Henry Clay: The Essential American
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Henry Clay: The Essential American

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  914 ratings  ·  72 reviews
The epic life and times of one of the most important political figures in our history.

He was the Great Compromiser, a canny and colorful legislator and leader whose life mirrors the story of America from its founding until the eve of the Civil War. Speaker of the House, senator, secretary of state, five-time presidential candidate, and idol to the young Abraham Lincoln, He...more
Hardcover, 595 pages
Published May 4th 2010 by Random House
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I started reading this book because in my high school AP US history class, it seemed that Henry Clay's name popped up daily for a solid six weeks but as a person he was never really talked about other than an old geezer who started the anti-Jackson faction and promoted the American System. What a travesty. Reading the Heidlers' book, I have been amazed at the depth and breadth of Clay's associations and accomplishments, beginning as an anti-Adams Republican in 1800 to the patriotic old man who e...more
Lars Guthrie
There is no better indicator that American politics is more about personalities, less about issues or philosophies, than the formation of our two-party system in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In Andrew Jackson's presidential runs, and Martin Van Buren's machinations to construct a cohesive national organization based on the Old Hickory cult of personality, we find the beginnings of the Democratic party. It was a Democratic party very different from today's, one that appealed to the w...more
Henry Clay was involved in politics from the time of President John Adams (#2) until President Millard Fillmore (#13). He served in the Senate (even before he was legally old enough), the House of Representatives (most of the time as Speaker), and as Secretary of State to John Quincy Adams (despite holding differing political views). He cast such a long shadow of influence over the nation that Abraham Lincoln later cited him as one of his greatest influences and heroes. He was the heart and soul...more
As much a history of the country as a biography of the man, this book traces the forces at work in the period from the end of the revolutionary era to the years just preceding the Civil War. The politics were heady, nasty, personal; the persona were concerned with both regional and national agendas. With no precedents available for many decisions, the government in many cases had to define constitutional issues. Meantime, Clay struggles to preserve the Union, searches for compromises (and someti...more
The subtitle of this book describes Clay as "the essential American." How was this so? Certainly his parliamentary skills and skill in achieving compromise was considered an essential quality in a country preparing to tear itself apart over slavery. What was essentially American about Clay in my reading of this biography was his ability to think of the country as a whole--whether in terms of internal improvements or in terms of the problem of slavery. Although representing the upper south, he so...more
The Essential American is Henry Clay. He is a former Speaker of the House, Senator, Secretary of State and Presidential Candidate. He also started the Whig Party. The Whig Party preceded the Republican Party as the Democratic Party’s main political rival party.
Henry Clay was fortunate to have been mentored by one of the 19th Century’s greatest law professors George Wythe. Wythe trained Clay to be an outstanding lawyer. Clay left Wythe’s tutelage in Virginia and moved to Lexington, Kentucky wher...more
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Abraham Allende
I was drawn to this book out of curiosity. All the Abraham Lincoln books I've read mention prominently his admiration for Henry Clay and I wanted to find out why.
It was a very thorough biography - perhaps more thorough than necessary. I found it overwrought in its writing style. The authors could have eliminated about 100 pages had they not elaborated on topics and incidents that had no bearing on the man's political career. I also felt that in their desire to paint an objective portrait of the...more
Didn't make it all the way through this one. I checked the book out from my local library because I was interested in learning more about Henry Clay, a curiosity I developed while reading "Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer." I got through 150-plus pages of the book, which is well-written, but not exactly a page-turner. Finding myself only 1/3 of the way through Clay's political career and 300 pages shy of finishing the book, I decided to cut bait. Way too dense of a biography for me.
Pete Iseppi
I had hoped that this book would be a bit more interesting to read. I was bored at times, which can happen when you are reading history (unless you're reading David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin). Anyway, I knew very little about Henry Clay. I remembered just a bit about him from High School history, not that they mentioned him much in High School history.
There is no doubt that he was a giant of his age, and will always be one of those Senators that history ranks right at the top.
Susie James
This was one of the more interesting histories I've read in many years: I wrote something of it to my elder brother, Donald, who was a social studies student at Mississippi State University many years ago, and he could relate to the life of "the Great Compromiser". So much of our country's religious history is found in revealing the long life of the Virginia born Kentuckian. His father, who separated himself from the Church of England to align himself with the Great Awakening and was a Baptist p...more
While I cannot claim to have finished this, it wasn't because it was not interesting. Henry Clay had amazing accomplishments considering the era he lived in. He amassed a lot of wealth and significantly influenced the direction of this country. The info presented here is factual, but is also a powerful story of a man, a political era, and an important historical time. Will appeal to history buffs a lot.
The subject makes this book interesting much more than the quality of the prose. Probably the greatest American figure that most Americans don't know much about. A perrenial presidential candidate and giant of the senate who was instrumental in delaying the advent of the Civil War. Would probably have been much better in the hands of a master historian/biographer such as William Manchester.
Ben Haymond
Reading this book was refreshing after "The Art of Power." The political analysis was excellent and clear as opposed to "Power's" tepid and muddled account. The careful and colorful description of the shifting allegiances in the Democrats and the Whigs is both exciting and educational. I also got the sense of the seismic impact that the ascent of Andrew Jackson. The description of how Jackson democratized American politics is fascinating from Clay's unfriendly perspective.

