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Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman

Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman

by Harlow Giles Unger

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A compelling new biography of America's most powerful Speaker of the House, who held the divided nation together for three decades and who was Lincoln's guiding light


A compelling new biography of America's most powerful Speaker of the House, who held the divided nation together for three decades and who was Lincoln's guiding light

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this nimble portrayal of “the first true American leader,” prolific biographer Unger (John Marshall) depicts Clay as a consummate politician and a champion of the union. Clay was born in Virginia in 1777. As an ambitious young man, he moved west to Kentucky to set up a law practice. Counseling Aaron Burr through high-profile legal troubles burnished Clay’s reputation; by 1806 the Kentuckian was on his way to the nation’s capital, where over the next few decades he served first in the House, then in the Senate. Unger deftly packs nearly a half-century’s worth of political leadership into this slender volume: Clay’s hawkishness during the War of 1812, his creation of the American System to promote a national economy, his several failed attempts to win the presidency, and his long feud with Andrew Jackson. Clay maintained an unassailable belief in union that enabled him to smooth over sectional differences caused by slavery, engineering the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and then the Compromise of 1850. While Clay lived, the union held. Two years after his death in 1852, Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise; in 1861 the country plunged into the Civil War, which Clay worked so hard to avoid. Unger’s political biography layers a veneer of stability over a tumultuous and divisive time in American history. Illus. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
Houston Press, 9/17/15
“Unger's writing is clear and factual…Unger's book certainly makes the case for the man who spent a long time restitching the fabric of a young nation that was already fraying.”

What Would the Founders Think?, 10/1/15
“Unger does not disappoint with his latest biography…Interesting, well-written, and succinct-but-not-superficial.”

InfoDad blog, 10/8/15
“[Unger] brings his usual lucidity and attentiveness to detail to Henry Clay.”

San Diego Book Review, 10/14/15
“Follows Clay's rise from poor backwoods clerk to the youngest and most influential ever Speaker of the House of Representatives, Senator, and candidate for the Presidency of the United States…A masterful biography of Clay that paints him both personally and in his historical context…Unger doesn't shy from controversies that surrounded his subject, but is careful to present a balanced analysis based on detailed and extensive research, that remains constantly respectful…[An] excellent work.”

San Francisco Book Review, 10/1/15
“A very well researched book. [Unger] casts a fair light on the statesman, showing his highs and lows. There is no partiality on the subject…A balanced biography. The author's work is sublime.”

Midwest Book Review, October 2015
“[A] meticulously researched, reader-friendly life story of a truly remarkable politician. Highly recommended, especially for public and college library biography collections.”

Roanoke Times, 11/1/15
“This portrait of Henry Clay is also wonderful portrayal of America in the first half of the 19th century…Unger's prose is influenced by his former career as a journalist. His details are pertinent. His stories are crisp. His characters are well developed. He also has the flare of a Maine storyteller; he keeps the reader engaged from page one, and on the last page, you want more.”

New York Journal of Books, 12/20/15
“In a nation today, at least as politically partisan and violently divided over race, both Clay and this new book about him inspires.”

Midwest Book Review, January 2016
“Provides a fine political history in discussing how young Kentucky lawyer Henry Clay prevented the dissolution of the new American republic during its early years…It's about time a biography would return him to a central place in American history: no American history or political studies collection would be complete without adding this key title.”

Praise for Henry Clay

Kirkus Reviews, starred review, 5/15/15
“A comprehensive biography of the statesman whom Abraham Lincoln called ‘the ideal politician.'…In this lucid, exemplary biography, Unger focuses on not just Clay, but also on the formation of the early republic, a time too little studied today. An excellent introduction to a turbulent era.”

Publishers Weekly, 8/10/15
“[A] nimble portrayal of ‘the first true American leader'…Unger deftly packs nearly a half-century's worth of political leadership into this slender volume.”

Library Journal, 9/1/15
"[Clay is] arguably one of the most important figures in American history.”

Booklist, 9/15/15
“Well tuned to readers just learning about Clay. Clay's deals preserved the Union several times prior to the Civil War. The Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and other Clay milestones, such as his unsuccessful bids for the presidency, occupy Unger's narrative, which otherwise fills out with personal background to form a portrait of his personality, which reflected the young and expanding U.S. of the early 1800s…A competent account of Clay's arc, Unger's work deserves a slot in the history collection.”

Library Journal
Prolific biographer Unger (John Marshall; John Quincy Adams) devotes his attention to Henry Clay, arguably one of the most important figures in American history. The task is formidable given Clay's many accomplishments. While serving in the House and Senate during the first half of the 19th century, Clay skillfully crafted compromises when political divisions regularly threatened to destroy the Union. He tackled national expansion, the banking system, tariffs, and the power of the presidency, but the volatile slavery question eventually dominated his efforts. As senator from Kentucky, one of the northernmost slave states, Clay brought a practical perspective to issues that helped him fashion many important agreements such as the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850. In addition to these achievements, Clay served as secretary of state under John Quincy Adams and was a three-time candidate for the presidency. All the while, he led a complicated personal and family life. Despite Unger's efforts, Clay's accomplishments frequently get lost in the biography's many details. VERDICT Determined readers seeking a more complete account should consult Robert Remini's Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. Unger's shorter volume may fill a void in libraries, yet reading it will be a challenge, even for history buffs. Recommended but with reservations.—Charles K. Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2015-05-06
A comprehensive biography of the statesman whom Abraham Lincoln called "the ideal politician." By our lights, Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a bundle of contradictions. He was adamant about his right to own slaves, for instance, but he was just as adamant that slavery was wrong. He was also a strong advocate of the precedence of the Union over states' rights, even as he argued against the expansion of the Union through conquest during the Mexican-American War. It was his bravery in holding unpopular opinions that caused Lincoln, as prolific historian Unger ("Mr. President": George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office, 2013, etc.) writes, to consider Clay his intellectual and political forefather. Clay, the author writes, was "the first true American leader," born on the Virginia frontier the year after independence was declared and thus never a British citizen. His sharp mind and rhetorical skills set him apart from his fellow law clerks, "with a command of courthouse legal jargon, a winning baritone voice, and a range of adolescent skills that included cards, gambling, drinking, a quick sharp tongue, and ears and eyes that absorbed every opportunity for advantage and advancement." Setting up shop as a lawyer in Kentucky, he soon distinguished himself as a populist who called for the expansion of voters rights and naturally allied with representatives and not senators—though, in time, he would serve in both houses of Congress and run numerous times for the presidency. Clay, best known for his saying "I would rather be right than be president," became famous in the 1830s for his implacable opposition to Andrew Jackson, another southerner, but he was much more: a diplomat and peacemaker who attempted to forge compromises that, then as now, the heated politics of the day made difficult, if not impossible. In this lucid, exemplary biography, Unger focuses on not just Clay, but also on the formation of the early republic, a time too little studied today. An excellent introduction to a turbulent era.

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Da Capo Press
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6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

An acclaimed historian, Harlow Giles Unger is a former Distinguished Visiting Fellow at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He is the author of more than twenty books, including ten biographies of America's Founding Fathers and three histories of the early republic. He lives in New York.

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