“Spinning” History in Service to the State: The Legend of Henry Clay
By Thomas DiLorenzo
When the American history profession produces one of those rankings of American presidents their criteria always seem to be geared toward giving the highest rankings to whomever ignores the Constitution the most, over-spends and over-taxes the most, kills the most people in wars, drives up the national debt the most, passes the most freedom-destroying laws, and grows government while shrinking individual liberty the most. That’s why Lincoln, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson are always ranked at the top.
In sharp contrast, several years ago Ivan Eland published an “alternative” presidential ranking in the form of his book, Recarving Rushmore, in which his criteria were based on how good a job presidents have done in preserving “peace, prosperity, and liberty.” His number one ranking went to John Tyler, who served as president from April 4, 1841, to March 4, 1845. Tyler “exhibited restraint in dealing with an internal rebellion, a bloody Indian war, and a boundary dispute with Canada.” He “supported a sound policy of limiting the money supply, and he generally opposed high tariffs, a national bank, and federal welfare to the states.”
Tyler did all of this despite violent opposition by his own Whig Party, led by Henry Clay, who saw to it that Tyler was kicked out of the party and hung in effigy in front of the White House. Clay was the political descendant of Alexander Hamilton and spent his entire political career agitating for the neo-mercantilist policies of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare for roads, canals, and railroad-building corporations, and a central bank. He and Hamilton called this British mercantilist scam “the American System.” Naturally, it is Henry Clay, not John Tyler, who is lionized and celebrated by the “mainstream” history profession.
A good example of how the history profession spins history to lionize statists and demonize the champions of peace, prosperity and liberty is a recent biography of Henry Clay entitled Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David and Jeanne Heidler. The book, which is prominently displayed for sale in the shop at Ashland, Clay’s former Kentucky slave plantation that is now a museum, describes Clay on the inside cover as “a shrewd and sincere defender of the ordinary man who would be his eventual political base.” He is “commonly regarded as the greatest U.S. senator in history,” say the Heidlers. (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Chuck Schumer would undoubtedly disagree).
So there you have it, right there on the inside cover, before the table of contents, a big, fat falsehood about the real Henry Clay. For also on display in the Ashland slave plantation shop are t-shirts with huge lettering celebrating Clay as “Father of The American System.” That is, the system that would plunder the “ordinary man” with high protectionist tariffs, with tax theft for the purpose of lining the pockets of the politically-connected road- and canal-building corporations, and a national bank that would provide cheap credit for the politically connected but create boom-and-bust cycle misery for the common man. The “American System” was perhaps best described by the famous attorney (Clarence Darrow’s law partner) and playwright, Edgar Lee Masters, in his book, Lincoln the Man (p. 27):
Clay was the champion of that political system which doles out favors to the strong in order to win and to keep adherence to the government. His system offered shelter to devious schemes and corrupt enterprises . . . . He was he beloved son of Alexander Hamilton with his corrupt funding schemes, his superstitions concerning the advantages of a public debt, and a people taxed to make profits for enterprises that cannot stand alone. His example and his doctrines led to the creation of a party that had no platform to announce, because its principles were plunder and nothing else.
Clay’s marriage to Lucretia Hart is described by the Heidlers to have been “a union rumored to be mercenary on his part” because poor Lucretia was, well, “plain.” This is doubtful, however, because the Heidlers actually describe Lucretia as “plain, wealthy Lucretia Hart . . .” (emphasis added). Henry was not nearly the “mercenary” the Heidlers portray him as being.
Clay is also described as somewhat of an out-of-control party animal who “gained a reputation for heavy drinking and reckless gamling . . . . Clay [who had eleven children] had been quite the man about town [when in D.C.] . . . always ready for a drink or a dance . . . his gambling was legendary” (p 44). He was “a great favorite with the ladies” [while his wife was back in Kentucky with the eleven children] and “attended all parties of pleasure – out almost every night” (p. 66). And this is the man who lusted to put himself in charge of the nation’s money supply by resurrecting a national bank.
Henry Clay the Slave Owner
Henry Clay “owned slaves and continued to buy them” (p. 131). Like other slave owners, he recovered his runaway slaves. This is downplayed by the Heidlers who write that “While not a relentless pursuer of slaves, he occasionally took pains to recover them rather than suffer financial loss.” So he pursued his runaway slaves but was not “relentless” about it. How the Heidlers know just how “relentless” Clay was in pursuing his runaway slaves is not revealed. Moreover, they disprove their own point when they tell the story of a slave named Lottie Dupuy who declared her freedom, arguing that because her mother was a free woman, she must also be free, and refused to return to Kentucky from Washington, D.C. with Clay. Clay fought her in court and won, re-enslaving her back in Kentucky.
