Henry Clay is most often remembered as a loser and a compromiser.
It is true that he mounted four serious bids for the presidency and failed all four times. However, dismissing him as a mere loser ignores the fact that Clay played a pivotal leading role in US politics for more than four decades. First, he made the Speaker of the House the dominant office it is today. Then, after a stint as Secretary of State, he became the most influential and effective Senator in our country’s history.
Clay justly earned his reputation as the Great Compromiser. Early in his career, he developed an uncanny gift for cutting deals that soothed seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, at least for awhile. He knew how to work around stubborn opponents and build majorities willing to give a little to get a little, to achieve the possible now and leave perfection for the future.
Compromise has negative connotations for many people in 2016, but of course it is an essential skill both in politics and in life. Neither marriage nor employment nor effective government are feasible without some concessions all around. Yet, voters seem increasingly willing to elect politicians who wear their refusal to compromise as a badge of honor.
Recently, some scholars have urged that we should stop calling Clay’s deals compromises and instead call them instances of appeasement. The proposed terminology intentionally evokes British capitulation to Hitler at Munich in 1938 as an analog for the concessions Congress gave the South in the agreements Clay brokered.
Thus, our assessment of the man must hinge on the quality of the bargains he struck and their implications for free and enslaved Americans. Were his compromises ill-considered? Was Clay the Neville Chamberlain of the antebellum era?
Certainly, his upbringing encouraged southern sympathies. Born today in 1777, Clay grew up near Richmond, Virginia on a plantation worked by more than 20 slaves. His father — a Baptist minister — died when Clay was four. Fortunately, after his mother remarried, his stepfather arranged for the boy to study law. By 1797, Clay had passed the bar and moved west to Kentucky — another slave state — to seek his fortune. In Lexington, he built a lucrative law practice, married well, and within a decade had several children, 60 slaves and a 600-acre plantation.
However, when Clay entered state politics, his status as a slave owner did not necessarily define his positions. As a rookie state legislator, he supported a gradual emancipation measure, but it failed. By focusing on more popular issues, he rose to a leadership position in the General Assembly.
Clay’s ascent in national politics proved even more meteoric. Elected to the US House of Representatives in 1810, he networked so effectively that his peers fired the incumbent Speaker of the House on the first day of the first session in March 1811 and appointed Clay in his place. Never before or since has the House removed a sitting Speaker and replaced him with a rookie.
The House leadership transition had nothing to do with partisan politics. Clay and his predecessor were both Democratic-Republicans, members of the party founded by Thomas Jefferson.
Instead, the change reflected different regional and generational priorities. The outgoing Speaker, Joseph Varnum of Massachusetts, was pushing 60. New England thrived on overseas trade and, having personally experienced the War for Independence, Varnum knew how difficult it would be to win another war against Britain.
For his part, Clay organized a faction called the War Hawks — young Congressmen from the South and West eager for a rematch against London. Steeped in patriotic myths about the Revolution, they demanded war to avenge the Royal Navy’s occasional impressment of American sailors, and to punish Canadian fur traders for trespassing on US land and selling guns to the Indians. With the Napoleonic Wars tying down the bulk of British forces in Europe, the War Hawks believed that conquering Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.”
Unfortunately, by the time Clay and Congress pushed President Madison into the War of 1812, France had folded. Now Britain could redeploy its army and navy to North America. Canada turned back the American invasion and joined with Indians to fight on the western frontier; one such battle killed Clay’s brother-in-law.
As the situation deteriorated, Clay resigned as Speaker to join an American delegation in Belgium negotiating with British diplomats. Meanwhile, the redcoats turned up the heat, mounting four separate invasions of the US, including one that stormed the capital and burnt down the White House. As news of these setbacks trickled in, the American commissioners came to their senses, dropped all of their demands in return for Britain’s promise to refrain from further hostilities.
Thus, in the Treaty of Ghent, the US delegation clearly appeased Britain. Returning empty-handed from Europe might have ended Clay’s political career; a similarly unimpressive diplomatic performance had ended John Jay’s national ambitions two decades before. Clay’s plight was even worse: As Speaker, he led his country into a war they failed to win; then, as a diplomat, he made peace without gaining any of the promised prizes.
Instead, Clay got lucky. News of the treaty reached most Americans at the same time they heard about Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans. That happy coincidence caused most of the country to conclude that the loss forced Britain to capitulate. In fact, the battle took place after the pact had been signed and had no influence on the negotiations. Nevertheless, the fantasy of a second victory over Britain in a second war for independence made Americans strangely incurious about the actual contents of the Treaty of Ghent.
Thus, Clay got away with appeasing Britain. He promptly returned to the House and became Speaker.
In the next installment, we shall see Clay weigh compromise and appeasement as the North and South fall out over slavery.