HENRY CLAY by David S. Heidler
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HENRY CLAY

The Essential American

KIRKUS REVIEW

A comprehensive biography of Lincoln’s political idol, the man said to have declared, “I had rather be right than be President.”

The breathtaking scope of Henry Clay’s career on the national stage surely accounts for the unique distinction accorded him at death (1777–1852). The first American to lie in state in the Capitol’s Rotunda, the Kentuckian transformed the House Speakership into a powerful office. As a diplomat, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, later served as John Quincy Adams’s Secretary of State, and was part of the Great Triumvirate that included Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. A constantly defeated presidential candidate, Clay’s adherence to staid tradition and a middle course proved no match for irresistible national impulses arising in the Age of Jackson. David and Jeanne Heidler (History/Colorado State Univ.-Pueblo and History/United States Air Force Academy; Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Early America, 2007, etc.) cover these political high watermarks in illuminating detail, but the beauty and strength of this biography is the full-blooded portrait of the man that accounts for the devotion Clay inspired and the hatreds he aroused. “Prince Hal” to his admirers and “the Judas of the West” (for his alleged part in the “Corrupt Bargain” that gave Adams the presidency) to his detractors, Clay was a powerful orator and convivial raconteur. Notwithstanding frequent, debilitating illnesses, he traveled widely, maneuvered constantly, survived two duels, fathered 11 children and bred racehorses and innovative crops on his slave-operated estate. The authors carefully examine Clay’s tortured slavery straddle—he often publicly declared the institution’s immorality—placing his views in context, but forthrightly acknowledging the Great Compromiser’s poignant inability to resolve the internal inconsistencies of his own position, attributing the failure to “a fundamental flaw in an otherwise good and decent man.”

A distinguished addition to the recent run of outstanding antebellum histories and biographies.

Pub Date: May 18th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6726-8
Page count: 624pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2010