The Western Star
By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
Random House, 2010
By Robert V. Remini
Basic Books, 2010
During the nearly fifty years he spent in Washington D.C., always with at least one hand on the levers of influence, Henry Clay amassed many nicknames: Prince Hal, Harry of the West, The Great Pacificator, The Old Coon … but for capturing the essence of this young man of modest means from rural Virginia, his meteoric rise to national leadership, his transformation to elder statesman of Kentucky and guiding constellation of the Union, none works quite so well as The Western Star. Yet for all Clay’s accomplishments in both houses of Congress, as a diplomat and a Secretary of State he is largely remembered, if at all, for unsubstantiated charges of the so-called “Corrupt Bargain” – or as the foil for Andrew Jackson. A very pleasant surprise, then, that at roughly the same time two new books should take up the task of reintroducing Henry Clay to the American public and rehabilitating his legacy.
In Henry Clay: the Essential American, David and Jeanne Heidler flesh out the man and his character in a full-dress biography, the first such effort since the early 1990’s. At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union, is the latest offering from Robert V. Remini who was appointed Historian of the House of Representatives in 2005 and has written over a dozen books on the Age of Jackson, including the aforementioned 1991 biography of Clay.
Henry Clay came from comfortable if not ostentatious roots. His father died when he was four, but the family was saved from poverty by his mother’s fast and fortuitous remarriage to Henry Watkins, who was observant (or perhaps just caring) enough to recognize the promise in his stepson. He used his connections to secure a clerkship for the teenage Henry in Virginia’s High Court of Chancery in Richmond just when the rest of the family was preparing to move to Kentucky. After a year as a clerk, in an odd happenstance that the Heidlers appropriately call Dickensian, Clay’s penmanship, of all things, caught the eye of the High Judge of the Chancery, George Wythe – one of Virginia’s greatest legal minds, signer of the Declaration of Independence and sufferer of gout in his right hand. Clay’s real career began as the amanuensis for a great man.
A real affection grew between the two that transcended the workaday relationship, and the old man saw fit to polish this diamond in the rough he’d found:
Wythe opened his library to Clay and encouraged free-ranging discussions that included everything from religion to politics…after four years with Wythe, Clay’s deficiencies in formal schooling as well as in his manners were almost eliminated. When he left Wythe, Clay knew how to converse in intellectual company and how to act in the best circles of society.
In 1796 Wythe saw an opening to promote his protégé and set Clay up with an apprenticeship to Robert Brooke, former governor and current attorney general of Virginia. Brooke was a man with an impressive résumé, and in a country that lacked an institutionalized system of legal training, reading law under such a figure lent prestige to those who did it. After only a year of training (Brooke spotted the potential even faster than Whythe had), at age 20, Clay stood for his examination and was admitted to the bar. Finding Richmond a bit full up with lawyers, Clay’s next move must have seemed obvious: he headed west to join his family in the blank slate of Kentucky, where his mother and stepfather owned a successful tavern and his brother was a prosperous merchant.
In Lexington, as the Heidlers tell it, he found making a living was rather easy:
… [There were] plenty of cases to go around… for circumstances made Kentuckians a litigious lot. Conflicting land claims sprouted like weeds because Virginia [the original claimant of much of Kentucky] had never bothered to have its western expanse properly surveyed before selling portions of it. Overlapping claims abounded and usually wound up in court… Creditors and debtors were another abundant source of legal work, and out-of-state creditors were unusually good clients. Kentucky was a remote and difficult destination for such lenders, and they hired local attorneys to collect debts on commission – 5 percent of the recovery was the standard fee.
Only one more thing was needed for an ambitious young man: a socially successful marriage. Lucretia Hart became the object of Clay’s fixation, and the Heidlers put it as gently as possible:
[Lucretia’s] own father described her as “a fine sprightly, active girl… well accomplished in her education.” The less artful formulation is that a girl has a good personality, shorthand understood by boys everywhere, and at any time, to mean homely.
In cold point of fact, Henry Clay probably would not have wooed this slight, quiet girl had she not lived in a lavish house or hailed from a wealthy family. Clay’s rising star in Lexington was not an accident, and all his actions…indicate a young man scaling a ladder one social, economic, and political rung at a time.
