Henry Clay: "Great American Loser?"

A few weeks I ago I referred to Henry Clay in my United States Survey course as the “Buffalo Bills of 19th Century American Presidential Candidates.”  A few football fanatics got the joke, but most of the students were either infants or not yet alive when the the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s.

The analogy, of course, is not perfect.  Henry Clay lost three, not four, presidential elections, and he did not lost them consecutively.  (He lost his bids for the presidency in 1824, 1832, and 1844).  Clay should also be remembered for his work at bringing compromise to American politics in a way that may have preserved the Union.

In his ongoing series on the “self-made man” in American history, Jim Cullen argues that Clay came the closest to supplying the “democratic flavor” that was lacking in the old Hamiltonian vision of American society.  He became, as Cullen writes, “the public spokesman for the self-made entrepreneur.”  Here is a taste:

What matters most for our purposes is a speech that Clay, now back in the Senate, delivered in February of 1832 while running for president. An epic three-day disquisition, “In Defense of the American System” ranged widely over a series of topics, most of them too arcane to be remembered. But at one point in his address, Clay uttered a sentence invoking a phrase that became durably famous. “In Kentucky,” he said, “almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.” 

What we have here is a turning point in American history. It’s not simply Clay’s use of a term – whether or not he coined it, “self-made man” would be forever associated with him – but also that he was calling attention to, and promoting, a fundamental realignment of what success meant in the United States. This becomes plain in the diplomatically phrased ensuing sentences, which pointed to an emerging divide in the nation (typified by the drift of his erstwhile ally Calhoun into an opposing camp). “Comparisons are odious, and, but in defence, would not be made by me,” Clay said, responding to perceptions of industrialists as representing a new breed of economic tyrants. “But is there more tendency to an aristocracy in a manufactory, supporting hundreds of freedmen, or in a cotton plantation, with its not less numerous slaves, sustaining, perhaps, only two white families – that of the master and the overseer?”[senate.gov]