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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