Robert Remini
Robert Remini
Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union
ISBN: 0393310884
Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union
Professor Remini talked about his published book, "Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union," published by W.W. Norton. The book focuses on the life and career of Henry Clay, the famous orator from Kentucky, who served as Speaker of the House for ten years in the early nineteenth century. He made the Speaker's office one of the most powerful in the nation second only to the president's.
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TRANSCRIPT
Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union
Program Air Date: May 5, 1992

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Robert V. Remini, author of "Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union", why do we need another biography of this man?
ROBERT Remini, AUTHOR, "HENRY CLAY: STATESMAN FOR THE UNION": We haven't had very many. It's not as though it's another. There hasn't been a biography on Henry Clay in over 50 years, and of course we have a great deal more information about one of the most important and interesting men in American history.
LAMB: All through your book, constant accolades.
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: Or, constant adjectives being used to describe him, the greatest, the best, the best orator and all. Explain what this man is all about.
REMINI: Well, he has an extraordinary career. He was elected Speaker of the House in his first year, and on the first day of the first ballot, and the Speaker had been intended, I think, by the founding fathers, to be a kind of policeman to just sort of control traffic. He made the office of Speaker of the House the most important position in the government, after the President, because he used it in order to direct national affairs and, and help formulate policy. They liked him, they, they elected him again and again. For 10 years he was the speaker, and no one in the 19th century served as long as he did.
LAMB: What years did he live?
REMINI: He, he was born in 1777, during the revolution and he died in 1852. He was 75 years of age when he died of tuberculosis.
LAMB: Now, where, where do you live and work every day?
REMINI: I live in Illinois. I am a professor of history and research professor of humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and I'm in Richmond for this semester, where I'm the Douglas Southall Freeman Professor of History, at the University of Richmond.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
REMINI: In New York City. I was born and raised there, and lived there for a good bit of my life until I moved out to Chicago.
LAMB: Now, if you're in Richmond, about 15 miles north of there, is Ashland, Virginia.
REMINI: I know. I'm going there in two weeks to give a lecture, and hopefully sign some books for people who are interested in Henry Clay. He was born in that area, and Ashland is named after his estate. He called his home Ashland, and this community, they wished to honor him because he is native-born -- changed the name to Ashland.
LAMB: But, Ashland is in Kentucky, his home originally, where he lived...
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: And, why did they call it Ashland? You say ...
REMINI: He called it Ashland because he loved the ash trees that were there. And there were many of them, and he thought that they were particularly beautiful, and so he named his home Ashland.
LAMB: Is this a portrait of Ashland in the book?
REMINI: That's not Ashland. That is his birthplace, I believe. It's a kind of attempt to visualize where he was born, in Hanover County, Virginia.
LAMB: Hanover County, Virginia. You do have pictures in here of Ashland, which I think you have ...
REMINI: Yes. They're ...
LAMB: I will find that...
REMINI: I think perhaps in the front of the book you will find one lithograph or drawing or photograph.
LAMB: While I'm looking for that, let me ask you, for those people who have never focused on Henry Clay, how many different public jobs did he?
REMINI: Well, I had started with the Speaker.
LAMB: Right.
REMINI: That was quite important, and he sent over by President Madison to Europe to help negotiate the treaty of Ghent that ended the war of 1812, and he regarded himself as a very successful diplomat. He came back to the United States, was again elected to Congress, and when John Quincy Adams became President of the United States, he appointed Clay to be his Secretary of State. And he was Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829.

