‘Henry Clay: The Essential American’
By David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler
(Random House, $30)
Henry Clay has been shortchanged by historians. He is relegated to a mere footnote in most history texts, but his impact on our country was both indelible and profound. A new biography promises to finally give this incredible leader his due.
Mr. Clay was born in 1777 in Hanover County, Va., the son of a Baptist preacher. During the years between the founding of the United States and the Civil War, he was at various times Speaker of the House, U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of state and a five-time presidential candidate. As the country inched its way toward war, Mr. Clay tried unsuccessfully to hold the Union together by crafting arrangements and cobbling together majorities. Although he wasn’t always successful, he earned a reputation for being a risk-taker, horse trader, arm twister and statesman.
Historians David and Jeanne Heidler, who have written extensively about the early American republic, serve up a literary feast that features such personalities as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and Aaron Burr. Henry Clay is the glue, if you will, that binds these people together. How he transformed the capital, the political system and his country makes for exciting reading. No longer just a footnote, this Mr. Clay is a living, breathing man who tirelessly worked to make deals, and in the process transformed the lives of millions of his fellow citizens.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing parts of “Henry Clay: The Essential American” revolves around the presidential campaign of 1844. In one of those historical “what ifs,” one has to wonder what would have happened if Mr. Clay had won that election. It’s almost certain that there would not have been a Mexican War and that the annexation of California and the American Southwest by the United States would not have occurred in the ruthless way that they did. ¦