Skip to main content

Henry Clay

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

Of the three great American political figures of the second quarter of the nineteenth century Henry Clay seems to be the most distinctly and warmly human. Calhoun grew to be more and more a creature of logic His intellect crushed his passions, though in such cases the passions have queer ways of revenging themselves. Webster was human enough in his own nature; but the rest of mankind never seemed quite to touch him. He understood them, you may say he loved them, but he went his own lofty, indifferent way, without too much regard to them, and they paid him back in kind. Clay was human all through, lived, throbbed, thrilled in the contact of humanity. Many men loved him. Some men hated him. All felt that he was a man like themselves. He felt it also, liked to feel it, and strove and aspired to make a mighty, vital nation out of common human passions and struggles and hopes.

Henry Clay was born April 12th, 1777, in the “Slashes,” Hanover County, Virginia. His father died when the boy was small, and his mother married again. Henry knocked about Richmond in his youth, and finally made his way to a legal education. He then followed his mother to Kentucky, in 1797, and began practice there. He was soon and decidedly successful, not only in law, but in politics. He was sent to the United States Senate in 1806, when slightly under the legal age. He afterwards entered the House and immediately became Speaker. He was one of the most active promoters of the War of 1812. With Adams, Gallatin, and others, he negotiated the peace at Ghent. Returning to Congress, he took a prominent part in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As Speaker, in 1825, he was the chief influence in giving the disputed presidential election to John Quincy Adams, and afterwards became Secretary of State, thus affording his enemies a disastrous chance to accuse him of corrupt bargaining. He was a candidate for presidential nomination or election in nearly every campaign for twenty-five years, but regularly failed in spite of his immense personal popularity. In 1833, after having for years advocated a high tariff, he effected a moderate compromise in this regard, and so averted the Nullification crisis. He fought Jackson as to the Bank and in other ways, and distinctly got the worst of it. He was beaten by Harrison for the presidency in 1840, by Polk in 1844, by Taylor in 1848. In 1850 he closed his career with the great achievement of the slavery compromise, and he died June 29th, 1852.

We shall best get at Clay and the significance of his large humanity by taking him from within outward and beginning with him in his home. Of inner personal life he seems to have had little, at least so far as any of the extensive records show. He had the very elementary education of a common school in Virginia at that day. and added little to it later, except by his own facility and shrewdness of apprehension. Even his law he picked off the bushes, as it were. It was a thing of shreds and tatters, woven together by the astonishing aptitude of an eager and ambitious spirit, but never remarkable for profundity or substance. He read fairly widely, though in the main history and politics, with a little poetry, and he retained a good deal of what might be useful to him, but nothing in his life or writing shows much thought given to general questions, not even legal, not even political.

As to Clay’s immediate personal relations, nothing is told us of any early love affairs or of more intimate relations with women. Women always liked and admired him at all periods of his life, and he liked them. If they had been voting in his day, he would have become president without a question. He married young, a cousin of Senator Benton, La-vinia Hart, who had social standing and some means, and the marriage was a happy one. Mrs. Clay had innumerable children and watched over her husband’s establishment with devoted care. I do not find that she was much help to him politically: she seems to have had neither political ambition nor remarkable social graces. But she was an excellent housekeeper, and more than that, a faithful, sympathetic, responsive wife and mother. Clay’s few letters to her that have been preserved are as conventional as Webster’s in the same connection, but I find one little touch in them that has a depth of human significance. He is expressing a due sorrow for her absence and her loneliness, and he adds (italics mine): “I regret it extremely, and whatever you may think to the contrary, I should have preferred greatly your accompanying me.” The absences were frequent, however, and indeed the husband finally died in Washington, when his wife was far away.

