Book Review: Henry Clay – Statesman for the Union

Every March, it’s the time of the year to read about the Age of Jackson. In order to understand more about the era of my greatest interest, I’m delving into Jackson’s enemies. Henry Clay was the greatest of his foes, and today I’m learning about Clay and the defunct Whig party.

The Book

Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union
Author: Robert V. Remini
1991
Amazon Link

I’ll be honest and say that I’m already pretty biased against Henry Clay going into this. Jackson hated him with a towering passion all the way to the end of his life, where he wrote a note of “forgiveness” to “all his enemies,” which included Clay. However, let’s remember that upon leaving the presidency, Jackson’s had “only two regrets: [he] didn’t shoot Henry Clay and [he] didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” In every single, solitary thing I’ve read, Henry Clay has played the villain.

However, Robert V. Remini is one of my favorite authors and 100% my favorite historian, so I’m almost certain I’m going to like the read.

Non-Spoiler Review

Up until now, I’ve known Henry Clay almost primarily for his political scheming. His participation in the Corrupt Bargain and in the Bank War are the most well-documented and known. Remini does, surprisingly, a good job describing these events despite his prior experience as a Jackson man. In fact, Remini has the same problem as he does in all his previous works: he takes Clay’s side.

When taken on its own, Henry Clay is a highly one-sided work that tries to explain away (most of) Clay’s worst attributes and put him in the best of lights. When I think of this book in and of itself, it’s pretty strange because you can see how obviously flawed the man is and just feel strange about how Remini speaks of things.

However, when you take this book on top of the rest of Remini’s works, it’s perfect. This book serves as a pretty damning criticism of Jackson’s administration and Van Buren’s party tactics. It fits together with his earlier Jackson trilogy to make a more complete story about that man’s problems. As well, having read many, many of Remini’s other Age of Jackson works, I already know some of Remini’s political problems with Clay. I know the opinions of Clay’s enemies upon starting this book.

One of the things I have learned to appreciate from Remini is the sass in his tone as he recounts and comments. John C. Calhoun, who at this point I believe is solidly in contention for the title of “worst American ever”, appears several times in the book. At one point Clay lashes his magic voice out at Calhoun, lacing his words with arsenic, and Calhoun doesn’t take it well. Remini says, “[Calhoun] would not abide personal attacks – not from anyone – and least of all from those (practically everybody) who could not match the excellence of his ‘metaphysical thought processes.'” That “practically everybody” comment from Remini combined with the sheer pompousness of “metaphysical thought processes” quote from Calhoun makes for such a great, subtle jibe at the man. Remini also does a good job poking holes into things by showing evidence to contradict Clay’s insistence on “good intentions” right after stating the good intention.

I think this book is essential reading if you’re going to be a Jacksonian era history buff. You can’t escape reading Remini’s Jackson trilogy, and this book is a perfect addition that places criticisms and lends thoughts from the other side of the story. Fantastic work.

5/5 Discoball Snowcones

SPOILERS REVIEW

There’s one thing in this book that just shocked me: was the Trail of Tears perhaps a middle of the road “solution”? O_O Henry Clay was the main opposition leader to Jackson, and during the Trail of Tears he opposed Jackson by allying with those who supported the Indians, but he also declared, “Their disappearance from the human family will be no great loss to the world.” He advocated just helping to speed that along up until it became more politically prudent for him to oppose removal. It was madness.

As well, Clay was one of those people who advocated removing all the free black people in America to Liberia or other colonies. He believed people of multiple races incapable of living together up until the very end of his life, which to me implies that he never really gave up his initial thoughts on the Indians. He was well-known to flip flop on whatever seemed to be politically expedient, so it was kind of difficult to tease out his real intent vs. what served him best.

Political, monetary, and whoring interests were what pressed Henry Clay for action. It was pretty obvious he was devoid of any sort of morality and would abandon his principles at the first sign he could do better with a different stance. The bank lined his pockets with gold (literally, they paid him SO MUCH MONEY for years on end, and the bank paid off other senators and representatives), so why would he ever oppose it? Why, except for self-gain, would he propose a “National Road” that ran only in his state of Kentucky and only really succeeded in connecting his city (Lexington) with the east? Discounting his own economics, why would he push for a tariff protecting his own farm goods at the expense of the southerners?

The man was corrupt as hell. That doesn’t mean his enemies weren’t corrupt, but it’s so clear with him.

Next week:

It’s time for the accomplice in Clay’s murder of Jackson’s wife: John Quincy Adams!

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Henry Clay – Statesman for the Union

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