During the first half of the 19th century, Congress was a lot like it is today: petty, partisan, ineffective and unpopular.
Perhaps that is why two good books have just been published about the man back then who was more successful than anyone else at getting Congress to work for the good of the country: Henry Clay.
Henry Clay: The Essential American is a full-length biography by historians David S. Heidler of Colorado State University-Pueblo and Jeanne T. Heidler of the U.S. Air Force Academy.
At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise That Saved the Union is by Robert V. Remini, historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is a look at Clay's greatest achievement: the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the Civil War for a decade.
James Klotter, a history professor at Georgetown College and Kentucky's state historian, agrees that renewed interest in Clay might have something to do with current events. Amid a bitter red-versus-blue political culture, many people long for statesmen who can forge constructive compromises for the good of the country.
We also are seeing a historical re-evaluation of Clay's accomplishments and those of his archrival, Andrew Jackson, Klotter said. Clay is looking better when viewed through a modern lens, and Jackson is looking worse.
Klotter is working on his own book about Clay, the five-time presidential candidate who famously said he would "rather be right than president." The book will be titled The Great Rejected: Henry Clay and the American Presidency.
The two Clay books published this month do what good general histories should: They put people and events into the context of their time and make them come alive in interesting, well-written narratives.
The Heidlers begin telling Clay's life story by describing its end. When Clay died in 1852 at age 75, the magnitude of national mourning showed that he was one of the most revered men of his generation — presidency or no presidency.
Before being buried in Lexington, Clay's funeral train made a long national tour, and he was the first person to ever lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. There were ceremonies memorializing Clay in countless towns around the country. At the one in Springfield, Ill., the keynote speaker was a young lawyer who always considered Clay his idol: Abraham Lincoln.
Clay was born in Hanover County, Va., to humble circumstances — although not nearly as humble as his campaign propaganda implied. He had only a modest formal education, but thanks to good penmanship, he became secretary to George Wythe, one of Virginia's most important judges. That apprenticeship was a springboard to Clay's legal career, and it gave him an opportunity to watch some of young America's best lawyers in action, including Patrick Henry and John Marshall.
In 1797, Clay moved to Kentucky, where his mother and stepfather had come a few years earlier to run a tavern in Versailles. He quickly became one of Lexington's most successful lawyers, thanks to an abundance of land disputes and debt-collection cases. He took on enough criminal cases to develop a reputation as the common man's champion.
Socially and politically ambitious, Clay married Lucretia Hart, daughter of one of Lexington's wealthiest men. She was a plain woman who hated celebrity and society as much as her husband loved it. But their marriage lasted 53 years and produced 11 children — six daughters, all of whom died before age 29, and five sons.
Clay rose quickly through Kentucky's political ranks. After serving in the state General Assembly (where he tried unsuccessfully to move the capital from Frankfort to Lexington), he was twice appointed to fill unexpired terms in the U.S. Senate. He was then elected repeatedly to the U.S. House, where he transformed the speakership into a powerful position, and then to the Senate.
The secret to Clay's success was his talent as an orator; he had a beautiful baritone voice. He also could be an arrogant braggart, which sometimes earned him enemies. He loved to party, and there are many stories about his drinking and gambling.
After leading the nation into the War of 1812, he was instrumental in negotiating its end — something a modern political opponent would probably attack as a "flip-flop."
But Clay was enormously influential because of his ability to get things done by forging political compromises that allowed each side to give some and get some. Three times — in 1820, 1833 and 1850 — those compromises over slavery and taxes held the nation together. Without them, civil war surely would have come before Northern states had enough industrial might to prevent Southern secession.
Today, Republicans claim Clay and Democrats claim Jackson. But the party politics and issues of their day provide a good argument for reversing those roles. Clay generally favored supremacy of the national government over states' rights. He argued for a national bank and federal investment in infrastructure, such as roads and ports. He believed in taxing imported goods to help build American industry.
Like many Americans of his wealth and station, he claimed to dislike slavery yet owned slaves. He favored gradual emancipation, with resettlement of former slaves in Africa. But he was willing to continue slavery if it would preserve what he considered most important: the union.
Despite his failings, Clay's career serves as an example of how politicians can and should at times put aside ideology and political gamesmanship for the good of the country. These books tell that story quite well, and they make the reader wish today's Congress had a Henry Clay or two among its members.