Were you to ask me, prior to my reading this book, who Henry Clay was, I would’ve been able to tell you that he was an important US politician in the early-19th century who unsuccessfully ran for president a few times.
Which, I suppose, is more of a legacy than most people get.
Born in 1777 Virginia, and launched a legal career twenty years later in Kentucky. He was such a powerful speaker, and so successful in court, that he was elected to the House of Representatives by 1810, and became the youngest Speaker of the House in our nation’s history the following year. A largely ceremonial role in the early days of the United States, Henry Clay was the first to fully empower the Speaker, and he used his position to push legislation that he favored. The most prominent early example of this was the War of 1812, which he forcefully advocated. After serving as Secretary of State to John Quincy Adams, he would serve in the Senate for the rest of his public life
Eventually becoming a central figure in the founding of the Whig Party, Henry Clay pushed a series of domestic policies he called “The American System”, which was centered around internal improvements (like roads) and protectionist tariffs. Among his greatest accomplishments, according to Unger, this American System helped tie the country together to a degree that it preserved the Union long enough for us to get to a point where we even could fight the Civil War that ended not only slavery, but the sectionalism that so divided the nation. Without these internal improvements, the Union wouldn’t have survived (and even with them, there was sharp division). Holding the country together was the driving force of Henry Clay’s life. It informed everything he did in both the House and the Senate.
Clay was integral in forming the Missouri Compromise, which put off the issue of slavery, but (again) held the nation together.
Which brings us to the issue that kind of decides the fate of every American politician of the era: what did Henry Clay think of slavery?
The easy answer is that he believed slavery was a “grievous wrong to the slave”, and advocated for the equal treatment of free blacks. He supported recognition of Haiti, which existed because a slave revolt overthrew the French colonial power. Clay also helped set up the American Colonization Society, which desired to set up an American colony in Africa for free blacks and deported slaves (who would then be free). The goal wasn’t noble, however. Clay – like many abolitionists – didn’t want a multi-racial society. They wanted to set up a colony in Africa for freed slaves precisely so that those free black men and women wouldn’t live in the United States.
And – most importantly of all – Henry Clay owned (and traded) slaves.
Like Thomas Jefferson and so many others, Henry Clay saw no conflict between the owning of slaves and the belief that blacks should be free. He saw himself as “a good master”, and found nobility in raising Africans to a higher status than they otherwise could’ve had. So it should be no surprise that his avenue for preserving the Union involved a compromise between freedom and enslavement. While this delay of America’s reckoning probably did, as Unger contends, allow for the bonds between the states to solidify, it can’t be denied that it also set us on a road to not properly dealing with our great sin.
Even to this day.
Harlow Giles Unger does a great job here, balancing the praise for Clay’s life in the public eye with the personal failings of the man. He was a great statesman that is largely unknown by the average American. He defended Aaron Burr while also pushing the same financial system as Alexander Hamilton. He was an absolute war hawk that pushed the US into the War of 1812 who was very critical of Andrew Jackson being a famous general elected to the presidency – a position he ran for (and lost) four times. He was an abolitionist who owned slaves. He was a loving husband famous for womanizing. He had a large family that he loved, but spent so much of his time in Washington that his children hardly new him.
Henry Clay was a complicated person, and is absolutely one of the most important and central figures in between the Revolution and the Civil War.