The following post is part of a series on the rise and fall of the self-made man in American culture.
Stories like those of Franklin and Hamilton dramatized the power of the American Revolution to transform the lives of Founding Fathers, but they were hardly the only ones to benefit from the changes it wrought. The most unvarnished form of possibility took the form of territorial expansion, as the destruction of the Native American balance of power with the French and English allowed Americans to push into places like Ohio, Alabama and Florida. Washington described the United States as an “empire for liberty,” but indigenous leaders from Pontiac to Osceola, who led military resistance to such expansion, would no doubt agree that the nation was really about liberty for empire. Nor were Native peoples consulted in the complex string of real estate transactions that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase. White Americans had vast new territories into which they could bring their families – and in some cases, their slaves – for a quest in which geographic lateral mobility became demographic upward mobility.
The Revolution’s aftermath loosened political strictures as well, particularly in new states that in turn diluted the power of Federalist elite, which controlled the U.S. government in the first decade of the nation’s existence. By the 1830s, the elective franchise, still largely limited to white men, was nevertheless the most expansive in the world, laying the foundations for mass politics and modern political parties.
And then there was the transformation of the economy. The opening of Samuel Slater’s water-powered mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790 marked the opening phase of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. It’s important not to exaggerate its impact at the time – the nation remained overwhelmingly agricultural, and it would be decades before railroads, factories, and banks became facts of everyday life for ordinary Americans – but the outlines for new vistas of opportunity (as well as new forms of economic threats) were taking shape in ways that were increasingly apparent to the people who experienced them.
As we’ve seen, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson became vivid emblems of the self-made man in these nation-building years. But as we’ve also seen, they were in some important respects backward-looking, championing versions of the idea that were perceived as in possible danger, sometimes giving their rhetoric a defensive tone. Hamilton, by contrast, was forward-looking, at least in terms of his vision of the American economy; he was comfortable with the idea of nation built on manufacturing, banking, and urban concentration. The problem with the Hamiltonian vision is that it lacked the democratic flavor, the egalitarian tone, necessary for such ideas to thrive in the nation’s emerging political culture – one in which flavor and tone may actually have mattered more than content. The man who came closest to successfully addressing this problem in the first half of the nineteenth century was one of the best known, and least remembered, politicians in American history. His name was Henry Clay.
Like a lot of politicians of his era, Clay puffed up his Everyman credentials, and like virtually all of them, his claim on that status is relatively weak. He was born in 1777 to lower-tier gentry in Virginia. After his father’s death, Clay’s mother remarried and relocated the family to neighboring Kentucky – in those days the Virginia frontier. The path westward had been blazed by the legendary Daniel Boone, the son of Pennsylvania Quakers who had first explored the territory in the late 1760s amid the military tumult of the era (he fought in the French and Indian War as well as the American Revolution). By the 1780s Boone had become a leading figure in the territory, which quickly attracted sufficient population to be admitted along with Vermont as the first two new states to follow the original 13 colonies.
For much of his youth, however, Clay had stayed behind in Virginia. His stepfather procured a job for him as secretary to Jefferson’s old mentor, George Wythe, who helped train Clay to become a lawyer. In 1797 he relocated near the rest of the family in the rapidly growing town of Lexington, Kenucky, where he settled down, married well, and started a large family. Clay was soon renowned as one of the most effective attorneys in the state.
That’s not all he was renowned for. As was common for a man of his station, Clay loved horses, whiskey and cards. His vitality was matched by his social skills, which proved to be a major asset as his true passion – politics – came into focus. Clay was elected to the Kentucky legislature in 1803, and in turn elected by the legislature to finish out the term of a U.S. senator. In order to take the job, which was for less than a year, Clay had to sidestep some political complications. The first was his age: he was only 29 at the time, months short of the Constitutionally mandated minimum age of thirty. (Nobody seems to have noticed.) A bigger problem was Clay’s decision to represent former vice-president Aaron Burr, who stood accused of conspiracy in Kentucky for an alleged plot to foment war with Mexico. Clay liked Burr and helped him get acquitted of that charge, which was only one of a much more complex plot involving the creation of a rival republic between the United States and Mexico. Clay was apparently unaware of the depths of Burr’s machinations. But at the very least the optics were bad, given that Clay was a staunch Jeffersonian and Jefferson hated Burr, notwithstanding their shared hatred for the now-deceased Hamilton. Clay distanced himself from Burr as soon as he decently could, averting disaster for his political career before it had barely begun.
