Book Review: Henry Clay: Statesman For The Union

Henry Clay:  Statesman For The Union, by Robert V. Remini

This was is not a book to be read lightly.  Coming in at nearly 800 pages, this book is the first full-length biography of Henry Clay to be written in quite some time, and given the scope of the task and the difficulty of writing fairly about Henry Clay, given his lengthy and complicated career in public service, it is unsurprising that few people would attempt it.  Admittedly, Henry Clay is someone I have read about tangentially before [1], but seldom have I taken his career in full force as was the case with this massive but deeply interesting volume.  Ultimately, Henry Clay was a complex figure whose skill at resolving controversies earned him the name “The Great Pacificator,” one of his many nicknames, but whose character flaws kept him from earning the one prize he wanted above all else, namely the presidency of the United States, as he witnessed a parade of mediocrities elected to that office because they were ‘available’ when he was not considered so.  The book has a deeply tragic sense, as the author finds himself to be simultaneously fond of and exasperated with Henry Clay and his foibles, not least because Henry Clay pushed for an activist government that the author celebrates and that I am at best deeply ambivalent towards.

The massive contents of this book are divided into quite a few chapters, 41 of them to be precise, that cover in great detail the life and career of Henry Clay and are filled with quotations from his writings or what other people said about him.  The first chapter covers the author’s childhood in Virginia and then the second chapter covers his move to Kentucky as a young man seeking to make his fortune.  After that there is a look at the Burr conspiracy (3), his first duel (4), and then his early career in Congress (5-6).  Some time is spent discussing his success as a diplomat in Ghent (7-8) and then his time back in the US before his first retirement from politics (9-12).  His experiences in the election of 1824 and his experience in Adams’ cabinet as Secretary of State then follow (13-19), where he is seen as a visionary leader who definitely struggled with implementing his will in Congress concerning Latin America.  His period of enforced retirement and his problems in the 1832 election then follow (20-23) before he returned to the Senate crowned in glory and an inveterate opponent to Jackson (24-27).  His unsuccessful efforts to become the Whig standard bearer in 1840 are discussed in considerable detail (28-31) along with his problems with Tyler and his dictatorial rule over the Senate (32-34).  His unsuccessful final effort at the presidency in 1844 follows (35-36) along with his gloomy older years filled with the death of family members, his return to the Senate, and his efforts to design and ensure the passage of the Compromise of 1850 before dying two years later of tuberculosis (37-41).

Overall, Henry Clay seems a fascinating person to study, not least because he was deeply intelligent and capable and because he was viewed as being a magnetic person personally but not someone that inspired a great deal of confidence or trust by the ordinary populace, which saw him as an aristocratic sort of character.  Lincoln’s “beau ideal” as a statesman, Clay spent his entire political life engaged in practical politics and diplomacy, crafting compromises that ensured peace during his lifetime within the United States dealing with issues of slavery and tariffs, but he was never able to reach the highest rung of American politics, and time and time again people with less intellectual skill who were at best mediocrities were promoted ahead of him into the presidency.  Some people make their own luck, and Clay was often undone by his own, but this book is a warm and warts and all discussion of the subject, a book that is no hagiography even as it finds much to praise Clay for.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Henry Clay: Statesman For The Union

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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