Book Review: “Henry Clay: The Essential American” by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

After about three months, I finally finished the next part of my American history lesson: David and Jeanne Heidler’s Henry Clay: The Essential American.  I’ll ask the authors to forgive me if I suggest a few other superlatives to bestow upon Mr. Clay; words like egotist, hypocrite, and power-hungry .

Despite the authors’ transparent attempt to fix a halo and wings on Mr. Clay, the truth is that their research reveals a man who was something of a professional asshole for the greater part of his career.  Allow me to break it down for you in a fraction of the time the Heidlers did…

  • Henry Clay built his law career by taking on only the most sensational cases that Lexington, Kentucky had to offer.  He was a consummate courtroom ringmaster, and his award-worthy performances meant he rarely lost a case–not even the case in which he a defended a woman who shot her sister-in-law point-blank in the face over $5, in the company of multiple witnesses.
  • Being the Johnnie Cochran of Kentucky wasn’t enough to build a reputation, so Henry Clay decided to marry up.  He wooed plain jane Lucretia Hart and married into her well-to-do family.  Yes, they would grow to have a genuine and loving relationship, but life as Mrs. Clay was not easy for Lucretia.  She outlived most of her children, and had little interest in being a society wife.  In the latter half of Henry’s career, Lucretia rarely accompanied him to Washington, busy as she was tending to their extensive property and multiple orphaned grandchildren.

Long-suffering Lucretia
  • Clay was the lawyer who successfully defended Aaron Burr during his first treason trial (yea, remember that?).  When Burr was brought up on such charges a second time, Clay was already ascendant in Kentucky politics, and decided to take a pass.
  • Clay’s first job in Washington, as one of the youngest senators in history, came not on the heels of some sweeping electoral victory, but as an assignment as a seat filler.  Yeah.  John Breckinridge resigned to become the Attorney General, and the Kentucky legislature sent young Henry to D.C. to complete his term.  To his devious credit, Clay made the most of his first year in the capital.
  • The position of Speaker of the House would not be what it is today had it not been for Henry Clay.  This may be his most important legacy.  Prior to Clay’s tenure, the Speaker was nothing more than a debate moderator.  When Henry returned to Washington under his own steam in 1811, he was nearly unanimously elected to the post, and quickly set about using his gavel as a bludgeon.  He bent or abused the rules of procedure to stifle congressional opposition, and he wasn’t shy about taking the fight to the White House, either.
  • Clay’s contentious relationships with the men who resided on Pennsylvania Avenue is a truly astonishing trend.  He pressured Madison into declaring the War of 1812.  When Monroe passed him over for Secretary of State, Clay held the grudge until the next president was elected.  Clay’s relationship with Monroe’s successor, John Quincy Adams, warrants its own bullet point, as does his personal and professional vendetta against Andrew Jackson.  He couldn’t stomach Van Buren either, due to his complacency with Jackson’s administration.  William Henry Harrison beat Clay out for the Whig Party’s presidential nomination at the eleventh hour , only to drop dead a month into his term.  Insult was added to injury when Clay quickly learned that Vice President Tyler did not actually believe in any component of the party’s platform, leading to months of knock-down, drag-out legislative battles.  He would be bested in general and primary elections by Polk and Taylor, respectively, and never let his wounded pride heal.  In fact, the only president he got along with was Millard Fillmore; but by that time, Clay was too old and weak to put up his trademark fights.

