Was Henry Clay America's Greatest Statesman?

Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman
By Harlow Giles Unger
336 pp.
Da Capo Press

Though history has not been as effusive when it comes to the remembered legacy of Congressmen compared to Presidents, Vice Presidents and military leaders, their impact on government can sometimes be even greater (just ask Alexander Hamilton). But at least one bearded hipster was enthralled by the deft congressional chamber work of Henry Clay (1777-1852).

“I worshipped him as a teacher and leader...a fellow named Abraham Lincoln once opined. “[He is] the man for whom I fought all my humble life. His views and measures are always the wisest.”

Though his father died while Clay was two years old and his mother abandoned him at age 14, the ambitious Kentuckian Clay nonetheless arrived in Washington in 1810 as a 33-year-old lawyer and freshman congressman ready to make a mark. Unger (who also wrote the James Monroe bio The Last Founding Father) says Clay also had the dubious honor of being the first barrister to argue that a client was “not guilty by reason of insanity."

He so impressed his colleagues with his razor-sharp mind and booming baritone voice, they elected him Speaker of the House on his very first term, the only time that has ever happened.

Clay’s public service career would span decades and see him in office in the House of Representatives, the Senate and as Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. And – as Unger sets out to prove in his main thesis – the “Great Compromiser” all but ensured the then-fledgling United States did not dissolve into civil war long before it actually did.

When Clay began his political career, the United States was anything but that, since each new “country” (as the states often referred to themselves) was fairly insular in terms of everything from interests, culture, transportation and religion to commerce and the thorny question of slavery.

It was also an era when duels and fistfights between lawmakers were not uncommon (Clay himself was involved in one gunfire exchange, though neither party was seriously injured).

Clay was not without his contradictions. While passionately opposed to not just the concept but the practice of slavery, he nonetheless owned slaves all his life. And while high-minded in arguing legalities on the floor of Congress, he also knew how to have a good time after hours boozing, playing cards and flirting like a Lothario in the company of beautiful women (though Unger is quick to point out that by all accounts, his 50-plus-year marriage was one of convenience that grew into a deep love and respect).

The marriage union would produce an astonishing 11 children, with a number dying in infancy or youth. Of his sons, they ran the gamut from a drunk to a West Point-educated solder to an actual, committed lunatic.

Throughout the book, however, Unger’s writing is clear and factual, but lacks a certain zest and liveliness that would really bring Henry Clay and his never-boring life and career alive.

Clay’s career intersected with the Lone Star State during the question of its annexation to the U.S. in 1836. While against bringing Texas into the Union because of its heavy pro-slavery stance, $13 million debt and the probability of inciting Mexico to war, Clay did recognize its independence while postponing actual annexation.

Henry Clay ultimately did not achieve his life’s ambition of attaining the Presidency – he ran on three separate occasions (under two different parties). And, despite his huge popularity, he did not come out ahead when all the numbers were crunched. Political foes and frenemies like Andrew Jackson (who hated Clay with a passion), Henry Calhoun and others may have helped that process along.

But “The Great Compromiser” will be best remembered as bringing together bitter political factions for a resolution (if not solution) of some fairly large problems.

And he did it on five separate occasions – most famously with the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. As well as his “American System” for the protection of American goods, bolstering of the U.S. economy, and better relations and communication between individual states for the good of the Union.

Whether – as Unger posits – he was “America’s Greatest Statesman” or not is the kind of red-meat argument that scholars, historians and debaters could chew on (and have) for a long time. But Unger’s book certainly makes the case for the man who spent a long time restitching the fabric of a young nation that was already fraying – less than a generation after the battle of Yorktown. 
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero