WASHINGTON – Just as this year, Independence Day in 1852 fell on a Sunday. But in New York City the traditional celebration was upstaged by another event. The casket bearing the remains of Henry Clay had arrived aboard the steamboat Trenton.
As historians David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler write in their splendid biography, “Henry Clay: The Essential American,” published earlier this year, “New York closed down and turned out on Broadway to see the makeshift parade that bore Clay to City Hall. He lay there in state for the rest of the day and all of the next, July 4, a Sunday.”
From there, he was borne by ship up the Hudson to Albany and then by funeral train to Buffalo and beyond.
Clay was not a New Yorker, but the Congress in which he had served decided, with his family, his renown was such that, after tributes had been paid over his bier in the Capitol (just as we heard for Robert Byrd), the nation should join the commemoration.
So he was transported north to Baltimore, Philadelphia and through the New York stops to Cleveland and Cincinnati before reaching his final destination, Lexington, Ky.
Who was this man, the slim 75-year-old whose funeral in the Senate chamber had been attended by the president and so many other worthies that it resembled a State of the Union address? He was a unique figure in American history, the founder of the Whig Party, the youngest speaker of the House at the time, one of the giants of the Senate in its golden age, a five-time candidate for the White House, and the author of some of the most significant legislation in the first century of our national development.
Clay was born in Virginia in 1777, less than a year after the Declaration of Independence was signed. Trained in penmanship, he became the private secretary to George Wythe, who was a signer of the Declaration and the mentor of Thomas Jefferson. At 20, armed with a law degree, Clay joined an older brother in Lexington.
From then on, he rose rapidly in public office. Sent to the U.S. Senate by fellow members of the Kentucky Legislature, then elected to the House, he became speaker at 34, with the support of other young men in the group known as “War Hawks” because of their hostility to Britain.
The following decades are etched in history. Clay found his nemesis in Andrew Jackson and began an unprecedented series of losing presidential campaigns by challenging him. He earned a permanent place in Senate history along with his great contemporaries, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster.
He became famous as a conciliator and, despite increasing infirmities, helped negotiate the Compromise of 1850, a last, futile attempt to head off the Civil War.
Along the way, he led the short-lived effort to make the Whigs (named for their British cousins) the opposition party. It lasted just long enough to inspire Abraham Lincoln.
And besides all that, Clay invented the American System, policies favoring the support of domestic industry and the improvement of what we would now call infrastructure – roads and rail and all other forms of transport and communication.
Between Washington’s time and Lincoln’s, it is probable that no American was more influential than Clay – and certainly no one who did not occupy the White House.
On Independence Day now, he is rarely mentioned as part of the pantheon that shaped this nation. But shape it he did. And, as the Heidlers remind us, toward the end of Clay’s life, when the famous soprano Jenny Lind visited Washington and Clay came to hear her, he was pleased to reciprocate by honoring her request to come listen to him argue a case before the Supreme Court. Two star turns.
David Broder writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.