Even in this initial short-term role as a Senator, Clay made a splashy impression. He was a favorite of First Lady Dolly Madison and a fixture on the Washington social circuit. Clay returned to Kentucky in 1807, and survived a duel of his own over an opponent’s mockery of his proposal that members of the state House of Representatives, of which he was now speaker, only wear suits made of homespun in protest of British naval and commercial policies. In 1810 Clay was again chosen to fill the unexpired term of a U.S. Senator. His ascent was effectively completed when, the following year, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and promptly chosen as Speaker of the House – a feat unequaled before or since. In 1813-14 he was one of the key negotiators in forging the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. He and his colleagues typically finished a night of socializing just as John Quincy Adams, the son of Founding Father John Adams, was getting up.
Clay came of age politically in a transitional moment in American history. The Federalists were fading, but no effective opposition to the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans had taken shape during the administrations of Jefferson, James Madison, or James Monroe. Some political tensions were generational, others regional, but they had not solidified into new parties. One of Clay’s allies in this phase of his career was his later rival, John Calhoun of South Carolina; the two were among the leaders of the so-called War Hawks advocating a hard line with Britain.
In many respects, Clay was a mainstream politician, but not all his views were quite in step with the majority of his colleagues. Take his stand on slavery. Clay hailed from a slaveholding state, and owned slaves himself. But he was among the charter members of the American Colonization Society when it was founded in 1816. The ACS promoted the end of slavery via the purchase of freedom for slaves and the establishment of an American colony in West Africa, dubbed Liberia, where they could be repatriated. Though antislavery, it was hardly an abolitionist organization; Jefferson was another charter member of the club, which reflected the largely southern orientation of antislavery activity in the early decades of the century. Nor did it amount to much. Perhaps for that reason, Clay paid no serious price for his public position on the issue. But it was not exactly a typical one.
The heart of Clay’s political identity was his economic program, which attracted passionate followers but which also sparked opposition. To put it simply, Clay became the public spokesman for the self-made entrepreneur. Among the most important aspects of his vision was support of the Bank of the United States, an institution founded by Hamilton in 1791 to serve as the repository of the nation’s financial assets and a source of liquidity in the economy. Long hated by Old Republicans, its charter expired in 1811. But Clay was at the forefront of the Madison administration’s effort to revive it as part of a larger effort to spur national economic development. He was also prominent in pushing for tariffs on foreign goods, which would make them more expensive and thus promote American manufacturing as a lower-cost alternative. Clay was hardly alone in advocating such measures; New England allies like J.Q. Adams and Daniel Webster were part of this ideological coalition, as was – for a little while longer – Calhoun, who by the 1830s became the darling of the South Carolina plantation elite.
It is one of the ironies of antebellum politics that while the Federalist faction led by Hamilton was dead by the 1820s, Hamilton’s ideas were resurrected within what was still a Jeffersonian political universe, one in which even figures like the son of his old rival Adams could operate comfortably as a diplomat in the Jefferson and Monroe administrations. Perhaps even more ironic is that Clay, who came of age as a staunch Jeffersonian, nevertheless became as a latter-day Hamiltonian. The difference – and it was a key one – is that Clay embraced such policies without the condescension and hostility that had characterized the Federalists. To be sure, this didn’t win over everyone – Old Republican John Randolph complained Clay “out-Hamiltons Hamilton.” [Heider 3077] But Clay’s social skills and penchant for finding common ground gave him an effectiveness that would result in his nickname “the Great Compromiser” – a moniker that was largely, though not entirely, admiring.
Of course even allies compete. In 1824, Adams, Clay and Calhoun all nursed presidential ambitions (Calhoun, who was the least competitive, deferred his). But all three found themselves facing the unexpectedly powerful candidacy of Andrew Jackson, who received the most votes in the election, though not enough to clinch the Electoral College. Adams prevailed in that tally, apparently because Clay threw his support in exchange for appointment as Secretary of State (a move bitterly attacked by Jacksonians as a “corrupt bargain”). In 1828 Jackson trounced Adams, and ushered in a new era of American politics known as the Second Party System. Jackson’s political coalition claimed the mantel of Jefferson and became known as the Democrats.
