The word from a Kentucky acquaintance is that Mitch McConnell fancies himself a Henry Clay scholar. That probably means little to most, but Senator Clay (1777-1852) nearly single-handedly held the US together, postponing Civil War for over 40 years.
With a name that epitomizes progress and compromise, it feels odd Mitch McConnell proclaims a kindred spirit in Senator Clay. This earlier Kentucky Senator bent over backwards to protect and promote the vitality of our young republic.
Clay rolled up his sleeves and cultivated coalitions among his fellow law makers to keep the nation from fracturing. He orchestrated the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850; all crafted to maintain the Union. In fact, the Civil War erupted AFTER Clay’s death, as no other Senator possessed the talent and determination to keep Congress talking.
In the interest of full disclosure, yes, Henry Clay owned slaves. And yes, he believed in gradual emancipation, as slavery proved antithetical to economic progress. The Senator’s commitment to America drove his efforts, and Clay worked with all political factions, even those he opposed.
McConnell does nothing, and takes pride in doing nothing. Invoking Senator Clay, who did a lot, is poor cover for an old obstructing politician to presume. Clay did not dig in his heels to impede the opposition party’s efforts to govern.
Henry Clay served his country, McConnell serves himself.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight,” and the stage play, “Clay.”
The lights rise on an empty stage. The back curtain ripples with an image of the American flag, circa 1824. “Hail to the Chief” plays in the background. Only a table and two chairs rest at stage left, with a liquor bottle and two glasses. Clay enters from the wings. As Clay speaks the image and music fades.
CLAY A festive atmosphere greeted the 1824 election season. And some apprehension, as well.
Clay pours a drink, leaning against the table.
CLAY Secretary of War John C. Calhoun hoped he might find enough political momentum to land the highest office, but discovered little, outside his home state. Though I never forged a warm friendship with Calhoun, we shared common cause promoting a protective tariff and investment in the American system.
He sips his drink.
CLAY As electioneering heated up, reports circulated in Washington City that the frontrunner, Georgia’s William Crawford, had fallen perilously ill. Initially, details were scarce, but in due order, a diagnosis arrived suggesting apoplexy. His allies vowed to continue the race, though Crawford’s prospects appeared dim.
Clay ponders a moment before continuing.
CLAY My old associate, John Quincy Adams, entered as well, with support from the whole of New England, including dispersed Yankees throughout the North. His supporters detested slavery, and as it happened, me, the slave holder. Resolving the Missouri crisis did nothing to gladden our fellow citizens of the North. Such is the thankless plight of public resolutions.
He smiles sadly, and sips. A melody, “My Old Kentucky Home,” increases in volume.
CLAY Despite my very public stance on gradual emancipation, the Adams people were not moved a whit. Their fierce intransigence gave me pause.
Clay stares a long moment. The music fades.
CLAY Then there was Andrew Jackson.
He issues a mirthless laugh.
CLAY As Jackson waited to enter the 1824 race, the Tennessee legislature elected “Old Hickory” to the United States Senate. Taking great pains to avoid any public positions, the honor must have horrified him. Jackson had to publicly commit to policy votes, and vote he did. Bills for the protective tariff, and for funding internal improvements. Hrrumph! But he had nothing to fear. Jackson’s reputation remained firm with his states rights’ proponents. I believe he could have shot someone in the lane and preserved his support.
Clay refreshes his drink while sitting at the table. He rises.
CLAY I too, craved the presidency. Forgive my repetition, but the so-called “American System” program was too vital to tolerate an ignoramus in the White House.
CLAY Celebrity is no guarantee of competence.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” She is also the writer of Clay, and 3-act play, and Scenes Of A Nation, in progress. Both books are available on Kindle.
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. 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.
Fully embracing this 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 in the spirit of 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 thwart his vision. Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, the victor of New Orleans, among other military escapades had set his sights on becoming president.
In the beginning Clay thought little of the uneducated, volatile militiaman, believing voters would not take this uncouth 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) blocked him.
The intractable issue of slavery soon dwarfed all other political and economic conflicts. Clay, a slave owner himself, preached gradual emancipation, finding enemies in both the North and South. Northerners hated him because he was a slave owner, and Southerners because he believed in emancipation. This guy couldn’t win.
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 Clay-ite shepherded passage of the Pacific Railways Act, the Morrill Act, and a National Banking Act through Congress. 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. Gail is the author of two stage plays, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears.”