Another fact that belies the notion that Henry Clay was not “relentless” in pursuing his runaway slaves is the fact that in 1850, two years before his death, he issued a proclamation to strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act, which placed a federal bounty on the heads of runaway slaves. Despite this, the Heidlers still insist that “he was remarkably indifferent about recovering runaways” (p. 446). What nonsense.
Henry Clay owned slaves and a slave plantation for his entire adult life, but the Heidlers do somersaults to try to excuse this away. “He was always ambivalent about owning people,” they write, but he kept buying more and more of them. “He pondered the moral dilemma of human bondage” and “came to regard it as a repugnant evil,” but kept buying more slaves. He “always hated slavery” (p. 451) but he always owned them. He was “a benevolent master” (p.. 448) but a slave master none the less. He made “an impassioned speech against continuing slave importations” (p. 65), they say, implying that Clay was some kind of early abolitionist. He never advocated abolition, and moreover, he opposed slave importations out of financial self-interest, not humanitarianism. Fewer slave importations mean a smaller supply and higher price of slaves, enhancing the “wealth” of slave owners like Henry Clay.
Henry Clay took a position that was diametrically opposed to the position on slavery and the Constitution that was held by his contemporary, Lysander Spooner. In The Unconstitutionality of Slavery Spooner argued that slavery was, in fact, unconstitutional, and provided a legal and political roadmap for peaceful emancipation. By contrast, Clay argued that slavery was constitutional, and if anyone liberated their slaves it would be a dangerous demonstration of how any part of the Constitution could then be ignored, leading to a “universal nullification of the sacred document” (p. 299).
The “Great Compromiser” Nonsense
Henry Clay is probably best known among historians and history buffs as “the great compromiser,” mainly because of his roles in the War of 1812 and the tariff nullification crisis of 1828-1833. This particular label is affixed to him to portray him as some kind of political genius or great statesman but exactly the opposite is true. Clay sponsored the disastrous 1828 “tariff of abominations” that nearly led to secession and war and the destruction of the union, as President Andrew Jackson threatened to send warships to South Carolina, whose legislature had voted to nullify and not collect the new 48% average tariff on imports. He did this out of pure financial greed since he was known as “The Prince of Hemp,” among other things, for growing so much hemp on his slave plantation. He wanted high tariffs on hemp imports to eliminate foreign competition so that he could better fleece his customers. He was also the political errand boy of Northern manufacturers who wanted astronomically high tariffs on their clothing, shoes, farm tools, and other goods.
Instead of condemning him for nearly destroying the union out of pure financial greed, the Heidlers, like almost all other historians, praise Clay for his role in the Tariff of Abominations controversy because he was on the committee that eventually agreed to a lower compromise tariff rate over the next ten years. As such, “he was hailed as the nation’s savior,” they ludicrously proclaim (p. 265). The “great compromiser” was born.
Clay was also one of the chief instigators of the disastrous War of 1812. He ominously warned that without a war with England the British would “control trade between New York and New Orleans” (p. 91). He was “the prime mover” for the war, boast the Heidlers. He advocated a trade embargo as a precursor to war; absurdly boasted that the Kentucky militia alone could defeat the British; and told British Foreign Minister Augustus John Foster that in the end, after his “glorious” war, it would all be like “a harmless duel” that would leave both countries “better friends than they had ever been before” (p. 95). He said this while threatening war with France as well.
“Every patriot bosom must throb with anxious solicitude for the result. Every patriot arm will assist in making that result condusive to the glory of our beloved country,” Clay declared during an orgy of bloviation about the “glories” of war. He was also “full of advice about the best way to fight the Indians,” write the Heidlers, although the only real “fighting” experience he had was fighting hangovers. He remained a warmonger to the end despite the fact that his brother-in-law, Captain Nathaniel Hart, was captured by the British who handed him over to Indians who shot and scalped him (p 105).
Once again, rather than accurately portraying Clay as a walking disaster of a warmonger – an early-day Dick Cheney – he is praised to the treetops by the Heidlers and most other historians because he participated in the committee that worked out the peace treaty that ended the disastrous (for America) war that he, more than anyone else, was responsible for.
In addition to heaping mountains of phony praise on Henry Clay’s statist, plunder-seeking, and imperialistic behavior, the Heidlers viciously smear Clay’s foremost opponent in the debate over the war, John Randolph. They describe Randolph as “fearlessly nasty” in the way in which he opposed “the war hawks”; “uncontrollable under the best circumstances”; “a tireless Cassandra”; “a peculiar character”; “irritable”; “vicious”; “quick to anger” with “a hair-trigger temper”; and the most shocking of all (to the Heidlers), “he took an instant dislike to Henry Clay” (p. 87). Randolph was obviously an astute judge of character.
For his part Randolph, who fought a duel with Clay (both missed), said of him: “He is a man of splendid abilities but utterly corrupt. He shines and stinks, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.”