A great way to understand U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is to study the man the Dark Lord of the US Senate cites as his hero. That man is the 19th Century political giant and U.S. Senator Henry Clay (W-Kentucky).
A recent Vox article describes Clay as the Great Compromiser. In reality, Clay was a racist whose dedication to white supremacy and penchant for backroom deal making fatally damaged America.
Many historians blame Clay’s compromises for the Civil War. Clay helped negotiate the Missouri Compromise, which required Congress to admit one new slave state for each Free State in 1820.
How Henry Clay helped cause the Civil War
One of the major causes of the Civil War was the admission of California to the Union as a free state in 1850, which shifted the balance of power in America to the North.
California’s admission destroyed the Missouri Compromise because California is south of the Mason-Dixon state. However, in 1850 Congress was more interested in keeping California’s gold in American hands than appeasing slave owners.
Some historians think the US Supreme Court made the Civil War inevitable by declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional in the Dred Scott Case. Likewise, Clay’s clumsy efforts to negotiate a new compromise on the issue of slavery further divided the nation and radicalized many Americans in the early 1850s.
Henry Clay’s Corrupt Bargain
Clay was part of the Corrupt Bargain of 1824, which destroyed the US political system. To explain, no candidate received enough votes to win the 1824 presidential election.
Consequently, the US House of Representatives chose the President. Clay, then Speaker of the House and a presidential candidate made backroom deal with John Quincy Adams (Massachusetts). Clay threw his 37 Electoral College votes to Adams in exchange for an appointment as US Secretary of State.
The deal screwed Andrew Jackson (D-Tennessee); who had received a majority of the popular and Electoral College votes (99 to 89), out of the presidency. Jackson’s followers got so mad at the Corrupt Bargain they pulled out of the political order and created a new political party to overturn the system: the Democrats. Interestingly, Jackson served terms as President, but Clay never reached the White House.
Henry Clay’s Racism
After 1824, Clay ran for President twice on the Whig ticket (1832 and 1844) and lost. However, Clay became one of the most popular political heroes in America. In particular, Clay’s mindless defense of slavery and white supremacy destroyed the Second Party system.
To explain, Clay’s appeasement of the Slave Power drove anti-slavery northerners out of the Whig Party and into the Republicans. The election of a Republican President and Congress in 1860 sparked Southern Succession triggering the Civil War.
One of Clay’s signature issues in his later career was the loathsome Colonization scheme. To elaborate, colonization was a plan to deport all black Americans to Africa to keep the United States a “white man’s nation.”
Predictably, most African Americans hated and opposed Clay’s idea. However, many White intellectuals; including a young lawyer and politician named Abraham Lincoln (W-Illinois), loved colonization. As President, Lincoln tried to make Clay’s colonization a reality, with schemes to “resettle” freed slaves in Haiti and Central America.* Lincoln’s colonization failed because few freed slaves wanted to leave America.
Clay’s refusal to accept blacks as Americans poisoned the nation’s political life and turned Americans against each other. Frighteningly, Clay originated some ideas later held by the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederacy, and today’s white nationalists.
We could use a Man like LBJ Again
Henry Clay’s legacy is a frightening and troubling one. Yet Mitch McConnell eagerly embraces it.
On the other hand, Clay is not McConnell’s Senate role model. As I noted elsewhere, I think McConnell patterns his leadership and legislative strategy on President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas).
To explain, Johnson created the modern style of Senate Leadership in his years as Democratic minority and majority leader in the U.S. Senate. McConnell uses Johnson’s methods to achieve his goals.
Hence, what America needs could be a second LBJ who is willing to whatever is necessary to expand the Welfare State and Civil Rights. Sadly, I cannot see such an individual rising to prominence in today’s corrupt corporate Democratic Party.
I think historians of the future could regard Mitch McConnell as a Second Henry Clay whose manipulations helped spark a second Civil War. Thus, Mitch McConnell has far more in common with Henry Clay, than Vox’s writers realize.
*See Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson pages 508-509.