History Buzz April 5, 2013: History Doyen Robert Remini Dies at 91

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Robert Remini, 91, acclaimed history professor, dies

Source: Chicago Tribune, 4-5-13

Robert Remini, an award-winning biographer and political historian, was named historian of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005 and asked to pen a narrative history of the body. His book, “The House: The History of the House of Representatives,” was published the next year…READ MORE

The following is a reprint of Robert Remini’s History Doyen profiled I edited while I was an Assistant Editor at the History News Network (HNN). Robert Remini’s profile was the inaugural profile for the History Doyens series I edited, and was first published January 20, 2006 .  

History Doyens: Robert V. Remini

Edited & Compiled by Bonnie K. Goodman

What They’re Famous For

Robert V. Remini is professor emeritus of history and the humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Robert V. Remini  JPGHe is currently at work on a narrative history of the U.S. House of Representatives, and has been named House Historian. Remini has written a three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson, the third volume of the series, Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845 won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1984. He is also the author of biographies of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, as well as a dozen other books on Jacksonian America, and is considered the most preeminent scholar on Andrew Jackson and his times.

Personal Anecdote

To a very large extent my career as an historian, such as it is, was determined by events over which I had little control. For example, when I graduated from college I fully intended to become a lawyer. Not because I was intrigued by the law but because it seemed like a worthy profession then for a child of the Great Depression. Fortunately World War II came along and I found myself aboard a ship plying the Atlantic and reading histories of the United States. I even read all nine volumes of Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and I loved every page. After three years in the service I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading and writing and teaching history. I got so worked up that I even had the audacity of writing an article and submitting it for publication to the American Historical Association. It wasn’t a very good article and was based solely on secondary sources. Graciously, the AHA rejected it, but it was not many years later when they did publish an article I wrote.

So as soon as I was discharged I enrolled in the graduate school of Columbia University and began my newly discovered career. I was particularly anxious to study 20th century, urban, New York, political history. I’m not sure why, except that I was born and raised a New Yorker, as were both my parents. I signed up for an MA seminar conducted by Richard Hofstadter. He had arrived at Columbia about the same time I did. The class was packed with about 40 students, most of them returning veterans. Can you imagine a seminar of 40? I don’t think I ever said a word in the seminar. I just enjoyed every word Hofstadter spoke, for he spoke like he wrote, in complete sentences and paragraphs, every one a delight to hear. I wrote my master’s essay on John Purroy Mitchel, the reform mayor of New York City just prior to World War I and fully intended to continue with this topic for my doctorate.

Then one day Hofstadter approached me and suggested that I consider doing my PhD dissertation on Martin Van Buren since the Mitchel papers were locked up for 50 years which would prevent any further work on that topic. It seems that Columbia had received a grant that would permit the University to purchase microfilm copies of presidential papers held in the Library of Congress and the library people at Columbia were anxious to begin with copies of the Van Buren papers. Apparently the grant also stipulated that a graduate student begin working on them after their arrival. Now Van Buren was a New Yorker, said Hofstadter, and an important political figure. Granted he was not urban or twentieth century, but if I accepted his suggestion it would mean that I could do my basic research at Columbia and not have to travel to Washington or any other remote repository. Now if you think a graduate student cannot be influenced by such a proposal you are very mistaken.

I was gratified that Hofstadter had suggested me for this work and I agreed to switch to the nineteenth century. I did my doctoral dissertation on the early political career of Martin Van Buren under the direction of Dumas Malone, since Hofstadter did not give a PhD seminar at that time. That dissertation when published as a book argued that Van Buren was central to the formation of the Democratic party and the revival of the two party system. I fully expected to continue that work and write a full biography of Van Buren but Andrew Jackson intervened and changed all my plans. But that’s another and longer story.