The two were married in 1799. (To be fair, contemporary reports and a lifetime of portraits demonstrate that Clay was no Adonis).
Clay was first elected to the Kentucky House in 1803. The Heidlers tell us this sharp and amiable man “demonstrated an ability to bring together seemingly irreconcilable factions through compromise and he became wedded to the idea that the key to political success was to promote the possible and avoid the unattainable ideal.” It’s a testament to this fact that in 1806 the Kentucky Legislature sent him to Washington to finish the remainder of the term for a vacated Senate seat – despite the fact that at 29 he was still three months shy of the minimum age to join that body. Apparently nobody in Washington particularly cared either, for he was indeed seated. At this first dip into the waters of national politics, the new member didn’t much like the Senate, a rich irony considering the depth of the mark he’d eventually leave on that institution.
In 1810 Clay came to Washington in his own right after winning a seat in the House of the Twelfth Congress. This congress was unique for its high percentage of incoming freshman. According to the Heidlers, about half of the incumbents had not been returned (angry constituents), and many of the members were under 40 or even, like Clay, under 35. These young representatives had much in common; new families, enthusiasm at being part of a perceived insurgency, and ambitions for the future, all of which helped cement bonds of camaraderie:
Clay lodged at a boarding house with congressmen who all held similar view, especially the prickly one that Britain had insulted American honor long enough. They were a fire-breathing lot, soon known as the War Mess, an extraordinary group of young men who lived, ate, and worked together in such compatibility that they could finish each other’s sentences… Clay immediately became the leader of the group that included… John C. Calhoun…
In a sort of blitzkrieg, this group quickly mobilized to elect Clay, at age 34, the youngest Speaker of the House in U.S. up to that point. Clay possessed a keen sense of political triangulation, an instinctual ability to wield power either by forging majorities or by thinking unconventionally and using parliamentary feats of derring-do in order to thwart opposition. “No Speaker before the Civil War,” in the Heidlers’ estimation, “would use as effectively the precedents set by Clay to manage the House of Representatives or to wield his level of influence over legislation and policy.” Everywhere our authors do an excellent job expounding on underappreciated aspects of Clay’s career, facts that sometimes need highlighting for the casual reader:
Clay’s hand in shaping…committees was not exceptional in itself, but the level of control he exerted was remarkable and innovative. Before Clay, Speakers were primarily parliamentarians issuing ruling on points of order and determining who held the floor during debates. They did not vote except to break ties and did not engage in debate. As for the latter custom, Clay resolved to depart from it early and often as the House confronted crucial foreign and domestic policy issues, a practice he had resorted to as the as the Kentucky Speaker of the House. When necessary, Clay temporarily left the Speaker’s chair and the House became the “Committee of the Whole” while he participated in debate. His most significant innovation, though, rested in changes to House procedures that allowed him to control operations through the deft use of his appointive power. As a result, committees conducted congressional business based on his priorities. He reshaped House routines by establishing new standing committees in addition to select committees and increasingly referred questions to both. The practice increased efficiency while enhancing his control over the legislative agenda.
Clay’s impetus for doing this was his particular brand of political philosophy. His belief in legislative supremacy might seem ironic coming from a man who spent a great deal of his life chasing the presidency, but that recurrent ambition didn’t make those beliefs any less sincere. Not only did Clay believe that in the American government it was Congress that had the power, but he believed that Congress had the power to do big things. His ideas for developing the United States were broad-canvas and visionary. They would come to be called the American System, the pillars of which were protective tariffs, domestic manufacturing, a national bank, and internal improvements. None of these elements could stand alone; in Clay’s estimation. Protective tariffs were necessary to provide space for domestic manufacturing, quality roads were necessary to transport goods to other sections of a growing nation, and a national bank guaranteed a stable currency. The dream was that this scheme would result not just in greater general prosperity but in greater regional, sectional interdependence, and a tighter-knit Union. Clay managed to pass many pieces of his plan over the years, but the whole of it would be frustrated: the country traveled a different path.