Clay became the leader of the opposition, known as the Whigs, a name that harkened back to the reformist wing of a British party that had provided much of the ideological justification for the American Revolution. Though it was not solely his, Clay became famous for articulating a program that would be forever associated with him and known as “the American System.” The core idea involved the national integration of sectional difference whereby the South would produce raw materials for Northern industrial production. Meanwhile, high tariffs would product American manufacturing, and finance the development of a national infrastructure of roads, canals, and rail, stitching East to West (Clay, befitting his a home state that still had a whiff of the frontier, was known also as “Great Harry of the West”). Clay’s confrontation with Andrew Jackson would culminate in an epic political fight over the Bank of the United States, which Clay essentially dared Jackson to shut down, and which Jackson did (thereby damaging the U.S. economy, though not until he had left office).
What matters most for our purposes is a speech that Clay, now back in the Senate, delivered in February of 1832 while running for president. An epic three-day disquisition, “In Defense of the American System” ranged widely over a series of topics, most of them too arcane to be remembered. But at one point in his address, Clay uttered a sentence invoking a phrase that became durably famous. “In Kentucky,” he said, “almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”
What we have here is a turning point in American history. It’s not simply Clay’s use of a term – whether or not he coined it, “self-made man” would be forever associated with him – but also that he was calling attention to, and promoting, a fundamental realignment of what success meant in the United States. This becomes plain in the diplomatically phrased ensuing sentences, which pointed to an emerging divide in the nation (typified by the drift of his erstwhile ally Calhoun into an opposing camp). “Comparisons are odious, and, but in defence, would not be made by me,” Clay said, responding to perceptions of industrialists as representing a new breed of economic tyrants. “But is there more tendency to an aristocracy in a manufactory, supporting hundreds of freedmen, or in a cotton plantation, with its not less numerous slaves, sustaining, perhaps, only two white families – that of the master and the overseer?”[senate.gov]
In the years to come, such rhetorical questions would be the bread and butter of Whig politicians. But again, Clay was a somewhat odd standard-bearer of this new gospel. Whether or not every “manufactory” in Kentucky was in the hands of self-made men, Clay’s home state was not, nor would ever really be, an industrial heartland. Clay was the first American politician to articulate a compelling basis for antislavery in the United States – one rooted in economics rather than morality – but he remained a lifelong slaveholder. Such elements in his background helped make him a uniquely effective in brokering deals like the Compromise of 1820 (a.k.a. the Missouri Compromise) and the Compromise of 1850, both of which forestalled a Civil War relatively few Americans at the time regarded as desirable or inevitable. But Clay’s tendency to split the difference and prevaricate – most vividly on display in 1844, when he refused to take a clear stand on a Mexican War critics regarded as a bonanza for slaveholders – undermined the sense of consistency and trust that he needed to achieve his dream of becoming president, a quest in he failed to attain in a total of four attempts between 1824 and 1844. By the time of his death in 1852, the Whig Party had stretched to the point of collapse over slavery. Dead in the South, it splintered into fragments in the North, the various strands eventually coalescing in the formation of the Republican Party in the 1850s.
As we all know, the Republicans would come to be known as the party of private enterprise. But they began their life in the body politic by promoting business as a civic activity supported and sustained by government intervention. Perhaps more important, this emerging business culture was justified in terms of the way it functioned as an alternative to a plantation economy that turned inward, away from a government it always regarded with suspicion, because government seemed like the only force potentially great enough to take slavery away.
Hamilton and Clay, then, were prophets of a new day. But the man who more than any other embodied not only the emergence of a new economic order – the man who in the popular imagination embodied the essence of the self-made man in the eyes of most Americans – was Abraham Lincoln. In our day, the self-made man is typically conceived as a private sector entrepreneur. But even those who see the archetype as a fundamentally commercial one make room for Lincoln, who resounds through the ages as the quintessential example of the poor boy made good, in just about every sense of the term.
Next: A. Lincoln, Henry Clay man