Quotes

By Robert V. Remini

  • At length one sovereign artist found the language to express what Andrew Jackson had meant to his generation. In Moby Dick, Herman Melvile paid everlasting tribute to the fallen hero:“Men may seem detestable… but man, in ideal, is so noble and so sparkling… that over any ignomininous blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes…. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shall see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!The Course  of American Democracy, 1833-1845 JPG “If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades ands castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces;…if I shall touch that workman’s arm, with some etheral light…then against all moral critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!…Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a warhorse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!”To such an invocation of Jackson on behalf of the democratic ideal, one can only say, Amen, O God, Amen. — Robert Remini in the conclusion of “Andrew Jackson : The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845″
  • I have been invited to speak on Heroes of History, a subject about which it is very easy for professional historians to be cynical. And that is a great mistake because there are a great many genuine heroes in American history, starting at the very beginning and coming down to the present. I am thinking in particular of the heroes of 9/11, the astronauts of the space ship, Columbia, and the soldiers who fought and are fighting in Iraq.The question immediately arises as to what constitutes heroism. How can a hero be defined? Each person will have his or her own definition, but to me heroes are those who have performed extraordinary sacrifices for the benefit of others, and most especially for their country.This past year I was fortunate to be invited by the Library of Congress to undertake the writing of the history of the United States House of Representatives. I will start with the First Congress and continue to the present 108th. In researching and writing that book, I have been amazed by what the members of the First Congress accomplished, not only by the fact that they were mostly “ordinary” men, most of whom are obscure today, but how through heroic efforts they breathed life into the Constitution and helped create a republic that has not only survived, but prospered to an extraordinary extent. — Robert V. Remini “Ordinary heroes: Founders of our republic,” July 2003
  • The House really needs somebody who can remind them of all of the great traditions, the history of the institution. This is how you come to really love the place, by knowing more about it and how it evolved. — Robert Remini on his commission by the Library of Congress to write history of the House.

About Robert V. Remini

  • “Robert Remini, the Jackson biographer who has also turned out works on John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, said that only recently had he realized that he’s never written history, just biographies. Even his newest project, a history of the Congress, is really a “series of biographies.” He said he finds it easy to write. It’s the rewriting that’s hard. ‘I was trained by Jesuits and you were rewarded if you did good and punished if you did bad. I decided that I had to write nine pages a day. And if I did I got a martini. If not, I didn’t. Now I take a martini whether I’ve written or not’ (laughter). Remini, who by now had the crowd in stitches, said there’s one chief advantage of biographies. ‘For one thing there’s a beginning and an end. He dies.’ — Rick Shenkman in HNN’s “Reporter’s Notebook: Highlights from the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association”
  • “The appointment of professor Robert Remini to the House Historian position is a magnificent choice. From my experience as House Historian, I know that the Representatives themselves and the public at large, not to mention historians in particular, believe that the person with the title of historian should be someone who has devoted his life to history, not to the study of politics and political institutions. In Robert Remini the House not only has a Historian, but a great historian. In fact, Remini is one of our greatest living American historians. He is one of the legends. He is author of a monumental biography of Andrew Jackson, and for years has been widely considered our most accomplished Jackson scholar. Furthermore, Remini has written numerous books on the Jackson period and on the fundamental issues and questions of American history. He is beyond question superbly qualified to be Historian of the House of Representatives.” — Christina Jeffrey, Visiting Professor of Politics, Coastal Carolina University in Roll Call
  • “In introducing his magisterial biography of Daniel Webster, Robert Remini laments the creeping historical illiteracy that threatens to engulf Webster and his contemporaries. All the more reason, then, to be grateful to Professor Remini, the nation’s leading Jacksonian scholar, for reminding us of a time when eminent historians still wrote for the general educated reader. Remini’s research is impeccable, his storytelling on a par with his outsized subject. And what a story he has to tell.” — Richard Norton Smith on “Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time”
  • “With this book, Robert V. Remini has completed his trio of biographies of the great political leaders of the Middle Period: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and now Daniel Webster. Remini seems never to have met an anecdote he didn’t like. Alas, a good many of dubious authenticity found their way into this volume. The story of how Webster demanded an apology from the eminent lawyer William Pinckney for insulting him during arguments before the Supreme Court, for example, does not ring true. ‘Now I am here to say to you, once for all, that you must ask my pardon, and go into court tomorrow morning and repeat the apology,’ Webster supposedly told Pinckney, ‘or else either you or I will go out of this room in a different condition from that in which we entered it,’ at which Pinckney ‘trembled like an aspen leaf.’ It also seems hard to believe that after Webster’s notable reply to Hayne, another Southern senator said to him, ‘Mr. Webster, I think you had better die now, and rest your fame on that speech,’ whereupon Hayne himself declared: ‘You ought not to die: a man who can make such speeches as that ought never to die.’ Still, such tales enrich the narrative, and perhaps they illustrate a deeper truth. This life of Black Dan the Godlike Daniel is undoubtedly the fullest and the best that we will have for a long time to come.” — James McPherson, Princeton University on “Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time”

