Henry Clay: The Essential American

David S. Heidler, Author, Jeanne T. Heidler, Author
David S. Heidler, Author, Jeanne T. Heidler, Author . Random $30 (595p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6726-8
Reviewed on: 03/01/2010
Release date: 05/01/2010

Yet another hulking biography of an early American political giant, this one, unnecessarily clogged with detail, is still a fitting, up-to-date, and highly readable account of Henry Clay's life (1777–1852) and achievements. In vigorous prose, the Heidlers (coauthors, The War of 1812 ), experienced scholars of pre–Civil War America, relate the emergence of the Kentuckian who served in the House (as Speaker) and Senate, as secretary of state, and as repeatedly failed presidential candidate. A man of enormous gifts—the beloved “mirror of his country and its aspirations”—Clay bestrode Washington and the Senate as member of the “Great Triumvirate” with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster and did his best as the Great Compromiser to hold the nation together as it splintered over slavery. That he failed, as the authors show, was not his fault: even great congressional leadership couldn't save the Union. The authors bring verve and clarity to Clay's struggles, even if they add little to what's known. They also make one yearn for more statesmen and stateswomen, who, like Clay, could say, “I had rather be right than be president.” 32 pages of b&w photos. (May)

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