Mr. and Mrs. Clay had a patriarchal family, five sons and six daughters. But, like Webster, Clay was tragically unsuccessful in bringing up his children. One of the sons became insane from an accident and was a constant sorrow. Another was killed in the Mexican War. And every one of the six daughters died before her father. Ann, Mrs. Er-win, was an especial favorite and the account of Clay’s distress at hearing of her death is characteristic of his intensely sensitive and nervous temperament. “Poor Mr. Clay,” says Mrs. Smith, “was laughing and joking with some friends when his papers and letters were brought to him; he naturally first opened the letters from home. A friend who was with him says he started up and then fell as if shot and his first words were ‘Every tie to life is broken’ â–  . . Ann was his pride as well as his joy and of all his children his greatest comfort.”

Yet it is curious to note how the habit of the rhetorician and the instinct of publicity prevail and intertwine themselves with even the most intimate personal emotions. Goethe said that whenever he had a sorrow, he made a poem. When Clay had a sorrow, he made a speech. After one of his domestic misfortunes, he went North to seek distraction, and when a receiving committee of entire strangers visited him, this is the extraordinary way in which he expressed himself: “I could not look upon the partner of my sorrows without feeling deeper anguish. (The speaker was here overcome by his feelings, and paused some minutes, covering his face with his hands.) . . . Of eleven children four only now remain (great emotion). Of six lovely daughters not one is left. Finding myself in the theatre of sadness, I thought I would fly to the mountain’s top, and descend to the ocean’s wave, and by meeting with the sympathy of friends obtain some relief for the sadness which surrounds me.”

Clay’s humanity appears in his relation with his slaves as in other things. He suffered from the same conflict of feelings that affected so many of the earlier slaveholders until Calhoun and his followers argued themselves free from it. Clay always regarded slavery as an evil and a curse for everyone, yet tradition and habit enabled him to live with it comfortably and profit by it. If we may trust his own evidence, and that of others, he always treated his slaves with gentleness and consideration and was beloved by them in return. His body-servant Charles was more a friend than a slave, and when they, traveled together in the Northern States and efforts were made to get Charles to leave his master, Clay laughed and said: “You may have him, if you can get him.”

In the management of his domestic finances Clay was prudent and careful. He had to struggle with poverty in his youth and was proud of it. He made a fortune by his own efforts and might have made much more if politics had not engrossed him. He was most exact and systematic in accounts and in discharging all obligations, though his large estate, his profuse hospitality, and especially his readiness to help others and his easiness in undertaking their obligations, did at one time involve him in serious difficulties, from which he was extricated by the generosity of quite unknown friends.

He was a practical farmer, took a great and constant interest in the development of his beautiful estate at Ashland, and especially devoted himself to animals, above all to the breeding of the beautiful Kentucky horses. When he was in Washington, he sighed for Ashland, though it is no doubt true that, with the charming inconsistency of human nature, when he was at Ashland, he sighed for Washington. The farm would have been much more costly and less successful than it was, if it had not been for the watchful assistance of Mrs. Clay, who with eleven children on her hands, looked after every detail of the outdoor management and saved her husband trouble and money. As one relative says: “It is related of Mrs, Clay that preparatory to her husband’s departure from home, she invariably received from him a handsome check, which she as regularly restored to him upon his return, with the laconic remark that she had found no use for it.” No doubt some American wives are like this, but others are not.

Clay’s money was of course made in his profession of law and in this profession he was immensely successful. He himself says of the law: “Two words will make any man of sound intellect a lawyer, industry and application, and the same words with a third, economy, will enable him to make a fortune.” But I am inclined to think two other elements entered more largely still into Clay’s own success. The first was his vast knowledge of human nature and instinctive sympathy. Criminals, judges, juries, and spectators, all came within his careful ken, and he adapted himself to them all with instinctive understanding and profit. And then he had his gift of speech. What that was we can only conjecture now from the stammering report of others; but evidently it was very remarkable and of the utmost value. He had no such oratorical physique as Webster. He was plain in feature, with a huge mouth, so large that, as he himself complained, he could never learn to spit, long and lanky in figure, with just a suggestion of the grotesqueness of Lincoln. But enthusiastic auditors mainly agree that when he spoke, he was all on fire and carried every one who heard away with him.