John Quincy Adams. He's so judging you right now.
  • Clay and John Quincy Adams were like The Odd Couple.  Clay was a jocular, grinning, and plainspoken advocate of the American everyman.  Adams was a dour, anti-social, elitist who looked down his nose at anyone who couldn’t speak Latin (granted, he did take himself entirely too seriously).  The two men were charged with negotiating the Treaty of Ghent at the close of the War of 1812, and their clashing, outsize personalities almost threatened to subvert the peace.  The only thing they had in common was their selfishness.  They would call a truce long enough to engage in a scandal known forever after as the Corrupt Bargain, in which the indecisive presidential election of 1824 would be tipped in Adams’ favor by Speaker Clay, in exchange for the latter’s installation as Secretary of State.  Once Adams left the White House, though, they went back to having very little use for each other.  (P.S: Here’s an outrageously entertaining song that encapsulates that affair)
  • Clay got along no better with his peers in the House or Senate.  As Speaker, he took particular joy in tormenting John Randolph (an acknowledged nuisance).  John Calhoun was a favored comrade in their early days, but Clay broke off professional and personal contact with the gentleman from South Carolina over their opposing viewpoints on nullification and emancipation.  Daniel Webster could have been a true ally, had his ambitions not been as craven as Clay’s.  When the Whig cabinet resigned in protest over President Tyler’s stonewalling regarding the national bank charter, Secretary of State Webster was the only one who did not quit his post, and was thus immediately positioned as the front-runner in the next election.  Clay never forgave him, nor did he forgive his friend and assumed protegé John Crittenden, when the junior senator from Kentucky dared to wonder if perhaps the third time would not be the charm for presidential candidate Clay.
  • Henry Clay is memorialized with the title of The Great Compromiser.  The Great Procrastinator would be a more appropriate one.  The legendary agreements he brokered in Congress, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, were merely stop-gap measures that only delayed the inevitable discussion of the national abolition of slavery.  Clay prided himself on having saved the union not once but twice with his parliamentary prowess, but the fact of the matter is that he was only reinforcing a shoddy dam against the rising tide of civil war.
  • Maybe the reason Clay couldn’t take a bolder stand in those instances was because of his own deeply contradictory views on slavery.  All his life, Clay owned slaves.  Yet he publicly denounced the practice, and was the president of the American Colonization Society, a charity that sought to provide freedmen with the means to return to Africa.  However, he thought abolitionists were just reckless anarchists looking to stir the pot.  He defended slavery in the South by claiming it was an economic necessity.  He pressured the North to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act, which said all white Americans were legally bound to report runaway slaves who fled from the South.  Clay’s efforts with the aforementioned Compromises were not disingenuous, but the Heidlers acknowledge that even Clay could read the writing on the wall.  But as long as he remained a kind master to his own slaves, Henry Clay wasn’t about to upset the apple cart over slavery–particularly if it endangered his chances at the presidency.
The Western Star, in his fading days

Perhaps you think I’m being to hard on Harry of the West.  There were times I sympathized with him.  The numerous tragedies that afflicted his children could not have been easy to bear.  No easier for a man of such legendary mental faculties could have been the growing doubt about the condition of his mind in his later life, and the eventual abandonment by those who looked at him as an invalid relic.  Regardless of these personal traumas, the only time that I thought the Heidlers were actually justified in portraying Clay as the noble hero came when Andrew Jackson arrived on the scene at the close of the War of 1812.

Hair and wardrobe by the Evil League of Evil

I would guess that the only thing most people know about Andrew Jackson is that his pursed lips and Doc Brown hairstyle grace our $20 bills.  But holy flying fuckballs, you guys–Andrew Jackson was a goddamn psychopath.  And I’m not just talking about the forcible Native American relocation policies that went into effect once he sat in the Oval Office.  No, this guy was long gone long before he came to Washington.  His victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans actually happened after Clay and Adams had finished their work at Ghent.  He then marched his troops to Georgia on a victory tour and decided on his own accord to invade parts of Spanish Florida.  For good measure, he slaughtered scores of Seminoles and also executed two British merchants, for no better reason than that they just happened to be in the area and he was having a really shitty day.  Jackson routinely settled disagreements with fists and knives, and held complete and utter disdain for politics.  He only went along with the plans to make him a presidential candidate because he was an unwavering control freak and he enjoyed watching people bend all the way over to kiss his ass.  I can almost forgive Clay’s blatant federal electoral fraud in light of the Jacksonians’ policies and practices.  Suffice to say, when Jackson finally won the presidency in 1828, he and Clay spent Jackson’s entire tenure at each other’s throats.

There was a lot to learn in Henry Clay: The Essential American, but it was not density alone that stretched my reading time.  The book is not very well written.  I meant that in terms beyond its rose-colored view of Clay’s life and career.  There are structural faults here.  For one thing, Clay dies on page 491 and the book ends of 492.  There is virtually no summation of his life and contributions, no estimation of the impact of his legacy, and no details regarding the immediate effects of his passing.  Yes, the Heidlers pause after major events in their chronology to explain their significance, but the ending is nevertheless distractingly abrupt.  Their prose is also entirely too flowery for non-fiction.  Their efforts to ramp up the drama with foreboding, single sentence conclusions to chapters is the stuff of James Patterson and Dan Brown.  The Heidlers should have taken a tip from Catherine Allgor and let the drama inherent in their subject speak for itself.

~ T


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