Home / Robert Farley / In Defense of Henry Clay?

In Defense of Henry Clay?



Now that I’ve got started, what is it with the adulation of Clay, Calhoun and Webster? Sure, they were the leading figures in the US in the decades leading up to the Civil War, but isn’t that like saying that Clemenceau, Hindenburg and Chamberlain played comparable roles between 1919 and 1939?

Some thoughts, acknowledging at the start that I can see Henry Clay’s house from my front porch:

  • As Quiggin notes, there’s a big difference between Calhoun and the other two. Calhoun was a resolute, committed, principled defender of slavery. Clay was a slaveholder, but never displayed much of a political interest in defending the institution, and was never particularly identified with “slave power”. Lincoln, of course, held Clay in very high esteem.
  • I think that (outside of the state of Kentucky) Clay’s legacy has always been mixed. Failed ambition rarely seems to be held in high regard in US politics, and Clay was certainly ambitious, having effectively run for President for two and a half decades. Clay is almost universally viewed as a skilled legislator, although it’s interesting that this also seems to be a relatively rare path to canonization in American political life.
  • Clay’s most important legacy is probably the American system, which involved the Federal government in the active development of the US economy, especially in the West. Obviously this itself represents a deeply complicated legacy, both in terms of environmental impact and relations with Native Americans, but on the basic concept of government intervention in the economy Clay was certainly more correct than his opponents.
  • While I’m happy to accept Ta-Nehisi Coates argument that we ought not think of the Civil War as a tragedy, I’m not sure it follows to say that attempting to prevent the war was an ignoble endeavour. Clay understood that any war would be extremely destructive, and that the Union might not survive the conflict. Although this certainly wasn’t his intention, delaying the war surely improved the prospects for Northern victory, and for the abolition of slavery. Again, Lincoln’s esteem for Clay should carry some weight on this question.

Working through all of that, I find myself wondering how Clay managed to achieve secular sainthood in the first place. It’s not that there’s any particular stain on his record, but rather that every part of his career was mixed, and every achievement bound up in a set of debates that were complex even at the time. Canonization often requires the dismissal of complexity in favor of a simple narrative, but in the context of Clay this is impossible. Would be interested to hear from the historians on how esteem for Clay came to be.

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  • StevenAttewell

    I think Clay’s esteem largely comes from the American system, but also from his part in constructing a national political party, which usually wins you bonus points.

    And to give him credit, Clay and the Whigs did fight Jackson’s Indian Removal policies.

  • sleepyirv

    Henry Clay’s “complicated” record is a revisionist phenomena. When Clay became a saint, being a skilled legislator could be a key to immortality since the late 19th Century was a period of weak presidents, when trying to stop the Civil War was an accomplishment since it was seen as a national tragedy, etc. Taking someone out of pantheon is much more difficult, not that Henry Clay has anything on his record as awful as, say, Andrew Jackson.

    There’s a recent biography of Henry Clay out, has anyone read it?

    • Incontinentia Buttocks

      Political oratory was also very highly regarded in 19th-century US culture. And this had a lot to do with Clay’s and even more Webster’s reputation (we still esteem Lincoln for his oratory, but Lincoln had the great good fortune to make two of his very greatest speeches exceedingly short, thus making them more appropriate for today’s soundbite culture than most other 19C examples of the form).

  • Quiggin’s argument is incredibly lazy. Does he know anything about Clay? Or Webster for that matter? This is like blaming Nancy Pelosi for the Iraq War.

  • Scott Lemieux

    The Civil War wasn’t tragic in retrospect, but there was certainly the possibility of disastrous outcomes: McLellan winning the 1864 election, or winning before the Emancipation Proclamation (hence also producing no Civil War amendments.) I don’t think that statesmen prior to the Civil War should have assumed that the defeat of the slave power was inevitable outcome of civil war.

    • Malaclypse

      I don’t think that statesmen prior to the Civil War should have assumed that the defeat of the slave power was inevitable outcome of civil war.

      I think it is safe to say that roughly half the country did not see the defeat of slavery as an inevitable outcome of war. If they did, they would not have shot first.

  • LKS

    Clay opposed the annexation of Texas. That alone should qualify him for sainthood.

    Seriously…I’m with Erik that Quiggin’s argument is lazy and uninformed. In particular, I don’t get the Clemenceau comparison. I fail to see any resemblance at all between Clemenceau’s hard-line stance towards Germany after WWI and Clay’s efforts to keep the nation from falling apart before the Civil War. Am I missing something here?

    • John

      Yeah, I was going to comment on that, as well. What’s the problem with Clemenceau, exactly? Certainly he doesn’t resemble Chamberlain or Hindenburg in any way that I can see.

      • LKS

        Well, Clemenceau was an asshole who was largely responsible for the punitive conditions in the Treaty of Paris that pretty much guaranteed another major European land war sooner or later. Which is why the comparison to Clay, who was trying to avoid war, makes no sense at all.

        Their names both begin with Cl – maybe that’s it.

        • LKS

          Correction: Treaty of Versailles.

        • Bill Murray

          was Clemenceau trying to set the stage for the next war, or is that just a by-product of a compromise done for other reasons.

          Also, didn’t the compromise of 1850 set the stage for the Civil War in much the same way?

          • JRoth

            Not at all; it may have kicked the can down the road, but it didn’t create the can. It’s not impossible to imagine a Treaty of Versailles* that fails to contain WW2 in its terms; it is impossible to imagine a Compromise of 1850 that forestalled the Civil War indefinitely.

