Sunday, May 15, 2011

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

Henry Clay: The Essential American
By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Copyright 2010

Any serious study of the period between the so called Era of Good Feelings and the Civil War must include Henry Clay. As much as the presidents of this era, he helped define the nation’s course through its most tumultuous time. His career in national politics spanned from the era where the new United States established itself as a truly independent nation through the calamitous lead up to disunion and the Civil War.

Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1777 the seventh of nine children his mother would have with his father. (She went on to have another seven with her second husband) His father, a Baptist minister, died when Clay was four. His mother remarried and his family moved to Kentucky, leaving Clay and several of his siblings behind in Virginia to be cared for by friends and relatives. Clay worked in Richmond as a shop assistant and then in a law office. He had little formal education – something that he regretted for his entire life.

When he was in his late teens, he joined his mom and stepfather in Lexington, Kentucky and established what would become a lucrative law practice. He married Lucretia Hart in 1799.

One of his most famous cases was the defense of vice president Aaron Burr when the state of Kentucky brought him up on charges of trying to divide the United States and seize western lands. Clay’s avid defense of Burr earned Burr an acquittal of the charges in Kentucky. Later, history would bear out most of the charges brought against Burr and Clay lived with the embarrassment of having secured the acquittal of a traitor and the man who murdered the country’s favorite Federalist, Alexander Hamilton. Years later, the two would meet and Clay would not even acknowledge his presence.

Clay’s law practice brought him wealth and he and Lucretia purchased 600 acres for a plantation they called Ashland. Clay’s first foray into politics was election to the Kentucky state legislature where he quickly distinguished himself by advocating the movement of Kentucky’s capital to Lexington which he regarded as the center of Kentucky commerce. His fellow legislators thought enough of him to serve as at least a place holder in the U.S. Senate and elected him to that position in 1806 even though he was but 29 years of age and constitutionally unqualified to serve. Although he was there for just a few months, that first taste of Washington politics and its intrigues lit a lifelong fire in Clay that death barely extinguished. He, again would be called upon to serve out the final months of the term of another Kentucky senator who resigned. It would be several years before he would return to the Senate. He had a great deal of work to do in the House first.

Clay was elected to the House of Representatives in 1811 and was promptly elected Speaker – the only freshman ever elected to the position. While in the House, he consolidated and strengthened the position of the War Hawks who supported President James Madison’s call for war against the British in the War of 1812.

He would go on to serve as a member of the U.S. delegation to Ghent to develop and sign a treaty to end the war. It was here that he came to know John Quincy Adams – a man who would be forever tied to Clay’s political fortunes and misfortunes.

The two men did not get along particularly well. Adams, like his father, was puritanical in his conduct and beliefs. Clay was not an immoral man or given to flights of vice. However, he did enjoy drinks with friends and enjoyed gambling. According the Dr. and Dr. Heidler, it was this knack for gambling that helped Clay read the British delegation and determine what their fallback position would be – what poker players call, “the tell.”

Adams and Clay were also in conflict because they came from different regions. The country was essentially united in war, but different territories had different aims in peace. The British opening proposal at Ghent asked for navigation rights on the Mississippi – an anathema to those in the west that would not stand for British ships sailing through its territory. The British also wanted to restrict commercial fishing off of the coast of Nova Scotia which was vital to the economic interests of New England. Adams was willing to give on the Mississippi navigation question. Clay was willing to give up Nova Scotia fishing. The delegation had to do quite a bit of negotiating themselves before they could negotiate with the British. Eventually, America got a peace they could live with and Adams and Clay returned to the United States heroes.

However, weeks after the treaty was signed and hostilities ceased, a new American hero emerged. Colonel Andrew Jackson had won an unlikely and important victory over the British at New Orleans, securing that port city for America. Jackson would bedevil Clay for the rest of his life.

Most of what is generally known about Clay is his work in the Senate, being the Great Compromiser. However, it was he who modernized and refined the post of Speaker of the House and made a center of power – power he wielded as an equal to the president. Through the skillful use of House rules and parliamentary procedure, he used the Speaker’s chair and gavel to shape legislation. He appointed committees – not with regional balance in mind – but rather with a mind’s eye toward achieving legislative goals.