When Adams was defeated by Andrew Jackson, Clay returned to his home, but then was elected to the Senate of the United States, and he became one of the most powerful men in the Senate. He, with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, known as the great triumvirate, were the powerhouses of the Senate in probably it's golden years. Debate never equaled what was heard in the Senate from 1832 to 1852. They all died almost at once. First Calhoun, then Clay, and then Webster.
LAMB: We've got a picture right here of the three of them.
REMINI: Right. Their nicknames being “Prince Hal”, who was Henry Clay, on the left, and “Black Dan”, or Daniel Webster, in the center, and the “Cast Iron Man”, John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, the third.
LAMB: We'll get back to that, I hope before this hour is over. Alright, he was elected to Congress, how many different times, do you remember?
REMINI: Oh, offhand, to Congress?
LAMB: Yes.
REMINI: Well, it would be every two years in the House.
LAMB: But, wasn't there a space between all the different?
REMINI: There were, yes, and at one he did resign from the House. He served practically from 1810 to 1852, with a few years of interruption and the four-year break when he was the Secretary of State.
LAMB: And...
REMINI: But I've never added up those hours, those years, or the numbers of election, but he was elected again and again without any trouble. The only position he couldn't win, and he desperately wanted, was to be President of the United States, and he tried that three times, and failed.
LAMB: Alright, now I checked the Senate out for you. In those days, how did one get elected to the Senate?
REMINI: The state legislature elected them. It was not a popular election, so he was elected by the Kentucky State Legislature, for a six year period.
LAMB: You said that the first time he was only 29 years old...
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: And you have to be 30 to be a Senator?
REMINI: Yes. You have to be according to the constitution, and nobody seemed to realize it then, and so he served and had no problem with it. They probably didn't realize it, and so he was technically ineligible, but he served nine terms.
LAMB: How many years did he serve in the Senate, do you know?
REMINI: He only served, he was really serving out the unexpired term of another man who had resigned, because he decided that he- at that early time, that early period in his life- he didn’t like the Senate. It was too quiet, too somber, too unexciting. He loved the excitement of the House, so he decided then to go back home and announce his candidacy for the House, and he was elected, and he went into office in 1812.
LAMB: And so everything was from the state of Kentucky?
REMINI: Everything was from the state of Kentucky, yes. He was never elected to anything from Virginia.
LAMB: Congressman, Senator, and when in the House of Representative, Speaker of the House. Secretary of State -- what were the years that he was Secretary of State?
REMINI: 1825 to 1829.
LAMB: And, when ...
REMINI: And leader of the party, of the Whig Party -- one of the men who was essential to it's actual formation, as a matter of fact.
LAMB: What party was he in to start with?
REMINI: The Republican Party. They were all Republicans. Once the Federalist Party disappeared, right after the war of 1812, they were all Republicans, until they divided into the Democrats and the National Republicans, and they later called themselves Whigs, but even at the very beginning, he was a Republican.

See, he was raised in, in Virginia. He was taught by George With, who had taught Thomas Jefferson, and a great many other luminaries of Virginia, so his whole background was what we call Jeffersonian Republicanism. But, it had a difference, you see. He inclined much more towards using the government to help advance the interests of this nation, and the interests of all sections, and the interests of all people in all classes. He was a man with real vision as to where the country ought to go, and how they ought to get there. He had a system, an American system, he called it, of economic development, which would raise this country to a level of greatness which it has since achieved. And some people said, "That's Hamiltonianism, that's Federalism, it's not Republicanism." But he denied that, he always believed he was a true Republican.
LAMB: If he were here today, what party would he be in?
REMINI: Well, presumably the Republican Party, but who knows that? I'm just guessing, but my guess is that he would be a Republican.
LAMB: Is there any modern day politician that -- anything close to?
REMINI: Nothing. It's a pity. These were men -- why did they have such extraordinary statesmen -- these are men who have what President Bush has called the vision thing. He understands, at least he thinks he knows, what will make this country a great power, and it wasn't that. It was still trying to win acceptance and a kind of respectability among European nations. And European nations, of course, feared and maybe even hated us, because we were a republic, and they had monarchical systems. If this democracy was to work, it meant that monarchies of Europe -- their days were numbered, and they knew it and we knew it.

