I’ll confess to not liking Henry Clay all that much. Despite his efforts at political compromise to keep the Union together, he’s always struck me as smarmy, and I’ve never bought his claim that there wasn’t a “corrupt bargain” between him and John Quincy Adams in 1825, whether it was explicitly stated or not.
David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler‘s biography of the Kentucky statesman has changed my perception of Clay. This husband-and-wife team of historians has written previously about Andrew Jackson’s military career in the post-War of 1812 South and edited a voluminous encyclopedia of the Civil War (for which I wrote several essays as a graduate student). Their presentation of Clay is sympathetic, yet honest about his shortcomings as a politician, husband, and father. I’ve never figured out how co-authors juggle the responsibilities of collaboration and unifying their writing, but the Heidlers pull it off.
The details of Clay’s political life are familiar to the historically literate. He was the three-time presidential campaign loser (1824, 1832, and 1844) and the three-time architect of political compromise that saved the Union (1820-21, 1832-33, and 1850). His role in the disputed House election in early 1825 made John Quincy Adams president, even though the clear choice of the voters was Andrew Jackson. This “corrupt bargain” exacerbated the already cool relationship between the two men and shaped the development of the second American party system, which pitted Jackson’s Democrats against Clay’s Whigs.
What is less well known, and what makes this biography valuable, is the portrait of Clay’s personal life. Heidler and Heidler recount the numerous tragedies and deaths that repeatedly shattered his spirit. Two sons were institutionalized; his namesake died during the Mexican-American War; and all six daughters were dead by 1835. Additional deaths and illnesses among grandchildren and in-laws only added to Clay’s emotional burden.
One death in particular influenced Clay’s political career. In 1835, his daughter, Anne, died, and he abandoned interest in the 1836 presidential campaign, which had already been waning (p. 273). During an election that might (and I emphasize, might) have seen a Whig party united behind one candidate defeat Jackson’s designated successor, Martin Van Buren, the Whigs split their support three ways, leading to Van Buren’s victory. While Clay missed chances to win the presidency in 1840 and 1844, the 1836 election was also a missed opportunity, but one that was understandable.
Heidler and Heidler include an observation about Clay made by Washington socialite Margaret Bayard Smith that dominates the book and humanizes him for the reader. Smith, who had plenty to say about everything going on in the capital city, once “had a revelation,” they write. “When Henry Clay turned his face to the world, he wore ‘a mask of smiles'” (p. 214). Instead of seeing Clay’s face as reptilian, which had been my impression of him since I was a child, I now see the mask.