Henry Clay’s magnetic personality, quick wit and easy charm made him the perfect fit for 19th-century Washington, a sociable place where those traits could be put to effective use. The Heidlers describe the scene:
Many things in Washington were done then as they are done now, but the town was more intimate and relationships could be quite informal, especially because the population was small, even when Congress was in session. People greeted each other on the street by name, visited in homes or rooming houses, attended the theater together, and did much of their politicking at social events. An urgent matter could merit an unannounced call at a cabinet member’s home where a cool drink on a porch in the day or cigars and brandy in the evening helped to hash things out. Clay became a master at this friendly type of negotiation in both private and social settings, and the elegant levees and dinners hosted by the Madisons presented the perfect opportunity to persuade the reluctant and reassure the faithful.
As storm clouds gathered in 1820, Clay needed every bit of his talent for the first of his great battles with the forces of disunion. This was the year that boundless national progress seemed to hit a stumbling block. The Union sought to incorporate new states, and loaded phrases like ‘sectional balance’ began to crop up in congressional dialogues. At the heart of the matter was the balance of Free states verses Slave states and who would control national policy. When the Missouri territory adopted a pro-slavery constitution, Clay suggested linking the Missouri question with the admission of Maine as a state in the last days of 1819, a suggestion that guided the ensuing debate. Eventually a bill emerged that did just as Clay suggested: admitting Maine as a state and enabling Missouri to create a constitution for statehood. Additionally, without Clay’s prompting, an additional amendment was attached, excluding slavery from all future states north of the parallel 36°30′. The language was significant: it was first explicit recognition that Congress had the power to control slavery in any way.
Clay’s leadership in the Missouri crisis is typical for him. As a national leader, he never purported to have all the answers. His indispensability came from a willingness to keep the channels of communication open, pitching an idea that others could run with or lashing together others’ ideas into a workable arrangement. His handling of the South Carolina Nullification Crisis in the 1830’s was marked by the same qualities: while Daniel Webster delivered high oratory and Andrew Jackson rattled the saber, Clay drew up proposals for tariff reductions, tweaked them where necessary to satisfy the Unionist or the States’ Rights faction, or the Administration, and reached across the political spectrum until:
In the end, he [Jackson] realized that Clay had lured all opponents, including him, into a game of brag in resolving the dispute. The apparent alliance between Clay and [deep South slavery proponent John C.] Calhoun, however fragile and opportunistic, also worried him. The most he could wring as a concession from Congress was the Force Bill, which Jackson insisted upon as the quid pro quo for Clay’s tariff. Clay shrank from placing that power in the president’s hands but… Removing the tariff as a source of friction with South Carolina would eliminate the need for coercion, making the Force Bill wholly symbolic… Clay thus emerged from the crisis as a friend to the South by reducing the tariff and not voting for the Force Bill… Clay’s overall triumph was spectacular. Only four months earlier, he had lost the presidency in a humiliating landslide. Now he was being hailed as the nation’s savior.
This is a good example of what the Heidlers do so well in Henry Clay: while they present fine scholarship throughout the work, they shine is in getting irrepressible characters to leap off the page. From them we can feel the warmth of Clay’s famous smile and plumb the depth of his caring and compassion for those around him. But it is to their greater credit that they do not just show the sunny side, but also the pained, edgy father – who suffered the loss of 7 of his 11 children, including all 6 of his daughters. But the crucial question of this or any other biography is whether or not it can speak plainly when its subject is hypocritical – or outright fails. When dealing with Henry Clay, the hurdle is slavery.
As a young man Clay inherited slaves. In his youth he also tried to prevent the rooted establishment of slavery in Kentucky. Clay was always a proponent of plans of gradual emancipation and repatriation to Africa, a plan that critics may rightly deride, for it compensated slave owners (which he was), solved the problem of potential racial tension by simply kicking free blacks out of the country, and always put the question off to another day. And while he lamented slavery as a moral abomination and his sympathies may have lain with the abolitionists, he generally disliked them as agitators. The Heidlers explicate Henry Clay and slavery this way:
Slavery continued at Ashland [Clay’s estate]. He was a benevolent master – too kind and lax, according to slave-owning neighbors – who by all objective accounts fed and clothed and lodged his slaves well. His slaves were allowed remarkable levels of liberty, allowed to come and go from Ashland as they wished to visit family on other plantations or in Lexington, often to stay overnight. Yet the fact remained that no matter how healthy and autonomous they were, they were still slaves, the property of Henry Clay. They had to eat and wear what was given them, had to live where they were told to, always had to return to Ashland sooner rather than later from visits elsewhere.