Basic Facts

Teaching Positions: University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, Chicago, professor of history, 1965-91, research professor of humanities, 1985-91, professor of history emeritus and research professor of humanities emeritus, 1991–; chairman of department, 1965-66 and 1967-71, director of Institute for the Humanities, 1981-87.

Wofford College, 1998.

University of Notre Dame, 1995-96.

Robert V.  Remini JPG Douglas Southall Freeman Professor of History, University of Richmond, 1992.

Jilin University of Technology, China, 1986.

Fordham University, New York City, instructor, 1947-51, assistant professor, 1951-59, associate professor of American history, 1959-65.

Visiting lecturer, Columbia University, 1959-60.

Area of Research: 19th century U.S. History; Presidential History; American statesmen; including John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay. He is especially well known for his works about Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian America.

Education: Fordham University, B.S., 1943; Columbia University, M.A., 1947, Ph.D., 1951.

Major Publications:

Sole Author:

  • Martin Van Buren and the Making of the Democratic Party, (Columbia University Press, 1959).
  • The Election of Andrew Jackson, (Lippincott, 1963).
  • Andrew Jackson, (Twayne, 1966).
  • Andrew Jackson and the Bank War: A Study in the Growth of Presidential Power, (Norton, 1968).
  • The Revolutionary Age of Andrew Jackson, (Harper, 1977).
  • Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Empire, 1767-1821, (Harper, 1977).
  • Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Freedom, 1822-1832, (Harper, 1981).
  • Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845, (Harper, 1984).
  • The Life of Andrew Jackson (includes 1767-1821, 1822-1832, and 1833-1845), Harper, 1988, published as Andrew Jackson, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998).
  • The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays in Democracy, Indian Removal and Slavery, (Louisiana State University Press, 1988).
  • The Jacksonian Era, (Harlan Davidson, 1989), second edition, 1997).
  • The Legacy of Andrew Jackson: Essays on Democracy, Indian Removal and Slavery (Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures in Southern History), (Louisiana State University Press, 1990)
  • Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, (Norton, 1991).
  • Daniel Webster: The Man and His Time ,(Norton, 1997), also published as Daniel Webster: A Conservative in a Democratic Age, (Norton, 1997).
  • The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America’s First Military Victory, (Viking, 1999).
  • Andrew Jackson & His Indian Wars, (Viking, 2001).
  • John Quincy Adams, (Times Books, 2002).
  • Joseph Smith, (Viking, 2002).
  • The House : The History of the House of Representatives, (Collins, May 2006)

Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:

  • (Editor and author of introduction and notes) Dixon Ryan Fox, The Decline of Aristocracy in the Politics of New York, 1801-1840, (Harper, 1965).
  • (Editor and author of introduction and notes) James Parton, The Presidency of Andrew Jackson, (Harper, 1966).
  • (Contributor) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred L. Israel, editors, History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-1968, Volume I, (McGraw, 1971).
  • (Editor) The Age of Jackson, (University of South Carolina Press, 1972).
  • (With James I. Clark) Freedom’s Frontiers: The Story of The American People, Benzinger (Beverly Hills, CA), 1975.
  • (With Clark) We the People: A History of the United States, Glencoe (Beverly Hills, CA), 1975.
  • (Compiler with Edwin A. Miles) The Era of Good Feelings and the Age of Jackson, (AHM, 1979).
  • (With Robert O. Rupp) Andrew Jackson: A Bibliography, (Meckler, 1991).
  • (Author of historical overview) Sara Day, editor, Gathering History: The Marian S. Carson Collection of Americana, (Library of Congress, 1999).
  • (With Fred W. Beuttler, Melvin G. Holli), University of Illinois at Chicago (The College History Series), (Arcadia Publishing, 2000)
  • Consulting editor, The Papers of Andrew Jackson.
  • Additionally, Contributor to Encyclopaedia Britannica, and to professional journals. Member of editorial board, Journal of American History, 1969-72.

