Henry Clay: The Essential American

In This Review

Henry Clay: The Essential American
By David S. Heidler,Jeanne T. Heidler
Random House, 2010
624 pp. $30.00

Henry Clay is not only an also-ran in nineteenth-century presidential politics; today, he is an also-ran in American political memory. One of the triumvirate of statesmen (along with his colleagues and rivals John Calhoun and Daniel Webster) who competed with Andrew Jackson and one another to dominate the political stage between the War of 1812 and the Compromise of 1850, Clay (like Calhoun and Webster) never became president but seemed greater and more consequential than many of the relative nonentities who occupied the White House in those years. Clay was a polarizing figure; revered by some and loathed by others, he was the chief spirit of the Whig Party and a great advocate of what he called the American system of high tariffs, designed to build a world-class industrial economy in the United States. Historians have a hard time making him a compelling figure, and although the Heidlers have written a useful and clarifying account that is a pleasure to read, they have not created the kind of electrifying biography of Clay that could explain his appeal and importance to the twenty-first century. Until that book is written, this one will serve readers as a sound introduction to a major American figure.