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Henry Clay’s lesson for today

Henry Clay, shown here at age 18 in an 1805 portrait, believed compromise was necessary. ASSOCIATED PRESS/file 2005

Ted Kennedy was of course the focus when President Obama visited Boston on Monday to help dedicate the new institute that bears the legendary senator’s name. And yet another Senate giant, from another era, is strangely relevant for the way he illuminates today’s political and temperamental divide in Washington.

That’s Henry Clay of Kentucky, who dominated Congress for decades in the 19th century, serving multiple terms in the House and 16 years in the Senate, while failing three times as a presidential candidate.

One of the ironies that besets any institute devoted to the study of the US Senate is that mulling today’s Senate is akin to contemplating a patient in a long-term coma. The Senate can’t function well without compromise — and in today’s political climate, compromising is often seen as selling out. In a far more polarized era, however, Clay found a way to make the Senate work.


Here’s a further irony: Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, who as minority leader turned obstruction into an art form, but as majority leader says he hopes to restore the Senate to its one-time status as a great deliberative body, has Clay as his personal hero. (McConnell’s motto seems to be: I want this place to work, now that I’m in power.)

Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, doesn’t view Clay in similarly roseate hues. In his 2011 maiden speech, Paul disparaged Clay’s willingness to compromise on slavery, comparing him unfavorably to the determined abolitionists of his day. McConnell walked off the floor as Paul spoke.

Clay himself was a man of immense talents. Elected to the House after two brief fill-in stints in the Senate, he was chosen speaker on his first day as a US representative. He was brilliant, witty, and gregarious until provoked, when his good humor gave way to a cold sneer and hot words. And he was revered even by his enemies.

At the dedication ceremony, Obama quoted John C. Calhoun, the prominent South Carolinian with whom Clay often clashed when both were senators: “I don’t like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God, I love him!”


Or consider Virginia’s John Randolph. An enraged Clay actually fought a duel with the eccentric congressional belligerent after Randolph likened him to a card cheat. And yet, years later, when dying of tuberculosis, Randolph had himself taken to the Senate and propped up in the gallery because he wanted to hear Clay’s voice one last time.

Graced with a captivating presence, a keen intellect, and an acute political sense, Clay was determined to preserve the union during a period when violent disagreement about slavery threatened to tear it apart. He believed compromise was an absolute necessity in a young nation with clashing economic interests and starkly different moral understandings.

“Like any intelligent politician, he understood that politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness,” wrote biographer Robert Remini. “It is about governing, and if a politician cannot compromise, he cannot govern effectively.”

During the debate over the complex, multi-part Compromise of 1850, Clay explained his philosophy on the Senate floor. “I go for honorable compromise whenever it can be made,” he said. “All legislation, all government, all society, is formed upon the principle of mutual concession, politeness, comity, courtesy. . . Compromises have this recommendation, that if you concede any thing, you have something conceded to you in return.”

A slave owner who hoped for the eventual abolition of slavery, Clay put the union above all else. But though the compromise he engineered staved off armed conflict for a decade (during which time the North grew stronger), it ultimately couldn’t prevent the Civil War.


For his part, Paul compared Clay unfavorably with resolute abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Cassius Marcellus Clay. “Who are our heroes?” he asked. “Are we fascinated and enthralled by the Great Compromiser or his cousin Cassius Clay?”

That’s certainly a fair historical question.

Although he acknowledged that “today we have no issues that approach moral equivalency with the issue of slavery,” Paul made clear that he drew his inspiration from those who refused to compromise.

But that, frankly, speaks to the loss of perspective that characterizes the Tea Party.

Whatever historians make of Clay’s compromises, as Paul himself noted, today’s political struggles simply don’t involve the same moral dimensions.

And that’s why regarding compromise as somehow suspect or illegitimate in today’s Washington is just nonsensical.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.


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