What Henry Clay can teach us about today

Alex Beehler Contributor
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As we approach the 2010 midterm elections, issues related to the U.S. Constitution and the original intent of the Founders in limiting the role of the federal government increasingly drive the political debate. As the resulting partisan acrimony intensifies, it may be of value to inject an historical perspective which reveals that our country has faced variations of these same constitutional conflicts continuously throughout its young life. A recent biography, “Henry Clay, the Essential American,” which is well written and extensively researched by the husband and wife team of Jeanne T. and David S. Heidler, brings this clearly to light.

As the title suggests, Henry Clay was intrinsic to the development of the United States during the first half of the 19th century. Henry Clay was the real life Forrest Gump of his era, participating in the seminal events of the time. Born in 1777 in Hanover County, Virginia, Clay allegedly encountered the infamous British colonel Banastre Tarleton and his raiders on the Clay homestead near the end of the Revolutionary War, when Clay was just four years old. As a teenager in Richmond, he was a clerk for George Wythe, the first official law professor in the U.S. Moving to the then-frontier town of Lexington, KY, he became a lawyer, married well, and soon developed courtroom oratory skills that served him well in both the halls of justice and the halls of Congress.

By age 29, Henry Clay had represented Aaron Burr in Kentucky against an alleged conspiracy to invade Spanish Mexico and been selected U.S. Senator by the Kentucky Legislature to fill the remaining several months of an unexpired term. In 1811, at age 34, Clay became the youngest Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, for which he initiated many of the procedural prerogatives that empower the office to this day. After leading the War Hawks faction in Congress to declare war on Great Britain in 1812, Clay was part of the U.S. delegation that negotiated the war’s conclusion in the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. Over the next four decades, mostly as U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, Clay was at the pivot of every major political issue of the time — the 1820 Missouri Compromise, the 1832 tariff and nullification conflict, the extension of the National Bank, the annexation of Texas, the Mexican War, and the Compromise of 1850. Each of these seminal events involved clearly-recognized and staunchly-debated constitutional principles.

Clay’s political career was conducted against a backdrop of significant personal challenges that would have totally overwhelmed a lesser person. Of his eleven children, all six daughters died by young adulthood, one son was killed fighting in the Mexican War (to which Clay was opposed), and two others were institutionalized. Despite Clay’s longevity, the authors present compelling evidence that he contracted tuberculosis and was afflicted for many years. As a plantation owner and a land speculator, he faced volatile financial circumstances, alternatively succeeding and failing. With his strong personality and commanding presence, he made fast friends and even faster enemies, resulting in his participation in two duels. And yet, at his death in 1852, Henry Clay was the first person to lie in state in the nation’s Capitol rotunda, a true sign of respect shown by his Senate colleagues, friend and foe alike.

With regard to constitutional matters, Clay dealt with a range of topics, which still resonant today. Moreover, Clay’s positions evolved over his long career. Initially a states’ righter, a pro-war expansionist, and an anti-National Bank (national monetary policy) Jeffersonian democrat, Clay concluded his career as a pro-Bank, pro-Federal (roads) development, anti-Mexican War and anti-slavery National Republican whom Abraham Lincoln greatly admired. Not surprisingly, given his congressional positions, Clay had an abhorrence to executive authority, viewing much of the Jackson presidency as tyrannical (though given Clay’s strong personality, one wonders what type of president he would have been if one of his three tries for the office had been successful). Clay was conflicted on the question of slavery, personally viewing it as morally wrong while a continuous slave owner; politically he believed in its gradual abolition and repatriation of former slaves to Africa. As for the budding Temperance Movement, Clay, who enjoyed good bourbon, opposed any legislative efforts to coerce. Exhibiting a libertarian streak, Clay wrote, “No man likes to have, or ought to have, cold water or brandy, separately or in combination, put in or kept out of his throat upon any other will than his own.”

In other realms of political déjà vu, Henry Clay encountered financial shenanigans of fellow congressmen and election fraud. In 1816, members of Congress awarded themselves immediate pay raises, resulting in widespread defeat of members that November by an outraged electorate. During the 1830’s, there was pervasive abuse of congressional mileage allowance; in response Clay led in the imposition of accounting reforms. And the closely-contested Presidential Election of 1844, which pitted Clay against Democrat James Polk, was likely decided by 5,000 votes cast by illegal immigrants in Manhattan. Those 5,000 votes allowed Polk to carry New York, which in turn allowed him to win a narrow majority of votes in the Electoral College.

Thus, as we approach this November’s election, in many ways we have been here before; we just do not realize it. Maybe we should devote more time to reflecting on the possible lessons to be learned.

Alex Beehler is the Assistant Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Environment, Safety & Occupational Health) at the United States Department of Defense.