Andrew Jackson said, "They really hate us. They would really like to see our experiment in freedom go down in flames, because it means that the system that they have, which is so repressive to human freedom and dignity, will be terminated."
LAMB: This may not be fair, but let me go to the things that we have been talking about today in politics.
REMINI: Right.
LAMB: And have you parallel them to those days and maybe even look at this man and ask yourself, would he be able to live through what we're living through today? I'll read you something that I underlined on page 765. "Decades earlier, the hard featured Lucretia, his wife ....”
REMINI: Yes, yes.
LAMB: “ ... had given up accompanying Clay to Washington. She stayed a lot in Kentucky, when he lived here. Not surprisingly therefore, Clay's reputation in the Capitol for getting involved with loose women during those years, caused widespread comment among gossip mongers."
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: Can you tell us any more about ...
REMINI: Well, he was here in Washington all alone. His wife was very domestic and she preferred the farm. She ran it. He would give her a check when he was leaving to run the farm, and when he returned she would hand it to him and say, "I had no need for it." She did not like the social whirl, and he loved it and he therefore went to all the parties. Usually he'd bring some woman with him, sometimes two women; one, they said, on each arm. And of course you know Washington gossips, they always presume the worst. We don't know if he was carrying on any affairs, whether he was unfaithful. There no documentary evidence whatsoever, but he enjoyed women, and they enjoyed him. It's amazing, when he was running in 1844, against James Knox Polk, the chairman ...
LAMB: For President?
REMINI: For President. The chairman of the Democratic National Committee was for Polk, of course, but his wife was for Clay and she was making rosettes for Clay, who was running against Polk, and she said, "My husband is a Polk man, but I'm a Clay man." And they just liked him, and he, somehow, had exuded a kind of excitement and interest that attracted them.
LAMB: You have a picture here, I think ...
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: I don't want to get this wrong again, of Henry Clay and his wife, Lucretia?
REMINI: Yes. They're not a particularly attractive looking, physically, couple. I think that is of their 50th wedding anniversary, their golden anniversary, yes. But he always showed a great deference and respect and regard and affection. She had 11 children by him. Most, all the daughters died, six of them, and the sons -- one died in the Mexican War, another was committed to an insane asylum, lunatic asylum, they called it in those days. The two of them had a very unfortunate private life, as far as their children go.
LAMB: Here's one of the sons ... is this Henry Clay?
REMINI: Junior.
LAMB: Junior.
REMINI: The one on top, who was killed in the Mexican War. And then James who fought on the side of the Confederacy, and then fled to Canada at the end of the war and died of tuberculosis.
LAMB: Life in those years ... can you give us some sketch? And I don't know what years we want to start at, but let's say the middle, the early 1800s ...
REMINI: Right.
LAMB: When he was the most active, what was it like?
REMINI: Well, I think what was happening, frankly, is that a nation that had been a nation of colonists, a nation basically Anglo-Saxon, English, if you will, was slowly evolving into what we regard as American today. They were becoming American individuals, in the way they looked, the way they spoke, the way they behaved. I think many of what we regard as characteristic of Americans, is beginning to shape and form at this time, so the country was expanding at a very rapid pace.

The so-called market revolution had begun, consisting of the industrial revolution, bringing manufacturing to this country, a transportation revolution which included the building of roads and highways, and, and turnpikes and canals, and then the railroads, and finally the communication revolution with the ah, with the telegraph and later the telephone. So that, it's a period of extraordinary change and one in which the country was becoming less republican, if you will, small “r”, and more democratic. More and more people were voting. Constitutions were being changed. New constitutions written in new states, in which the, the vote was given to all white males over 21, which hadn't been true before. There are no property restrictions any longer. There are no religious restrictions to, to voting.

So that, and then they began to elect -- not people like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, the great founding fathers who had reputations as public servants and statesmen -- but they elected someone like Andrew Jackson, who excited their interest, who had done something so extraordinary for the psyche of the American people by winning the Battle of New Orleans, that they bestowed on him the Presidency, even though a great many people, including Henry Clay, said he had absolutely no qualifications.