While in the House, Clay developed a plan of internal improvements he called The American System. He envisioned federal investment in internal infrastructure to build roads and bridges to facilitate commerce. Again, the sectional nature of American political culture hampered progress in implementing Clay’s system of federally funded improvements. South Carolina farmers were bound to resent funding the Maysville Pike that ran between Washington, D.C. and the western states and territories just as Ohio farmers were loathe to have their tax dollars supporting improvements at South Carolina ports.

Perhaps Clay’s greatest accomplishment in the House was the Missouri Compromise. It is a popularly held belief that Clay was its author since he receives so much credit for its passage. He was not its author. However, it was he who brokered the deal that separated Maine from Massachusetts and allowed it to become a state along with Missouri. Despite a general prohibition on slavery in Missouri’s constitution that required a second compromise, President Monroe signed both enabling acts, bringing to the union a free state and an at least nominally slave state, maintaining the ever important sectional balance in Congress.

By 1824, Clay was a strong national figure and was a candidate for the presidency. He finished third in the field. However, neither of the top finishers, John Quincy Adams nor Andrew Jackson managed to secure a majority in the Electoral College and the election was sent to the House of Representatives to be settled.

Much research has been conducted and much speculation swirled around the ultimate decision that led to the election of John Quincy Adams as president. Adams and Clay were not friendly with each other. That was well known. Clay had vociferously defended Andrew Jackson’s reprehensible conduct toward British civilians and Seminole Indians in Florida. Yet, when the time came to cast ballots in the House, Clay came down on the side of Adams. Shortly thereafter, Adams named Clay as his secretary of state. In the early 19th century, the position of secretary of state was a pathway to the presidency.

Jackson backers immediately claimed that Clay had sold his vote to Adams in exchange for the plumb position. They offered as evidence a late night meeting the two men had just weeks prior to the House vote. One man stepped forward to say that he had delivered the offer to Clay. No definitive proof exists of the “Corrupt Bargain” as Jackson’s disciples came to call it, but no evidence exists that completely refutes it either. The Heidlers offer no opinion either way. The election of 1824 set off one of the most bitter periods in American political history –perhaps matched only by the Civil War itself in overt political and personal animus.

Clay’s tenure as secretary of state was not as distinguished as that of his predecessors perhaps because few foreign crises hampered the JQA administration. It is known fact that JQA was the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine and was determined to see it enforced. As an extension of that, Clay became an ardent supporter of the recognition of South American country’s rights to self determination and led the effort for the Adams administration to recognize most of the governments of South America.

Clay worked hard to secure the reelection of JQA in 1828, but the Jacksonians were not to be thwarted in their quest for the presidency. With the echoes of the Corrupt Bargain still ringing throughout the country, Andrew Jackson and his Jacksonian Democrats launched into the most vociferous presidential campaigning to date, literally hounding Adams from office. Clay left the State Department, but was promptly returned to the Senate by the Kentucky legislature.

Clay immediately became President Jackson’s chief adversary. From what the Heidler’s write, it was not so much policy differences that separated Jackson and Clay as it was consolidation of power within the chief executive. For the first 50 years, the president and the Congress acted as equals with Congress proposing and the president ratifying or vetoing as he saw fit. Most presidents saw themselves simply as a bulwark against unconstitutional legislation or legislative over reach on the part of Congress. Jackson, however, being a general and used to being obeyed, was a different political animal.

Jackson proposed programs and vetoed items, not because he thought them unconstitutional or congressional over reach. He vetoed them because he did not agree with them. He was not above applying political pressure to gain votes in Congress – an executive practice rarely used in the early days of the Republic. Furthermore, Jackson often acted, not out of principle or belief, but rather personal animosity. It is well known that Jackson was a world class grudge holder and he held few grudges stronger than the one he harbored against Clay for the Corrupt Bargain. Clay was appalled at Jackson's consolidation of power within the executive mansion.

The largest political battle fought during the eight year reign of Jackson was that over the charter of the Second Bank of the United States – or the National Bank. Clay had been against the charter of the First Bank of the United States, but now had come to believe that the nationally charted institution provided economic stability in an era of loose currency printed by unchartered state banks.

Unfortunately, the Heidlers to not cover this epic battle in any great detail. During this time, Andrew Jackson took his sights off Clay briefly and aimed them squarely at the bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle. Clay fought the good fight in leading the charter through the Senate. Jackson ultimately vetoed the charter through the practice of pocket veto – simply not signing the legislation whilst Congress is in recess. This was a huge defeat for Clay and the National Republicans who were beginning to call themselves Whigs. What the Heidlers do not discuss is just how badly Nicholas Biddle, cocky, arrogant, and determined to tweak Jackson’s nose at every opportunity, hurt the efforts of bank proponents. It is true that entire books have been written on this titanic legislative battle, but it deserved more coverage than the Heidlers gave it.