Awards:

  • The Freedom Award, The U.S. Capitol Historical Society (2004), Remini was honored for his lifelong work in historical scholarship and his current efforts in writing a narrative history of the House of Representatives.
  • the American Historical Association’s Award for Scholarly Distinction
  • Commissioned aide-de-camp and Tennessee Colonel by governor of Tennessee, 1992.
  • Society of Midland Authors Award, 1992, for Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union; commissioned Kentucky Colonel by governor of Kentucky, 1992.
  • Honorary degrees from Governor’s State University, 1989, Eastern Kentucky University, 1992, and Fordham University, 1993.
  • Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation Award.
  • Carl Sandburg Award, 1989, for The Life of Andrew Jackson.
  • University Scholar Award, University of Illinois, 1986.
  • Friends of Literature Award, 1985.
  • National Book Award in nonfiction, 1984, for Andrew Jackson and the Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845.
  • Guggenheim fellow, 1978-79.
  • Huntington Library fellowship, 1978.
  • Friends of American Writers Award of Merit, 1977.
  • Encaenia Award, Fordham University, 1963.
  • Grant-in-aid, American Council of Learned Societies, 1960, and American Philosophical Society, 1964.

Additional Info: In May 2005 named House historian.

In September 2002 named Distinguished Visiting Scholar of American History in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress; Remini will research and write a narrative history of the U.S. House of Representatives. (The project was authorized by Congress in 1999 under the House Awareness and Preservation Act (P.L. 106-99))

Remini is a much sought after speaker and is hailed for his ability to make history “come alive.”

Honorary historian of Thirteen-Fifty Foundation.

Remini was named to the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

Remini has served as a review board member for the National Endowment for the Humanities since 1974.

He was selected by President George Bush in 1991 to speak at the White House as part of the Presidential Lecture Series on the Presidency and has been invited by President George W. Bush as well.

Special editor, Crowell-Collier Educational Corp.

Military service: U.S. Navy, 1943-46; became lieutenant.

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February 7, 1839: Henry Clay declares “I had rather be right than president.”

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

HNN, Monday, February 4, 2008

On this day in history…. February 7, 1839 Henry Clay declares in the United States Senate “I had rather be right than president.”

The venerable politician and statesman Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky believed his time to win the Presidency would finally be ripe in 1840. There were many obstacles to his winning the Whig Party’s nomination. One of the most contentious issues in the country in the antebellum period was slavery. Clay tried to take a centrist position, but accusations flew in both the North and the South that he favored extremes. In the North he was accused of “being ultra” in favor of Southern slaveholders. In the South he was accused of being an abolitionist who plotted secretly to abolish slavery. (Remini, 525) As the historian Robert Remini explains, “It may have occurred to Clay that his apparent middle-of- the-road position invited attacks from both sides of the slavery question.” (Remini, 525) Clay felt the charges that he was an abolitionist were detrimental to his chances for the presidency, and he needed to clarify his views on the slavery question. But he intended to stick to his views regardless of the political consequences. As he famously said, “I had rather be right than president.”

In order eventually to capture the nomination he needed support from Southern Whigs, but at the same time, he needed support from the Northern Quakers who were passive abolitionists. The most important aspect was to distinguish himself from the most extreme abolitionists, the “ultras” which he did in a Senate speech on February 7, 1839. Clay’s speech, “Petitions for the Abolition of Slavery,” supposedly addressed a petition by Washington DC’s residents to abolish slavery in the district. Clay actually wrote the petition himself.

The speech was Clay at his worse, which his supporters lamented. As Carl Schurz writes, “It was an apology for his better self. Formerly he had spoken as a born anti-slavery man, who to his profound regret found himself compelled to make concessions to slavery. Now he appeared as one inclined to deplore the attacks on slavery no less, if not more, than the existence of slavery itself.” (Schurz, 164)

In the speech, Clay claimed the only thing he had in common with the abolitionists was “abhorrence of slavery,” but their positions were entirely different, and in no way did he identify with them. Clay hoped this would put the speculation to rest that he harbored secret abolitionist desires. He laid out in the speech the history of the “peculiar institution,” the constitutional and legal questions surrounding it, and the course of action that should be taken to resolve slavery. It was here that he distinguished himself most from the abolitionists while attacking their solution to the slavery problem.

