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Henry Clay: The Essential American Paperback – May 10, 2011

4.6 out of 5 stars 108 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 654 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (May 10, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812978951
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812978957
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #375,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
About once a year, my husband and I visit friends near Lexington, Kentucky, and we always see the signs for Henry Clay's plantation home, Ashland. Not knowing that much about Henry Clay, but having read many other books that make reference to The Great Compromiser, I decided to read Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. I discovered not just an extraordinary book, but also an extraordinary man! Unfortunately, many of his accomplishments have been dimmed by history. But Clay, known as the Western Star and Prince Hal, was one of the most influential men of the first half of the 19th Century.

Clay was born in 1777, and he and our young republic grew up together. As a teenager, he clerked for the Virginia Court of Chancery. Because of his good penmanship, he was selected to assist George Wythe, the brilliant legal mind who was a Virginia chancellor and first law professor in the nation. After studying law and passing the bar, Clay followed his mother and step-father to Kentucky. He used his legal success to launch a career in public service. Over the course of his long life, he served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives (selected as Speaker 6 times), as well as Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. He helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent (ending the War of 1812), and had a hand in many congressional compromises including the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. He ran for president 5 times and argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. But what really set Henry Clay apart from his contemporaries was that he was a brilliant orator. When word got out that Henry Clay was about to speak, the Capitol would fill to capacity with spectators hanging on his every word.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This work presents Henry Clay in a fashion that almost allows the reader to feel the presence of "The Great Compromiser." It is a study of both the man and his works, flawed, brave, sometimes wrong, somethimes right, but always interesting. Clay was a great and influential figure in American history, and it would not be too much to say that Clay delayed the Civil War by twenty years through his presence. OK, maybe that's a little much, but nonetheless it was his continuing work to keep the union together and attempt to find a way to work out the sectional problems.

In Clay's times, the sectional problems were almost unbridgable, and significantly more difficult than the issues confronting our current politicians. Yet, we hear no voice like Clay's -- rather we have ideologes brooking no compromise as if it were treason. Clay always moved the nation forward to realize its growth potential, whereas today our heady days of growth are behind us and we are in a time of shrinking resources. A pity -- I found myself wondering how Clay would approach the problems of today.

That was the strength of this work -- Clay was so thoroughly presented, I found myself becoming involved almost as one of his partisans. Clay's machinations in getting John Quincy Adams elected make for fascinating reading even today, and Jackson dubbed him the "Judas of the West." In fact, Clay's life would make great theater with the duels and political survival putting Clinton's "comeback kid" to shame. It's too bad that someone doesn't take this book and turn it into a movie -- or at least a mini-series.

The writing is crisp and usually, but not always, sympathetic to Clay. The authors are not shy in presenting Clay with warts when they are deserved.

All in all, this is a very fine scholarly work, and I highly recommend it to all.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
David and Jeanne Heidler's sweeping biography of Henry Clay captures the energy and convictions of the indefatigable senator and the many crises of a young nation over the course of his nearly 50 years in American politics. Clay served about 14 years each in the House of Representatives and Senate, and he was Secretary of State for 4 years under President John Quincy Adams. Often called the Great Compromiser, the authors agree with Daniel Walker Howe's characterization of Clay as "an ideologue of the Center", who would rather not compromise. Even so, he would do anything to save the union and stave off civil war, and the Heidlers explain his role in the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850.

Clay's 5 failed attempts to become President are addressed in painful detail -painful because he came so close, and the prize always went to a lesser man. The US had a string of bad presidents when it could have had Henry Clay. One of them was Clay's bitter enemy Andrew Jackson. Beyond Clay's constant struggle to find a middle ground between North and South, the Heidlers discuss the other major political issues of his career: the War of 1812 and Treaty of Ghent, Clay's "American System" of infrastructure creation and currency stability, the battles over the second Bank of the United States, his lifelong support for gradual emancipation of slaves while being a slaveholder himself, the split of the Republican party, and the annexation of Texas.
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