Book Review of “Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman” by Harlow Giles Unger

Henry Clay of Kentucky was elected to the post of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 4, 1811. The seventh Speaker in the nation’s history, he was the youngest man, and the only freshman ever to hold the office. The author calls him “the greatest Speaker of the House of Representatives in American history.”

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Henry Clay is still known by many Americans today because of his influence on Abraham Lincoln, who said of Clay: “I worshiped him as a teacher and leader.” Indeed, Lincoln not only emulated Clay’s devotion to the idea of Union in theory, but also in its specifics: he tried to push through many of the programs advocated by Clay, including the “American System” – internal improvements consisting of a network of roads, bridges, and canals linking every state and territory. Clay thought such an investment not only made good economic sense; it would also help bind the nation together. Trade between different regions of the country, as well as the movement of populations among them would create interdependency, and help cement the disparate sectors into a true Union.

Unfortunately, the South was opposed to the American System proposal. As the author writes:

“By restricting the extent and ease of transportation, planters could keep blacks and poor whites in their thrall indefinitely. The American System threatened the future of slavery and the wealth of the southern oligarchy by opening the South to transportation, commerce, education, ideas, competition, and emancipation.”

It also would open the way to better escape routes for slaves.

It should be noted that Clay himself owned slaves, although he helped establish and became president in 1816 of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa; it founded Monrovia, in what became Liberia, for that purpose. [Lincoln was similarly in favor throughout most of his life of colonization for slaves.] Clay decried slavery as “a great evil,” but thought that universal emancipation would produce “civil war, carnage, conflagration, devastation . . .” [He thought the war would be between the two races, rather than between the whites of the North and the South.]

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Clay had the misfortune to have an implacable enemy in the form of the very powerful Andrew Jackson, who came to revile Clay for, inter alia, denying him (as Jackson saw it) his rightful prize as U.S. President in the election of 1824. With the vote split, Clay directed his supporters to vote for John Quincy Adams. When Adams won the election, Adams offered Clay the position of Secretary of State. Both men denied any quid pro quo, and indeed, Adams had plenty of reason to want Clay in this position in any event. But the Jackson forces took vicious aim at both men, calling the appointment a “corrupt bargain” that denied the office to the man who truly deserved it, i.e., Jackson. Jackson’s adherents never let the nation forget it, and Clay was thus repeatedly stymied in his own attempts to become U.S. President.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Nevertheless, Clay’s contributions to the nation were not minimal. Time after time he exercised his influence over Congress to forge compromises between the Northern and Southern factions, always in the name of Union. When he died, on July 29, 1852, the editor of the Washington D.C. newspaper “National Intelligencer” wrote: “He knew no North; he knew no South. He knew nothing but his country.”

Evaluation: This author, who is one of my favorite historians, doesn’t go into excessive depth in this biography, but gives us enough background of this admirable statesman to understand why Lincoln exclaimed upon learning of Clay’s death: “Alas! Who can realize that Henry Clay is dead! Who can realize, that the workings of that mighty mind have ceased . . . that freedom’s champion – the champion of a civilized world . . . has indeed fallen.”

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of Perseus Book Group, 2015

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