November 29, 2010

Henry Clay

one of the great things about reading about all the presidents is getting to know all the other lifelong statesmen that crop up in everyone's biography. these men - such as patrick henry and john c. calhoun - often ran for president themselves, sometimes several times, but never won. and although decades in the senate or house arguably made them much more significant to US history than some of the slighter presidents, they're often forgotten.

john c. calhoun, for example, was vice president twice, secretary of state, and secretary of war. usually they put him in the cabinet to appease the south, because he was single-handedly drove southern politics. he was also unabashedly a white supremacist. he gave a speech in the senate opposing the annexation of mexico because then there would be non-white senators.

but henry clay is my favorite. a kentuckian born just after the revolutionary generation, he got in on the nation building. he was suave and funny and a skilled politician. he founded the whig party in the demise of federalism, and ran for president a few times, although he never won after ruining his reputation by what seemed like shady dealings to secure himself a cabinet position under JQA. every time he shows up you know he's about to say something eloquent and kind of funny.

my two favorite henry clay anecdotes occurred at the beginning and end of his political career.

the first, in the 1780s, as a young senator from kentucky he was sent to london with the treaty commission. JQA was also on this commission, as the senior member. one morning, at 4am, after JQA had risen, read his Bible, and was heading out for his morning walk and bath, he met henry clay on the stairs, who was coming back from a card party. both were disgusted (although they went on to be bosom friends, and JQA asked for Clay on his deathbed).

in the 1840s, henry clay went to the white house to pay a call on james k. polk, who had defeated him in the election 3 years earlier. despite this, and despite the fact that polk was a jackson protege, whom clay actually despised, and despite the fact that polk was wildly unpopular at the time, clay was his usual charming self and by all accounts they had a nice visit. as he was leaving, he turned to sarah polk, known for her hospitality, and said:

"Madame, I must say that in all my travels, in all companies and among all parties, I have heard but one opinion of you. All agree in commending in the highest terms your excellent administration of the domestic affairs of the White House."


"But as for that young gentleman there, I cannot say as much. There is some little difference of opinion in regard to the policy of his course."

Zing! the polks were delighted by this little joke, because if you're henry clay you can say anything.