Henry Clay : the essential American

by David Stephen Heidler

Hardcover, 2010




New York : Random House, c2010.


Speaker of the House, senator, secretary of state, five-time presidential candidate, and idol to the young Abraham Lincoln, Henry Clay is captured in full in this rich and sweeping biography that vividly portrays all the drama of his times.

Media reviews

"The problem with these informative books runs deeper than the criticism that they concentrate on dead white men. The stress on individuals, especially on whether they were likable or not, and the emphasis on compromise as an unqualified good, assumes that issues can — and should — be resolved politically."
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"A comprehensive biography of Lincoln’s political idol, the man said to have declared, 'I had rather be right than be President.'"

User reviews

LibraryThing member Schmerguls
Though I have read with satisfaction other biographies of Henry Clay, this is truly a magnificent work, outlining in superb fashion the tremendous life of its subject, beginning with his early years in Virginia and his astounding life in Kentucky and in Washington. Born !2 Apr 1777, he was a Senator before he was 30, and when he entered the House he was elected Speaker at the beginning of his first term! He was a part of the team which obtained the Treaty of Ghent, an exceptionally good treaty to end a war we seldom won any battle in. His runs for the Presidencey in 1824, 1832, 1836, 1840, 1844, and 1848 are told about in matchless prose. His life is such a mfull one and it is told in this biogaphy extremely well, sympathetically but without failing to show when he was wrong. The only typo I saw in the book was on page 472 where it is stated Zachary Tayolor died on June 9, 1850 whereas of course he died on July 9, 1850. This is one of the best biographies I have ever read.… (more)
LibraryThing member jrgoetziii
There's so much substance behind Clay...this biography captures that and his charming, witty personal attributes and deftly blends them. I tend to prefer biographies of men of substance (Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustine of Hippo, Geoffrey Chaucer, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Hamilton, Madison/Jefferson, Clay, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Clinton) and to treat other biographies with contempt (Stonewall Jackson). Many biographies of public figures have difficulty with that blend, which makes the achievement all the more remarkable. Clay comes off as extremely human but great at that. The only minor flaw is the seeming confusion of John Clay with Henry Watkins in the first chapter, though it's apparent that the family relations WERE confusing. Wonderful read and worth every page of effort that you need to put into it.… (more)
LibraryThing member zen_923
To be honest, i was a bit disappointed about this book. I felt the author paid more attention in writing about Clay's family life rather than his political life. I was expecting a more in-depth analysis on how Clay honed and applied the parliamentary skills that he was known for today. Being a great orator, i was also expecting the author to give greater detail about his speeches,perhaps putting excerpts of it, but all i got were usually short summaries comprising of about 5 sentences. The author also failed to provide enough background for some issues, like when the book mentioned henry clay's son going to portugal because of a diplomatic crisis. The book didn't even told us what that crisis was all about. Nevertheless, I would have to say that the book is well-written if only i hadn't expected more...… (more)
LibraryThing member queencersei
It isn't that Henry Clay is a bad book. But I quickly realized that I simply didn't have enough interest in the subject to sustain me through nearly 500 pages. So unfortunately this book goes in my short pile of started but never finished. Since I read so little of it I can't give it a fair rating. Usually if I can't get through a book I only give it one star. But I think that this book is better than that, so I'm giving it two stars. I readily admit that it might well deserve an even higher rating then that. So if your an enthusist of 19th century politicians this book might be up your alley.… (more)
LibraryThing member jerry-book
The Great Compromiser is well-served by this biography. I know there are others on him but this is the only one I have read. From his great success as Speaker of the House in 1810 to his five failed attempts at the presidency Harry of the West was a dominant player in politics for 40 years. He dealt with slavery, the War with Mexico, the War of 1812, the tariffs, the Bank of the United States, etc. He was the head of the Whig Party for many years. He was Abraham Lincoln's hero. He was a major player in the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850. Tragically, he had to bury seven children. Perhaps, the authors spend too much time on these deaths. When he died, there was an enormous outpouring of grief which the country would not see again until the death of Lincoln.… (more)
LibraryThing member mattries37315
One—if not the most—of the most influential politicians in American history who never became President, though he tried several times, was praised and vilified throughout his life then slowly forgotten in the century and a half after his death. Henry Clay: The Essential American by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler follows the dramatic political rise, the stunning setbacks, and tragic family life of the man who became Andrew Jackson’s great enemy and Abraham Lincoln’s great hero.

The Heidler’s begins moments after Clay’s death and describes the journey of his body to Lexington with the outpouring of honor along the way then turn their attention as to how Clay became so honored. Born in eastern Virginia as a scion of a long-time colonial family and fatherless early in life, Clay was fortunate to have a stepfather and several mentors who gave him opportunities which he took hold off and used to establish himself in the legal profession in Kentucky. Though idealistic early in his political career, especially on the issue of slavery in the state, Clay downplayed it sooner after to gain connections especially through marriage and accumulation of wealth in which slaves were an important facet though he would continue to advocate for his brand for emancipation throughout his life. Clay’s time in the Kentucky legislature foreshadowed the parliamentary advancements he would bring to the House and later the Senate, especially the Committee of the Whole which allowed Clay as Speaker of both the Kentucky and U.S House to join debates. A staunch Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican, Clay’s views and future policies would shift to include several Hamiltonian policies like a National Bank and tariffs but in Republican language. Upon his arrival in Washington in 1811 until his death 41 years later, Clay would be the most influential man in the city even though he never resided in the White House which would be occupied by either his allies or his avowed enemies though he would campaign for the Presidency either actively or with the am to from 1824 to 1848. Three times during his time in Washington, he championed the Union in the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1833 Nullification crisis, and the Compromise of 1850 his final political act as slavery threatened to ripe the country apart.

First and foremost this was a political biography which the Heidlers expertly detailed for the reader, however Clay was a family man with a particularly tragic tinge as all of his daughters predeceased their parents with Clay’s namesake dying in the Mexican-American War while another was to spend half his life in an asylum. The issue of slavery is given significant space in various parts of the book as the Heidlers put Clay’s views in context of their time and how he was as a slaveowner, but don’t excuse him for hold human beings as property. Though not stated explicitly this was also a light history of the Whig party primarily because, until slavery tore it apart, Henry Clay embodied the party even when younger members decided to jettison its ideological center for Presidential victory.

Henry Clay: The Essential American details the life of the most important politician of the Antebellum era. The husband-wife historian team of David S. and Jeanne Heidler write a very scholarly yet lively history of the man and his times that gives the reader a view of how important their subject was during his time on the national scene.
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