Heroes of Humanity #2: Henry Clay

In my continuing efforts to recognize those qualities of humanity, displayed in specific individuals, that I aspire to in lieu of defining myself by what I am not, I would like to take the time to honor my next “Hero of Humanity,” Henry Clay.

It is probably a good thing that few people I know read this blog, because most of them would grumble at the words “Henry Clay.” See, I have a mild obsession with the man. In fact, I think he is perhaps one of the most overlooked characters in American history. In my opinion, Clay deserves a place of preeminence alongside Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.

For those who don’t know much about Henry Clay, a brief history lesson: Henry Clay was born in 1777 in Virgina and died in 1852. At the age of 20, he moved to Kentucky where he served in the state’s constitutional convention.  Clay quickly emerged as a political force, elected to Kentucky’s legislature.  Soon he would serve in the United States House of Representatives (most of that time as Speaker of the House), the United States Senate and as Secretary of State under President John Q. Adams.

Henry Clay was a man of integrity.  I enjoy collecting quotations, but moreso I enjoy understanding the context behind quotations.  One of my favorites of all time is from Clay, “I would rather be right than be president.” By itself, that is encouraging to hear–especially from a man who ran for the presidency five times, and nearly won.  This particular quotation, though, came after Clay was challenged to drop the abolitionist plank of his platform.  In the first half of the nineteenth century, it would be next to impossible for a staunch abolitionist to win the presidency, yet Clay made a valiant effort regardless.  This integrity on the issue of slavery was made more profound to me when I discovered that Clay himself was born into a family of slaveholders, but still came to favor emancipation.

Clay’s life was filled with great successes and stinging failures.  I think most of us can relate to this.  Rarely do you find an individual who has a spotless history of success, nor do you often find individuals whose lives are complete failures.  I can resonate with Clay’s life.  Early on he established himself as a powerful political force in American politics.  His abilities as Speaker are still acclaimed among historians as one of the best in this nation’s history.  Yet the presidency, to which he desperately aspired, continued to elude him.  He once remarked that his allies in the Whig (and later Republican) party nominated him when they needed a sacrificial lamb and abandoned him when their party had a good chance of winning.  For example, Clay was the nominee against Jackson.  Later, the party nominated William Henry Harrison, rather than Clay, for the presidency. Harrison easily won.  Harrison also died after a month, leaving the White House to a man who was hardly on the same ideological page as the party.  How different our national history could have been should Clay have been president.

Clay was a pragmatist. Hailed as the Great Compromiser, Clay saved the union during the antebellum period several times.  The current leaders in the American political system could take a few pointers from Clay.  Individuals on both sides of the aisle are so caught up in their ideological bickering that they have forgotten the art of compromise.  Its the blessing and the curse of democracy, when we become so obsessed with always beating the opposition, the solutions elude us.  Clay was a realist, and because of that he was able to stop the spread of slavery in many cases, and able to delay the outbreak of civil war for decades.

3 Responses to “Heroes of Humanity #2: Henry Clay”

  1. Cool write up, thank!

  2. Matt Langdon Says:

    Hi there. I write a blog called the Hero Workshop in which I talk about heroes and heroism. The blog is part of my program that I run in schools. I’m thrilled to see this series of heroes that helped shape you. That’s exactly the kind of thing I encourage kids to talk and think about.

    I’d love it if you would think about submitting your heroes to my Gallery of Heroes so others could read about these influential people.

    If your series keeps going on a regular basis, I’d like to highlight it on my blog too.

  3. Thanks for the interesting information and summary.

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