Revolutionaries Inside the Capitol

Revolutionaries Inside the Capitol

Mini Teaser: America's founding is a gripping tale of rivalry, treachery and ultimately triumph. The divisive politics of today are nothing compared to those now celebrated on the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore.

by Author(s): Richard Norton Smith

[amazon 140006726X full]NO ONE in American history tried harder or longer to join their stony company than Henry Clay. The greatest president America never had, Clay is to the nation’s highest office what Sir Thomas Lipton was to the America’s Cup, a five-time loser whose oratorical genius proved inadequate to pass the Electoral College. As presented by authors David and Jeanne Heidler, of Colorado State University–Pueblo and the United States Air Force Academy, respectively, Clay is a man of superlatives—just thirty-four years old when, on his first day as a representative from Kentucky, he won election to the Speaker’s chair. First among equals in the Great Triumvirate of senators filled out by Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. The Great Compromiser whose parliamentary skills and winning personality repeatedly staved off disunion in the tense decades from 1820 to 1850.

Yet it is a measure of the Heidlers’ success that they rescue Harry of the West from his own legend. The quintessential patriot, in his youth Clay was embarrassingly linked to Aaron Burr’s murky conspiracy to establish a breakaway nation in the American Southwest. Best remembered as a powerful advocate for government-sponsored capitalism—his American System of publicly funded internal improvements, a protective tariff and a national bank were logical outgrowths of Hamiltonian statism—in 1811 Clay opposed rechartering the First Bank of the United States as an affront to his Jeffersonian principles. In fact, the only thing young Clay had in common with Hamilton was a duel with a political adversary on the far side of a well-placed river—in this case, the Ohio rather than the Hudson. Admittedly, he was more fortunate in its outcome.

For much of his extraordinary career, Clay was, in fact, the Great Polarizer, the second-most-divisive, and defining, figure in Jacksonian America. “I don’t like Henry Clay,” growled John C. Calhoun, “But, by God, I love him.” (Even Calhoun’s cognitive dissonance was dogmatic.) Drawing on exhaustive archival research and their own flair for narrative, the Heidlers give us Clay living; magnetic, occasionally manic, pulsing with ambition, lethally charming. They arguably come closer than anyone before them to capturing the man’s quicksilver personality, his capacity for greatness and his self-defeating hubris. We see the evolution of a raw, Virginia-trained lawyer, packaged for popular consumption as “The Mill Boy of the Slashes,” into a power-hungry Speaker of the House characterized by what one envious lawmaker labeled “the plenitude of puppyism.”

As Speaker, Clay hectored the reluctant Madison into adopting a more aggressive stance toward Britain. Having agitated for war, Clay was a conspicuous member of the negotiating team whose peace treaty confirmed American independence. One of nature’s risk takers, Speaker Clay nearly came to grief after supporting a notorious “Salary Grab” that replaced congressional wages of $6 per day with an annual stipend of $1,500. “The remarkable insularity of Washington’s political class has seldom been so vividly displayed,” the authors claim. In the ensuing uproar, Clay narrowly retained his seat—but only after promising to repeal the offending increase.

A more serious lapse of judgment led him on the floor of the House to lambaste Andrew Jackson, a rare American general to emerge from the war with his reputation enhanced, as a military despot in embryo. At the end of his three-hour diatribe, Clay sat back, immensely pleased with himself and the sensation he had created. It wouldn’t be the last time the sound of applause drugged Clay to the long-term consequences of his verbal aggression. Naturally he underestimated Jackson in 1824, when both men sought the presidency. A wiser man would have thought twice before defying his own state’s instructions to support the popular favorite Jackson over John Quincy Adams when the House came to select James Monroe’s successor. A more cunning one would have rejected Adams’s offer of the State Department, since Jefferson’s time the logical springboard to the White House.

Clay’s acceptance of the position sparked opposition charges of a “corrupt bargain” that would hound him to his deathbed. Once in office, the secretary’s kinship with the newly independent republics of South America (he was a passionate supporter of anticolonial movements there) made Clay as popular in Bogotá as in the Kentucky bluegrass. Yet an unfriendly Congress, eager to install Jackson as Adams’s successor in 1828, thwarted most of his diplomatic initiatives. Clay despised Old Hickory, his equal in charisma and his superior in reading the mood of his countrymen. But when South Carolina threatened to wreck the Union by nullifying federal tariffs, it was Clay who defused the crisis, handing Jackson one of his greatest triumphs.