All he did was kill Indians and kill British and Spanish soldiers, but that victory meant a great deal to the American people, and for them, Henry Clay was somebody they ... Andrew Jackson was somebody they loved and they trusted. Clay, on the other hand, said, "He is only a military chieftain, he doesn't really have the experience to head this country at a time when we need real leadership, to bring us into this new world of economic growth and development." So, it's an exciting time. I find it one of the most exciting periods in our history. In literature alone, look what came along -- Nataniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, and Longfellow and Walt Whitman. It's an extraordinarily creative and exciting time.
LAMB: When did you start writing this book?
REMINI: Seven or eight years ago I started. I had completed my Andrew Jackson biography. And Henry Clay, I had never really been interested in, but in doing Andrew Jackson, I, of course, came upon Henry Clay. I found him funny, fascinating, and a man I thought that really needed and deserved a modern, full-scale biography. He was Abraham Lincoln's ideal of a statesman, I think. Most of the ideas that Lincoln had early on about economics, about slavery, come right out of Henry Clay. Lincoln is like Henry Clay, to a very large extent, I found. Lincoln quotes Henry Clay in the Lincoln Douglas debates, I believe, a total of 37 or 8 times. Clay told whimsical stories the way Abraham Lincoln did. I think Lincoln moved far beyond Clay in the late 50s, and is a greater statesman as such, but this man is the man who provided many of the ideas and programs by which the nation was held together, when it seemed to be breaking apart over the Missouri question, over the tariff question, and, of course, over the acquisition of new lands in the Mexican War.
LAMB: All right, again trying to compare it to today, and this is not necessarily -- just as a way to try to understand all this. Why did they duel in those days, and what was a duel?
REMINI: It was part of the culture. It was something that men did if they felt their honor had, in some way been compromised, that they had to be willing to call the person out, and it was particularly part of the culture of the south, and of the frontier for a very long time.
LAMB: How did it work?
REMINI: Well, if you were insulted, you went to the individual and you demanded an abject apology, and presumably if he tendered it -- Clay was always very careful when he said things that were provocative, to be sure that the individual knew that he wasn't trying to insult him. If the individual refused to retract what he said, then you challenged him to a duel, and your seconds would make the arrangements as to where and when, and you would appear with your surgeon, and take your position, and, according to the rules, you would come up to the mark, when the order to fire was given, you brought up your gun and you fired. Clay was once struck, was once injured in, in a duel, his first duel.
LAMB: Which duel?
REMINI: That's his duel with Humphrey Marshall, when he got a bullet in the leg.
LAMB: What was it over?
REMINI: Oh, it was over a fight in the Kentucky Legislature in which the Federalist was trying to prove that the Republicans were involved in all kinds of treasonous behavior. And Clay got up and became very angry and he began to say things that became more and more heated, and then he finally rushed at the man to strike him. So he had to challenge him to a duel, and they went across the river. They weren't going to pollute the sacred soil of Kentucky by killing one another, so they went over to Ohio, and they took their positions. They had two rounds and Clay said he surely would have killed him on the third round, if it had been allowed, but the referee, the judge, decided that it was enough -- that his honor was taken care of, and that was the end of it.
LAMB: In those days, you were allowed to be a member of Congress or the Senate and work on the side as a lawyer?
REMINI: Sure. Oh yes. It's amazing how they had no conception of conflict of interest.
LAMB: None.
REMINI: Well, Daniel Webster is taking a retainer from the Bank of the United States and giving speeches in the Senate about why the bank should be rechartered. No, they, they were all, I think, guilty of that kind of behavior. Well, they had to live. They couldn't live on a Congressman's salary. They only got, I think it was at first $2,500, and it depended on how many days there were to the session. And when you had to go home, most of them, I suppose like today, they were lawyers, and so they practiced the law.
LAMB: The Burr controversy, Aaron Burr ...
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: How did Henry Clay and Aaron Burr get together?
REMINI: Well ...
LAMB: Who was Aaron Burr? Start with ...
REMINI: Well, Aaron Burr was the Vice-President of the United States, among other things. He tried, I think, he wanted the Presidency, but he was intended by the Republican Party to be the Vice-President, and he came out west and began to tell all kinds of stories to people as to what he planned. And he bamboozled a great many individuals, including Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson. Iit is not known to this day just what he was up to, and finally the President, Thomas Jefferson, said that there was a conspiracy afoot, which would endanger the Union, and that the conspirators were to be apprehended, and of course, the finger was pointed at Aaron Burr. And he hired the best lawyer he could get in Lexington, Kentucky to defend him, and he was Henry Clay.

