Feet of Clay


For the last few weeks, I’ve been working my way through Henry Clay: The Essential American.  Such political biographies are inevitably histories of the times, and Clay’s times basically bridged the America of the early Constitution and the America just before the Civil War.

I may or may not have time for a longer, more thorough post on Clay, but I wanted to throw out a few observations, as Clay spends a few years at Ashland, recovering physically and financially in preparation for one last stint in Washington, after his defeat as the Whig nominee in 1844.

Clay was, by any account, a remarkable and remarkably intense politician.  He was quickly elected Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, and then, on his first day in the US House, elected Speaker of the House there.  Clay would revolutionize that role, taking the Speakership from a mostly administrative role to a center of political power.  When he moved to the Senate, he would wield similar power there as a floor leader, even without the formal role of Majority Leader that we have today.

Because of his long Congressional career, we know Clay today as the Great Compromiser, remembering his roles in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and the Compromise of 1850, both of which helped stave off disunion over slavery.  Those are merely the largest, best-known of his compromises.   He led successful compromises over the tariff (despite being a westerner, he favored a high protective tariff), and over a renewed Bank of the United States and internal improvements, the last two thwarted by presidents rather than Congress.  These three aspects of his program comprised what he referred to as the American System.

For being almost 200 years old, the politics of the 1830s and 1840s is strikingly modern.  Much of this is the result of Andrew Jackson’s populist revolution in American politics, but Clay’s and the Whigs’ response to it also resonates with today’s reader.  For instance, in vetoing the recharter of the Bank of the United States, Jackson’s message essentially dodged constitutional questions, and boiled down to the fact that he didn’t much like banks.   Clay thought that Jackson’s lack of intellectual coherence in his veto message would cost him politically in the Mid-Atlantic states, where the Bank was popular.  He underestimated the populist appeal of Jackson’s message.  It wouldn’t be the last time Clay misread the politics vs. the policy of an issue.

Clay also had to deal with the changing nature of presidential campaigning.  While personally outgoing and optimistic, and a fine public speaker, he never really enjoyed or thought seemly the public appearances and speeches that marked presidential elections in the 1840s.  And in the 1844 campaign, he never could get his fellow Whigs to understand the importance of a centralized party organization.  Counting on the popularity of their program and ideas to carry the day, they narrowly lost to James K. Polk, whose Democrats better understood the politics of faction.

The Whigs also might well have won, had they been able to keep the focus on the economy.  They had won handily in 1840 on that basis, although Harrison’s death and Tyler’s allegiance to Democrat, rather than Whig, ideas, cost them mightily as the public perceived them as unready to govern.  But the party in power often controls the public agenda, and it was to Tyler’s benefit – until he dropped out – to bring Texas, and the inevitable conflict over slavery – to the forefront.  It was the 1844 equivalent of running on a supposed “War on Women,” in order to avoid talking about a wretched economic record.

It was also in the 1830s that we start to see the philosophical differences that would define American politics from then on.  The Democrats favored a strong executive – first pioneered by Andrew Jackson – while the Whigs really coalesced initially around resistance to what they saw as the usurpation of legislative priority.   But it was the Whigs who favored a more nationalist policy, Clay’s American System – a central bank, protective tariffs, and federally-funded internal improvements.   So it was possible for Tyler to resist Jackson’s executive power grab by joining the Whigs, and still oppose the Whig federal program.

Clay never would be president, despite being a perennial nominee or mentionee for decades.  It’s entirely possible that this was for the best.  His time at the State Department under John Quincy Adams was miserable.  Clay always supported legislative supremacy, believing that the Constitution put Congress in Article I for a reason, and there’s no reason to doubt his sincerity on this point, or to believe that it was one of convenience.  Had he been elected President, he would likely have found crafting legislative compromise more difficult from the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., since he wouldn’t have been in a position to control the process as thoroughly as he did from the floor or the Speaker’s chair.  The Presidency has not been kind to those with a legislative, rather than an executive temperament.

That’s where I am now – Clay having lost in 1844, retiring to Ashland (which still exists), awaiting a return to the national spotlight that he doesn’t know is coming.