In my high school history class, my teacher described Henry Clay as the most important American politician who never became president. In Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman, Harlow Giles Unger’s new biography of Clay reminds us why. Clay was a central political figure in both the House of Representatives and the Senate during the first half of the 19th Even a cursory overview of U.S. history will mention his great compromises.
Unger does a decent job providing a short and accessible overview of Clay’s life. I particularly enjoyed the sections about Clay’s personal life. You don’t typically hear about the drinking and womanizing in high school textbooks. I was also saddened to learn Clay lost so many of his children so young.
Unfortunately, although I know what Henry Clay did, I still feel like I don’t really know what motivated the man. Yes, Clay wanted to save the Union, but why? What made that such a driving goal for Clay (and not for many of his contemporaries)? How did Clay develop his legendary skill for finding compromises? There’s always a risk of historians engaging in pseudo-psychology when trying to understand their subjects, but Unger went too far in the other direction. Perhaps the historical records simply wouldn’t allow such an examination, but at the least I would have appreciated some more analysis.
I can’t say I’ve read many biographies of Henry Clay, but David and Jeanne Heidler’s 2011 biography seems to me a more thorough examination of the man and his political legacy. Unger’s book might be better suited to readers who want more than a Wikipedia article but less than a 600 page tome.
[I received a free advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]