Tom Eblen

Book sheds new light on Henry Clay and his times. It also says much about our own.

Kentucky’s state historian, James Klotter, poses in front of a portrait of Henry Clay at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Klotter’s new book explores the famous Lexington statesman and the political forces that doomed each of his five attempts to win the presidency. Amazon.com’s editorial team recently selected it as the best book of the month in history.
Kentucky’s state historian, James Klotter, poses in front of a portrait of Henry Clay at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate. Klotter’s new book explores the famous Lexington statesman and the political forces that doomed each of his five attempts to win the presidency. Amazon.com’s editorial team recently selected it as the best book of the month in history. teblen@herald-leader.com

Henry Clay of Lexington was one of America’s greatest statesmen and most famous politicians during the first half of the 19thcentury.

He was speaker of the House of Representatives and the Senate’s most influential member. He helped start — and end — the War of 1812. His compromises over slavery stalled the Civil War for decades, enabling the Union to grow strong enough to survive once war finally came. He was Abraham Lincoln’s idol.

But Clay’s ultimate ambition — the presidency — always eluded him, even though he sought the office an astonishing five times. Why could he never win?

That’s the subject of a fascinating new book by James Klotter, who has been the state historian of Kentucky for 38 years and retired in May as a history professor at Georgetown College. Klotter spent 14 years researching and writing “Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President,” just published by Oxford University Press. Amazon.com chose it as the month’s best new history book.

Klotter will speak and sign copies Aug. 15 at 5:30 p.m. at the Dr. Thomas Hunt Morgan House, 210 N. Broadway. (To RSVP, call (859)266-8581 ext. 202 or email pjanes@henryclay.org.)

What makes Klotter’s book such an interesting read is that it clearly explains the political trends and popular sentiments that shaped America in the decades before the Civil War — and continue to shape American politics today. Think Donald Trump is unique? He’s just Andrew Jackson on steroids.

Clay was a colorful character who persevered through great personal tragedy. He was his era’s best orator at a time when people avidly attended and read political speeches that could go on forever. He also was a party animal who loved to drink and gamble, and his enemies often attacked him for it. He was charming and witty, and ladies often approached him in public requesting kisses.

“Had women been able to vote, Clay likely would have been elected president more than once,” Klotter writes. “Less a ladies’ man than a man for the ladies, Clay delighted in their society and their conversation.”

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Clay’s critics considered him too ambitious, a man who would do anything to be president. But what surprised Klotter most in his research was how frequently the “Great Compromiser” took stands on principle — often to his political detriment.

“He was a man of principle more than I thought he was,”Klotter said. “He was a better statesman than a politician.”

Clay was a master of Congress, but he often misread the political landscape beyond it. He spoke out on issues when he should have kept silent. Rather than letting others manage his presidential campaigns, he did it himself — badly.

Perhaps most of all, Clay’s political luck and timing was awful. He was a “career politician” and skilled “insider” when voters wanted fresh faces. Sound familiar?

Clay’s advocacy for such things as national roads, a central banking system and fair treatment of Native Americans were decades ahead of their time — and generally unpopular in an era of states’ rights and Jacksonian populism.

Klotter explores Clay’s many personal shortcomings, such as his hypocritical criticism of slavery while at the same time being one of Kentucky’s largest slaveholders. This book is a great piece of storytelling backed up by deep research. Readers come away with a clear picture of this great but flawed man, the times in which he lived and forces in American society that continue to shape our politics.

It also is a great example of why we should read and study history, especially now that so many leaders are trying to reduce our universities to vocational schools.

“There’s so much people need to know about history in today’s world,” Klotter said. “If we don’t look at our history we’re lost, just like a lawyer would be lost without his case law and a doctor would be lost without a patient’s chart. Perspective is so important, and we need it as much as ever.”

In November, the University Press of Kentucky will publish a 20th anniversary update of Klotter’s “A New History of Kentucky,” the state’s standard history text. It includes many updates, such as the state’s recent political and demographic shifts and new insights into the more distant past. (Klotter also has a new co-author: Craig Friend replaced the late Lowell Harrison.)

Klotter, who grew up in Owsley County, has written a dozen books about Kentucky history and for many years was executive director of the Kentucky Historical Society. Although retired now from teaching, he remains the state historian and plans to continue speaking and writing while spending more time with his three children and seven grandchildren.

“I’ve got a file this thick of future projects,” he said,holding his index finger and thumb an inch apart. “There’s a lot of history that’s not been written yet, and a lot of history that’s not been collected yet.”

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