The Nullification Crisis, the contrivance of vice president John C. Calhoun made Clay and Jackson unlikely allies and permanently split the political friendship of Clay and Calhoun. To raise revenue, Jackson secured the passage of a series of tariffs. Tariffs benefited northern industrialists because it protected their industries from foreign competition, but hurt the south that relied on exports of the raw materials they produced. Called the “Tariff of Abominations” by southerners, the act set off a looming constitutional and sectional crisis that was a precursor for sectional tensions to come.

Calhoun postulated that, in a republic, each state had the right to nullify through its state legislature, any act by the federal government they did not feel was in their best interests. Jackson, now firmly entrenched as the chief executive, insisted that federal will always superceded state whim. South Carolina threatened to not enforce the tariff and to perhaps leave the union. Jackson countered that he would send federal troops to enforce the tariff.

While Clay’s principles put him in Jackson’s camp, he revealed his penchant for brokering deals, fostering compromise, and defusing crises in a way that allowed both parties to save face and allowed equilibrium to be maintained. Clay went to work in the Senate and secured passage of legislation that gradually lowered the tariff, allowing the country to meet its need for revenue while slowly relieving the burden on the South.

In their narrative of Clay’s life, the Heidler’s do an excellent job of recreating the chaos and disorganization that was the Jackson cabinet. The hot headed and impetuous Calhoun was ill suited for the vice presidency under the imperialistic Jackson. The silly Eaton affair and Jackson’s over reaction to it led Jackson to demand and receive the resignations of his entire cabinet. The cabinet reorganization led to Secretary of State, Martin Van Buren, being elevated to the vice presidency and it quickly became clear that he was Jackson’s heir apparent.

Clay was the clear choice of the new Whig Party in 1832. However, Jackson remained a folk hero in the hearts and minds of his countrymen and he crushed Clay in an election that was never really a contest.

Of all the presidents under which and with which Clay served, he had his best personal and least politically acrimonious relationship with Martin Van Buren who was elected in 1836 over a number of Whig candidates run by the party with the hopes of fracturing the electorate and causing the election to be sent to the house.

Van Buren is very much like Herbert Hoover in presidential history. The seeds of his destruction were planted in the economy in the prior administration. The decentralization of banking combined with the demands that territorial land purchases be paid in specie caused a run on banks and widespread deflation that developed into a national fiscal crisis that hurt at every level of the socio economic strata.

As usual, the government was deadlocked over what to do. The fracture came along sectional lines rather than party lines. The north wanted higher tariffs for revenue. The south opposed them. The west wanted a relaxation of credit to allow for territorial land purchases to increase the value of the deflated land values. The eastern financial establishment opposed them. Misery and suffering were hallmarks of the Van Buren years.

It would seem that 1840 would finally be Henry Clay’s year. As leader of the Whig Party, he felt certain that he would be the party’s nominee to run against the unpopular Van Buren. But Whigs were reluctant to back a man who had lost in the past. Instead, they looked for a general who might replicate the aura of national hero that Jackson had so aptly cast. They found their man in William Henry Harrison.

Clay did not think highly of Harrison. He did not respect his intellect and thought him lazy. He was probably right on both counts, but history will never know for he died just thirty days into his presidency.

However, between his election in November 1840 and his death in April 1841, it was clear that Harrison had little respect for Clay. As the party’s leader in Congress, Clay figured to have a prominent role in the appointment of the cabinet and dispensing patronage. Harrison ignored his recommendations, much to Clay’s embarrassment. When John Tyler ascended to the presidency, Clay fought a hard political battle to have Tyler – the first vice president to ascend to the presidency through Article 2, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution – to be called “President” rather than “Acting President.” Yet Tyler’s snubs of Clay were more onerous. This would set the stage for four more years of governmental gridlock.

The battle between Clay and Tyler resembles the modern day difficulties experienced between President Jimmy Carter and House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Tyler, like Carter was a proud and arrogant man, determined to chart his own course. Clay, like O’Neill, was a Washington fixture, used to influencing presidential appointments and policy. Like Carter and O’Neill, Tyler and Clay were of the same party. Like the years of Carter and O’Neill, little got done on behalf of the country.

