• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #64: Henry Clay, Statesman for the Union


"Somebody left a huge flag on my globe."

Among my non-presidential American political heroes, Henry Clay is pretty high up on the list. He was supremely talented, relentlessly ambitious, deeply egotistical, seductively charming, with unmatched oratorical skills. He was a seeker of common ground, a border-state Kentuckian wary of sectional strife. In the 2016 there was a lot of chatter about Hillary Clinton being the most qualified person ever to run for President. Anyone claiming that didn't know their history. Henry Clay served in the United States Senate for sixteen years, US Congressman for eleven (ten of those as Speaker), and Secretary of State for four. He is probably the greatest US Senator in history, arguably the greatest Speaker of the House, and certainly the most influential non-president in American political annals. The Great Compromiser, he held the splintering nation together in both 1820 and 1850. His efforts to broker the Compromise of 1850 essentially killed him.


Not that he wasn't flawed. A slave-owner from birth, he favored gradual emancipation and African recolonization. Yet he was Jackson's great opponent, defeating state nullification and organizing the Whig party to oppose Jacksonian policies including Indian removal. He was his party's nominee for President three times, losing each time (to JQ Adams in 1824, Jackson in 1832, and Polk in 1844). The one time he certainly would have won, in 1840, he wasn't nominated. Famously, Clay was quoted as stating he would "rather be right than be President."


We could use some Great Compromisers today. We could use Henry Clay.

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