Clay was a marvelous lawyer, especially before a jury. He was a great actor. He had the most mellifluous voice that you could imagine. It carried through a hall. People were mesmerized frequently by what he said, and his manner was not oratorial in a traditional sense, of grand flourishes. It was very intimate, I think. It was kind. He was more like a public speaker, but as an actor. He used his hands, his head, they said. He had props, such as his spectacles, his snuff box, which he played with, and it was almost impossible to beat him before a jury. And so Burr hired him to be his lawyer and he won the case for him, and Burr then continued on his way.

And then he finally fled the expedition, which was floating down the Mississippi River. I think a lot of them thought that they were attempting an expedition against the Spanish. Whether or not he was attempting to set up an empire, as they said, and make himself the emperor -- Aaron the First -- and whether part of it would include the United States, and therefore be a treasonable act, is just not known. As soon as Clay learned the truth, as soon as Andrew Jackson learned the truth, they immediately abandoned him, Clay especially. Jackson always believed the man, and even wanted to testify at his trial. He was brought to Richmond, where he was tried before the Chief Justice in the famous United States versus Aaron Burr, and was found not guilty.
LAMB: Cla -- was he tall, short?
REMINI: Tall -- 6 feet. Thin, very thin, cadaverous almost. A large protruding nose. A slash across where his mouth should be. His mouth was so wide, they said, that he couldn't whistle and he couldn't spit, with tolerable accuracy. And he had blue-gray eyes, probably. Not a particularly prepossessing looking, but once he started to talk, he was another person altogether. George Bancroft said it was music itself to hear, and I can imagine what that Senate must have been like, that rang with the voices of a Henry Clay and a Daniel Webster, and a John C. Calhoun. It was indeed the golden age, and we don't indeed have anyone like that in the Senate today, I assure you.
LAMB: All through, when you read history, back in those years, and you're an expert on this, you read constantly, and you wrote a lot about slavery -- mixed messages come through.
REMINI: Yes, all the time.
LAMB: I'm, I'm looking at another page here where it says, "Clay attended one public function on January 21, 1851, that meant a great deal to him -- the annual meeting of the American Colonization Society, of which he was still President." What was the American Colonization Society?
REMINI: It was a society that began in 1817 for the purpose to transporting freed men, slaves who had been freed, back to Africa. And he felt that slavery was an abomination. One of the reasons I was fascinated by the man, in the beginning, was he was somebody who hated slavery, but owned slaves all his life. You know how was this possible? What was he trying to do? And of course, towards the end, he was trying to find a solution to this problem, knowing that if we didn't, there would be a civil war and secession. It would be resolved in a bloody conflict, which he was trying to preserve, to prevent. And preserve the Union. He didn't want to see the Union crack apart.
LAMB: When I read this, I kept thinking -- if our cameras had been there, and it was today, what the public's reaction is. You say he gave a speech, in which he had little to say that was new about emancipation and colonization, but he felt obliged to offer some explanation of the misbehavior of blacks in society.
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: He did not wish to "wound their feelings," he declared, since it was not their fault "that they are a debased and degraded set, more addicted to crime and vice and desolate manners than other portion of the people of the United States, it is the inevitable result of the law of their condition. In view of the nature of our whites, feelings and prejudices toward them,” he continued, "they can never be incorporated and stand upon an equal platform, thus they would benefit to return to Africa." What reaction?
REMINI: Racist. Totally. They're all racists. They don't know any better. They believe this. They think the white race is superior.
LAMB: All these folks back then ...
REMINI: Right. And with Henry Clay, he really believed that they had to be freed and they all had to be sent back to Africa -- that the two races could not live together. He feared what would be the consequence -- in part politically, he thought the blacks would assume political power, and would do to the whites what the whites had done to them -- and socially and economically, there would be conflict, so that it was something that could not be bridged. And the only solution, he felt, was a gradual emancipation in which, as they are emancipated, they are returned to Africa. And these are thoughts, I believe, that Abraham Lincoln had until the end of the decade of the 50s. Then I think he is radicalized and his views do change. But, they had this racist notion about the inferiority of other races, and that's not the black race alone -- that included Indians, who were treated as though they were of a lower order.
LAMB: Slaves were mentioned in his will?
REMINI: Yes, yes. He freed some. His plan was that ... we had to come to. It sort of reminds me of the problem between Israel today and it's Arab nations, neighbors. How long can the killing go on? It's got to be resolved. But who has the solution, in which justice and fairness will be done on both sides?