The Tyler years were terribly demoralizing for Clay. Tyler biographer, Norma Lois Peterson lays the blame on Clay, claiming that he tried to co-opt the presidency and make Tyler his puppet. The Heidlers describe Tyler as a vain, imperious man whose goals were moving targets that Clay could never hit, despite his best efforts. Given that Whigs eventually expelled Tyler from their party, history seems to bear out the Heidlers.

Tyler was first against a new Bank of the United States. Then he was for one with limited powers. When presented with legislation that chartered a new national bank with limited powers, he vetoed it. He seemed to be in favor of nothing and against everything that came his way from Congress to deal with the ongoing economic crisis.

With Tyler out of the party if not out of the White House, the Whigs chose his chief adversary, Henry Clay to be their nominee for the presidency in 1844. The Democrats chose former House Speaker James K. Polk of Tennessee.

The election of 1844 shows how difficult it is to run for the presidency after having served as the leader of the Senate (in those days, President Pro Tempore, today Majority Leader). It was hard for Clay to be for or against anything because he had been in the middle of so many compromises. He stated that he abhorred slavery. Yet he owned slaves. He could claim no regional alliance in the north or the south because he came from the west. Polk could lay claim to southern loyalties, but New York, which was the prime mover in northern politics never completely trusted Clay and New York power brokers Thurlow Weed and William Seward were not eager to see Clay become more powerful. Their efforts in surreptitiously backing anti-slavery candidate James Birney cost Clay that important state.

Polk favored that annexation of the Texas territory into the United States. Clay, wary of souring relations with Mexico and upsetting the delicate balance between free and slave states opposed it. Polk balanced the equation by including bringing the Oregon territory into the United States, thereby creating a scenario where the U.S. would be at odds with two foreign powers at one time because the British were disputing claims to part of the Oregon territory. Clay, as was his nature, wanted to be cautious and deliberative. However, cautious and deliberative are seldom recipes for electoral success and Polk’s expansionist views won the day.

Clays fears of war with Mexico were realized when Mexico tried to defend its claim to the Texas territory. Clay vociferously opposed American entry into the Mexican American War. However, expansionist fever ran rampant in the country. Clay would pay with his dearest blood in that fight as his son, Henry, Jr. died at the Battle of Buena Vista.

When the Whigs again looked to a general to be their standard bearer in 1848, Clay was frustrated and tired and resolved to retire from politics. His chief political ally for most of his career, John Crittenden, a fellow Kentuckian, had betrayed him, working to secure the nomination for the hero of the Mexican American War, Zachary Taylor. Clay lost the nomination and retreated to his plantation.

His retirement was short lived, for Kentucky sent him back to the Senate. Just as it had been with Tyler, his entreaties for cabinet and patronage appointments were ignored by the new president, Zachary Taylor. Taylor was a dull man and given to listening to the opinions of those closest to him, right or wrong. John Crittenden, trying to establish himself as a national figure, did not need Clay’s influence peddled in the White House and blocked Clays entreaties.

Although the Texas territory had been secured from Mexico upon the end of the war, internal strife now bedeviled the nation as settlers in the area prepared to go to war with each other over the boundary between Texas and New Mexico. Taylor prepared to send U.S. troops to the area to maintain an uneasy peace. Hoping to spare bloodshed in the region, Clay went to work again to fashion a compromise that would allow Texas, New Mexico, California and Utah to enter the union without bloodshed.

Whilst this wrangling was afoot in Washington and Texans and New Mexicans squared off over territorial boundaries, Zachary Taylor met an unfortunate end with a bout of gastroenteritis. According to Taylor biographer K. Jack Bauer, Taylor was prepared to settle the dispute with an agreement of his own construction. However, new president Millard Fillmore was eager to let Congress decide the issue.

During Taylor’s final days, Clay had led an effort to create an omnibus bill that would allow the states to enter the union and decide the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty. Taylor, a slave holder and southerner, nonetheless did not want to see slavery spread to the pacific. After a great deal of brokering and dealing on Clay’s part, Taylor scuttled the deal. With Taylor out of the way, the door was open to maintaining the precarious peace between slave and free states.

