Paul's critique of Henry Clay miscast America's 'Great Compromiser'

Henry Clay's compromises helped hold the nation together in the mid-1800s.
Henry Clay's compromises helped hold the nation together in the mid-1800s.

By Dana Milbank

The Washington Post

Rand Paul gave his maiden speech on the floor of the Senate Wednesday, and he immediately Whigged out.

The Kentucky Republican was sent by the Tea Party to bring change to Washington — and change he brought. His first address to his Senate colleagues came in the form of an extended denunciation of one of his home state's favorite sons and one of America's most accomplished statesmen: Henry Clay, the antebellum Whig senator and speaker of the House known as the "Great Compromiser," whose work in the decades before the Civil War preserved the union.

Paul's purpose was to say that he rejects the idea of compromise, particularly as it relates to his pet issue of lower taxes. But his decision to make this point by contrasting himself with one of the seminal figures of American history was most peculiar. It was as if Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts had devoted his maiden speech to a denunciation of Daniel Webster. Or if Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia had taken to the Senate floor to disparage Thomas Jefferson.

"Henry Clay's life is, at best, a mixed message," Paul informed the nearly empty chamber, as he stood at a desk once occupied by Clay himself. The objectivist objected to Clay as "morally wrong," a slave master who had "no room for the abolitionists" and who made decisions that "may have even ultimately invited the war that came." Paul said such demerits should be considered "before we eulogize Henry Clay."

Sorry, senator, but Clay already was eulogized — in 1852 — and the history has already been written. Here's an account by historian Robert V. Remini in his 2010 book about Clay's brokering of the Compromise of 1850: "[The] Compromise of 1850 delayed the catastrophe of civil war for ten years, and those ten years were absolutely essential for preserving the American nation under the Constitution. Had secession occurred in 1850, the South unquestionably would have made good its independence, and the country might well have split permanently into two nations."

The attempt to turn Clay into a pro-slavery figure was a daring position for Paul, who spent an embarrassing part of his campaign debating with himself about whether the Civil Rights Act was such a hot idea. Paul, apparently, thought it would do him some good to dump on the civil rights record of somebody else.

Noting that he'd been assigned Clay's desk in the Senate, Paul remarked: "Henry Clay was called the Great Compromiser. During my orientation, one of my colleagues came up to me and asked, "Will you be a great compromiser?"

Paul made clear he is no Henry Clay. "His compromises meant that ... he not only accepted slavery, but he accepted the slave trade," the eye-doctor-cum-senator said. In fact, "one could argue that Clay's compromises ultimately cost him the presidency."

After a recitation of Clay's concessions to slavery, Paul contrasted his nemesis with abolitionist figures such as Frederick Douglass and Clay's cousin, Cassius Clay (not the one who was known as Muhammad Ali). "Cassius Clay refused to compromise," Paul said. "Cassius Clay was a hero — but he was permanently estranged from Henry Clay."

Paul made quick work of his famous predecessor, finishing the speech in half of his allotted 20 minutes. As Paul spoke, his fellow Kentuckian, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, walked out of the chamber. The Democrats had left earlier, so only Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., was on hand to congratulate Paul when he finished.

Clay, the first person to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, wasn't available to defend himself. But in the 2010 biography, Henry Clay: The Essential American, David and Jeanne Heidler point out that the Great Compromiser's list of admirers included the Great Emancipator himself. Lincoln "admired Clay more than he did any other man on the American political scene," they wrote, and he "was convinced, like Clay, that only gradual emancipation would end slavery without destroying the union."

Yes, Clay owned slaves — and so did George Washington. In his home state, Clay was known as a radical who fought slavery. It was Clay's "corrupt bargain" that gave the presidency in 1824 to the anti-slavery John Quincy Adams.

Had Clay been any more of an outright abolitionist, he would have become a "marginal figure," David Heidler told me. Paul may think Clay's failure to embrace emancipation "cost him the presidency," but Heidler pointed out that "no abolitionist could have secured the nomination of a major party" back then. Even cousin Cassius, Paul's role model, "was not always a thoroughgoing abolitionist," the author said.

What the senator missed in his maiden speech was that being the Great Compromiser didn't necessarily mean selling out. Rather, as historian Remini wrote, Clay saved the nation from a "catastrophic smash-up" and "gave the North 10 years to build its industrial strength and enable it to overpower the South when war finally broke out."

Paul may not recognize Clay's appreciation for compromise — but another group of Americans would have. "The Founders of this nation — men of the Enlightenment — understood the importance of compromise," Remini wrote in his Clay biography. "Indeed, the Constitution is one long collection of compromises."

Paul claims to revere the founders and their document. But on this point, the ophthalmologist has a blind spot.