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It is no exaggeration that Clay was the most important man during that epoch, more important than most of the men who achieved the presidency that was denied him on three occasions. This was a time of giants abroad in the land, but most of the major figures were closely identified with the regions from which they came and the special interests they represented.

Daniel Webster spoke for New England’s booming industrial and shipping interests; John C. Calhoun was the fiery tocsin of the South’s agriculture and slave interests. During their lifetimes, these three senators - Clay, Webster and Calhoun - were called the “Great Triumvirate” by their contemporaries, but though Clay was of that group, he was not like the others. As the Heidlers neatly describe him, Clay was “national ambiguity defined.”

They argue, “He was a westerner from the South. Yet he was not southern, because he deplored slavery. His owning slaves, however, meant that he was not northern. When an admirer said that ‘you find nothing that is not essentially AMERICAN in his life’ it was meant as a compliment in a divisively sectional time, but in retrospect, it was also a warning to the country. Like Henry Clay, it could not long continue to own slaves while denouncing slavery.”

While Clay is best known for the saying, “I would rather be right than President,” his penchant for seeking compromises made him something of an artful dodger who was not truly trusted within the ranks of the Whig political party, which he had helped found in the early decades of the republic. This meant that he could be an early protege of Thomas Jefferson’s but invest loyalty and service to John Quincy Adams. The only figure he despised openly was Andrew Jackson, a fellow Westerner, and the hatred was mutual.

What made Clay unique and universally praised even by his rivals was his unalloyed commitment to the national union and his instinct for fashioning agreements just when it seemed opposing sides were at the fracture point. He did it in 1820 when he led the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Maine as a state that barred slavery, and permitted slavery and statehood in Missouri but drew a line across the country to the Pacific north of which human bondage would not be permitted.

While a sort of peace was restored, the next 30 years saw the divisions that separated Americans grow even more irresistible. Northern mill owners demanded more and cheaper cotton and other gang crops but denied Southern investors the capital needed to build a diversified industrial base of their own.

Southern land was exhausted by its cotton, tobacco and other products that depleted the soil. The slaves themselves were a source of shame and fear to their owners, but they had neither the resources nor the will to free their slaves. The only answer was for the South to spread westward to newer and more fertile lands where slavery would be expanded. If they could not have the West, the South would leave the Union altogether.

The Compromise of 1850 is the key to the drama of Henry Clay’s life, and both books make the most of that drama, which brought the nation a new border with Mexico, four new states and a boundary that reached the Pacific. It also bought the anti-slavery North a decade in which to build its industrial hegemony to the point that when the Civil War did erupt, the South was doomed from the first shot.

One comes away from reading both these fine books wondering where we will find our Henry Clay today.

James Srodes is a Washington journalist and author. His e-mail address is srodesnews