The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XV. Publicists and Orators, 1800–1850

§ 22. Henry Clay; Gifts of Leadership

From scarcely any point of view can the orations of Henry Clay (1777–1852) be classed as literature of the same grade and importance as those of Webster and Calhoun. And yet just why one should say this is not quite clear even to oneself. The conclusion, if it be just, rests on the fact that today his speeches seem unprofitable and to be wanting in carrying power and effect. If in order to be classed as literature orations must either be marked by beauty of language and peculiar felicity of word and phrase, or contain, though without distinction of language, a profound and philosophic discussion of matters of lasting human interest, then Clay’s speeches can scarcely deserve a high place in literature. But if Clay’s words do not now move us deeply, they did move and captivate the men to whom he spoke, and that is the aim of oratory. He was more nearly the great popular orator of his time than was any other; in power over a general audience and in ability to touch the chord of human sympathy, no one was quite his equal, at least in the field of politics. This is much to say of an orator in a generation of free oratory, when men were not hesitant in the use of burning words or hindered by sophisticated self-restraint. No one else had the gracious manner, the voice and the presence, or those nameless qualities of personal charm, which are powerful and dominant in all the relations of life. If he could not win men by his logic or his facts, he could win and hold them simply because of himself. Randolph could arouse the interest of the crowd and amaze his audience by the brilliance of his epigrams; Rufus Choate could pour out strains of sonorous sentences which might for the time dazzle his admirers and confound his adversaries; Everett was able, with admirable grace and with decorous regard for niceties of expression, to utter polished periods which were almost too elegant to be convincing. But Clay conquered because he made friends and held them to himself; he enlisted their sympathies; with gracious persuasiveness he appealed to the hearts and the simple emotions of the crowd before him.

From the time when he became Speaker in 1811 and helped to bring on the war with England, to and through the compromise of 1850, Clay was intimately connected with all the great political movements of his day. The recognition of the South American republics, the tariff, the bank, the public lands, the distribution of the surplus revenue, the slavery question in all its phases, expansion, and the Mexican War can scarce be studied better than in the story of his life. Despite this fact or because of it, despite the fact that his life was in unusual degree the public life of a generation or more, it is perhaps not unjust to think of his speeches as occasional and of his work as that of an opportunist—a fairly consistent opportunist, it must be said, for he did not always trim his sails for popular favour, but represented instinctively and honestly, on the whole, certain human impulses of the people, and above all those elements of nationalism, conservatism, and democracy which were inherent in the strangely mingled Whig party of which he was the founder and guide. Though Jackson was for a time more popular and more successful, and though Webster’s eloquence appealed more to the New Englander and to the book-read classes, Clay held for decades the devotion of large portions of the people and peculiarly embodied the sense and sensibility of the nation at large. It is only when one understands the intricacies of political controversy, the sentiments of Jacksonian democracy in the West, all the entanglements of banks, and tariffs, and roads, and slavery, that we can account for Clay’s failure to attain the presidency, which he so ardently desired.