Most of us have heard the name of Henry Clay, but he’s not one of the people we usually remember the way we do George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Our guest says that Clay was just as important to our nation as the founding fathers, and he discusses the great contributions this Speaker of the House made to keep our country together, fight for justice, and create the foundations of our extensive modern U.S. transportation system.

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  • Harlow Giles Unger, author of Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman and contributor to The Huffington Post

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Henry Clay

Mary Peterson: Speaker Paul Ryan will have his work cut out for him as he tries to bring both sides of the aisle together to pass important legislation. But he can be happy that wrangling representatives today is relatively easy compared to how it was back in the 1800s when Henry Clay was speaker.

Harlow Giles Unger: Politics was very very dirty. Certainly as dirty if not dirtier than today, because often there were guns behind it. During Clay’s tenure in the House, one Congressman shot and killed another. And there were fistfights on the floor. It was not clean politics.

Peterson: That’s Harlow Giles Unger, historian and author of the book, Henry Clay – America’s Greatest Statesman.

Unger:  Most men in the House of Representatives were not to the manor born. They were from the frontier, group of local farmers, only male property owners could vote, and they’d elect one of their numbers. These were not educated wealthy people who came into the House of Representatives.

Peterson: Unger says we should be looking at how Clay brought both sides together back in the 19th century, especially with Congress so divided and important legislation often languishing in committee today. Clay’s name is probably familiar to you even if you don’t remember exactly what he’s known for. Unger says that he was a brilliant lawyer, orator, organizer, politician and negotiator. And that these accomplishments are enough to secure him a place anthem pantheon of great U.S. statesmen, if not in the minds of 21st century Americans.

Unger: He was never President and Americans don’t know much about their Congress or the leaders of Congress. It’s unfortunate because the speaker of the House and Henry Clay way the greatest speaker in American history. The Speaker of the House is the second most powerful man in the federal government after the President. He’s one of only two men, two people, in government who are elected by all of the people of the United States. The President of the United States of course is elected by all of the people. The Speaker of the House is called the Elect of the Elect, because he is elected by all the representatives who represent we the people.

Peterson: Before he was elected to the U.S. House, Clay served in the Kentucky State Assembly and enjoyed a successful career as a lawyer. One thing you might remember about Clay is his defense of vice-president Aaron Burr in Burr’s duel with Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton.

Unger: Aaron Burr was being persecuted. Aaron Burr had been Vice-president of the United States and shot Alexander Hamilton and killed Hamilton in a duel, perfectly legal. Dueling was as common as anything in those days. It was perfectly legal, but Jefferson hated Aaron Burr and sought to get even with him, and convinced the prosecutors in New Jersey and in New York State, where the duel didn’t even take place in New York, to bring charges of murder against Aaron Burr.

Peterson: Unger says that Jefferson’s prosecutors were persistent, dogging Burr’s steps wherever he went.

Unger: Aaron Burr turned to Clay who was by now the greatest lawyer in the West to defend him, and Henry Clay did and he was acquitted twice, before Henry Clay was named senator for Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and went back east to the Capitol and no longer could handle criminal cases.

Peterson: Twice Clay was appointed to take over unexpired terms in the U.S. Senate and then in 1811 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Kentucky, and made Speaker. It was here that he made many of his biggest contributions to the nation. Unger says that Clay was a great negotiator and his talents helped keep the Union together when Missouri applied for statehood as a slave state. A congressman from New York wanted to ban the entry of any more slaves into the state, which raised the ire of the Southern representatives who began talking about cessation.

Unger: Henry Clay realized at the time in 1820 that if the south broke off from the north it would not have meant civil war. No one in the north could care less about the slaves. Slavery was legal all over the United States except in New England. Everybody had slaves in the north and they certainly weren’t going to fight for slaves in the south. So they would not have gone to war. What would have happened, though, is the nation would have broken up into two and maybe three smaller, very weak nations who would be vulnerable militarily to an invasion by either the British, the French, or the Spaniards, and Clay was not going to have that.

Peters: Unger says that Clay had a vision of the country remaining united and becoming a large powerful nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Unger: So he looked for and found a solution. Maine wanted to break off from Massachusetts, so Clay proposed that Main come in as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, no restrictions on either one. And it kept the balance of power in the Senate. It kept north and south in the union together, unhappily maybe, but in the Union, and allowed the nation to continue growing.

Peterson: That growth was facilitated in no small part by Clay’s idea of the American system, which was the precursor to today’s extensive interstate highway and railroad systems.

Unger: Mr. Boehner who resigned as speaker had trouble with working with one president. Clay worked with ten different presidents — many of them bitter political opponents. He worked with ten presidents to institute the American system, which was to get all the states and the federal government working together to build a network of roads, canals and eventually railroads that reached into every corner of 20 northern, Midwestern and western states. The southerners didn’t want any part of it, they weren’t going to work with the federal government.

Peterson: Unger says that this transportation system allowed people to move back and forth across the country in large numbers, settling land, farming and building cities and towns where there were none. It also provided a way for the money goods and services they needed to move more quickly and easily to their destinations. Increasing commerce and making the United States a powerful economic force in the world. In addition to his negotiating and planning skills, Unger says that Clay was also a mentor to a generations of legislators who went on to finish the work that the speaker had begun.

Unger: Most important of whom was Abraham Lincoln who worshipped Clay. He called Clay his mentor, his teacher, and he served in Congress for a term, so he learned Clay’s system of compromising. He also married Mary Todd, whose parents lived next door to Clays in Lexington, Kentucky. They were very very close friends and as a young man, Clay took Lincoln in, taught him all he knew. When Clay died, Lincoln gave the most stirring eulogy. He looked to heaven and cocked his ear. He said, “I recognize Clay’s voice speaking as it ever spoke for the Union, for the Constitution, for the freedom of man.”

Peterson: The Missouri Compromise delayed conflict between the north and south for 40 years. But when the decision was made to go to war, Unger says President Lincoln invoked the words of his beloved friend and teacher.

Unger: Lincoln said, “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union. It is not either to save or destroy slavery. It has nothing to do with slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it. And if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save this Union. And what I don’t do, what I forebear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save this Union.” So, Abraham Lincoln listened to Henry Clay at [unintelligible] all the great statesmen in American history. And we just have to hope that the fellow who replaces John Boehner in the House of Representatives has studied and will listen to the words of Henry Clay.

Peterson: In addition to his work in the House, Clay served as Secretary of State and was elected to the U.S. Senate. Unger says that he hopes that readers will come away with a better understanding of Henry Clay, the man, and see what is possible when negotiation and compromise, rather than partisanship rules the Congress.

Unger: He was indeed the greatest statesman and stands with Washington, with Lincoln, with Eisenhower as a man who united the nation rather than sought to divide it.  One of the stupid things I saw printed recently was in the largest newspaper in Ohio, the editor should know better, but he praised Boehner for perfecting the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable. That’s not what the Speaker is supposed to do. The Speaker is supposed to perfect the art of compromising, not disagreeing. He’s not there to disagree. He’s there to negotiate compromises and bring us together.

Peterson: You can read about the life and work of one of our greatest statesmen in Harlow Giles Unger’s book, Henry Clay available now. The author also invites listeners to visit his website at You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Sticher. Our show was written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.