Perhaps the eloquence and the success were more marked in the romantic atmosphere of Kentucky than before the Supreme Court at Washington. In Kentucky, Clay was especially fortunate in defending criminals. It is said that no criminal defended by him ever suffered the extreme penalty, of the law. When it came to Washington, on the other hand, we have the comment of Webster: “The fact is, he was no lawyer. He was a statesman, a politician, an orator, but no reasoner.”

We may complete the study of Clay’s more personal fife by a reference to his relations with God. Through most of his career these relations may be said to have been cordial but not intimate. He at all times referred to religious matters with the utmost decorum, and though his speech was sometimes inclined to profanity, his spirit was not. But as the grave came nearer, it seemed time to take things more seriously, and at seventy, after much reverent discussion and inquiry, he became a member of the Episcopal Church. It appeared that he had never been baptized, and this point was of course attended to before confirmation. The ceremony was performed in the family parlor with the aid of a huge cut-glass vessel, which had been presented to the statesman some years before. No biographer hints at such a thing, but it seems to me highly probable that the vessel was a punch-bowl. It could hardly have been meant to hold flowers, and it certainly was not intended for a baptismal font. Baptised at seventy, in a punch-bowl! Could there be a more delightful epitome of Kentucky life a century ago? And another attractive touch is that Clay is said to have murmured, “Now I lay me down to sleep” the night before he died, and to have repeated the same prayer every night of his life. This accords exactly with the childlike candor and simplicity of so many of these great men of affairs and active life. I cannot imagine Goethe or Sainte-Beuve or Darwin going to bed with “Now I lay me”; yet perhaps they did.


Clay’s humanness appears even more in his larger relations with humanity. He was a social being, and liked all sorts of people in all sorts of places. Webster, who was himself not averse to society, criticized Clay in this regard: “He has been too fond of excitement—he has lived upon it; he has been too fond of company, not enough alone; and has had few resources within himself.” It is said that Clay was dominant in any company. It was said that he liked to be, and some complained that his dominance was trying. At the same time, he had so much cordial grace of manner and such quick, sympathetic response, that his self-assertion did not interfere with his extraordinary popularity.

He was always hospitable, and both at Ashland and in Washington liked to have numbers at his table and under his roof. He was an admirable and fluent talker. But it is positively stated that he did not always do all the talking, but that he was most skillful at questioning, drawing out others, and making them feel that they were of importance. There is the narrative of the young journalist, who spent a delightful hour with him in a hotel at Saratoga, while Clay was dressing. Clay quietly and deftly turned the boy’s soul inside out and left him fascinated. When he told Thurlow Weed about it afterward, the old man laughed, and said: “Yes, that was like Henry: he always sent everybody from him charmed, because he made them think he was charmed with them.” Surely there is no better road to popularity than this.

One of Clay’s attractions is his humor. This has certainly not the depth or the penetration of Lincoln’s. The older statesman was too self-engrossed and not sufficiently analytical for that. But he had a play of gentle fun which was useful for dispelling acrimony and for somehow making tense situations lose their tension. He had also a remarkable apt quickness of tongue, which hit on just the poignant, pungent word at the right time. And undeniably the tongue was too often tempted to sting and would leave scars which reminded the victim of a hostility that might otherwise have been forgotten.

I do not find much sign of Clay’s taking part in out of door sports or social amusements. No doubt he shot and fished, but he can hardly have done it with the passion of Webster. He is said to have been a good swimmer and to have enjoyed it. He could not have been a Kentuckian without being an excellent rider, and his love for racehorses must have meant a love for racing and all the excitement it brings with it.

But indoor social diversions were his delight and his temptation all his life. He liked the minor incidental features of them. He liked a good dinner, and especially the good drink that went with it. But it is not to be supposed that dissipation ever seriously interfered with his capacity for work. When he had had a late night of riotous entertainment, a friend said to him: “How can you, under the circumstances preside over the House today?” “Come and see,” said Clay. The friend went and saw and was satisfied.

