Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party

By Thomas Brown | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Henry Clay and the Politics of Consensus

MORE THAN ANY OTHER MAN, Henry Clay won the hearts of the Whigs. Clay inspired such devotion that, as James Parton remarked, "men shed tears at his defeat, and women went to bed sick with pure sympathy at his disappointment." Nathan Sargent recalled that on the day after news of Clay's defeat in the 1844 presidential election reached Philadelphia, a Whig stronghold, "It was as if the first-born of every family had been stricken down." Even in condemnation, Clay's foes conceded the immense power and appeal of his personality. One critic, writing in opposition to Clay's championship of the compromise of 1850, estimated ruefully that "Something like half a million people, more or less, in these United States, think that they were begotten by Henry Clay, and must implicitly obey or reverently follow him." 1

Clay's popularity is easily documented but very difficult to explain. Perhaps the main reason for the elusiveness of his appeal is that it rested upon qualities of personality which had to experienced personally in order to be appreciated fully. When men tried to account for their admiration of Clay, they usually wrote first of his "ardor" and "impetuosity." Clay was a passionate, warm-tempered man who seems to have conveyed his enthusiasm to almost everyone he touched. Even jaded politicians and journalists were moved by the dramatic intensity with which he would pursue--and usually win--the approval of a crowd or audience. There was, to be sure, a less attractive side to Clay's emotional nature. Clay was sometimes carried away by his passions into personal asperities and fits of anger, particularly after political disappointments. But Clay's uglier moments were usually redeemed by his

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