At Ashland, Clay told his critics, one would find slaves in comfort from cradle to grave, which was as physically true as he could manage, and the paternalism soothed a kindhearted man who could boast that his elderly and infirm slaves were cosseted in the last years, not cast off to fend for themselves as were the “wage slaves” of the North. Yet such paternalism was part of the problem of slavery. The underlying consequences of paternalism were not as appalling or as emotionally evocative as the stories of brutal beatings and fractured families and violated women clutching mulatto children. Rather, the consequences of benevolent paternalism were insidious precisely because of their banality.
… The system allowed it [brutality] to happen no matter what Henry Clay said or did, and that reality emphasized the immorality of slavery more than scandalous fabrications that played upon melodrama for sensational effect. That Henry Clay continued to own slaves while condemning slavery was nothing short of tragic, a fundamental flaw in an otherwise good and decent man.
Henry Clay will perhaps forever best be remembered for his clashes with Andrew Jackson and ironically, he’ll probably always be defined as the villain in these clashes, even though his opponent, the subject of a seemingly endless stream of adulatory and bestselling biographies, was one of the greatest scoundrels ever to occupy the White House. Jackson is one of those types who become the darling of the American people through the characterization of being a “common man.” Like George W. Bush, Jackson prioritized swagger over substance, and like Sarah Palin, he stressed folksy attitude over capability. From his victory in New Orleans to his conquest of Florida, average people who came from hardscrabble starts (as Jackson had), who fought bloody brawls in the streets (which Jackson did), and had a puffed up sense of self righteousness (which Jackson had in spades) could feel his successes were their own.
The United States had become fertile ground for just such a demagogue. The Heidlers highlight this in the story of a visit Clay paid to Jefferson on the eve of the consequential election of 1824 (and they get in a bit of Jefferson-needling while they’re at it):
Jefferson must have wondered what was happening to his country, sentiments that he likely left unspoken. He had been wrong about some things: wrong about using commercial restriction as a cudgel against Britain, wrong about conquering Canada by merely showing up, wrong even about his ideal republic, the one filled with educated yeomen who would come in from their plowing to read Homer at their hearths in the original Greek. Those farmers never had existed as Jefferson had pictured them, but they were spreading across the western landscape in another form, another kind of creature altogether, soon to be called Jacksonians.
As the election results came in a few things were evident: no candidate had the necessary majority of electoral votes, Jackson was the most popular candidate and constitutionally barred from the runoff with his fourth place showing, and Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, would virtually get to pick who the next president would be.
When Jackson was gallivanting around Florida, performing illegal and worrisome quasi-military acts, Clay delivered a scathing rebuke of the man on the floor of the House. Though he had no love for Jackson’s rival candidate John Quincy Adams, Clay respected him from their work together on the Treaty of Ghent which concluded the War of 1812. But he flatly disliked Jackson, both as a competitor for the title of favorite son of the West and as a military chieftain and would-be tyrant. There is no reason to suspect that given the choice between the two candidates he would ever have supported Jackson. Yet Clay’s name is now forever connected to the Jacksonian accusation of a “corrupt bargain,” in which the Speaker threw his support to Adams in exchange for the top job in the State Department. There has never been a credible shred of evidence to support this claim of quid pro quo – the forgers and liars put forward by the Jacksonians always later recanted. And given the natural alliance suggested by Clay’s and Adams’s shared realpolitik, the probability of villainy is extremely small. But the damage was done to Clay’s reputation, and a rather circumstantial charge still hangs on him today. In an adroit observation. The Heidlers help us see how:
This theme of Clay’s ego and ambition… persisted beyond his… time, in part because of the Jacksonian lesson that persuasion was nine-tenths relentless repetition, in part because Clay’s enemies were numerous and tireless. Rather than the often repeated adage that the victors write the history of an event, the story of anything is actually determined by the unswerving adoption of one version of it, and the telling of that version by a determined cadre of writers. In time, the version with the most persistent adherents becomes the “truth.” Thus propaganda becomes history.