Above all, Clay relished the social stimulus of cards. In his youth he was an eager and enthusiastic gambler. He liked to play brag, the earlier equivalent of poker. The precise John Quincy Adams, who never knew how to amuse himself, records with disgust that during the conferences of the Commissioners at Ghent, who were settling the affairs of the world, the card players could be heard leaving Mr. Clay’s room in the small hours of the morning. In later years he gave up the more extreme forms of play, though he always delighted in whist. And his biographer tells us that a card was never allowed or seen at Ashland. But what pleases me most in this connection is the story of Mrs. Clay, and the lady from New England, because it so clearly marks the difference of climates and manners. This demure, Puritanic individual said to Mrs. Clay: “Isn’t it a pity your husband gambles so much?” And Mrs Clay quietly replied: “Oh, I don’t know. He usually wins.”

Probably few men meet and know as many people of all sorts as Clay did. It might almost be said that he lived the life of others, or perhaps more properly, that he drew the lives of all others into his own. Among this vast multitude he had many devoted friends, who gave him a warm and tender affection and received as much in return. He not only talked cordially, he acted so. He was ready and thoughtful in doing kindnesses. Until harsh experience taught him the folly of it, he was always willing to endorse a friend’s note, and surely greater love hath no man than this: laying down one’s life is nothing in comparison.

It is especially interesting to observe how Clay’s personal attraction entered into his relations with even those whose temperament was different, or who were actually hostile. It was easy to quarrel with that quick and bitter tongue; it was not easy to keep up the enmity. The case of Benton is significant.’ He was a cousin of Mrs. Clay’s, and was often at the house. At times he and Clay acted cordially together. But their politics pulled them apart, and in the Senate they abused each other with a whole-heartedness that at times seemed to threaten blood-shed. Yet Benton continued to speak of his foe with consideration and esteem, and sometimes with tenderness. Even more interesting is the relation with Adams. No two men could be more different. In the Ghent negotiation they were often at odds, and Adams, in his Diary and letters speaks of Clay with the sharpest criticism. Yet when they worked together for four years, as President and Secretary of State, the record seems to be all harmony and mutual respect, and I know no finer testimony anywhere to Clay’s personal qualities than this.

Of course Clay had his enemies, many and bitter ones, whom no good-nature could conciliate, and no concessions or compromises could appease. Foremost among these was Andrew Jackson. There were certain resemblances between the two, which did not diminish the hostility. Both represented the people, though in very different aspects. Both represented the West, and were eager to represent it. Both were arbitrary, autocratic, anxious to rule. At an early stage it looked as if the country, had not room for both of them. They plunged into conflict after conflict, and it must be confessed that Jackson was the more successful.

The trouble came first and at once to a climax when Clay, in 1825, gave his vote and his influence to make Adams President instead of Jackson. Jackson’s fierce prejudice seized upon the idea that here was a corrupt bargain, and Clay’s appointment as Secretary of State seemed damning evidence of the fact. Clay honestly preferred Adams and his action was perfectly legitimate, but it was probably not wise, and it certainly haunted him like a ghost of defeat and disaster forever after. Jackson had the ear of the people and their hearts, and that” cry of the corrupt bargain thwarted Clay’s ambition for the rest of his life.

Furthermore, it was taken up, with his usual grotesque-ness, by John Randolph, who was perhaps a greater enemy of Clay than of any one except of himself. Randolph’s reported bitter taunt about the corrupt combination of Puritan and blackleg, of Blifil and Black George, plagued Clay beyond endurance, and finally forced him to the last resort of a duel.

Duels were a weak point with Clay, as with so many Southerners. He could not defend them in principle, deplored them and believed that they would disappear “when all shall unite, as all ought to unite, in their proscription.” Meantime, he fought them when necessary. The one with Randolph was as picturesque as was everything concerning that erratic personage. He came on the ground in a white wrapper worn under his cloak. He discharged his pistol too soon through nervousness. He told Benton beforehand that he would not fire at Clay, then took one shot at him, then fired a second in the air. After it was over he exchanged cordial greetings with him. Benton, who describes the whole affair with infinite serious relish, closes his narrative with this admirable comment: “About the last high-toned duel that I have witnessed and among the highest-toned that I have ever witnessed.”

