Remember when President Obama joked that advisers urged him to have a drink with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to improve relations between them? “Really?” quipped Obama, “why don’t you have a drink with Mitch McConnell?”
If Obama could go back in time to imbibe with Kentucky’s Henry Clay, whom McConnell reveres, he would do so enthusiastically. The handsome, charming Clay was a man’s man, gambler, horse racing enthusiast, enormously popular with the ladies, a spellbinding orator, who fought two duels taking a bullet in the thigh in one of them.
Above all, he shared a vision of national development that overlapped considerably with the policies Obama pursued, and that McConnell blocked in every way.
Can anyone imagine a biography of McConnell titled “Statesman of the Union,” as distinguished historian Robert Rimini did with Clay? Clay pursued the national interest often at the cost of his own political power. At times Clay acted as a partisan, but over the length of his career he became known for skill in achieving compromises.
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After brief service in the U.S. Senate, at 29 Clay won election to the House of Representatives in 1810, with colleagues selecting him unanimously several times as speaker.
Clay’s popularity came from his dividing committee assignments among competing regions. Building consensus by accommodating local interests lessened his power as speaker but Clay saw the House and himself as representing all Americans.
Our Kentucky senator who has used the consensus-blocking filibuster a record number of times has repeatedly said he represents just those who voted for him.
After the War of 1812 Clay shared in the nationalist fervor that followed and promoted policies to strengthen the weaknesses exposed by the war. He championed tariffs to protect America factories, a U.S. Bank to bring order to a chaotic currency, and his favorite, a national system of internal improvements (infrastructure).
When in 1819 the controversy over slavery in Missouri erupted, Clay helped negotiate a compromise. In the Senate in 1850 Clay negotiated another compromise between an even more dangerously divided Congress and country. Rimini credits Clay with helping delay Civil War for a decade. Is there any significant compromise associated with McConnell?
In the 1830s Clay emerged as a leader of the new Whig Party formed to oppose what it saw as the tyrannical abuses of power of “King” Andrew Jackson.
He regarded Jackson’s destruction of the U.S. Bank and opposition to infrastructure improvements as a setback to economic development and shared prosperity.
For both political and humanitarian reasons Clay also criticized Jackson’s brutal, treaty-breaking Indian removal policy that led to the Trail of Tears. He also opposed Georgia’s stealing lands from civilized Cherokee tribes, while Jackson’s capitalist cronies again profited by acquiring Indian land.
Clay owned dozens of slaves, yet he proposed unsuccessfully that the 1799 Kentucky constitution provide for gradual emancipation. In 1844 as the Whig Party’s presidential candidate, he took a politically inexpedient stand opposing Texas annexation, and the extension of slavery.
Clay believed rightly that annexation would lead to an unnecessary, unjust and aggressive war against Mexico, and would further polarize the country over slavery expansion.
Whipsawed between antislavery Whigs for whom Clay was insufficiently pure and pro-Texas “Cotton Whigs,” Clay narrowly lost the election to former Tennessee governor and extensive slaveholder James K. Polk.
Polk rammed through Texas annexation and essentially provoked a war with Mexico, moving American troops fully across disputed territory. Clay’s opposition to the war intensified when he learned that his favorite child and namesake, Henry, had died a hero at the Battle of Buena Vista.
Scouting prospects for another presidential run, Clay gave a lengthy speech outlining his opposition in Lexington, where pro-war sentiment ran high. He denounced the war as based on lies and deception, and “slavery as a great evil.” He called on Congress to declare that slavery would not be introduced into any territory acquired from Mexico.
In the audience sat a newly elected congressman from Illinois who regarded Clay as “my beau ideal of a statesman” and shared Clay’s hatred of slavery. A month later Abraham Lincoln introduced the historic “Spot Resolution” asking Polk to show on the map, as Polk had falsely claimed, where “American blood had been shed on American soil.”
Like Clay, Lincoln pursued the truth.
Imagine what the Great Emancipator would say if he heard McConnell comparing himself to Henry Clay.
“Senator, I knew Henry Clay. Sir, you are no Henry Clay.”
Ron Formisano is a retired University of Kentucky chaired professor and author of “Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor” (Hopkins, 2015).