Last night I finished the long slog through Henry Clay: The Essential American – a recently-released biography of Kentucky’s most famous senator. It was a pleasant slog, though. I enjoyed it a great deal. This was one of the better political biographies that I’ve read (and I’ve read many!). It was especially helpful for me because, as a Kentucky newcomer, the first few chapters paint a vivid portrait of what Kentucky life was like in the 1800s. In many ways, the “rugged individualism” of Kentucky in the early 19th century still persists here in the early 21st century.
I especially liked this book because it provides an in-depth look into the political personalities and struggles of Jacksonian America. In high school and college classes, we Americans get an idea of what the American Founding was like and what the Civil War was all about. The intervening decades, however, are often a gap in our historical knowledge, and this biography does a good job of filling that gap. The authors provide interesting looks at people like Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, John Calhoun, Daniel Webster, James K. Polk, John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, and others.
In other regards, this was a very human biography. The authors portray Clay as hot-headed, independent, and tempermental in his youth (thus, making him an excellent personification of Kentucky’s political “personality”), but growing more mature and less rash in his later years. They don’t sugar-coat the fact that he opposed slavery in principle but owned slaves throughout his life. They do report, though, that he freed a number of his slaves and was relatively gentle toward the rest, especially compared to other slave-holders of his day.
The most depressing portions of the book concerned his family. Henry Clay and his wife Lucretia had eleven children, only four of whom outlived their parents. It was sad to read about the deaths of each of those seven children, including every one of their daughters. As the father of a two-year-old little girl, it was more personal to me than it probably would have been a few years ago!
All in all, it was a great biography. I feel like I understand Kentucky and its political heritage a bit better as a result.