As Remini writes, Clay charged that abolitionists were “setting back emancipation half a century” by their agitation. (Remini, 526) Still, he believed that emancipation was not the answer. Clay claimed he did not believe that blacks and whites could live in racial harmony, as abolitionists claimed. As Thomas Brown writes, Clay believed that the “Freed slaves would flood the North, compete with white laborers, and drive down their wages, or the country, would be convulsed by interracial warfare as blacks and whites sought to preserve the purity and separateness of the races.” (Brown, 144) Clay was concerned that a power struggle would lead to a war between the races, especially since the slaves outnumbered whites in some Southern states. Clay believed that this power struggle would lead to Civil War, and suggested that the status quo was the best approach to take to the slavery question. “It is not better for both parties that the existing state of things should be preserved, instead of exposing them to the horrible strifes and contests which would inevitably attend immediate abolition.” (Remini, 526)

According to Clay “time” was the solution that would eventually end slavery, stating, “Providence will cure all-abolition nothing. It may ruin all; it can save none.” (Remini, 526) He then proceeded to make a plea to the ultra-abolitionists to cease their crusade for the sake of the country. “I beseech the abolitionists themselves, solemnly to pause in their mad and fatal course,” he stated. Clay continued: “Amid the infinite variety objects of humanity and benevolence which invite the employment of their energies, let them select some one more harmless, that does not threaten to deluge our country in blood.” (Remini, 526)

The reactions to Clay’s speech were far ranging. For the most part the speech boosted Southerners’ opinion of Clay. As Shurz writes, “Clay received his reward — or punishment — immediately.” (Shurz, 166) After he finished speaking Senator John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, lauded Clay, praising him for understanding the dangers of the abolitionist movement. Carl Schurz in his biography of Clay believed Calhoun stood up “as if to accept his surrender.” However, Remini describes Cahoun’s enthusiasm as “So spontaneous, so sincere, so fervent … that some wondered if another political alliance between northern money and southern cotton had been struck.” (Remini, 526) This alluded to the “corrupt bargain” of 1825, which handed John Quincy Adams the Presidency despite the fact that Andrew Jackson won the popular vote.

Calhoun proclaimed, “I heard the Senator from Kentucky with pleasure. His speech will have a happy effect, and will do much to consummate what had already been so happily begun and successfully carried on to a completion.” (Shurz, 167) Clay wanted the nomination so much that he had to take Calhoun’s humiliating words without saying anything. As Schurz explains, “Calhoun assigned to him a place in his church on the bench of the penitents, and the candidate for the presidency took the insult without wincing.” (Shurz, 168)

The speech offended the abolitionists, giving Clay the results he was looking for, distancing himself from them. Clay hoped his speech would increase his support among those he needed to help him garner the nomination. Still it was a turn off to many Northerners. Clay supporters like James G. Birney and John Greenleaf Whittier, who “once idolized Clay, now cast him off as something loathsomely hypocritical.” (Remini, 526) Clay claimed he wasn’t surprised by the response. “My abolition Speech was made after full deliberation,” he told a friend. “I expected it would enrage the Ultra’s more than ever against me, and I have not been disappointed.” (Remini, 527)

Clay should not have been surprised by the negative reaction or the long-term consequences. Before he delivered it, he read it to Senator William C. Preston of South Carolina, and several of his friends and colleagues to get their opinion. They believed that “The speech bears all the marks of that careful weighing of words characteristic of a candidate ‘defining his position’ on a delicate subject.” (Schurz, 164) One of the men believed it could have a negative impact on his presidential prospects, offending both the abolitionists and the pro-slavery factions. Upon hearing this Clay proclaimed the classic phrase he is most remembered for: “I trust the sentiments and opinions are correct, I HAD RATHER BE RIGHT THAN BE PRESIDENT.” Remini describes it as “the immortal utterance, the classic rejoinder, one that quickly entered the lexicon of American politics and was always associated with Clay’s name.” (Remini, 527)

Senator Preston repeated these words in a speech to a Whig rally in Philadelphia the following month announcing the phrase to the public. Then almost immediately Clay’s words were the talk of the nation, the newspapers reprinted his speech, and citizens found it to “noble and patriotic” and appropriate, while critics and “hard-nosed” politicians laughed upon hearing it. (Remini, 527) Clay may have wanted to be right, but he also wanted the Presidency, and his chances were slipping from him.

