The Senator visualized a clear future for America, a nation of groomed roadways, busy canals, sturdy bridges, and sleek iron railways. He believed the country, in order to bloom into a truly great nation, required the best in structural innovation. But this practical Statesman encountered an insurmountable barrier impeding his dream, an obstacle built of senseless political partisanship.
Henry Clay first arrived in Washington DC, from Kentucky in 1803. In the House for three years, Clay moved to the Senate filling a sudden vacancy. In these early, formative years of America, paralleling Clay’s own political youth, he promoted policies he later regretted. A fierce booster for the War of 1812, Clay joined a fraternity of other young politicos called War Hawks, who favored a fight against Great Britain. Yet, by the end of that conflict Clay realized the war had generated nothing of real value for the future of the country.
Embracing his new belief system, the young Senator turned to building up America from within. Clay crafted a long-range program of growth he called The American System. The components of this plan were three-fold: a strong protective tariff to nurture America’s fledgling industrial base, a Second Bank of the United States to finance government funds and issue currency, and funding for ‘internal improvements,” or infrastructure projects. For Henry Clay this multilevel proposal would provide a foundation for a mighty nation-state to grow, equal to any across the Atlantic. And Clay embraced the righteousness of his crusade as a quasi secular faith.
This grounded, logical man attracted a great deal of support among his fellow legislators, and The American System appeared on the brink success.
Unfortunately, from the West, (meaning Tennessee) rode the dashing victor of the Battle of New Orleans, the conquerer of Spanish Florida, and vanquisher of the Creek Nation in the Red Stick War, Andrew Jackson, and Jackson intended to become president. At first Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this brawler seriously. But Clay was dead wrong. Jackson’s popularity soared among all classes, especially poor whites, and Jackson won not only his first term, but reelection four years later. Most significantly, for Henry Clay, this President did not like him, not one little bit.
The temperament of Congress shifted dramatically after Jackson’s election, as well. Jacksonian supporters filled the House, and to a lesser degree the Senate, leaving Clay hard pressed to pass any of his program. In fact Jackson made fast work on Clay’s earlier successes killing the Second Bank, vetoing countless internal improvement projects, and only defended the Tariff because a separate Jackson enemy threatened to violate the law in his state.
Henry Clay found himself fighting politically for every economic belief he championed. The mercurial man in the Presidential Mansion (White House) thwarting Clay at every turn.
Adding more turbulence to the era, the intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other concerns. Clay, a slave owner who believed in gradual emancipation, found enemies in both the North and South; Northerners because he was a slave owner, Southerners because he believed in emancipation. The man couldn’t win.
Over Clay’s lifetime of public service, he forged three major Union-saving compromises. An ardent patriot, the Senator believed men of good will could solve all problems for the greater good of the nation. First there was the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and last, his swan song, the Compromise of 1850, giving America California.
Sadly, Senator Henry Clay did not live to see his American System a reality. But there is a silver lining to this tale. Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Clayite saw passage of the Pacific Railways Act, the Morrill Act, and a National Banking Act. These three laws built the Transcontinental Railroad, Land Grant Universities in the west, and funding the Union war effort.
Oh, and Clay’s desire to emancipate slaves became real in 1863.
The moral of the story transcends time: America stalls when irrational politics displaces thoughtful, reasonable policies and the legislators who promote them.
Note-I have co-authored a new play celebrating the life of this remarkable, essential American simply titled “Clay.”
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both are available on Kindle, or in hard copy at www.river-of-january.com
You can contact Gail for questions or enquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org