found it congenial. He early found slavery morally troubling and ultimately regarded it as incompatible with American ideals of liberty. But he died owning slaves. He gained fame as the master of political compromise, which by definition is the bending of principles to achieve functional agreements. But in 1825, he was reviled as crooked, even though he did not violate a single personal scruple or run counter to his own conscience.
All lives are marked by such inconsistencies. We strive to reveal Clay to a new generation of readers by showing how he was both exemplary and unique, how he was both mired in the customs of his time and a prophet for ideas that would not gain acceptance until our own. He believed in ideas with passion, but he leavened everything with humor, a novelty among public figures of his time and obviously one of the facets that Abraham Lincoln found appealing enough to imitate. Most of all, we found that there has never been anyone like Clay in American political history. He transformed the post of Speaker of the House into its modern role, he proposed and doggedly advocated a plan to expand American prosperity, and he was a crucial leader in every matter great and small bearing upon American politics for almost fifty years.
When our friend made that crack about the “Corrupt Bargain,” we all laughed, but we shouldn’t have. In a way, this book is our penance for having done so, because Henry Clay was a patriot, a statesman, and a gentleman. Not without flaws, he was nevertheless about as good as it gets in public life, and we hope that readers will find him as fascinating as we have.
From Publishers Weekly
Yet another hulking biography of an early American political giant, this one, unnecessarily clogged with detail, is still a fitting, up-to-date, and highly readable account of Henry Clay's life (1777–1852) and achievements. In vigorous prose, the Heidlers (coauthors, The War of 1812
), experienced scholars of pre–Civil War America, relate the emergence of the Kentuckian who served in the House (as Speaker) and Senate, as secretary of state, and as repeatedly failed presidential candidate. A man of enormous gifts—the beloved mirror of his country and its aspirations—Clay bestrode Washington and the Senate as member of the Great Triumvirate with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster and did his best as the Great Compromiser to hold the nation together as it splintered over slavery. That he failed, as the authors show, was not his fault: even great congressional leadership couldn't save the Union. The authors bring verve and clarity to Clay's struggles, even if they add little to what's known. They also make one yearn for more statesmen and stateswomen, who, like Clay, could say, I had rather be right than be president. 32 pages of b&w photos. (May)
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