HENRY CLAY: THE ESSENTIAL AMERICAN
By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Random House, $30
AT THE EDGE OF THE PRECIPICE: HENRY CLAY AND THE COMPROMISE THAT SAVED THE UNION
By Robert V. Remini
Basic Books, $24
REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES
Once upon a time, a dramatic economic change led Americans to a division over a crucial social issue that was so contentious people wondered whether the nation would survive. Debate deteriorated into diatribe. Eastern establishment liberals poured intemperate scorn on those who challenged their views. Conservatives from the heartland and the Deep South returned scorn with violent protest meetings that sprang up across the country.
Even though a major party controlled both Congress and the White House, neither branch conferred with the other, and the legislative remedy proposed was so vast and complicated that no one was sure what it all meant but everyone was sure there were parts of it that could not be endured. There were threats of violence against leading figures.
If that sounds depressingly current, you will be interested in a previous and all too similar episode in our history when our nation almost came unstuck but didn’t. According to the two books before us, one crucial difference was that in the crisis over slavery that came to a head in 1850, there was a political giant named Henry Clay whose stature was such that a delicately balanced compromise finally was fashioned, thereby postponing what likely was an early move by some Southern states to secede from the Union a full decade before they actually did.
Both biographies make the inescapable point that politics - then and all the more so now - demands good-faith compromises if the public good is to be served and demagoguery is not to accelerate into a government by fiat that prompts public revulsion and reaction. Implicit in both these well-written, detailed stories is the broader point that it is almost impossible to achieve true compromise when any alternative is viewed as an appeasement with the forces of evil; that is, the other side.
This is why men like Henry Clay, when they do exist in our public arena, are so remarkable and so valuable. Both books make this point, but in different ways, and it is hard to say which should be chosen over the other.
The book by the Heidlers, two academic historians, is a classic biography that traces Clay’s extraordinary 50-year career on the national stage. Robert Remini, who is the historian for the U.S. House of Representatives, narrows his focus to Clay’s last great struggle, the Compromise of 1850, and argues quite persuasively that good politics demands great men. One could do worse than read the latter book first and then expand one’s understanding of both Clay and that extraordinary half-century when the face of America changed completely.
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 @msn.com.