Review of Heidler and Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American

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.

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5 Replies to “Review of Heidler and Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American

  1. There was nothing underhanded in Clay supporting Adams in the House election. Just because Jackson may have gotten the most popular votes (41%), he was not entitled to the Presidency. I’ve always regarded the cries of “corrupt bargain” as self-serving demagoguery. It reminds me of Al Gore after the 2000 election.

    1. I disagree in part. While technically there was nothing wrong with Clay and Adams having a “wink, wink, nod, nod” understanding or in Clay helping swing the House vote Adams’ way, the shenanigans went against the spirit of what the people wanted. Clay also didn’t just sway the votes of one state but several, which differentiates the 1824 election from the 2000 election.

      As for Jackson, of course this presented him and his campaign with an opportunity that they fully exploited. The “corrupt bargain” charge gave his supporters great leverage to craft a campaign narrative that positioned him as the underdog.

      1. You make a good point. I was judging more by the standards of later party politics. In a parliamentary system, coalition governments are much more the norm.

        This brings me to a related point. Do you think our presidential system of separation of powers is suited to party government? Our constitution never envisioned political parties, and parliamentary government had not evolved to that point in Great Britain. I think parliamentary government is much better suited to partisan political parties than ours.

  2. An excellent review — I am ordering the book this afternoon. Would I be ‘nit-picking’ if I asked the basis for your observation that Jackson was the “clear choice” of the voters in 1824? If this was so, why did only about 40% of them vote for him? It would seem to me that a candidate who was a “clear choice” would command not only a majority of votes, but probably a majority with a healthy margin to spare!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mark. My short review doesn’t do the book justice.

      A better choice of words might have been, “Jackson clearly should have become president in 1824-25.” Still, without Clay’s interference, Jackson almost certainly would have won the House election.

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