Henry Clay: The Essential American
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Born into a middle class Virginia family during the tumultuous years of the American Revolution, young Henry Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he practiced law, married into a prominent family, and established himself as an important member of the community. He began his political career in the Kentucky legislature but soon was bound for the national stage when he entered the United States Senate in 1806. On the eve of the War of 1812, he became the youngest man elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. While transforming that post into a powerful force in American government, he guided the legislature through storms of war at the head of the War Hawk faction. President James Madison tapped Clay to join American commissioners in Ghent to negotiate the end of the conflict, and Clay distinguished himself as an unswerving champion of American interests during the war's darkest hours.
Despite these signal accomplishments, Clay's unsuccessful quest for the presidency became a repeated facet of his political career. He was an active candidate in 1824, 1832, and 1844, and sought his party's nomination in 1840 and 1848, but his contemporaries would admiringly recall his famous declaration, "I would rather be right than be President." Although he fell short of the White House, he wielded a level of influence comparable to the presidents of his time. He was the most influential Speaker of the pre-Civil War era and as Senator fashioned several compromises that calmed sectional strife and the slavery controversy that imperiled the Union.
Preserving the Union, in fact, became the paramount object of his life. As the founder of the Whig Party, Clay fashioned policies to advance what was dubbed his American System. He firmly believed that a strong central bank, tariffs to stimulate American industry, and internal improvements to facilitate interstate commerce would tie the nation together to make disunion not just improbable but unthinkable. His efforts inspired a new generation of politicians that included Abraham Lincoln, who followed Clay in seeking a solution to growing divisions over slavery. Extremists on both sides of the slavery debate alarmed Clay, and from 1833 to the end of his life, he labored to avert a crisis he was certain would destroy the country. Ever the Great Compromiser and Great Pacificator, he died hoping that men of good will could arrive at a solution. That they could not was in part a consequence of his passing.
From Publishers Weekly
. . . A fitting, up-to-date, and highly readable account of Henry Clay's life (1777-1852) and achievements . . . . The authors bring verve and clarity to Clay's struggles. . . . (Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.)
"Henry Clay's 49-year political career bridged the America of Alexander Hamilton and the America of Abraham Lincoln. Like them, he labored to strengthen and preserve the Union, and to secure its economic development through an enlightened alliance between private enterprise and public authority. Beautifully written, richly detailed, and wonderfully informative, David and Jeanne Heidler's account of Clay's life is deeply sympathetic, yet not uncritical. It should appeal to both academic and general audiences. These two accomplished historians have accorded a great statesman the biography he deserves." --Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
"Although Henry Clay ran three times for president and lost each time, he nevertheless dominated the American political scene during the first half of the nineteenth century. His unparalleled combination of skill, charisma, and energy are on display in this biography by David and Jeanne Heidler, which offers new information and insights on the man whom Abraham Lincoln described as "my beau ideal of a statesman." --James M. McPherson, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
"In this engaging biography of an important American lawmaker, David and Jeanne Heidler paint a revealing portrait of Henry Clay, a man who was critical to the life of the nation in the tumultuous 19th century. Never president but always in the arena, Clay is a remarkable architect of the Union, and we owe the Heidlers a debt for bringing him to life in these pages." --Jon Meacham, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of American Lion
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