Two new biographies of the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay

By Heather Cox Richardson
Sunday, September 12, 2010


Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union

By Robert V. Remini

Basic. 184 pp. $24


The Essential American

By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Random House. 595 pp. $30

Henry Clay was one of America's greatest statesmen, the nation's pilot through the first half of the 19th century. Two new histories of the man and his era reveal that his skills have special relevance today. In a time of rapid change, economic instability and cultural divisions, Clay "understood that politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness," writes historian of the House of Representatives Robert V. Remini. In his elegant little volume called "At the Edge of the Precipice," Remini notes that politics should be about governing, and politicians who cannot compromise cannot govern effectively.

Clay was born in Virginia during the American Revolution and grew with the country. In the late 1790s, he moved west to Kentucky, a vibrant state on the edge of the frontier, where he practiced law and began his rise to wealth, the owner of a stately plantation called Ashland, along with dozens of slaves and prize racehorses. It was in Kentucky, with its booming economy and popular enthusiasm for the new nation, that Clay learned to see himself not as a Kentuckian but as an American. He envisioned a strong, economically diverse nation, leading the world.

In "Henry Clay," David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler paint an enormously engaging picture of this man and his era. Clay and his kin mingle and marry and migrate, cherishing each other even as they mourn their many dead. Kentucky comes to life, with its impoverished migrants and rising gentry, mountains and bluegrass. The young Clay was a rake and a gambler, but also a brilliant orator and dedicated lawyer who could make friends with almost anyone. Those skills served him well when he entered politics. In 1811, in his first term in the House of Representatives, he was elected speaker.

Clay turned the position of speaker into a seat of power. He stacked committees, stifled dissent and directed floor debate. Under Clay, Congress worked to codify his brainchild and legacy: the "American System," a series of policies to develop American industry, advance national infrastructure and maintain a stable national financial system.

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