Again, Clay is often given credit in history for being the author of the Compromise of 1850 that preserved the union for ten more years. He was not. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, a Democrat, was its principle author with Clay, now near death, providing oratory and political support. Fillmore, not the strongest of chief executives, grasped at the lifeline offered by Congress and signed the bill that brokered an agreement that allowed Texas to enter the union as a slave state. Texas gave up its claims on New Mexico in exchange for debt relief which it desperately needed. California entered the union as a free state, and New Mexico and Utah remained territories left to determine the issue of slavery by popular sovereignty.

It was Clay’s last and perhaps greatest act in a distinguished career of civil service that few have matched.

The Heidels did an absolutely wonderful job of weaving into their narrative a great deal about Clay’s personal life that makes this book something greater than a history text. Personally, Clay was torn between his love of his wife and family and his love of politics. He would leave home for long periods of time. Lucretia was no fan of the Washington social scene and did not return to the capital after Clay’s term as Secretary of State. The correspondence between them that survives demonstrates a strong, mutual love that endured for 53 years.

Lucretia, however, was not a political wife in the mold of Abigail Adams or Dolley Madison. She had no political views that she ever offered and seemed to offer her husband no advice. Nothing in her surviving writings indicates that she bore any ill will against anyone in politics, friend or foe to her husband.

In terms of children, Henry and Lucretia’s life was tragic. They had six daughters, all of which died before reaching middle age. Several died in early childhood. Henry’s personal favorite was Anne. Anne took ill soon after giving birth to a child. She rallied after her illness and just as she seemed to rally and Henry drew a breath of relief, she died. Clay was on the senate floor when he received the news and had to be carried from the chamber by friends.

Their sons were a mixed blessing. Theodore Clay suffered a head injury as a child and behaved erratically from that point on, suffering from periods of deranged violence that eventually landed him in an asylum where he spent the rest of his unfortunate life. Son Thomas was a restless soul who failed at many endeavors and his misfortunes piled debt on the Clay household. Late in life, he would find his way, much to the relief of Henry and Lucretia. The aforementioned Henry, Jr. met a hero’s death at Buena Vista.

Clay's devotion and dedication to the practice of politics drove him to inexplicably take one final trip to Washington, D.C. even though he had to be certain he was dying of tuberculosis. It would have been easy for him to have spent his final days in the comforting confines of Ashland, surrounded by his family. Instead, he headed for Washington, ostensibly to argue cases before the Supreme Court. Once he got to D.C. however, it was clear he was not long of this earth. He sent for his son, Thomas and urged him to hurry. Meanwhile, he spent what time he had left resolving old differences with old political enemies before meeting his maker. Only John Crittenden, once his closest ally, was not offered forgiveness.

Thomas arrived in time to be at his father’s bedside when he died of tuberculosis. He was feted on the floor of the Senate – the first man to receive such an honor. His funeral would become the model used for that of Abraham Lincoln. His coffin, oddly hued to the shape of a person and provided with a window that allowed viewers to see his face, was borne across the country via train so the nation could pay its respects. No man who did not hold the office of president was ever shown so much affection and adoration in death as was Henry Clay.

This book was selected as the book of the month by my book/scotch/cigar club. The theme was “Kentucky: in honor of the Kentucky derby. However, the subject was much more about the United States in its most trying times than it was about Kentucky or its famous horse race.

Many in our group said the came away from the book not really knowing what Henry Clay was all about politically or personally. He was not a man of letters and not a prodigious keeper of a journal like John Adams and John Quincy Adams. His daughter in law took it upon herself to become custodian of his personal papers before he died, but she was selective in what she kept. While not the enigma that James Monroe – who took great pains to destroy all of his personal papers – much of the man who was Henry Clay is lost to history.

Most historically significant senators are associated with great causes. Therefore, their personalities and political inclinations are evident. Clay had no great causes for which he fought. His cause was to find balance and compromise between competing factions. Even his political party – the Whigs – essentially stood for very little which is why they vanished. To be a Whig was to stand for very little except opposing Jacksonian Democracy.

Yet Henry Clay is feted as a great American as he should be. The Heidler’s title is apt, for Henry Clay, through his legislative prowess and ability to build coalitions, kept the union together just long enough for another essential American to guide us through our darkest hour. One can not study America’s formative years between 1815 and 1860 without studying Henry Clay. More than any chief executive with the possible exception of Andrew Jackson, Clay shaped and molded this country’s government as it evolved from an experiment in a republic divided by sectionalism into a nation forged into one by a bloody civil war.

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