Yet even Randolph, through it all, kept admiration, if not affection, for Clay, and one of the Virginian’s last pub-he utterances was an expression of belief in the Kentucky statesman’s ability to save the Union. And if even his enemies praised and loved him, what shall be said of the immense popularity that he developed and retained among the masses of people? It is true that the popularity did not always work to practical ends, and one of Clay’s supporters bitterly complained that he “could get more men to run after him to hear him speak, and fewer to vote for him than any. man in America.” There were various and complicated reasons for this. But the popularity remains simple and unquestionable. It shows, as it showed with Blaine, in the familiar nicknames that passed from mouth to mouth, “Harry of the West,” “The Mill-Boy of the Slashes.” It shows in the immense enthusiasm which met him everywhere when he traveled over the country; and the enthusiasm warmed his heart and thrilled his sensitive nerves again and again to renewed ambition and hope. Others might be praised and listened to and followed and elected; this man was loved. And when you study his career, you cannot but feel the force of the words of so sober a critic as Rhodes: “No man has been loved as the people of the United States loved Henry Clay.”


The foundation of Clay’s political activity and success, as in other things, was again the humanness. He had an intensely sensitive, nervous, high-strung nature. And this sensibility was always bent to enter into the lives and hearts of others, to understand them, to work with them to benefit them, and naturally to benefit by, them.

The great instrument of political success was of course the oratory, the extraordinary power of speech. The reading of dead political speeches is tedious work, and I have been pretty well surfeited with them. Yet I have found Clay’s better than I expected. I looked for rhetoric, for a rather sophomoric effusiveness. Clay has not perhaps the solid substance of Webster. But his speeches are not cheap rhetoric by any means. They are often terse, business-like, and to the point. His enthusiasm and lack of really wide study often led him to make wild statements, inaccurate estimates, prophecies that have ludicrously failed of realization. But he is generally simple and always sincere. Lincoln was an admirer and follower of Clay, and in Lincoln’s Eulogy of him there is one sentence, notable for its estimate of the subject and still more as being characteristic of the Eulogist: “He never spoke merely to be heard. He never delivered a Fourth of July oration, or a eulogy on an occasion like this.”

But it is evident that the power and the effect of the oratory did not lie wholly or largely in the words as we now read them in cold print. Men were swayed, carried away, swept right out of themselves by the magic of that infectious personality, the ardor, the magnetism, the fury of the gestures, above all by the subtle, penetrating music of the voice.

The general testimony as to the effect of Clay’s speaking is too strong to be resisted or overlooked. For the time he made his audiences think as he did, even if the impression did not last. There is Lincoln’s account of the effect of one speech, now, perhaps fortunately, lost: “During its delivery the reporters forgot their vocation, dropped their pens, and sat enchanted from near the beginning to quite the close. The speech now lives only in the memory, of a few old men, and the enthusiasm with which they cherish their recollection of it is absolutely astonishing.” The memory of the old men does not so much impress me, but to enchant a reporter is indeed an achievement.

It must not be supposed, however, that Clay was all words. He could work when he chose, and work hard. His lack of early education and his imaginative ardor made him appear somewhat unreliable. But when he had a special case to get up, either legal or political, he could devote himself to it with a great amount of forgetfulness and industry. As a member of Congress he was rather notable for constructive work. When he was Secretary of State, it is said that the number of treaties he concluded “is greater than all which had ever been previously concluded from the first adoption of the Constitution.” Especially notable in the matter of practical management is his Speakership. In the first place there is the extraordinary fact that he was elected Speaker on the very day of his appearance in the House, it was said because he was the only man who could bridle John Randolph. Also, in his long occupancy of the office he was triumphantly successful. He was just, reasonable, quick, energetically decided, and thoroughly expeditious in transacting business. He was probably the first to establish the great, if not wholly beneficial, power of the Speaker, and he was the worthy predecessor of such able and highly esteemed autocrats as Blaine and Reed.

