Review: Henry Clay

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


Often forgotten today, Henry Clay was both widely respected and deplored in his own time. His death at 70 years old, on the heels of crafting a compromise that would keep the United States out of Civil War for two decades. As a gradual emancipationist and president of the American Colonization Society, he stood between the absolute abolitionists and the pro-slavery, taking fire from both sides throughout his career, and holding his own through his ability to turn a quick argument, and to use parliamentary maneuvers to best advantage.

And while slavery was, in our minds, the issue of the day for the entire time between the Constitution and the Civil War, many other issues were fought and decided by the men in between, including the balance of power between the Federal and State governments, the purpose of the Federal Government, the need for a national bank, and the balance of power between the President and Congress. In each of these instances, Clay took a middle line. For instance, he fought for a national bank, while trying to limit its access to the levers of political power through various means. He fought for the power of the President in matters of international policy, while clinging to the power of Congress over financial and internal legal affairs.

In this book, the Heidler’s paint a detailed and compelling vision of Henry Clay, the man, including his private and public lives, his disappointments, and his victories. But they beyond Henry Clay, providing a portrait of the times in which Clay lived, the transition between non-party politics based on principle to the politics of personal destruction, the politics of popularity, that have plagued America since Andrew Jackson. Reading this book provides an inside glimpse as politicians moved from standing on principles and letting the people decide, to standing on personality and popularity.
As such, this is a tale not only of Henry Clay, but also of the dangers of politics founded on the cult of personality; a warning to Americans today that putting winning ahead of principle leads down the road to ruin and war.

Given the length and detail in this book, it’s not surprising that parts of tome read slowly, but it’s well worth the time and investment to read, especially if you’re interested in understanding the roots of modern American politics.

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