Three weeks ago Davida and I visited Ashland, the Lexington home of Henry Clay. As an historical site the estate was quite interesting, although the original house had been torn down shortly after Clay’s death, and replaced by a near replica. Ashland was furnished entirely with artifacts either from Clay’s life or the lives of his descendents, the last of whom left Ashland in the mid-1950s. Of course, the estate is much smaller today that it was during Clay’s time, but it remains a very lovely park, a nice place to have a picnic or listen to music.
The exhibit is very Kentucky-centric, mildy odd given the portion of his life that Clay spent in Washington. Nevertheless, I got the feeling that Clay had a hand in most every element of the early development of Kentucky. Clay was a drinker of bourbon, and reputedly introduced the mint julep to Washington D.C. Clay also played an important role in the early equine industry; several of the horses in the Preakness Stakes could trace their lineage back to horse that Clay owned, including the winner. The exhibit was also quite forthright regarding Clay’s lack of success in his attempts for the Presidency. He was defeated three times in the general election, and three other times in the primaries.
Clay is an odd figure, one of the second generation giants that no one really talks about anymore. I am told that there was a flurry of interest in Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and other of their colleagues around the end of World War II, but the recent popular fascination with the Founders seems ready to skip clean over this generation and move right on to Lincoln. I don’t think that the reasons for this are all that complicated, as the story of the Second Generation is one of endless flawed compromise and eventual failure. While Lincoln can be understood to redeem the sins of the Founders, Clay and his cohort simply had to deal with them. The Founders left this generation with two enormous problems. The first of these was slavery, a difficulty that the Founders (and Clay) tried to wish away, but one that loomed larger as time passed. The second was a constitutional system utterly insufficient to the task of solving big problems.
Clay himself was a middling supporter of slavery. He was willing neither to engage, like Calhoun, in an ideological defense of the peculiar institution, nor was he willing to do anything productive to end it (other than waiting for it to go away). It was as apparent to Clay as anyone, though, that slavery was an enormous political problem for the United States, even if he found it uninteresting on the merits. Clay was critical in constructing and maintaining the various compromises that held the Union together between 1820 and 1850, and his work on these problems was genuinely masterful. All told, it probably was a good thing that the Civil War was fought in 1860 instead of, say, 1835, as the power of the North was steadily growing, as was the general international disapproval of slavery as an institution. Of course, this did not enter into Clay’s thinking; the last thing he was trying to do was delay long enough to provide the foundation for a Northern victory. Nevertheless, delaying the final resolution of the slavery problem probably had the practical effect of pushing that solution in a progressive direction.
I think that a Clay-like figure can be found in almost any political context. They lack vision, but are masterful political operators. Because they lack any sort of vision for the future, they tend to be mildly, but not overwhelmingly, conservative. Cicero might have been the first Henry Clay. The most recent Clay, if you will, was probably Bob Dole. Edmund Burke was kind of a Clay figure, but people forget that Burke was, by and large, on the progressive side of most political questions of his day. Then again, the parallel might be apt, as Clay was a big supporter of the American System, the Hamilton-esque program to bring infrastructure and capital improvements to what was then the American West. This effort certainly played a role in the expansion of capitalism and of the industrial, commercial North, indirectly undermining the slave-ocracy.