J.'s Reviews > Henry Clay: The Essential American

Henry Clay by David S. Heidler
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Sep 12, 14

bookshelves: biography-memoir, vine
Read in April, 2010

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 of the Whig party and renowned for his speaking prowess - frequently packing the galleries with people eager for the chance to hear him speak. And yet he ran unsuccessfully for president 4 times, being undermined by those in his own party who thought him unelectable. He was "an otherwise good and decent man" with "a fundamental flaw" (pg 448) - he was a slave owner (which troubled abolitionists) who favored gradual emancipation (which troubled Southerners).

This lengthy biography (almost 500 pages) on a little-remembered but highly influential politician is surprisingly readable. The focus is almost completely on his political career, and details on his personal and family life are few and usually only included as they bear upon his career. With that emphasis comes a sometimes uncomfortable unveiling of the ugliness of politics, and this heavy focus on politics was the only negative for me; I generally prefer biographies with a more personal note. But for Henry Clay, politics was personal and it was his life. And the Heidlers have done an excellent job of pulling together massive amounts of information and sorting out the myths and legends. While the book may not have broad appeal, it will certainly appeal to those seeking to understand the early history of the US and into the Jacksonian era as the country plunged toward Civil War.
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