But it was as the leader of the Whig party for many yesrs that Clay was most conspicuous and will be most remembered. He was a born manager of men, had in the highest degree the gift of influencing them, persuading them, making them see things as he did, and this was accomplished not by trickiness or by sleight of hand, but by ardor and sincerity. No doubt he had the defects of such a temperament. He was too dominant, arbitrary, dictatorial, and this grew upon him, as of all defects it is most inclined to do. His | enemies complained of his insolence and arrogance, and while friends did not complain, they sometimes found these things irksome. Yet even when they groaned and doubted, they followed: his power was overwhelming and irresistible.

It is touching and pathetic to see the childlike innocence with which Clay, disclaims the unwillingness to accept the ideas of others or to follow their lead: “Of all men upon earth am I the least attached to the productions of. my own mind. No man upon earth is more ready than I am to surrender anything which I have proposed and to accept in lieu of it anything which is better.” The world at large did not agree with him. Yet one shonid always remember those four years of complete harmony and subordination with John Quincy Adams, who was not an easy man to follow. Clay got on with Adams, and admired him, and held Adams’s affection to the end. To me it is the most remarkable fact in Clay’s career.

It is the more remarkable because of the undisputed ardor of his personal ambition. With Clay, as with Webster, and with most, if not all, other great statesmen, it is curious to observe the endless play of self-deceived ambition, as it alternately denies and re-asserts itself. Clay proclaims over and over again that he is not ambitious. He is only [ seeking the good of his country. If his country requires his services, no matter how distinguished the position, he is ready to sacrifice himself and accept it: “Above all, I am most desirous not to seem, as I in truth am not, importunate for any public office whatever. If I were persuaded that a majority of my fellow-citizens desired to place me in their highest executive office, that sense of duty by which I have been ever guided would exact obedience to their will.”

Yet Gallatin, who had every opportunity to study Clay carefully, wrote of him: “His fault is that he is devoured with ambition and in all his acts never can detach himself and their effect on his popularity from the subject on which he is called to act.” As you follow Clay’s correspondence, you can see, as with Webster and Calhoun, the haunting spectre of the presidency everywhere. They must have known it, yet they would not admit it, even to themselves. It colored all their views and efforts to some extent, and in Clay’s case it is evidently responsible for his inconsistencies, such as they were, and for such trimming as appears in his dealing with the annexation of Texas, which probably lost him the presidency in 1844.

There are over and over again the eager effort, the ardent expectation, and then there are failure, defeat, disappointment, discouragement, disgust. Wise’s account of Clay’s extraordinary behavior when he lost the nomination to Harrison in 1840 may be exaggerated, but it must have a good deal of foundation: “Such an exhibition we never witnessed before and we pray never again to witness such an ebullition of passion, such a storm of desperation and curses. He rose from his chair, and walking backward and forward rapidly, lifting his feet like a horse string-halted in both legs, stamped his steps upon the floor, exclaiming ‘My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them.’ He mentioned the names of several, invoking upon them the most horrid imprecations, and then turning to us, approaching rapidly and stopping before us, with violent gestures and loud voice said, Tf there were two Henry Clays, one of them would make the other President of the United States.’ “

After such a downfall and the reaction that goes with it, it seems as if there were no hope any more, no use in hoping. One turns back to one’s lovely, quiet home at Ashland, to one’s wife and children, and cries out that retirement and peace are all the joy of life, that one has never longed for anything else. But this gnawing worm of ambition cannot be subdued, cannot be killed. Strength comes again, hope comes again. There is a little gleam of encouragement from somewhere. Friends urge that duty calls. One would not disregard duty under any circumstances. And at the very next opportunity, one is back in the field, hoping and fighting and sweating and despairing as ardently and pitifully as ever.

Thus, having clearly established Clay’s political and human qualities and gifts, we can make a very brief survey of his main efforts in the political field. Many, of these efforts failed, in fact most of them failed partially; but they were numerous and varied and almost all of them were high in aim and aspiration, however they proved abortive.

