Henry Clay: The Essential American :: Larger Than Life In His Day, Nearly Forgotten Now

Henry Clay: The Essential American
David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler (2010)

Having just finished a 400-plus book on the venerable statesman Henry Clay, I feel as if I’ve taken a survey course on American politics, complete with a field trip to Clay’s Ashland estate in Lexington, Kentucky in December. During a career that spanned four decades and ten presidencies, Clay (1777-1852) served as a Congressman, Senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, beginning his term on the eve of the War of 1812. At the time of his death, he was serving as a Senator, and though wracked by the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him, he passionately worked on his final, great compromise, legislation he hoped would repair the cracks in a crumbling Union. Though he succeeded in his task, less than a decade passed before the United States dissolved into Civil War.

As a career politician, much of the book revolves around the intense (and sometimes venomous) politicking that went on during Clay’s four decades of public service, including three unsuccessful, and often contentious, bids for the presidency. Once again, reading history proves that dirty politics is by no means a modern game.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period of Clay’s life, a fascinating pivot point in U.S. history. Henry Clay is often regarded as the finest orator of his day and the greatest senator in U.S. history; this extensive yet readable biography does much to illuminate why, as well as fill in the important moments in an oft forgotten period of American history.

(Note: This book is part of my Presidential Reading Project.)


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