Henry Clay was a man of honor and a gentleman. He kept his word. He was true to his friends, his party, and his convictions. He paid his debts and his son’s debts. The instinct of solvency was very strong in him. He had a religion, of which the main component parts were self-respect and love of country. These were supremely authoritative with him; he would not do anything which he felt to be beneath Henry Clay, or which he thought would be injurious to the United States. Five times a candidate for the Presidency, no man can say that he ever purchased support by the promise of an office, or by any other engagement savoring of dishonor. Great talents and a great understanding are seldom bestowed on the same individual. Mr. Clay’s usefulness as a statesman was limited by his talent as an orator. He relied too much on his oratory; he was never such a student as a man intrusted with public business ought to be. Hence he originated nothing and established nothing. His speeches will long be interesting as the relics of a magnificent and dazzling personality, and for the light they cast upon the history of parties; but they add scarcely anything to the intellectual property of the nation. Of American orators he was the first whose speeches were ever collected in a volume. Millions read them with admiration in his lifetime; but already they have sunk to the level of the works “without which no gentleman’s library is complete,”—works which every one possesses and no one reads.
Henry Clay, regarded as a subject for biography, is still untouched. Campaign Lives of him can be collected by the score; and the Rev. Calvin Colton wrote three volumes purporting to be the Life of Henry Clay. Mr. Colton was a very honest gentleman, and not wanting in ability; but writing, as he did, in Mr. Clay’s own house, he became, as it were, enchanted by his subject. He was enamored of Mr. Clay to such a degree that his pen ran into eulogy by an impulse which was irresistible, and which he never attempted to resist. In point of arrangement, too, his work is chaos come again. A proper biography of Mr. Clay would be one of the most entertaining and instructive of works. It would embrace the ever-memorable rise and first triumphs of the Democratic party; the wild and picturesque life of the early settlers of Kentucky; the war of 1812; Congress from 1806 to 1852; the fury and corruption of Jackson’s reign; and the three great compromises which postponed the Rebellion. All the leading men and all the striking events of our history would contribute something to the interest and value of the work. Why go to antiquity or to the Old World for subjects, when such a subject as this remains unwritten?
[Footnote 1: Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, Book V. Ch. X. sec. 1.]