To begin with, Clay was perhaps the main promoter of the War of 1812, and though that war was not very glorious in some ways, on the whole it contributed to give the country an international standing that it had not had before. Another of Clay’s less successful later efforts was in connection with the sale of the public lands and distribution of the proceeds among the States. His policy here is not generally approved, but it had at least a magnanimous intention. Both the lack of success and the mixture of motives appear most in the bitter contest with Jackson over the United States Bank. Here again Clay no doubt believed he was working for the public welfare. But Jackson was his worst enemy and hatred and patriotism make a mixture of strong flavor and remarkable effectiveness. It is in this connection that one thinks most of Adams’s cruel but penetrating qualification of Clay as “rancorously benevolent,” So much of the world’s philanthropy is not inaptly covered by a similar phrase.

Others of Clay’s political schemes and projects were more purely humanitarian, even when they were not more suecessful. He joined Webster in the effort to procure national sympathy and support for the struggling Greeks. He toiled long and zealously to support the revolt of South America from the Spanish tyranny, and if he accomplished little of what he hoped and dreamed, he at least established himself securely in the remembrance of the South American peoples. He worked hard to bring about the development of internal improvements throughout the whole country and while the special projects may have come to nothing, the general impetus was not lost. Above all, he devoted himself to the perfection of his “American System” in the elaboration of the tariff to protect American industries. He himself was no extreme high tariff man. He expressly deprecated any desire to turn his country into such a world manufactory as England was. But he believed at least in developing American industry in proportion to American needs, and his speeches and arguments have served two or three generations of eager followers since his time.

But unquestionably Clay’s supreme political achievements may be best summed up in the word, Compromise. His contemporaries called him “The Great Pacificator.” The phrase has been disputed on the ground that many of the compromises he pushed did not originate with him; but in the spirit of compromise and the full appreciation of the significance of it he was unrivaled.

Compromise was characteristic of him and embodied the humanness which we have all along emphasized as so essential in his heart. It was not weakness, it was not timidity. The basis of compromise was simply human understanding and sympathy, the intense desire to enter into the point of view of others and to make it your own, so far as possible. All arguments were dubious. All human reasoning was fallible. At least you should recognize that others meant well, that they were honest, earnest, patriotic in intention, as you were. If you started on this basis, some method of adjustment, of mutual comprehension and agreement might surely be discovered. No finer statement of the theory can be found than that uttered by Clay, in his very last years: “I go for honorable compromise wherever it can be made. Life itself is but a compromise between death and life, the struggle continuing throughout our whole existence, until the great destroyer finally triumphs. All legislation, all government, all society is founded upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy; upon these everything is based. I bow to you today because you bow to me. . . . Let him who elevates himself above humanity, above its weaknesses, its infirmities, its wants, its necessities, say, if he pleases, I never will compromise, but let no one who is not above the frailties of our common nature disdain compromise.”

The first of Clay’s great efforts was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which was initiated by others, but carried through mainly by his persistent urgency, and untiring zeal. It fixed of course in regard to slavery generally much the view held by Clay himself, and that was merely a compromise between general humanitarian hatred in the abstract and the practical accommodation of habit and convenience. Then, in 1833, there was the Tariff Compromise, which by giving up or modifying Clay’s extreme principles, averted the threat of Nullification for the time, though this agreement Clay is said to have later regretted. And the supreme performance in this line was the great Slavery Compromise of 1850, which was finally carried through more by the influence of Clay and Webster combined than by anything else. Here again there has been plenty of criticism, but the preponderant verdict at present seems to be that, halting and imperfect as the Compromise was, it saved the Union by postponing the struggle imtil the growing power of the North got the immense development of the West behind it.

