". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Henry Clay

Is eating my life.

He was born at the start of the War for Independence, 1777, in Virginia, into one of the very old, well connected, influential families. Though his own immediate family was no longer wealthy, he didn't grow up in either poverty or humble circumstances -- unlike the later slant political campaigning put on his background.
He got very rich, very young, partly through his family connections, his personal relationship with Thomas Jefferson, marrying a very well doweried young woman of the wealthiest family in Kentucky, and very much through his native intelligence and astounding capacity for hard work.

He entered politics very early (notice how 'very' charmed his early life is? born into the right family is the most useful element in a person's life, even more so than being very intelligent and working very hard!), serving his first term in the Kentucky legislature in 1803, the year of the Louisiana Purchase.  The Purchase in so many ways advanced the fortunes of Clay personally, his family and that of Virginia families everywhere, as their good friend, the President from Virginia, appointed them to lucrative federal and regional offices. With secure, well-paid positions, more family members had a base by which they moved into the Territories, to Louisiana in particular. There they married into creole families and their businesses and plantations, bought and sold plantations and slaves themselves, and handled all kinds of enormously lucrative legal work, and made other fortunes through land deals.

Despite not being legally old enough, not yet thirty, he was sent to fill in a vacated Senate seat in 1806. He returned to fill out another expired Senate seat in 1810. From 1811 on he spent all of his adult life in D.C., in one capacity or another, mostly in the House, including as the youngest ever Speaker of the House, and as Secretary of State in John Quincy Adam's disasterous administration. He was largely responsible for the War of 1812 -- for which he is reviled to this day on the Upper Chesapeake by descendants of the families the Brits burned out back then.
Admitting he was gravely ill, at the end of 1851 he put in his resignation to the Senate, to be effective for the first week of September, 1852. He continued working, including arguing two cases before the Supreme Court. The Western Star died at the end of June, 1852, in D.C., the scene of his many triumphs, his mis-steps and mis-calculations, and many disappointments and humiliations, particularly at the hands of King Andrew Jackson and his slick political organization and network of newspapers.

His was the first state funeral in Washington D.C. The honors and rites there were emulated across the nation as his coffin made its way by rail and steamboat -- these routes part of Clay's grand plan of "The American System," back to his beloved Lexington, which was now, unlike in his youth, an economic backwater, thanks to steam. A long grueling journey for his son and other friends, nearly a thousand miles, in what was a brutally hot summer.

When the coffin stopped in Springfield the funeral oration for the Great Compromiser who labored to preserve the Union through compromise after compromise was delivered by Abraham Lincoln. Let us not forget that, though perhaps you cannot say as you can about Jefferson, that Clay lived on slave labor all his life long, Clay certainly lived in many ways via slave labor from the moment he arrived in Kentucky and his brother gave him the young man their father had bequeathed to Henry and taken to Kentucky.

Lincoln modeled himself in many ways on Clay -- as did just about every young politician up-and-coming, particularly if they had a Kentucky connection. But Lincoln's success as a circuit lawyer as well as a story teller in these situations were what Clay was early famous for. (Lincoln also learned about telling stories from his father, just about the only talent that ne-er do well man possessed.)

Slavery was an issue when Clay first entered politics in Kentucky and was a greater issue every decade of his political life. Every decade of his life touches on the Great Subjects that are my area of research, thus I've allowed him to eat my life.

What a picture of the U.S. over these decades I'm getting filled in.


K. said...

The American Cicero -- born to a well-connected but not especially well off family in the sticks, married well, slaveholder, went to Rome (er, D.C.) where he became known for his oratory and penchant for compromise. Held the country together with one compromise, his signal triumph. Lost political battles with the higher ups but never ceased trying to make the existing constitution work instead of opening his eyes to its flaws.

But, as this is America and not Rome, Clay died ennobled whereas Cicero was strangled by Mark Antony's assassins, who then nailed his hands to the entrance of the Senate. No one can say that Antony lacked a certain style.

Foxessa said...

Not much like Cicero, after all, particularly considering the difference in their wives. Cicero's was a termagent, politically astute and kept hold of the money. Lavinia was quite other.

What Clay had in common with Anthony was the expectation that he too would be emperor -- potus. What they had in common also was an ever under-estimated until too late and never understood Augustus, Jackson.

What Anthony and Jackson had in common was both were thugs. What they didn't have in common was Jackson's piety and sourness.

Clay was by every account anything but sour, though the personal family tragedies were numerous and constant.