The Senator visualized a clear future for America; a nation of groomed roadways, busy canals, sturdy bridges, and mighty iron railways. He believed America, in order to mature into a truly great nation, required the best in structural innovation. Yet, despite his noble intentions, this practical statesman faced an insurmountable barrier impeding his work–Andrew Jackson.
Henry Clay first arrived in Washington City as a green Kentucky Congressman in 1803. Serving in the House for three years, Clay eventually moved over to the Senate, appointed by the Kentucky legislature to fill an unexpected vacancy.
Early in his legislative career young Clay committed his fair share of blunders. A fierce booster for war in 1812, Clay worked with other young ‘ War Hawks,’ who favored this second brawl against Great Britain. However, by the end of that conflict, Clay realized this do-over against England had generated nothing of real substance for the young Republic.
Fully embracing his epiphany, the young Senator turned his efforts to building America from within. Clay devised a long-range program of development he called The American System. Components of his plan were three-fold: a strong protective tariff to nurture America’s fledgling industrial base, a Second Bank of the United States to administer federal funds, that in turn would underwrite his ‘internal improvements,” (infrastructure projects). For Henry Clay this three-tiered plan would provide the solid foundation a mighty nation-state needed to prosper. And the Senator enthusiastically advanced his crusade as a secular evangelical.
Henry Clay’s progressive program found considerable support among his fellow legislators, so much so, The American System seemed on the brink success.
Unfortunately for Clay a dashing war hero rose to challenged his vision. Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, the victor of New Orleans, conquerer of Spanish Florida, and vanquisher of the Creek Nation, had set his sights on becoming president.
In the beginning Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this rustic hellion seriously. But Clay misread public sentiment. Jackson’s popularity soared among all classes, particularly among poor whites. Jackson successfully won not only a first term, but enjoyed reelection four years later. Most ominous for Henry Clay, this formidable president did not like him, not one little bit.
Very quickly Congressional appetite for public works dissolved. New 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 by killing the Second Bank of the US, and vetoing countless internal improvement projects. The only portion of the American System Jackson defended was the Tariff, and merely because a separate Jackson enemy threatened to ignore the law.
Henry Clay found himself fighting tooth and nail for every economic belief he championed. And the harder he pushed, the harder the mercurial man in the (White House) thwarted him.
The intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other political and economic conflicts. Clay, a slave owner himself, who preached gradual emancipation, found Jacksonian enemies in both the North and South. Northerners hated him because he was a slave owner, and Southerners because he believed in emancipation. The Senator couldn’t win.
Over the course of Clay’s decades in public service, he brokered three major nation-saving compromises. An ardent patriot, he believed men of good will could solve sectional differences for the greater good of the nation. First, as Speaker of the House, Clay crafted the Missouri Compromise, followed later by the Compromise Tariff of 1833. His last, and most difficult ordeal, the Compromise of 1850, granting California statehood, among other provisions.
Sadly, Senator Henry Clay did not live to see his American System become a reality. But there is a silver lining to this tale. Abraham Lincoln, a staunch Clayite shepherded 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 in the Civil War.
Oh, and Clay’s desire to emancipate slaves became a reality 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