Clay’s repeated attempts to gain the White House—apparently he really did say “I would rather be right than be President,” even if few believed him, then or since—foundered on personal conviction (his support of a national bank in 1832; his opposition to annexing slaveholding Texas in 1844) and inauspicious timing. In 1840 and again in 1848, his Whig Party nominated popular generals out of sheer expediency. The Heidlers make us care, intensely, about these ancient controversies. In putting a very human face on the past, they remind us that ambition, betrayal, self-delusion and jockeying for place are scarcely limited to Clay’s Washington. Tapping fresh documentary sources, the authors give us the fullest picture to date of Lucretia Clay, whom it was rumored that Henry married for her money. True or not, the Clay marriage clearly ripened into a love match. Indifferent to the marble and mud of Washington, Lucretia endured painful separations and losses that would crush a less resilient spirit. The Clays saw all six of their daughters to an early grave. Of the couple’s five sons, the eldest, Theodore, died in an insane asylum; three drank to excess; Henry Jr. died on the Mexican battlefield of Buena Vista, ironically the same engagement that launched Zachary Taylor on the road to the White House at the expense of young Clay’s richly credentialed father.

[amazon 0465012884 full]CLAY AND Taylor were fated to confront one another in a seminal test of American unity. Their clash lies at the heart of Robert Remini’s At the Edge of the Precipice, an elegant coda to half a century as the nation’s foremost interpreter of Jacksonian America. Until recently historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, Remini detects troubling parallels between antebellum Washington and today’s harshly polarized capital. Revisiting the subject of his 1991 biography of Clay, he takes us deep inside the mind and machinations of an aging statesman as he struggles to pull a final great compromise out of his hat.

The political climate was anything but encouraging. By 1850, rapid territorial expansion, a legacy of the recently concluded Mexican-American War, was prompting renewed debate over the spread of slavery. Paralyzed by partisanship, in December 1849 the House required sixty-three ballots to elect a Speaker (and twenty more to choose a clerk). Sensing their hour at hand, disunionists led by Calhoun of South Carolina organized a convention of slaveholding states to convene in Nashville the following June. Clay the nationalist was appalled. Exhausted, ill and out of favor with his party’s president, Zachary Taylor, Prince Hal found himself in more ways than one racing against time.

For all his flaws, his canine ambition and frequent bouts of petulance, Clay was an essentially constructive force. Never more so than in the tumultuous spring and summer of 1850. While his motives as the Great Pacificator, pouring the oil of conciliation on chronically troubled waters, were admirable, his tactics proved to be deficient. For in combining eight separate measures into a so-called omnibus bill balanced as on a knife’s edge, Clay succeeded only in uniting the enemies of compromise, North and South. His efforts to rally the sensible center, and to persuade a majority of senators to look beyond narrowly sectional or ideological interests, will fascinate the C-SPAN junkie. So will a supporting cast trying out for larger roles in the drama to come. A radical Senator William Seward dismissed Clay’s something-for-everyone package as “magnificent humbug.” At the other end of the political spectrum, future Confederate leader Jefferson Davis accused the elder statesman of exploiting the crisis to advance his unquenchable presidential ambitions.

Ironically, it was events beyond Clay’s control which dictated the final outcome. President Taylor, eager to admit California as a Free State and no friend to Clay’s legislative brainchild, providentially succumbed to cholera following July Fourth festivities at the unfinished Washington Monument. His successor, Millard Fillmore, showed himself far more amenable to compromise. Senator Daniel Webster, himself a magnificent ruin, braved the wrath of antislavery constituents by endorsing a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act requiring Northerners to aid in the recovery of runaways. None of this kept the Senate from initially rejecting Clay’s unwieldy omnibus. As the enfeebled lawmaker retreated to the seaside resort of Newport, Rhode Island, the task of legislative resurrection, separating the bill’s parts and shepherding each into law, was left to young Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

Yet history rightly credits Clay as the driving force behind the Compromise of 1850, which swapped California’s admission to the Union as a Free State and an end to slave trading within sight of the Capitol in exchange for the Fugitive Slave Act and some deliberately ambiguous language concerning slavery’s future in the unsettled West. In postponing sectional warfare for a critical decade, Clay made it possible for the North to bolster its industrial supremacy, and for the political process to bring forth Clay’s fellow Kentuckian and lifelong admirer, Abraham Lincoln.

Pullquote: If there is an overriding theme, it is the pervasive egalitarian instinct that shaped American politics long before Andrew Jackson built a fabled political career on Us versus Them.Image: Essay Types: Book Review