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Henry Clay and the Problem of Politics

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

By Jeffery Tyler Syck

This post is the first in a new series that will highlight Conservative leaders from history. Once a month, Tyler Syck, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and native Kentuckian, will highlight someone we think our readers ought to know more about. Sometimes they'll be politicians, other times they'll be thought leaders or intellectuals.

Few figures in American history have had as distinguished a political career as Kentucky’s very own Henry Clay. He was first elected to office in 1803 as a member of the Kentucky state legislature and ended his career in 1852 when he died as a sitting member of the United States Senate. In his near half-century of public service, he also served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Secretary of State, founder of a new political party, and a three-time candidate for the presidency. Despite Clay’s distinguished career in public service, he is rarely appreciated as one of America’s great conservative thinkers and statesmen. He is typically seen as too political and compromising, without a solid political philosophy. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, Clay was a thoughtful politician and one of the greatest influences on nineteenth century American conservative thought.

One of the most common traits associated with Henry Clay, in his lifetime and ours, was his complete unwillingness to discuss political philosophy. A historian can scour the pages of everything Clay wrote and they will find nothing remotely resembling the high-minded theorizing of Madison, Adams, or Jefferson. The closest Clay ever came to such talk tended to be generalities meant to rouse a crowd more than to reveal his actual view of the “big questions.” Because of this quirk, it is not hard to see why most historians paint Clay as a fairly typical power-brokering politician with little regard for principle.

However, Clay’s silence on theoretical issues was far from accidental. In Clay’s view, relying too heavily on principle and ignoring the importance of practice is the greatest threat to a stable republican government. In his long career, Clay witnessed the rise and fall of republicanism in France, Greece, and a multitude of South American nations. In every case, these republics quickly crumbled into monarchy, despotism, or anarchy. It was clear to Clay that republican ideals are not enough to sustain such a regime. Instead, they must rely on the work of prudential statesmen who pragmatically respond to crisis as best they can and who never allow ideology to cloud their political judgment.

World famous as the “great compromiser”, Clay’s outlook on the nature of politics served as the core of his commitment to moderation. In a republican government, all citizens have strong opinions about what is best, and because of the sheer plurality of opinions, this produces it becomes impossible for any single view to triumph. As Clay stated to a crowded Senate chamber: “Let him who elevates himself above humanity, above its weaknesses, its infirmities, its wants, its necessities, say if he pleases ‘I will never compromise,’ but let no one who is above the frailties of our common nature disdain compromise.”

Thus, Clay argued, the pragmatic political solution in a republic is very often that which brings together competing ideas and policy positions to produce a consensus. This mindset was visible in all of the political stances Clay took throughout his life but is particularly evident in his proposed economic plan, the American System. The American System sought to integrate all parts of the country – rural and urban, manufacturing and agricultural, northern and southern – by funding large scale infrastructure projects and better integrating the American economy. Clay argued that this would unite the multitude of competing interests and in so doing work to forge a political consensus that could move past ideology and focus on sound policy for the benefit of all.

Though Clay’s economic vision was never fully adopted, and we cannot be sure it would have worked quite as well as he envisioned, there is still a lot modern conservatives can learn from his ideas. Clay’s defense of a conservativism that is divorced from ideological squabbling, and that dedicates itself to defending the institutions that make possible republican government produces stability, prosperity, and careful innovation. While such thinking can never be all there is to conservativism it should certainly be a big part.

Whatever one thinks of Henry Clay and his political vision it seems only fitting to give the last word to another great Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln, whose heartfelt eulogy of Clay remains one of the best speeches given in Antebellum America: “Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last, was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty – a strong sympathy with the oppressed everywhere, and an ardent wish for their elevation … He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory … to show to the world that freeman could be prosperous.”

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