Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Programs for Citizens

Letters from an Ohio Farmer

A Statesman in Congress

June 26, 2012

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

This Friday marks the 160th anniversary of the death of Henry Clay (June 29, 1852). With only a few years excepted, Clay served in the House of Representatives and the Senate from 1803 until his death almost 50 years later. When he died, he was the most famous American of his day and received many, many eulogies. One of them came from a little-known, former one-term Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who eulogized Clay as “my beau ideal of a statesman.”

In calling Clay a “statesman,” Lincoln chose his words carefully, and he used a term we don’t hear much anymore. But it’s one we must recapture if we are going to understand the kind of people we need in public office to revitalize the American experiment in constitutional self-government.

To recapture the idea of the statesman, we must, among other things, recall how to distinguish it from the idea of the “leader” bequeathed to us by the Progressive Movement over a century ago. “Leader” is an old word with a respectable heritage—Thomas Jefferson referred to George Washington, for example, as “our great leader.”  But the Progressives, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, poured new wine into this old bottle, and our public discourse has been drinking this Progressive vintage ever since.

Progressives who talk about “leadership” also talk about “vision.”  They mean that a leader somehow must have vision, a vision of the future into which he will lead his followers. A progressive leader moves people away from where they are toward some new goal divined by the leader—actually, toward goals that must constantly be renewed as we make endless “progress” into an always receding future. To lead the country into the progressive future requires leading it away from the supposedly outmoded goals, principles, and institutions of the American Founding.

The statesmanship of Clay (and Lincoln after him) was guided by the goals set out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: to protect the “unalienable” rights of every individual to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”; and “to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”  A statesmanlike pursuit of these goals requires “vision,” too, but vision of a sort very different from the progressive variety.

Statesmanlike vision is part of the virtue that Aristotle called prudence. Prudence does not mean “caution”; it means knowing what the right goals are and seeing how to move toward them in the particular circumstances that you face. The prudent statesman has great political vision, like a great quarterback who can see the whole field and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. Having that kind of larger outlook can be hard in Congress, where there are so many particular interests and passions always trying to narrow your view. But, as Lincoln said, Henry Clay had that broader statesmanlike perspective: “Whatever Mr. Clay did, he did for the whole country. In the construction of his measures he ever carefully surveyed every part of the field, and duly weighed every conflicting interest.”

The right kind of compromise is often part of the statesman’s prudence. On at least three occasions (the last in 1850), Henry Clay cobbled together a deal in Congress that held a shaky country together. For this he earned the title “The Great Compromiser”—not because he gave in on his fundamental principles but because his compromises preserved the Union and kept the spark of liberty alive. His deals had their critics, and some of their criticism is not off the mark. But Clay was willing to make imperfect compromises because he knew that in politics consequences matter. It’s not enough simply to have good intentions: the right action is also the one that has the best possible results. The statesman’s compromise is one that, without violating the larger principles at stake, gets as much good as possible out of imperfect circumstances.

To achieve what Clay achieved in his long career required qualities that set him apart from his sometimes more seemingly successful political competitors. As Lincoln said:

Even those of both political parties who have been preferred to him for the highest office, have run far briefer courses than he, and left him, still shining high in the heavens of the political world. Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Polk, and Taylor, all rose after, and set long before him. The spell—the long enduring spell—with which the souls of men were bound to him, is a miracle. Who can compass it? It is probably true he owed his pre-eminence to no one quality, but to a fortunate combination of several. He was surpassingly eloquent; but many eloquent men fail utterly; and they are not, as a class, generally successful. His judgment was excellent; but many men of good judgment, live and die unnoticed. His will was indomitable; but this quality often secures to its owner nothing better than a character for useless obstinacy. These then were Mr. Clay’s leading qualities. No one of them is very uncommon; but all taken together are rarely combined in a single individual; and this is probably the reason why such men as Henry Clay are so rare in the world.

Statesmen like Henry Clay are rare, but sometimes our Republic needs them. They don’t try to lead us to a new political ideal; they help us see how to return to the principles of our Founding and Constitution. They know that the people are supposed to lead themselves by adhering to the Constitution they set up, not by following a leader as he envisions the next goal revealed to him by the always progressing “living constitution.” In helping to keep our Founding principles alive in the minds of the American people, they render a noble and glorious service both to our country and to all mankind.

They come to “belong to the ages,” as someone said less than a generation later of the little-known Congressman who once eulogized Henry Clay.

Ohio Farmer