With Henry Clay, he knew that slavery couldn't last. I think these are men of the enlightenment who did believe ... I believe Henry Clay believed that all men are created equal -- in principle. He said that several times. In actual practice, you know, no two people are equal. One has more talents than the other. So, it was his plan to pick a date -- he didn't care which date, but some date -- wherein, say 1850, he said, those blacks born after that date, would become free at the age of 28, if they were male, and 25, if they were female.

He later backed that up a little, and then male 25 and female 21. Those born before that date, 1850, would remain slaves for the rest of their lives, and they would die out. Those slaves born after, becoming free at the age I've indicated, would be apprenticed, would learn to read, write and cipher, and the last three years of their enslavement, they would earn wages, which they could use to set themselves up in Africa, and once they became freed, then they would be transported back to Africa. That was his plan. He believed that the population, the principles of population, he said, and economics will destroy slavery. He thought there would be more and more whites, as the Irish were coming in, and Germans were coming in, lowering the labor costs, so that it would be unprofitable to have slaves. And that the south would voluntarily give up slavery and hire free white labor. And that would help to solve it too. And that maybe by the end of the century, we wouldn't have any slavery. There wouldn't be any war. There wouldn't be bloodshed. It didn't work, of course.
LAMB: I was reading a biography of James Madison. I think the author is Ralph Ketchum ...
REMINI: Yes, yes.
LAMB: There's a little story I wanted to ask you, because you write so much in here also about Daniel Webster, and I'll try to be quick about this. It's supposedly after James Madison died and Dolly Madison moved back to Washington. She brought some of the slaves with her?
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: And she sold a slave to Daniel Webster, who Ralph Ketchum says then freed the slave.
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: Because she didn't have any money.
REMINI: Right.
LAMB: Was Daniel Webster the type that would free a slave? Is that a story? That sounds...
REMINI: It's quite possible. I'm not as competent in Webster's career, although I am now beginning to study, and I hope to write a biography of Daniel Webster. It's true of a number of people, even southerners who freed their slaves, and Henry Clay freed a number. He freed a number of slaves, in his will, but not all of them, you see.
LAMB: But, why couldn't they, at that time, even though -- and you read that James Madison didn't like the slaves, but he never could give them up?
REMINI: Right. Why did they keep them?
LAMB: Yes. Why did they? What was ....
REMINI: Well, frequently Clay was asked, you know, "Why don't you be the example to everybody else, and free your slaves, since you say you hate slavery?" And he said, of course, he told this man to mind his own business, but he went on to say, "What are you going to do about the slave that I free who is sick, who is old, who is imbecilic, who is a child? They have to be taken care of -- who's going to take care of them? The state? Obviously not. By just simply freeing them, you are not helping them at all. What you are doing is reducing them to abject poverty and, and death." So he said that that was no answer at all. It had to be gradual, it had to be systematic and there had to be a plan behind it.
LAMB: There's another unusual caricature here, what's this?
REMINI: That's Henry Clay as a chief coon -- the body, the tail, which you can see, is that of a raccoon, and the raccoon had been a symbol of the Whig party, something like, I suppose, the donkey is of the Democratic Party today and the elephant. And they regarded Henry Clay as the chief coon, and so he was always shown, not always, but frequently shown, with the body of a raccoon, and called the old coon. They called him the old coon too.