Soon after the speech, Clay felt the backlash. First Daniel Webster charged that Clay caused the Whigs to lose the 1838 election in Maine, and that the party should instead support a candidate who had more appeal, such as General William Henry Harrison. Webster was deliberately mounting a campaign against Clay, even going as far as to blame him for losing Harrison’s state, Ohio, in the 1838 election. To cap off this crusade, at the Anti-Mason National Convention in November 1839, the group nominated Harrison for President and Webster for Vice-President.

Politicians in the North, Abolitionists, and anti-Masons preferred Harrison as a presidential candidate to Clay. Another candidate who drew support was General Winfield Scott, whose military record was akin to Andrew Jackson’s. Fortunately for Clay, Webster took himself out of the running for the Whig nomination when he departed for England in 1839. Still Clay believed the nomination was his. As he wrote, “Moderation, conciliation, and decision, but above all firmness and decision should be our course. May it be guided by wisdom and lead to victory.” (Remini, 531)

Even before the Whig Convention Clay lost New York. Thurlow Weed, as Brown explains, thought “Clay had gone too far in his attacks [on abolitionists].” (Brown, 145) Both Weed and Thaddeus Stevens were Anti-Mason leaders, and wanted anybody but Clay as the nominee; they devised a plan to strip Clay of his 254-delegate majority.

A friend of Webster’s, Peleg Sprague, introduced a motion that changed the voting. Each state would choose three delegates to a committee, the committee in turn would ask their state which candidate they preferred. A vote would be held in private, and when there was a state consensus, the delegates would report it to the full convention. Clay’s supporters could not stop the motion even through it was obviously designed to strip Clay of the nomination, and soon Clay’s majority melted. Stevens and Weed preferred Harrison to Scott or Clay, but Scott’s candidacy seemed to benefit from their maneuvering. To counter this, Stevens released to the delegates a letter Scott wrote to Francis Granger that appeared favorable to the abolitionists. This was enough to damage Scott’s propsects and give Harrison–the least controversial choice–the nomination. Clay’s chance to capture the Presidency had ended.

Anti-Masons and abolitionists, the two groups Clay alienated with his February 7, 1839 speech, controlled the Whig Party. But Clay, says Remini, “also had a hand in engineering his [own] defeat. His Senate speech on February 7, 1839, against the abolitionists, more than any other single factor, undoubtedly prevented him from gaining a single northern state at the convention ‘except glorious Rhode Island.’ ‘I had rather be right than President,’ Clay had announced. So be it, responded the delegates.” (Remini, 554) Henry Clay would live to regret his words on the Senate floor, because ultimately they caused him to lose the nomination he wanted more than anything.

As we are now reaching a defining moment in the 2008 campaign with Super Tuesday around the corner, another candidate has been compared to Clay. Hillary Clinton has been haunted by her Senate vote for the Iraq war, but has refused to apologize for it, though her position on the war has evolved. In a February 2007 Christian Science Monitor article Daniel Schorr wrote, “Whether that will appease her supporters remains to be seen. What they apparently will not get from her are those three little words. ‘I am sorry.’ What her lack of contrition will cost her, that also remains to be seen…. She may take comfort from the ‘great compromiser,’ Sen. Henry Clay of Kentucky, who on the Senate floor in 1839 declared, ‘I had rather be right than president.'”

Sources and further reading:

Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Henry Clay, The Works of Henry Clay, Barnes & Burr, 1863.

Robert Vincent Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.

Daniel Schorr, “Will voters accept Hillary Clinton’s nonapology? Her vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq might cost her the presidency,” Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 2007.

Carl Schurz, Life of Henry Clay: American Statesmen, Volume: 2, Houghton Mifflin, 1899.

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