Friday, August 6, 2010
Probably my favorite period of US history is the first half of the 19th century. The first question in your mind is probably "What's so special about that period?" Let's talk about that time in American history. So...we're at the beginning of the country. We've fought the revolution and won and we exist as a country. Great. What happens now? Throughout the 1790s the country is fending off England, France and other countries that aren't quite believing that America is a credible, new country. Most European countries are convinced that if America was left to its own devices it would probably implode. After all, European countries had been around for centuries and America is a new experiment in self-government. Surely that won't work, right? Having said that, the first half of the 19th century was dicey to say the least for our country.
Now the books I will discuss are two. The first is "Henry Clay: Essential American" by David S. and Jeanne T. Fiedler and "American Lion" by Jon Meachem. Obviously, the first is about Henry Clay, the second is about Andrew Jackson. The importance of these two books is that Clay and Jackson were contemporaries and really enemies. These are two titans of government. Let's talk about what they believed.
Clay was a vehement advocate of the American System. That entailed spending federal money to improve the infrastructure of the states. Jackson not so much. I am not so much of a fan of the American System, but that was a dividing issue between the two.
Let's look at Clay's career. First he is one of the youngest appointed US Senators ever, pre-17th Amendment. Don't even get me started about the 17th Amendment. While a member of congress he was a major force in the Compromise of 1820 that set the Civil War back decades. If you remember, sectionalism was rising and the south was feeling really subordinate to the northern, manufacturing states. But the overall issue was slavery and the southern states wanted to protect that above everything else. Clay was from Kentucky and owned slaves. The compromise allowed the senate to maintain an equilibrium between southern (slave holding states) and northern (non-slave holding states).
Then Clay was involved in the nullification crisis of 1832. Long story short, John Calhoun, a slavery, southern state's rights adovocate, felt that the Tariff of Abominations (1828) was a killer for the south, and really it was. Calhoun, citing the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 written by Jefferson and Madison advocating nullification of laws felt to be unconstitutional, was the leader of the South Carolina delegation in electing "nullies" who then nullified the tariff.
This set up a confrontation with President Jackson, who personally didn't agree with the tariff, but felt that the rule of law must be obeyed. Jackson threatened to send a military detachment to enforce the law and hang any "nullies" who did not obey the law. Anyone familiar with Jackson's career wouldn't doubt his threat. Clay stepped in and negotiated a compromise tariff that headed off the crisis and saved another confrontation between the north and the south.
The last of Clay's moments as the "Great Compromiser" was the Compromise of 1850. It was a comglomeration of bills that allowed both the south and the north to save face and put off the Civil War for another decade. As you can probably tell I am a Clayophile. I think he is as the title of the book states, "The Essential American." Jackson on the other hand, was a great figure, but he was certainly the greatest example of the "Imperial Presidency." Is that a good thing?
Besides Clay's congressional career, he negotiated the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. He was involved in every major decision of America from 1811 to 1850 until his death in 1852. All in all, he was the greatest statesman in American history. The beauty of American history is that two titantic figures such as Jackson and Clay were contemporaries who fought against each other for the betterment of the country. How was Clay not elected president when we were blessed with such lumunaries as Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore during the same period?
Read up on these two figures and know the greatness of this country. I loved both of these books and learned a tremendous amount about that vital first half of the 19th century. There were many great Americans. Just read.