Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President
by James C. Klotter.
Oxford University Press, 2018.
Hardcover, xix + 506 pages, $35.

Reviewed by Miles Smith

When Abraham Lincoln called Henry Clay his beau ideal of a statesmen in the 1840s, he echoed respectable businessmen and politicians across the United States. Clay championed the idea of the United States that Lincoln eventually actuated: a liberal capitalistic, nationalistic, and militaristic union that increasingly tied its constituent states together through economic, cultural, and social nationalism. But Clay never served as president, and until the latter half of the twentieth century his political enemy Andrew Jackson so eclipsed Lincoln’s idol in the national narrative that even now Clay is hardly a household name. Yet his political instincts and his understanding of the United States appear increasingly important to study in an era when the people of the United States are again negotiating the nature of nationalism in the American republic, the benefits of en-masse capitalism, and the privileged position of free trade in Western economic policies.

While most of the scholarly biographies are useful to historians for research on various aspects of Clay’s political life, James C. Klotter’s Henry Clay: The Man Who Would Be President is a particularly important addition into the pantheon of Clay historiography, and into the legendarium of literary Kentuckiana. Klotter’s biography is the first major biographical work on Clay written by a Kentuckian, a fact that while seemingly of passing significance should not be overlooked. This biography also is deeply invested with answering a specific historic question: why did Clay, as ambitious and as talented a politician and statesmen as any in his era, never become president?

The author notes that the book began as a study of Clay’s presidential pursuit and became a full-scale biography, in a sense. Although it prioritizes Clay’s political and specifically presidential pursuits, this work sees politics as working itself out in the social, intellectual, economic, and familial aspects of his life. But the author clearly recognizes that the result is not a strict biography. The chapters are thematic, although with a broadly chronological framework.

Klotter places Kentucky as the center of Clay’s story in a way previous works have not. Kentucky both as a space and as a developing situation encouraged ambition in its small but growing professional class, and Clay’s own powerful ambitions made political office the best way of gaining the status and prestige he wanted to further his own professional dreams. Clay’s education with elite lawyers in Virginia and his marriage to Lucretia Hart, the daughter of one of Kentucky’s wealthier residents, illustrate the extent to which Clay calculated and planned his life. This is an important corrective. Clay has been presented in the past as an unprincipled and conniving character intent only on acquiring personal power. Klotter makes the important point that from the beginnings of his professional life, Clay made measured, judicious decisions that reflected careful personal and political calculation. Lucretia was not considered a great beauty, but she was from an established family and had a level temperament that steadied the home of her sometimes-passionate husband.

Clay’s passions extended to his vision of the nature of the American Union. Klotter makes a point of tracing the roots of Clay’s political program to his beliefs about the universality of human liberty and his interactions with the Latin American independence movements of the early nineteenth century. Clay supported immediate recognition of the independent republics over more cautious (and often less sympathetic) voices in Congress and in the presidential cabinets of James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. Clay argued that peoples that some Americans designated as superstitious and ignorant—euphemisms for the largely Roman Catholic populations of Central and South America—still could understand the necessity of human liberty and create ordered republics for themselves.

An ordered republic for the United States also concerned Clay, and he saw the Union’s prosperity and stability being best preserved by greater economic and political unity. Clay saw that unity as eventually extending across North and South America. That opinion was not anomalous at the time, but Clay seemed more motivated than his colleagues, and especially one of his presidential masters, John Quincy Adams. Klotter doesn’t offer any revolutionary material on Clay, but he is quick to identify areas where Clay was wrong. Klotter, for example, argues that Clay’s attempt to compromise on slavery was in the end wrong-headed and not politically helpful. He also criticizes Clay for not openly supporting or challenging Zachary Taylor during the election of 1848, an action that gave the massively inexperienced Taylor the presidency.

Klotter includes a chapter on each of the presidential elections where Clay emerged as a major contender: 1824, 1832, 1840, 1844, and 1848. He entitles the chapters Presidential Candidate I through V. Each serves as an effective way of exploring Clay’s strategies in each respective contest and the reasons Clay believed he fell short. These five chapters represent the heart of Klotter’s work, and provide a unique and incisive understanding of Clay’s presidential races that will undoubtedly prove helpful to future historians of Clay and the Early Republic.

While Klotter is sympathetic to Clay, he also faithfully records the man’s political mistakes and misjudgments. Klotter provides valuable insight into Clay’s thinking at the resolution of each contest that simultaneously humanizes the Kentuckian and also saves him from the excesses of sympathetic or unsympathetic past biographers. The case of the 1824 election is instructive. Clay was calumnied in the past for the “corrupt bargain” made with John Quincy Adams that made the former Secretary of State and the latter president. Clay complained that he lost the election because of unfounded and unfair rumors about his character.

The contest between Clay and Andrew Jackson in 1832 has often been seen as a highly charged contest between two men who hated each other and saw the other an imminent threat to the survival of the republic. Klotter, however, challenges the notion that it was Clay’s unthinking ambition and dislike of Andrew Jackson that drove him to pursue office at all cost. Clay, argues Klotter, harbored serious doubts over whether he should pursue the presidency in 1832, and only decided to do so when it became clear that Jackson was politically vulnerable over his well-known decision to kill the Bank of the United States. Klotter points out that Jackson’s reelection victory, often viewed as practically assured, was not as total as historians assumed.

Clay’s near-victory in the election of 1844 also appears less tragic and more understandable here than in previous works. Historians have often noted how the Liberty Party siphoned enough votes away from Clay to give James K. Polk the electoral votes of New York and thus the race. This work rightly emphasizes, however, the ways that the Whig brand had struggled after the death of William Henry Harrison and the intraparty squabbles with the fair-weather-Whig President John Tyler. In 1844 Clay won the highest percentage of the popular vote he ever won. Instead of it being a tragic near-miss, Klotter accurately praises Clay’s ability to muster an impressive amount of support given the struggles the Whig Party faced and Clay’s unpopular position on Texas’s annexation (he believed that annexation should wait, not that it should never happen).

Henry Clay: The Man Who Would be President offers the best treatment of Clay’s political life yet written. Klotter places the Kentuckian in his own context without the problematic anachronisms of other works. His decision to look separately at Clay’s interactions with each of his presidential elections allows old tropes to give way to a fuller and more incisive understanding of Clay the candidate, politician, and man. Historians, interested laypeople, and those interested in biographical Kentuckiana will appreciate and learn from this excellent work.  

Miles Smith is an assistant professor of government, history, and criminal justice at Regent University.