Syracuse University Professor and Friend of RP Ronald J. Granieri tackled an important subject recently for The American Interest magazine: Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser and — more importantly — the namesake of the RP’s high school. Here is his fascinating take on the legend from Lexington and how he has come between two GOP politicians in Kentucky today:
This past February, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) used his maiden speech on the Senate floor to attack one of his home state’s most cherished historical heroes. Standing at Henry Clay’s Senate desk, Paul criticized the legacy of the Great Compromiser. “Henry Clay’s life story is, at best, a mixed message”, Paul said. “Henry Clay’s great compromise was over slavery. One could argue that he rose above sectional strife to carve out compromise after compromise trying to ward off civil war. Or one could argue that his compromises were morally wrong and may have even encouraged war, that his compromises meant the acceptance, during his fifty years of public life, of not only slavery, but the slave trade itself.”
Paul admitted that there were no questions before the Senate with the same moral force as slavery; he nevertheless went on to pose a series of rhetorical questions about whether America’s current national debt problems might not be best solved by strong attachment to principles rather than compromise.
Paul’s speech raised eyebrows not merely because of its aggressive tone, unusual for freshman Senators, but also because his apparently abstract references to Clay were to many a sign of tensions between Paul and his senior colleague, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell had favored a different candidate in Kentucky’s Republican primary and, more to the point of Paul’s message, he has often counted Clay among his political role models. A portrait of Clay adorns McConnell’s Senate office, and he once told an interviewer that Clay “understood the need for compromises that were truly important for the country. . . . I think that remains just as true today as it did in 1820 or 1850.”