But, whatever judgment may be passed upon these compromises in their practical working, it must be admitted that in them and in all the other phases of his political life Clay was earnestly, ardently patriotic. Indeed in everything he was frank, direct, sincere. Such social charm as his is sometimes associated with duplicity, and he was accused of this, as of many other human frailties. But the truth is, he had a candid, outspoken, genuine soul. Over and over again he asserts his sincerity, and it is impossible not to believe him. At the same time, an ordinary person, who does not make a business of public life, is at times somewhat astonished by the tremendous solemnity with which Clay makes this assertion. Take one passage among many: “I can say and in the presence of my God and of this assembled multitude I will say, that I have honestly and faithfully served my country; that I have not wronged it; and that, however unprepared I lament that I am to appear in the Divine presence on other accounts, I invoke the stern justice of His judgment on my public conduct, without the smallest apprehension of his displeasure.” I should not dare to offer such a challenge with regard to any phase of my life or conduct for the existence of a single day. Yet Clay flings it in the face of Almighty God for thirty years. Of such stuff the great rulers of the world are made.


Finally, we may conclude with some larger applications of Clay’s thorough and most winning humanness. He was essentially democratic. This does not mean that he cultivated the cheap arts of the demagogue. He did not slap Tom, Dick, and Harry on the back at street corners, or tell uproarious stories in bar-rooms. His personal bearing in public and in private was always dignified and even a little remote. But, like Lincoln, he believed in the mass of the people, their political honesty and sanity. He had not a trace of the profound mistrust which affects so many wise men today, and which is the mere reaction from the too great hopes and enthusiasms of a century ago. Clay believed in the common man because he loved him and felt himself to be essentially like him. At the beginning of his career he proclaimed: “I have no commiseration for princes. My sympathies are reserved for the great mass of mankind.” And the rhetoric in this, as in so many others of his utterances, is softened and sweetened by the feeling behind it. As one who knew him well expressed it: “His sympathies were as wide as human nature and his manner was but the easy and natural expression of this sympathy. He recognized a certain dignity in every human soul which excited his respect and consideration.”

And Clay was ever a passionate and hopeful supporter of the American Union. He knew the value of the State tradition and said the right word for it at the right time. But he believed that the Union was an absolute necessity for all the States and for the future of mankind and he held those who were disloyal to it to be traitors. As Lincoln said of him: “Believing as he did, and as the truth surely is, that the world’s best hope depends on the continued union of these States, he was ever jealous of and watchful for whatever might have the slightest tendency to separate them.” Or, as Clay expressed it, with a passionate ardor quite worthy of Lincoln himself: “If any one desires to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of the Union will furnish him the key.” It cannot be doubted that Clay’s influence went far toward preserving the Union in the generation that followed his.

Moreover, Clay was essentially, constructively, triumphantly American. It would be perhaps unjust to say that he was more so than Webster. But Webster’s Americanism was of the head, Clay’s of the heart. Webster’s America was largely English. Clay’s America was the America of the future, however destiny might shape it. The aim of Webster was to maintain, to affirm, to strengthen the American Union on the fruitful basis of its original conception. The effort of Calhoun was to preserve it in its elementary framework, with the alternative of ruin if one joint of the ancient structure, as he saw it, was shaken or imperiled. The impetuous impulse of Clay was to let the youth, the vigor, the creative spirit of triumphant America sweep in untram-meled activity whithersoever it would, secure that a beneficent Providence would guide it in the future as it had done in the past.

In all these various phases Clay embodied the spirit of the West. Webster was the type of the Eastern tradition, Calhoun of the Southern. But the splendid, new, dynamic energy of the developing western country found its true representative in Henry, Clay. Jackson perhaps had more of rough, aggressive, popular democracy. But Clay’s was the West’s good-humor and good nature, its rollicking cordiality, its breezy friendliness and readiness to grasp and understand, Clay’s was its nervous vigor, its all-attempting courage, its undying enthusiasm. It was the West of Henry Clay that gave us food, that gave us fresh air, that gave us hope. It was the country of possibility and it was because Clay was so much the enthusiastic child of possibility that he seems alive today when so many of the issues that he dealt with have ceased to arouse the passions of men.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading