A comprehensive biography of the statesman whom Abraham Lincoln called “the ideal politician.”
By our lights, Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a bundle of contradictions. He was adamant about his right to own slaves, for instance, but he was just as adamant that slavery was wrong. He was also a strong advocate of the precedence of the Union over states’ rights, even as he argued against the expansion of the Union through conquest during the Mexican-American War. It was his bravery in holding unpopular opinions that caused Lincoln, as prolific historian Unger ("Mr. President": George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office, 2013, etc.) writes, to consider Clay his intellectual and political forefather. Clay, the author writes, was “the first true American leader,” born on the Virginia frontier the year after independence was declared and thus never a British citizen. His sharp mind and rhetorical skills set him apart from his fellow law clerks, “with a command of courthouse legal jargon, a winning baritone voice, and a range of adolescent skills that included cards, gambling, drinking, a quick sharp tongue, and ears and eyes that absorbed every opportunity for advantage and advancement.” Setting up shop as a lawyer in Kentucky, he soon distinguished himself as a populist who called for the expansion of voters rights and naturally allied with representatives and not senators—though, in time, he would serve in both houses of Congress and run numerous times for the presidency. Clay, best known for his saying “I would rather be right than be president,” became famous in the 1830s for his implacable opposition to Andrew Jackson, another southerner, but he was much more: a diplomat and peacemaker who attempted to forge compromises that, then as now, the heated politics of the day made difficult, if not impossible.
In this lucid, exemplary biography, Unger focuses on not just Clay, but also on the formation of the early republic, a time too little studied today. An excellent introduction to a turbulent era.