            * That is, the terms of such a treaty; given the nationalisms and personalities involved, it’s possible that that convention was inherently tied to such an outcome

          • LKS

            I don’t think they expected another war when they signed the Treaty. The French leadership in particular seemed to believe that the treaty would result in a greatly weakened Germany that would pose no threat to France.

            Also, I didn’t mean to give the impression that I think Versailles was the only thing that caused WWII. Clearly that’s not the case.

        • John

          Clemenceau was an asshole, but it’s remarkable the extent to which everyone has internalized interwar German propaganda about how unfair the terms of Versailles were. What exactly did the Germans expect?

          • Njorl

            Agreed. The German reparations, as a fraction of GDP, were smaller than what they demanded of France after 1871. France paid, Germany could have also.

          • CBrinton

            True. I think the popularity of Keynes’s _Economic Consequences of the Peace_ is a big factor. It’s widely accepted as the definitive word on the subject, incorrectly in my view. The other side of the case, made for instance by Etienne Mantoux in _The Carthaginian Peace_, gets much less attention nowadays.

  • davenoon

    Clay’s opposition to the annexation of Texas was not without complications of its own. In order to win over Southern votes in 1844, he wrote a series of letters to Southern newspaper editors — the so-called “Alabama Letters” — that recanted his previous opposition to annexation, offering instead his support for the policy if it could be accomplished without dividing the union or provoking war with Mexico. The letters gained him nothing in the South and wound up losing him votes in New York, where anti-slavery voters turned to the Liberty Party and helped give the election to Polk.

    • This comment only reinforces a plain and simple truth:

      Dave Noon needs to blog more around these here parts.

      • Mark Centz


        • Malaclypse

          Another day, another pointless atrocity.

      • LKS

        Preferably daily.

  • Jonathan

    The references I’ve come across in the archives while studying non-politicians suggest that many of their ordinary contemporaries already held these three men in awe. That was certainly because of personal charisma (all three of them made very strong first impressions), which is closely connected with the observation made above about oratory, but also because of their status as “statesmen.”

    We don’t really have a category today that encompasses the sense of national significance attached to the nineteenth-century statesman. It had very little to do with achievement; it was more concerned with “greatness of soul.” The statesman was someone who ennobled his country by revealing its true character to its people. There’s some of that in the veneration of people like FDR, JFK, or Reagan, which usually appeals not so much to their specific accomplishments as to their ethos. But it’s nothing compared with what classicism did to American expectations of leadership before the Civil War.

    Also, there’s the fact that all three of these men stood in bitter opposition to Andrew Jackson, the most idolatrously celebrated president in history. That only added to their aura as Titans locked in a battle for the ages.

    • JRoth

      I think this captures a lot of the issue. I was taught in HS, in the late 80s, to venerate Clay and Webster (Calhoun was in his own subcategory, as a fellow giant, yet also a malevolent one, except that, even in NJ, we weren’t taught that the Slave South was loathsome). I couldn’t have told you exactly why, which is why I didn’t write in their defense over at Crooked Tiber, but Jonathan gets at the core of it – they were Great Americans (before Hannity devalued the term) and leading legislators when Congress was central.

      Also, from a simple historical narrative POV, they’re easy bridges to get you from the Founders to the Civil War, especially Clay with his career spanning most of that era. You have Jackson, and one or two other interesting presidents, but by asking “What did Webster, Clay, and Calhoun think about this?”, you have a convenient handle for the issues of those days.

  • John

    I’d like to dispute Quiggin’s discussion of Wilson, as well. I don’t think it’s at all reasonable to say that Wilson “lied America into the Great War.” I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean. Wilson’s neutrality policy was certainly tilted towards the Entente. But it was tilted towards the Entente because it was pretty strongly in US interests to be able to trade with the Entente powers, and that meant taking a hard line stance against German submarine warfare.

    But the real issue here is that the key decisions which led to war between the United States and Germany in 1917 were made by Germany. They were made by Germany in full knowledge that they would almost certainly lead to American entry into the war, and they were made in order to pursue a policy (unrestricted submarine warfare) which did not and could not achieve its political objectives. The Kaiser, Ludendorff, and Holtzendorff made the key decisions that brought the US into the war, and it’s hard to see, say, a President Taft or Hughes (to say nothing of Teddy Roosevelt) behaving all that differently from Taft. Even the policy advocated by Bryan probably wouldn’t have prevented American entry. The Germans decided to have a war with the United States, and they knew this was what they were doing.

    The sort of knee jerk assumption that non-intervention would have been the right decision for the US irritates me, too. There were legitimate reasons for the US to prefer an Entente victory to a German one. We can’t judge the actions of statesmen in the teens based on what we all know happened in the 30s.

    Wilson’s domestic legislative achievement was also much more impressive than Quiggin suggests. The creation of the Federal Reserve; the Clayton Act, which legalized labor unions, among other things; and the Underwood Tariff, which introduced the income tax, were all important achievements. The idea of comparing Wilson’s domestic policy achievement unfavorably to TR’s is ridiculous – Wilson was far more successful in getting Congress to pass important progressive legislation than TR was, and Wilson’s achievements in that field were probably the most impressive of any president between Lincoln and FDR.

    He was, indeed, a racist and an enemy of civil liberties. And his policy at the Paris Peace Conference was high-handed and often foolish (although one can go too far in criticizing the Treaty of Versailles and its accompanying treaties, which may well have been about the best that anyone could have expected). But his achievements were also real, and claiming that he tricked the US into World War I is deeply unfair.

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