Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union

by Robert V. Remini

Paperback, 1993




W. W. Norton & Company (1993), Edition: Revised ed., 818 pages


Among nineteenth-century Americans, few commanded the reverence and respect accorded to Henry Clay of Kentucky. As orator and as Speaker of the House for longer than any man in the century, he wielded great power, a compelling presence in Congress who helped preserve the Union in the antebellum period. Remini portrays both the statesman and the private man, a man whose family life was painfully torn and who burned with ambition for the office he could not reach, the presidency.--From publisher description.

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LibraryThing member dougwood57
The historian Robert Remini, having written arguably the definitive 20th century biography of The Life of Andrew Jackson, decided that all the material he had inevitably gathered about Henry Clay should be put to good use. So Remini wrote what is arguably the definitive 20th century biography of
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Henry Clay.

Henry Clay is a towering figure in American history, but one known today almost exclusively to students of history because he failed in his greatest ambition: election as President of the United States. Clay's career spanned from the War of 1812 to the Compromise of 1850 - in both of which he played a prominent role. He served as Speaker of the House for most of 14 years between 1811 and 1825, as John Quincy Adams's Secretary of State, and as US Senator from Kentucky for most of the period between 1831 and his death in 1852.

Clay is probably best known as the Great Compromiser and for his American System. His support for a central bank and an activist federal government (particularly supporting the construction of interstate roads) makes Clay seem modern by comparison with many of his contemporaries. These programs were funded by protective tariffs; thus, Clay's unpopularity in the South.

Clay was perhaps the greatest political orator in an era of great speakers. Clay studied history and marshaled his facts in preparation for debate, but he excelled in devastating give-and-take. An extremely intelligent man, Clay's oratory often displayed his wit with biting personal attacks. He came to regret his attacks on Andrew Jackson, made when Jackson was a mere general and no political threat. Indeed, Clay's acerbic tongue was one of the reasons he never achieved the presidency. His open ambition for it was another. Oddly for the man known as the Great Compromiser, Clay had difficulty reining in his tongue and ambition.

Clay sought the presidency in 1824, 1832, 1840, 1844, and 1848. Clay used his position as Speaker to maneuver Adams's 1824 election through the House (no candidate had a majority of the electoral vote, but Adams was a distant second to Andrew Jackson). Adams rewarded Clay with appointment as the Secretary of State and Clay was forever after tagged with the `corrupt bargain'. Clay lost his best chance for the Presidency in 1840 when the machinations of Thaddeus Stevens and Thurlow Weed denied him the nomination in a thoroughly manipulated convention. The Whig nominee, William Henry Harrison, easily won the fall election.

Harrison was without doubt the least qualified man to serve as president to that date. The Whig Party's founding purpose was opposition to Andrew Jackson and his autocratic exercise of dictatorial power, as they saw it. A Clay supporter mused that Harrison was just the man to bring the president's powers back in line: "The throne is too high and it may be well to place a man upon it who will degrade it by his imbecility." (at page 553).

Remini exhaustively details Clay's political career, but also gives due attention to the unending parade of tragedy and hardship that marked his personal life. Remini portrays Clay as a great public man, a great politician in the best sense, bright, witty, and charming, a raconteur, a risk-taker, but also a flawed man who displayed his ambition too openly.

Very highly recommended for the reader with a sustained interest in American history, especially 19th century American history and the development of American democracy. The book is nearly 800 pages and one could argue that Remini could have cut at least 200 of them without doing violence to the story of Clay's life.
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LibraryThing member wcpweaver
Clay was the man who might have been President of the United States if fate had been kinder and he hadn't made a few critical errors of judgment. Born in a hollar in Virginia, Clay made his fame as a Kentucky lawyer and politician. He was a persuasive orator, often compared to Patrick Henry of the
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previous generation. He was charismatic, personable, a notorious gambler, a ladies' man, with a wicked and corrosive wit. His failing was due to hubris and a willingness to follow his own vision without regard to reality.

In Washington he was quickly made Speaker of the House. He helped negotiate the treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. He bacame the first powerful Speaker of the House before a term as Secretary of State, where he became a powerful advocate for Latin American independence, and then as a US Senator. He gained much of his reputation by engineering the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as well as the Compromise of 1850--both major deals between the states that allowed them to continue working together while leaving the issue of slavery for another day; and the Compromise of 1833, which helped mitigate the crises between Andy Jackson and the southern Nullifiers over tariffs. All of these were nearly intractable issues that Clay somehow found a middle path for. Each one of these dilemmas would reemerge in the guise of the Civil War once he had passed from the scene.

Clay's great mistake was to make Andrew Jackson his lifelong enemy by helping deny him the presidency in 1824 and throwing it to John Quincy Adams instead. Whether he sincerely believed Jackson was unqualified, or his ambition and lack of scruples caused him to overreach, is a matter of opinion but the results were the same—a damaged reputation that was never regained despite his profound triumphs.

Robert Remini is a well respected biographer of the era between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. His work includes the definitive three volume Andrew Jackson bio, as well as biographies of Martin Van Buren, Daniel Webster, and John Quincy Adams. This work never dragged despite the great depth of information Remini included. Recommended for all history buffs.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
5816. Henry Clay Statesman for the Union, by Robert V. Remini (read 26 Feb 2023) Though I have read other biographies of Clay, I am very glad I read this book since it is a superlative work, telling in fascinating detail the amazing life of Clay who really from the prelude of the War of 1812 till
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his death at 11:17 on the morning of June 29, i852, was a dominating figure in the nation. Though he hungered to be president that ambition eluded him--in 1824, in 1832, 1836, 1840 (when the Whigs succeeded in electing Harrison), 1844, and 1848. (when the Whigs elected Taylor). But during all that time he was a major figure on the political scene. Watching the Senate today on C-Span is usually boring but when Clay was in the Senate he attracted immense attention and one wishes there had been C-Span in those days. This book is a sheer delight to read and savor.
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Society of Midland Authors Award (Winner — Biography — 1992)


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