I also love the accoun...more
Jan 20, 2010 Tom marked it as to-read
Shelves: american-history
As a Jackson scholar once said: "I am a Jackson man with feet of Clay."
Henry Clay The Essential American by David and Jeanne Heidler A fabulous portrait of Henry Clay a 3 time loser for the Presidency avowed political enemy of Andrew Jackson. Architect of both the Missouri Compromise and the compromise of 1850 Clay made a major mark on the American political system. Elected to the Senate at age 29 he later went to the House of Representatives and became Speaker and one of the War Hawks of the War of 1812 and later served as a member of the negotiating team which en...more
I selected this book for a few reasons. First of all, there are few good biographies available of great American men and women from the early days of the Republic other than Presidents. Of course, I've known about Henry Clay from my public school education ("The Great Compromiser") and have encountered accounts of his actions and influence on the pre-Civil War period somewhat obliquely in other readings. I also think that the availability of good, detailed accounts of the history of the United S...more
Aaron Million
A very sympathetic, yet also even-handed portrait of a great American statesman. I say great in the fact that the man was such a major force in pre-Civil War America and on several occasions did great service for the country. One example: the 1814 Treaty of Ghent. Clay, along with John Quincy Adams and Albert Gallatin, were able to successfully negotiate a formal conclusion to the War of 1812. Clay possessed a deep sense of service the country. We really have no idea today how difficult it was f...more
Finally finished reading this biography - I started reading around the time the flood hit Middle TN and for some reason, got distracted.

This has been one of the best biographies that I have read. The Heidlers are very engaging writers and made the players in the book seem as vital as they must have once been. It was fascinating to read about a man who had such influence on American History, but because he was not a Founding Father or a President, you really don't hear that much about him.

He ran...more
Brian Schwartz
This book was selected as the book of the month by my book/scotch/cigar club. The theme was “Kentucky: in honor of the Kentucky derby. However, the subject was much more about the United States in its most trying times than it was about Kentucky or its famous horse race.

Many in our group said the came away from the book not really knowing what Henry Clay was all about politically or personally. He was not a man of letters and not a prodigious keeper of a journal like John Adams and John Quincy A...more
Michael Austin
Towards the end of his life, the Heidlers tell us in Henry Clay: The Essential American, a well-known portrait painter came to his estate at Ashland to create a final portrait of one of the 19th century's most influential Americans. After weeks of trying, however, the painter was stymied. He could not get the details right, he protested. He completed the painting, but neither he, nor Clay's family, were completely satisfied by the result. The portrait failed to capture the man. That is exactly h...more
Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.)

As we all know, for every famed politician who eventually enters the history books, there were a dozen politicians around them who didn't, hardworking and greatly respected people in their time but who simply never rose to the level where they were recorded in history's great lists; so to put it in contemp...more
Fantastic book - maybe the greatest politician never to be president

I knew the basics of Clay's adult political life, namely the 1824 and 1844 elections and the Compromise of 1850, but didn't know beyond that, about his 1848 bid for the presidency, nor about his larger Whig political background.

For the most part, with one notable exception the authors cover well, Clay appears to have been a man of tremendous principle even in the political ring, and that may well be, as the book shows, part of w...more
David and Jeanne Heidler combined to write this rather laudatory biography of one of America's most prominent political figures between the Revolution and the Civil War. Although well-researched, the book did not quite hit the mark for me. The writers seemed to think that Clay could do no wrong. Or at least not much.

However, Clay was not as much of a statesman or leader as he was a political player who seemed to enjoy the give and take of Congress. He ran unsuccessfully for president three time...more
Paul Lunger
Henry Clay's role in American history is one of an eloquent statesman, a loving family man & a failed presidential candidate. He along with John C. Calhoun & Daniel Webster would dominate the political landscape of the first half of the 19th century & was involved in making some of the most important pieces of legislation of that era into law. David & Jeanne Heidler's biography of Clay shows his humble upbringing & details the trials & tribulations in his life as he moved...more
Never had the opportunity to lead our country during the Jacksonian era after four failed attempts --- twice being trumped within his own party for more "available" candidates. Passionate, eloquent, forceful speaker who could captivate audiences for hours on end. A reluctant slave owner who endorsed gradual emancipation. A career politician devoted to seeking compromise and fighting off secessionist motives to preserve the Union. A father and husband who suffered through frequent despair at the...more
To be honest, i was a bit disappointed about this book. I felt the author paid more attention in writing about Clay's family life rather than his political life. I was expecting a more in-depth analysis on how Clay honed and applied the parliamentary skills that he was known for today. Being a great orator, i was also expecting the author to give greater detail about his speeches,perhaps putting excerpts of it, but all i got were usually short summaries comprising of about 5 sentences. The autho...more
I loved this book! Henry Clay is truly fascinating and, as the title says, the essential American. His life is so intriguing and inspiring and the book itself is very well written.
David and Jeanne Heidler's book is a useful narrative account of Clay's political career, one defined by his longtime (and unsuccessful) quest for the presidency. In clear language they explain well the political battles of the era, conveying a good sense of the issues and personalities involved. Yet there is little within its pages that is new, and in many respects the book's coverage of Clay's life is inferior to that of Robert Remini's Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. Readers seeking to l...more
Douglass Gaking
Henry Clay was one of the most influential politicians of the 19th century. I was amazed while reading this book at just how many policies, negotiations, and political events involved him. His biography is essentially a political history of the 19th century from the perspective of one of the people whom every event seemed to orbit around. This book is well-written, although dry at times and obviously biased to favor Clay over his critics (granted, Andrew Jackson and his supporters were quite vit...more
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