The Strength of Clay— Henry Clay the Great Compromiser


Henry Clay was in so very many ways, a remarkable man. A gentleman farmer, born in Virginia, but coming to adulthood in Kentucky he found slavery abhorrent, and fought for the gradual abolition of the practice. He was often out of step for his day and age on many subjects. He served not just as a senator from the state of Kentucky, he was also Secretary of State, and three times he worked his political magic to prevent the splitting of the fragile union of the United States. Three times he also unsuccessfully ran for President. He was also the first person, in 1852, to lie in state in the Capitol Building in Washington, so greatly was he esteemed by both friend and foe alike.

Clay suffered many personal tragedies along the way, including especially the loss of his son and heir Henry in the Spanish-American war in the battle of Buena Vista. Though he had always seen politics as the art of compromise, when he lost his son in a pointless and fruitless war, something changed in the man. On Nov. 13, 1847, only five years before his untimely death, Clay offered a speech here in Lexington Kentucky which still has historians talking. It is very possible that Abraham Lincoln himself, at the time briefly residing in Lexington with his wife Mary Todd who was from this city, heard this speech. We know for a fact that Lincoln was a great admirer of the man they call H. Clay, even when he differed with him. They both shared a Kentucky heritage, and an intense dislike for slavery. Through the kindness of the curator at Ashland, the Clay home here in Lexington, I have obtained a copy of this important speech of Clay’s which I would like to share a bit of with you. Here for example is a paragraph about war….

“War, pestilence,, and famine, by common consent of mankind, are the three greatest calamities which can befall our species; and war, as the most direful; justly stands foremost, and in front. Pestilence and famine no doubt for wise although inscrutable purposes, are inflictions of Providence to which it is our duty, therefore, to be born with obedience, humble submission, and resignation. Their duration is not long and their ravages are limited. They bring indeed great affliction whilst they last, but society soon recovers from their effects. War is the voluntary work of our own hands, and whatever reproaches it may deserve should be directed to ourselves. When it breaks out, its duration is indefinite and unknown—its vicissitudes are hidden from our view. In the sacrifice of human life, and in the waste of human treasure in its losses and its burdens, it affects both belligerent nations; and its sad effects of mangled bodies, of death, and of desolation, endure long after its thunders are hushed in peace. War unhinges society, disturbs its peaceful and regular industry, and scatters poisonous seeds of disease and immorality which continue to germinate and diffuse their baneful influence long after it has ceased. Dazzling by its glitter, pomp, and pageantry, it begets a spirit of wild adventure and romantic enterprise and often disqualifies those who embark in it, after their return from the bloody fields of battle, from engaging in the industrious and peaceful vocations of life.”…

“Of all the dangers and misfortunes which could befall this nation, I should regard that of its becoming a warlike and conquering power the most direful and fatal. History tells the mournful tale of conquering nations and conquerors. The three most celebrated conquerors in the civilized world were Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon. The first after overrunning a large portion of Asia and sighing and lamenting that there were no more worlds to conquer, met a premature and ignoble death. His Lieutenants quarreled and warred with each other, as to the spoils of his victories, and finally lost them all. Caesar after conquering Gaul, returned with his triumphant legions to Rome, passed the Rubicon, won the battle of Pharsalia, trampled upon the liberties of his country, and expired by the patriot hand of Brutus. But Rome ceased to be free. War had enervated and corrupted the masses. The spirit of true liberty was extinguished and a long line of Emperors succeeded, some of whom were the most execrable monsters that ever existed in human form. And that most extraordinary man [Napoleon], perhaps in all of history, after subjugating all continental Europe, occupying almost all its Capitals… lived to behold his own dear France itself in the possession of his enemies, and was made himself a wretched captive, and far removed from country, family, and friends, breathed his last on the distant inhospitable rock of St. Helena. …Do you believe that the people of Macedon or Greece of Rome or France were benefited, individually or collectively by the triumphs of their great Captains? Their sad lot was immense sacrifice of life, heavy and intolerable burdens, and the ultimate loss of liberty itself….Ought we not to be satisfied with our country? Ought we not to be profoundly thankful to the Giver of all good things for such a vast and bountiful land? Is it not the height of ingratitude to Him to seek by war and conquest, indulging in a spirit of rapacity, to acquire other lands, the homes and habitations of a large portion of his common children?”

Clay is of course arguing that we need to cease hostilities with Mexico, and give up any desires to take over that country. But much of what he says, can be applied to American foreign policy today in various ways. If we ask for what good end have we spent trillions of dollars since 9-11 in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have lost thousands of lives, it would be difficult to answer, especially in the wake of the worse monster that has arisen in Iraq after our withdrawal, namely Isis. If we ask what is the goal of terrorism, we gain the answer— ‘to strike fear into an enemy’s heart, a enemy so large and powerful that they could not be conquered by the normal warlike means, so that through fear that enemy will waste its resources and lives, colossally over-reacting to the provocation and thereby exhausting itself whilst gaining next to nothing.’

Perhaps it is time to do a better job of listening to statesmen like Henry Clay, and remembering that diplomacy is preferable to war and far less costly, even if it accomplishes only a fraction of the desired outcome. Perhaps it is time to look closely at what our recent wars have done to those soldiers who come home with post traumatic stress, broken limbs, and broken hearts and minds. Perhaps it is time for America to stop posturing as if it were the world’s policeman who can go wherever it likes whenever it chooses to interfere in the affairs of others we deem possibly, even if remotely, threatening to American and human interests. Perhaps it is time to stop mocking the peacemakers such as the U.N. and throw our full weight of support behind them. Perhaps it is time instead to focus our resources on rebuilding the infrastructure of our crumbling society— including our roads, bridges, etc. Perhaps its time for our politicians to stop being pretending ideologues who are actually in the pockets of all kinds of PACs and big industries such as oil and coal. Perhaps they could actually relearn the art of compromise that Clay practiced so successfully in the early 19th century. Perhaps…..but I am not sanguine that this is likely.

And the end result of all our bellicose ways is that we are not safer today than we were 15 years ago. Indeed not. Wars have not brought us peace, or even pacification of the enemy. Indeed, it has been more like sticking sticks in a hornets nest and stirring them up even further.

Think on these things.

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