Friday, June 24, 2011

What We're Reading: Henry Clay: The Essential American

Henry Clay: The Essential American
By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

The modern approach to American history seems to be one where the story is told within the framework of individual presidential administrations. A man elected president joins a special club. We trace historical events in the line of presidential succession, as if we were recounting in a curiously undemocratic fashion the consecutive reign of Roman emperors or a dynasty of French monarchs. Henry Clay (1777-1852) would find some irony in that. Indeed, this framework has come to seem natural to us only because of the slow ascendancy of the executive branch to its current place of primacy in governing America and acting on the world stage. It was Clay’s lifelong work to jealously guard against the growth of presidential power, attempting to preserve in the early years of the republic the leading role of the legislative branch in American government. He ran unsuccessfully for president three times, but he had a career in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate that spanned nearly half a century, and did more to shape the future of the country than the administration of most of the presidents of that era. Along with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, he was part of what became known as the “Great Triumvirate,” three senators who led the legislative branch of the United States government during the years when Congress effectively ran the country.

In addition to giving us some sense of what were the relative strengths of the Congress and Executive branches early in American history, Clay’s biography gives us an understanding of the major domestic issues and the character of American politics in pre-Civil War America. The first major issue might be described as the contest over the locus of governmental power in the new republic. The situation was radically different from the way things are today. The federal authority was weak, and in many ways designed by the Constitution to remain so, as the states that had contracted to this new union were jealous of maintaining their powers and prerogatives. The loyalty of most citizens was first to their state and their state government, and only secondarily to the government in Washington. The federal government was largely confined to addressing issues of national borders and foreign policy, international trade, the organization and administration of acquired national territories, the sale and distribution of land in territories, and to a limited degree, national monetary and banking policies. State governments made most of the laws that affected the lives of their citizens and they collected most of the taxes. But the issues addressed by the federal government, particularly trade policy and tariffs, as well as the disposal of land in the territories and the administration of the territories, often ran afoul of the desires of particular state interests and resulted in the early formation of regional tensions and conflicts in the country. The issue of slavery in the territories became over time a growing and particularly divisive issue. An important part of Clay’s legacy is his role in working out compromises on the issue in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.

Along with the sharply defined spheres of action between state and federal government, and the growing tensions between various regions of the country, political life in America was changing in important ways as well. The patrician notion of government held by the Founding Fathers, perhaps best exemplified by what has been called the Virginia dynasty of those presidents who held the office early on, was giving way to a more popular and contentious democracy, one that found perhaps its most radical expression in the ascendancy of Andrew Jackson to the presidency. Jackson’s election was an event that largely solidified the party system in contests for power in the American democracy, did much to cast the character of our political discourse, and largely defined the way politics were to “work” in America. You can witness that change as it occurs in the story of Clay’s life, one in which the gloves came off in American politics and political gamesmanship. The atmosphere in which all this developed, so tangible here in Henry Clay, reminds the reader of the rambunctious America of Herman Melville’s Confidence Man. It gave birth to the American politician. Scheming, political posturing and gamesmanship, trickery and voting fraud, character assassination, and rough campaigning became a part of the tradition, and our pejorative notion of “politics” had its origin in these years. Political life seemed to be mostly concerned with the various energies and personal ambitions of people on the make in America; it had more to do with the accretion of political power and the pursuit of individual wealth than with philosophical differences. It was difficult to limn the exact differences between Jacksonian Democrats, Whigs, and splinter parties, and indeed the major political parties often had trouble defining policies and goals that were shared by their members in all parts of the country. It was hard to form a strong “national” party, and on several occasions during this era no single party garnered enough electoral votes in the presidential election, and the decision was thrown to the House of Representatives.

Clay was from Kentucky, he was a slave owner from a slave state, and his sympathies were often with the South. But Clay was also part of that vague party that was concerned about molding a group of arrogant and independent states into a more perfect union. He might not have wanted to see a strong executive power located in the presidency, but his ideas about what the role of the federal government ought to be were much more activist than those of states’ rights advocates. He wanted the federal government to take the lead on issues that would bind and strengthen the country as a whole: the protection of nascent American manufacturing, the redistribution of federal revenues from land sales to the states so that they could devote those funds to “internal improvements” (what we today refer to as infrastructure) for the sake of a growing commerce, and the stabilization of the money supply, currency values, and credit through the establishment of a national bank. This agenda became known as Clay’s “American System.” Much of Clay’s life and legacy, his national and unionist perspective, found a home eventually in the new Republican Party of the 1850s. Lincoln called Clay his “beau ideal of a statesman.”

While Henry Clay: The Essential American gives us a sense of this period in American history, it perhaps gives us less a sense of Clay as a person. It is difficult to say why this is so, but part of this must be attributed, I suppose, simply to the fact that in an age without photography and film, personal charisma becomes lost to history. And Clay’s magic was in his personal charisma: his extraordinary ability to use his charms and skills to become an effective politician and to get things done, his mesmerizing speaking voice and command of an audience, and his tireless energy and persistence. But, too, there is not enough in this book of Clay speaking in his own words or being shown in circumstances or interactions with others that might give us a better fix on his personal character. I’m not sure this book makes us feel we know enough about him to like Henry Clay. And some of the things we are told about him--his drinking, his gambling, his often acerbic style of argumentation, his engagement in duels, and his theatricality--are glimpses of the man that don’t endear him to us.

There has been extensive research done here into the details of Clay’s family life, which often at times seemed to suffer at the expense of his addiction to political life. Henry Clay and his wife Lucretia, to whom he was married for more than 50 years, had eleven children--six daughters and five boys. Before his death, Clay had lost all six of his daughters. His eldest son spent most of his life in an asylum, and another son was committed to an asylum for a number of years. A third son, Henry Clay Jr., was killed during the Mexican War, sacrificed perhaps needlessly in a battle that made General Zachary Taylor a national hero and helped him, ironically, to best Clay in getting the Whig nomination for the presidency in 1848. A life punctuated by this kind of sorrow and bereavement was not atypical of life in the 19th century. We live in a time in which, comparatively, life is far less tenuous, thanks to advances in public health and medicine. The story of Clay’s family is maybe the one that has the most impact for us in a personal sense, and it may prompt us to consider a less traditional idea of history. It suggests that beneath the surface of public and political events that are the stuff of history there lies a current of historical change that ultimately is more important to our experience of life. It is the story of the historical change that affects our personal and private well being and our personal sense of opportunity and freedom. It is a kind of history that is monumental and fundamental, one that is too often the subtext of chronicles rather than the thing recognized to be the history of greatest importance to all of us.

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