Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Bunning Seat -- Henry Clay

At this point, it is useful to recapitulate what Kentucky was like in the early 1800s. The best way to understand it is as a very exaggerated version of the sort of society described in country music songs. In 1806, Kentucky was still very much on the frontier (the Jackson Purchase hadn't even been purchased yet), and a large number of white male Kentuckians knew what it was like to fight Indians and own slaves.

They were a boisterous, tempestuous, bragging people -- who loved violence, gambling, fast horses, and weapons. They fought duels when they were insulted, built huge plantations, whipped their slaves with impunity, and bred large families. In a few years, they would lead the nation into the War of 1812, confident that they could conquer Canada in a few weeks. They believed in law and civilization, but they also believed that these things ultimately rested on the willingness and ability of good men (among whom they certainly included themselves) to kill bad guys.

There were, of course, a lot of poor white settlers as well. Knowing the poor whites of the South as I do, I'm sure that these folks (especially the ones in Appalachia) spent a lot of time complaining about the proto-frat boys who were running their commonwealth. But just like rich football players are usually the most popular kids in rural high schools, rich planters (with their horses, their beautiful wives and daughters, and their broad acres) were usually the most popular people in early Kentucky.

So when you see these early Kentucky politicians, you shouldn't be fooled by the black clothes, starched collars, and severe facial expressions. These were, in many ways, the ultimate good ole boys. If they were around today, they would all be excellent golfers and poker players.

This background is relevant in understanding the man who took Sen. Adair's place after he resigned in disgust at not being re-elected. Henry Clay now appears in the history books as a pinched, elderly man trying valiantly to hold the Union together. But that's not how he started. He was born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1777, and was called to the Virginia Bar in 1797. He then moved to Lexington, Kentucky -- where he quickly showed himself the master of that society. Handsome, talented, funny, brilliant -- not afraid to fight duels (as Humphrey Marshall learned) and a very enthusiastic card player -- he quickly became a star among Kentucky lawyers. By 1803 he was in the Kentucky House. By 1806 he was the choice to fill out the remainder of Sen. Adair's term -- even though he was only 29 years old (the Constitution requires Senators to be 30). No one seems to have cared about his being underage, and he served in the Senate from December 29, 1806 to March 4, 1807. He then came home and was elected Speaker of the Kentucky House. But he would eventually return to Washington.

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