But the damage goes beyond that: the Heidlers reminded me of a fact I’d forgotten to take into account in assessing why Clay failed ever to capture the presidency: in the eyes of the country, he was ethically suspect. I’d always gone with the usual reasons: the Whigs (bastion party for all those opposed to Jackson, lead by Clay) didn’t run Clay in 1840 or 1848 when a well-groomed lamppost could have bested the Democratic nominees, and the more disciplined party machinery of the Jacksonians combined with a more pronounced tendency for electoral chicanery – or perhaps I thought Clay failed because at his core, he was a genuine early-Republic style campaigner and felt somewhat dirty begging for votes. But it was more than all that:
The country, after all, was in the midst of the Second Great Awakening, a fundamentalist Christian revival of far-reaching political as well as social implications. Clay had earned repute as an effective political broker, but that made it easy to paint him as a backroom dealer. Clay made no secret that he drank spirits, but that made it easy to whisper that he was a drunkard. He was famous for gambling, and that made it easy to depict him as reckless… taken in sum, these opinions about Clay’s character mad him damaged goods. Typical was the assessment that Clay had served the country well but his bad habits made him unqualified for the highest office in the land.
Nationally unelectable, Clay, at the height of his mental and oratorical powers, had to make do with another decade of service in the Senate, where he would establish himself as a titan and clash frequently with Jackson and his creatures. After a hiatus, Clay returned there in the last two years of his life. In his first Senate stint, beginning in 1831, he distinguished himself through work, often doing more than younger, senators by participating in and sometimes chairing the majority of standing committees. The Heidlers provide the reader with many vivid displays of Clay’s personality, few better than this wonderful taste of Clay the debater:
Unlike the professorial Calhoun, Clay was agile in debate, dexterous in controversy, and extremely quick in impromptu exchanges… It is not enough to repeat the old saw that when Clay spoke, people listened, for Clay rising from his desk in the Senate was comparable to the curtain going up in a first-rate theater. He used props for stage business, such as the little silver snuffbox that he absentmindedly rolled from one hand to the other, creating a nearly hypnotic spell while he spoke. He pulled his snow-white handkerchief from his coat with a flourish and polished his spectacles as though lost in thought, the pause lengthening and listeners’ expectations swelling until he again broke the silence with “his unequalled voice, which was equally distinct and clear, whether at its highest key or lowest whisper – rich, musical, captivating.” Like any accomplished trial lawyer, Clay commanded attention with tricks to distract the audience when other were speaking. He looked bored and stared at the distance while “eating sticks of striped peppermint candy.” Foes and friends reacted accordingly. Clay was “very imperious” and showed “bad temper in debate,” or he displayed “a most courteous and conciliatory deportment to all his great political opponents.
It is upon Clay’s return to the Senate after a seven year absence that Robert Remini begins his book At the Edge of the Precipice. 70 years old and fully tuberculoid, Clay, as sick as his beloved Union returned in 1849 to try to preserve the nation he’d served for nearly five decades. At 89, Remini undoubtedly feels he’s gained some perspective on how the past can inform the present, and with that quirky hope that he and I seem to share – that mankind can learn from its mistakes – he brings a lifetime of scholarship to his effort:
In this book I seek to explain the extent of the crisis [of1850], its long history, why it was so catastrophic, its importance for the nation, and its results. I also seek to show the importance of compromise in resolving problems of great magnitude in the history of the country. It has proven time and time again that little of lasting importance can be accomplished without willingness on the part of all involved to seek to accommodate one another’s needs and demands. This point is especially important today when the nation faces myriad problems, both foreign and domestic, that defy easy solution, and that will, in all likelihood, require both major political parties to agree to compromise their differences. With severe economic problems that threaten to pitch the nation into a deep recession; with other domestic issues, such as health care, energy, immigration, and social concerns such as abortion and gay marriage; with wars in the Middle East that verge on escalation throughout the region; and with terrorism rampant around the globe, compromise on the part of this nation’s political leaders, and the leaders of other countries, becomes all the more necessary.
