Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union
by Robert Remini
W. W. Norton
Published: October 1991
Robert Remini’s “Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union” was published in 1991 and was the first traditional biography of Clay in more than half a century (since Glyndon Van Deusen’s 1937 “The Life of Henry Clay”). Remini was a distinguished historian and authored nearly two dozen books – including biographies of Andrew Jackson I previously read and reviewed. Remini died in 2013 at the age of 91.
As the preeminent biographer of Andrew Jackson (Clay’s long-time political rival) Remini seems the perfect person to author a comprehensive review of Henry Clay’s life. But because Jackson and Clay were such bitter political enemies, he is also an unconventional choice to write a balanced account of Clay’s personal life and political career. But this 786-page biography is not only scrupulously objective, it almost seems to betray a preference for Clay over Jackson.
Written in a strictly chronological style, this book is easy to follow, extremely well researched and provides tremendous insight into Clay’s enormously compelling and controversial career. Remini’s writing style, however, too often feels “heavy” and lacks the elegance, fluidity and vivid scene-setting which great biographies frequently exhibit.
Fortunately for the reader, Clay’s dynamic and often exasperating personality is artfully dissected and articulated early in this biography. And because Remini’s knowledge of the era is so deep, the narrative rarely loses sight of the “big picture.” Finally, because he understands Andrew Jackson so well, Remini is able to skillfully compare and contrast the political styles and strengths of these two extraordinarily fascinating contemporaries.
Nevertheless, readers will quickly encounter several flaws in this otherwise titillating biography. First, its length is unquestionably intimidating and, after several chapters, the narrative settles into a tediously mechanistic routine of regurgitating Clay’s day-to-day movements and summarizing his congressional speeches (many of which are, admittedly, quite stirring). In addition, Remini’s ongoing appraisal of Clay’s persona grows familiar and predictable and he becomes over-simplified and oddly two-dimensional.
Remini also seems strangely uncritical of Clay’s most conspicuous and contradictory flaw – his personal embrace of slavery while claiming publicly to despise it. But it is Remini’s literary loquacity which proves even more frustrating; Clay’s life could have been fully revealed with far greater efficiency (if not clarity). Finally, the biography ends shortly after Clay’s death – without considering his legacy or his substantial contribution to the American political scene.
Overall, Robert Remini’s “Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union” is a valuable historical reference document and proves an interesting, but too often tedious, personal and political biography. Readers with a healthy dose of perseverance will find Remini and Henry Clay work well together. But the most lasting impression I take away is not that Remini’s biography of Clay isn’t good…it’s that it should have been great.
Overall rating: 3¾ stars
Dennis Branson said:
I just bought this book a few weeks and haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants by H.W. Brands.
I attended a talk by Brands about the book, and he was a great speaker. Looking forward to reading the book.
Daniel Ligon said:
My review of “Heirs of the Founders.”
Not bad, but I preferred “The Great Triumvirate,” which I review here.
Read only the Kindle sample of Heirs, but didn’t really like the writing style. Read the Great Triumvirate many years ago and thought it superior.
There is another biography of Clay that I read that is (in my humble opinion) very good. Henry Clay: the Essential American. After reading it, my view of Jackson was greatly diminished.
Great to hear – I’ve got that one on my list (to read) as well!
Anand Durvasula said:
I did find Remini’s Clay to be well-written but very draggy. I’d go so far as to say, felt the force of Clay in his time was blunted by almost ponderous coverage of his failures (many self-inflected, thou!). I think the best writing about Clay is in Merrill Peterson’s “The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun” – with the added bonus of great profiles of Webster and Clay and how all three interacted with each other. By contrast, I found Remini’s Webster bio to be masterful (even though i’ve also admired Clay more than Webster).
Thanks for your note – and you are testing my resolve with respect to the books I plan to read for the rest of 2019! “The Great Triumvirate” and Remini’s bio of Daniel Webster are both obviously on my reading list but I hadn’t planned on getting to either of them “imminently.” But I’m beginning to wonder if I need to find a way to slip Peterson’s into the line-up sooner rather than later?
Webster always struck me as an interesting fellow but also as someone whose personality and ambition never quite matched Henry Clay which is why I prioritized a Clay bio over one on Webster.
Christopher Saunders said:
I enjoyed this one a lot more than you – it is very dense, so I can understand finding it a slog, but I enjoyed Remini’s writing style and judgments (and the subject – Clay is an incredible figure) enough not to mind. Plus I didn’t get the sense, as with his Jackson books, that he was contorting himself to present Clay’s shortcomings in a favorable light. That said, Milam’s suggestion of The Essential American is worth seeking out; it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, but I recall it being more accessible and less heavy than Remini.
BTW, David W. Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom just won this year’s Pulitzer for Biography. I hope you have that on your list because it’s an incredible book.
Thanks for your thoughts on the Clay bio – I’m glad I read it but was hoping for “more” (and, perhaps, less). I’ll be reading “The Essential American” at some point and will be interested to compare it.
And thanks for the nudge – I have Blight’s bio on a post-it note on my computer screen but need to go ahead and formally add it to my master list!
Anand Durvasula said:
Thanks for your thoughtful response. I should note that when i wrote draggy/slog, i was thinking more of the emotional toll the book took on me — seeing Clay’s dreams of the American System and his personal ambition get dashed again-and-again kind of wore me down after a while; and not an actually criticism of the writing or how interesting Clay and Clay-operating-in-his-times was. Probably poor word choice for me.
Yes, i’m very excited by the new Frederick Douglass book. Thanks for bringing it up.
I just finished John Quincy Adams – Militant Spirit by James Traub and found it excellent. The last lines of the preface really hit the nail on the head: to know Adams is not to love him. it is, however, to admire him greatly.