Two new biographies of the Great Compromiser, Henry Clay

By Heather Cox Richardson
Sunday, September 12, 2010; B07


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.

Clay's meteoric rise to prominence seemed to promise him the presidency of a strong, economically secure nation. But the development of the modern political party in the 1820s left no place in the White House for a moderate. New political partisanship tore Americans apart. Eventually, it pitched them into the Civil War, taking more than half a million lives.

The replacement of America's original political system by a new, hyper-partisan extremism dominates the Heidlers' biography of Clay. It is also the subject of "At the Edge of the Precipice." Like the Heidlers, Remini explores how politicians turned from the art of governing to the machinations of winning. He reminds us that the essence of Americanism since the nation's founding had been the willingness to compromise. And no one could bring two sides together better than Henry Clay, as he did, repeatedly, to strengthen the fledgling nation.

But while Clay believed that governing was about enacting policies that were good for the whole country, rising Democrats in the 1820s wanted power for its own sake. The Heidlers trace the rise of early Democrats who reviled their political opponents as elitist while they championed Andrew Jackson -- an unstable, vindictive tyrant -- as a man of the people. Pro-Jackson newspapers gleefully published outright lies about rival candidates, including Clay.

Clay insisted that voters would recognize gross falsehoods and preferred an honest discussion of issues. He was wrong. The party enthusiasm of the 1820s and '30s continued, and by 1840 it had produced political extremism.

While the Heidlers trace these developments across the sweep of Clay's life, Remini distills the essence of the ongoing political struggle by examining the dramatic events of 1849-50. By then, Southern Democrats insisted that the nation recognize the rectitude of human slavery, Northern abolitionists appealed to a "higher power" than the Constitution to demand slavery's end, and media from each side distorted the actions of the other. By 1849, the nation was on the brink of a civil war.

Into this breach stepped the elderly Clay, a slave owner who nonetheless believed that slavery was holding back national development and must die. Now a senator, and an open advocate of gradual emancipation, he guided a final compromise through Congress. Remini's careful reconstruction of the old man's efforts reminds readers that Congressional debates are long and Congressional maneuvering seemingly endless. But in 1850, the result was a popular national compromise that offered concessions to each side, calmed the sectional storm and, critically, bought time for the North to gain population and industrial strength for the growing conflict. Two years later, "The Great Compromiser" was dead, so greatly mourned that he was the first American to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda.

His compromise died shortly after he did. Party politicians who had cut their teeth under Jackson rammed through Congress an execrated bill that tore apart the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the nation. Their plan was to extend slavery westward, but they failed because Clay had inspired a younger politician, Abraham Lincoln. Like Clay before him, Lincoln held the line against the extremism that called for making the backward institution of slavery national. And thanks to the 10 years that Clay's compromise had bought the Union, Lincoln led a nation that was strong enough to survive.

In the end, politicians determined only to win destroyed Clay's vision of uniting a strong and growing nation. They cheered their victory, as they would cheer their armies marching to war a few years later. These two remarkably engaging books about the man who tried to prevent that conflict and find a peaceful end to slavery make one wonder if there wasn't a better way to construct a strong and secure nation than embracing the extreme partisanship that led to slaughter.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and the author, most recently, of "Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre."

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