So while this slim, precisely-targeted account of the Compromise of 1850 has one foot firmly planted on historical bedrock, the other foot clearly intends to wander toward social commentary. Though Remini makes no mention of anything not directly related to his subject matter, the work is a transparent appeal to moderation. In At the Edge he seeks to demonstrate the fundamental importance of compromise to a modern United States which tends to see it as a disease – where pragmatism is considered moral corruption – where the major parties seek to purge themselves bi-annually of thoughtful, respectable people and replace them with contemptible rubes, doctrinaires and absolutists. For Democrats this takes the form of servitude to the party’s vast coalition of special interests; for Republicans it’s a race to the bottom of a pit of ignorance, where a belief that the world is less than 10,000 years old and a literal interpretation of the Christian creation myth are the ultimate qualifications for holding office and are worn as badges of honor.
The tension was just as rampant in 1850 as it is today. When Clay returned to the Senate the situation was dire and more complex than in 1820 or 1832 – but at its core still lay the question of slavery. In earlier American history Northerners were largely indifferent to slavery or at most found it morally repugnant. Generally Southerners, the majority of whom never owned slaves, tolerated the institution but more perceptive Southerners recognized its incongruity with a nation founded in liberty. But by 1850 the clamor of abolitionists was growing louder in the North and slavery was becoming a more deeply entrenched cultural “right” in the South. The forces in play had already begun to rip apart national party unities, which were beginning to deform into strictly sectional entities. The Democrats shifted farther southward, while the Whigs disintegrated and reformed within a decade to dominate the North as Republicans.
Remini tells us Clay was one of the few men who recognized the need to comprehensively address the seemingly disparate issues that were crippling the capitol. At the end of January 1850 Clay proposed a series of eight resolutions that, Remini writes, “taken together, in combination they propose an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery.” These resolutions proposed the admission of California, leaving the question of slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty and not Congress, a principle to extend to the conquered territories formerly part of Mexico (slavery was already outlawed in the New Mexico territory and had been banned by Mexican law), the assumption of Texas’ pre-annexation debt for scaling back its territorial claims against New Mexico, allowing slavery in Washington D.C. but barring the slave trade, a more effective fugitive slave law, and a declaration that Congress should have no power to prohibit the trade in slaves between slave-holding states.
In typical Clay fashion, many of these proposals had come from others in Congress, but Remini argues his major contribution was to artfully arrange them in a manner where concessions and gains were mutual. In Clay’s plan,
The North would have a free California and New Mexico and an end to the slave trade in the District of Columbia. But they would have to accept a tougher fugitive slave law. The South would obtain a better fugitive slave law, the continuation of slavery in the District, and no mention of the Wilmot Proviso. But it would have to give up California and New Mexico and the possibility of extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean.
The stage in 1850 would not be Clay’s alone. This was the twilight of the Giants. The other two members of the “Great Triumvirate” would be heard in this debate for the last time. First there was John C. Calhoun who had entered the House with Clay so many years before. Calhoun, near death, was now so weak another senator had to deliver his remarks. His speech demanded amendments to the Constitution, including a dual executive, so the South (in Calhoun’s view a victim) could have some security. Remini is dismissive of Calhoun’s final effort: “his idea was so vague it hardly constituted a specific plan or proposal. All he could do was revile the North for having more people emigrate to its area and consequently acquiring more voting strength in Congress to make up a majority.”
Three days later, Daniel Webster, the last of the Triumvirate and still in very good voice, rose to deliver an address to the Senate that began with the words “I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, not as a northern man, but as an American, and a member of the Senate of the United States… I speak today for the preservation of the Union. Hear me for my cause.” His meaning was unmistakable: as sectionally reflexive as Calhoun had been, Webster was for the Union. Remini’s summation:
[it was] an impassioned plea of a man who desperately loved his country and wanted it to remain whole, it was an unforgettable and deeply moving appeal to reason and patriotic fervor. He made it clear that both the North and the South were responsible for the crisis, and both were responsible for doing what was necessary to save it from dissolution… Although Webster did not discuss Clay’s resolutions – barely mentioned them – he gave the impression that he supported their adoption. Nor did he refer to the president’s [Taylor‘s rather anemic] plan… what he was trying to do was appeal to both the Clay and the Taylor factions in the hope of bringing them together to work out a solution.
Credit where it is due: At the Edge of the Precipice brims with similarly Websterian vigor, and its author takes the reader for a walk along the razor’s edge, to witness a moment in American history when everything was on the line. It is no small feat to be able to relate with energy and excitement so much simple legislative maneuvering, but Remini does just that with the practiced hand of an old master.
