There are those who argue that Kentucky's preeminent politician, Henry Clay, was the greatest senator in history, others who believe he was the finest orator and debater ever to grace the halls of Congress, and still others who claim that, for a time in his life, Clay was the most popular man in the United States. Be that as it may, this much is certain: "Prince Hal," the "Star of the West," was clearly one of the most powerful and influential leaders of the young nation as it struggled to find itself, to establish its unique identity, and to assure its survival and advancement as well as its unity. This talented and fascinating character is the subject of this impressive volume by Robert V. Remini, who already enjoys considerable reputation as a prize-winning biographer of Andrew Jackson, Clay's bitterest enemy. In spite of its length, it is superb history, thoroughly researched and written in a lively and engaging style. It is what historians like to call a "definitive" work, and as is true of all really good biographies, it tells several stories at the same time.
The most obvious story is that of a truly remarkable public career. Born in Hanover County, Va., in 1777, Clay no doubt learned early on to appreciate political oratory as practiced by such locals as Patrick Henry. He studied law in Richmond with George Wythe, who also taught Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall and James Monroe. At age 20, Clay headed west to Kentucky, settling in Lexington, where he opened a law office, acquired property and was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly. In 1806, he was first elected to the United States Senate (to fill an unexpired term), was sworn into office at the unconstitutional age of 29 (apparently without challenge), and began a career that would keep him in the public eye until his death in 1852.
Prior to the War of 1812, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became a leader of the "War Hawks" and was subsequently elected speaker of the House by his colleagues. In that role, he established the concept of the speaker as the political leader of the House and, in the process, made it the second most powerful position in the U.S. government. After playing a significant role in bringing on the war, Clay resigned as speaker to accept appointment as one of the peace commissioners who sought to bring it to an end. After the war, he returned to the House, where he became the leader of the anti-Monroe faction, began to move away from his earlier Jeffersonian principles, and opened the long and bitter feud with Andrew Jackson, a mistake that would help guarantee Clay's exclusion from the office he most wanted.
He was the chief architect of the Compromise of 1820, gaining widespread popular acclaim as the "savior of the country" for successfully defusing the explosive issue of slavery and its expansion. In 1824, he became a candidate for president and after his elimination in the contest, Clay helped manipulate the selection of John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson when the "disputed" election was thrown into the House of Representatives. When Adams subsequently named Clay secretary of state, the cry of "corrupt bargain" swept the nation. Although Clay denied any such deal, his actions earned him the life-long hatred of Old Hickory as well as the mistrust of the voters, both of which would return to haunt him time and again. Though he could not have known it at the time, this alliance of "the puritan and the black-leg" was a political death warrant for Clay's presidential ambitions. Not only would Jackson be elected to the presidency in 1828, he would also enjoy the very real pleasure of defeating Clay handily in 1832. Years later, echoes of the "bargain" were still in circulation when Clay lost the election of 1844 to James K. Polk, a Jackson protege.
In the early 1830s, Clay would again emerge as the Great Compromiser when the Nullification controversy threatened the dismemberment of the Union. Once again, Clay played a pivotal role in creating and gaining acceptance of agreements that spared the nation a possible civil war. Thereafter, Clay continued to be a leader of the anti-Jackson forces, helped give form and substance to the new Whig party, opposed the annexation of Texas and denounced the war with Mexico. In 1850, he would be the driving force behind the compromise that, in effect, postponed the Civil War for more than a decade. It was his great gift to the nation he so dearly loved. He died in a Washington hotel room in 1852.
Remini tells another absorbing tale in his account of Clay's personal life and character. "Harry of the West" was nothing if not colorful. He was an unattractive-looking man, yet was endowed with considerable grace and charm. He was a high-stakes gambler, a heavy drinker, swore like the proverbial sailor, was impious enough to attend horse races on Sunday, and if not actually a "womanizer," he was clearly a great favorite of the ladies. His enemies called him a demagogue, a liar and a fake and accused him of being an overly ambitious opportunist. He could, on occasion, be arrogant, sarcastic and petty. Yet he was a man of undeniable style: charismatic, captivating when he chose to be, amiable, intelligent, quick-witted, politically astute and personally courageous. In short, it was not easy to dislike Henry Clay, although the record shows that a substantial number of his contemporaries managed to find a way to do so!
He was also a lonely man, one who had known much pain and sorrow. In addition to his keen disappointment over having been denied the presidency, Clay had what can only be described as serious family problems. To begin with, his was not a happy marriage. His wife, Lucretia, seldom accompanied him to Washington, preferring instead to remain in Lexington where she raised the children, looked after the Clay estate, Ashland, and generally managed the affairs of the family. It says something about their relationship that in all the years after he rose to prominence, she never wrote him a single letter. But his 11 children were the source of his greatest sorrow and grief. All five daughters died during Clay's lifetime. Of his sons, two were confined to mental institutions, one became an alcoholic, one was dismissed from West Point and another from Princeton, and one was killed in Mexico, in the war his father had so strongly opposed. Small wonder, then, that Clay's own health could best be described as "frail." Off and on, over the years, he suffered from severe stomach disorders, depression that bordered on melancholia, heart trouble, insomnia, a chronic cough and finally an undiagnosed case of tuberculosis that destroyed his lungs.
Remini's work is also the story of an extraordinary political odyssey. Although Clay entered political life as a Jeffersonian, his later drift away from that position led him into the National Republican movement and ultimately to become a founder (and the most influential member) of the Whig party. Along the way, Clay perfected a kind of self-hypnosis, an ability to convince himself that those changes in principle that were demonstrably good for his political career were equally good for the country. Consistency was not one of Clay's greatest political characteristics, yet there were a number of identifiable themes that ran through the entire course of his political career. In support of these themes, as well as other issues, he brought to bear a strong belief in the importance of persuasion, and in the spoken word as the most effective means of attaining one's ends. A gifted mind, a sharp tongue and a devastating wit made him a formidable opponent, and his verbal jousts with Webster, Calhoun, Benton and other titans of the Senate provided the nation with a level of eloquence and reasoning in its legislative halls that remains unmatched to this day.
Clay's ambition to be president was one of those threads. For almost all of his adult life, he was unrelenting in pursuit of the one office that was never to be his. Even after his third rejection by the electorate, he failed to understand the hard fact that while almost everybody loved him, almost nobody trusted him. Crotchety old John Randolph reflected the general feeling when he made known his request that he be buried facing the West, so that he might better keep a watchful eye on Henry Clay. As to Clay's oft-repeated statement that he would rather be right than president, the record suggests that he would actually have preferred to have been both right and president.
Another of his persistent themes was rooted in his political philosophy. The essential Clay was reflected in his "American System," a sensible economic program based upon a strong national banking system, a protective tariff and internal improvement at government expense. Clay saw in this program the means through which to strengthen the young nation and raise his beloved Union to a position of prominence and power.
But perhaps the most significant theme in Clay's long and distinguished career was his strong, abiding, unabashed love of the Union. Many of his most important political decisions were informed by that influence and many of his most important contributions to the nation were the result of his unswerving devotion to the Union. But here, as was so often the case then, the "Old Coon," himself, probably said it best in a speech in Norfolk in April of 1844: "If any man wants the key to my heart, let him take the key of the Union. . . that is the key to my heart."
Otis Singletary, president emeritus of the University of Kentucky, served as first director of the Job Corps and is the author of "The Mexican War."
Statesman for the Union