As for winning passage of his compromise, Clay, with the momentum swinging to his side, was confronted with a choice: should he bundle all the resolutions together in a single omnibus bill or seek the passage through a series of individual bills as he’d done with the Missouri Compromise? He chose the omnibus method (a method which began here and remains remains a popular option for Congress) but Remini argues that the choice should have been easy for Clay and that he should have known better than to gamble all on one vote. He is not unsympathetic to Clay’s position:
He worried that the southern members would oppose a series of separate measures. He worried over the desire of many to detach California from the other issues and admit it to the Union as a separate, disconnected bill. And, most important, he worried over whether a single bill stood a better chance of preventing a presidential veto that a series of bills in which Taylor could pick and choose which ones he wanted to approve, thus destroying the whole idea of a balance between North and South in terms of what each obtained as a result of the compromise… against his better judgment, but probably on the advice of friends from both parties, Clay chose [to] go for an omnibus bill.
All the pieces seemed to be falling into place for Clay, who seemed poised to work his old magic and save the Republic once more. Then the unthinkable happened. A compromise supporter, Senator James Pearce, stood and demanded the removal of a trifling detail of the omnibus involving the New Mexico – Texas boundary. Clay pleaded with him to withdraw the motion, but it passed. With that vote, Remini says, “the linkage between the various components of the compromise was now gone. And with that disaster, the rest of the omnibus soon collapsed.” In a frenzy of motions and amendments, the hard-fought and carefully planned compromise was shattered. While men still shouted at one another, Clay left the chamber, the last great effort of his long life now a pile of smoldering ruins.
But all was not lost, and as the rising sun will always follow the setting one: Senator Stephen Douglas assumed the leading role in the salvage operations. He had shrewdly noted that “By combining the measures into one Bill [Clay’s] Committee united the opponents of each measure instead of securing the friends of each.” And according to Remini, he would not make the same mistake:
In just a few weeks Douglas had resurrected all the essential parts of the omnibus and obtained Senate approval for their enactment. It was quite an achievement – and the credit all belonged to Douglas. He assembled winning combinations of Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers – northerners and southerners.
Yet Remini goes on to insist, as Douglas did, that Clay not be stripped of credit for the Compromise:
Despite his many failings, Henry Clay deserves enormous credit for putting together a package that sufficiently satisfied both sides in the controversy. He not only linked them together, but led the debate that explained the linkage and the necessity of keeping them together; he set the agenda; and he organized and conducted the meetings of supporters to generate popular approval. He tried and succeeded in exploring every conceivable avenue that could lead to success.
The settlement reached in 1850 is significant for reasons agreed upon by both the Heidlers and Remini. It bought the forces of Union time: time for the North to grow in size and industrial capacity and to lay more track for the the trans-continental railroad. Most importantly it gave the United States time to find a leader, Abraham Lincoln, of sufficient eloquence, thoughtfulness and determination to see the the country through the Civil War, something Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan would not have been able to do.
Clay’s legacy was the proposition that when crises arise, compromises should be found under the law, rather than in abandoning the law. It was a lifelong advocacy of the middle road, but it must never be mistaken for mediocrity: those who witnessed Clay in action knew they were seeing something special. As the Heidlers put it, “Whether he was mesmerizing his colleagues and the gallery from the floor, or producing improbable majorities through casual conversations at parties and careful negotiations in committees, Clay walked the capital as a giant.”
When his death finally came in 1852 it shook the nation to its core. For a brief moment, the sectional bile polluting the nation stopped; in their mourning, all sides realized what they had lost. Church bells rang out, shops were closed, Congress adjourned, cannons were fired, and the capitol shrouded itself in black. Reading about his death, I was transported to the summer of 2009 and the loss of Senator Edward Kennedy – how in the end, however briefly, all his colleagues came together to recognize that his service to his country superseded their own personal and partisan peccadilloes about the man. Henry Clay’s death was much the same: it was more than the passing of a man, it was passing of the soul of an institution. Proverbs tells us “When a man’s way please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him,” and surely the truth of that is found in perhaps the greatest tribute Clay ever received – from his long-time opponent John C. Calhoun:
I don’t like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God, I love him.
Thomas J. Daly is a frequent Open Letters contributor living in Boston.