LAMB: He had other nicknames.
REMINI: They even had songs about the old coon.
LAMB: He had several nicknames you run.
REMINI: “Prince Hal” was one, because he was such a, really a prince. Well, he consorted with kings and princes when he was in Europe, and when he came back, of course they made a great deal of the fact that he had known royalty. They called him “Prince Hal”, and of course it also meant that there was a kind of princely quality to him. “Harry of the West” was another, or “Star of the west”. Andrew Jackson called him the “Judas of the west”.
LAMB: In the front of your book here, they list the other books that you have written, and almost every single one of the books has something to do with Andrew Jackson.
REMINI: Yes, Andrew Jackson was my great ...
LAMB: How many books?
REMINI: Oh, josh. You sound like my mother-in-law. She used to say, "How many books can you write on Andrew Jackson?" And I said, "Well, until I get it right." There must be about 10 or so, possibly, and I began just attempting small phases of his life -- his election and the bank war, for example, and then I realized I had to do a really big book, and the big book grew into three volumes. Ah, yes, when I was in Nashville once, a woman asked me, after I had finished the Jackson, what I was going to do next, and I said, "Henry Clay", and she was aghast. She said, "General Jackson isn't going to like that, he may shoot you." Well, he hasn't, and I'm sure he really didn't mind, but ...
LAMB: Why Andrew Jackson, what was your ...?
REMINI: Well, I began, you see, coming from New York. When I went to graduate school, I was really interested in urban city politics in New York, and I did my master's essay on John Mitchell, who was a reform Mayor of New York, but my mentor at that time, who was Richard Hofstetter, suggested doing Martin Van Buren, who was in politics and a New Yorker. But it wasn't the 20th century and it wasn't exactly urban, but I thought it might be interesting -- a President, who really needed to be done, and that I would do for my doctoral dissertation, just his early political career.

But I no sooner got deeply into Van Buren's life, when the great figure that loomed up before me was Andrew Jackson, and my attention was refocused, so to speak, temporarily, and I did a book, as I said, on his election -- always intending to go back and finish the Van Buren. Then I did the bank war. Finally, when I decided that nothing would satisfy him or me, except a full-scale scholarly work, I did the three volumes. In the meantime, several other people produced fine biographies of Martin Van Buren, and I decided then to try somebody else. And Clay really fascinated. He’s a funny man. Andrew Jackson didn't have that element of humor as this man did. Many of his speeches still have, I think, an emotional wallop that few others have, and of course, the, the fact that a man of Lincoln's stature would regard him as his ideal of a statesman, fascinated me even more.

And as soon as I got into him, I, I realized what an extraordinary figure he was, how important he was, not only for the growth of this country, but it's preservation as well, in holding it together. Some historians feel, and I'm one of them, that had the south seceded in 1850, as it threatened -- it met in convention in Nashville -- that they might have made good their secession. If there had been a war, they would have won it in 1850, but it was prevented by that man with his ideas that constitute the compromise in 1850. Giving the north 10 more years to gird it's industrial strength, find Abraham Lincoln, and even then they had a really hard job of beating the confederates and forcing them back into the Union. So, he's a very significant man for the development of this country as well as it's preservation.
LAMB: If you had to choose between them, for an evening of conversation, which one would you pick?
REMINI: Oh, what an unfair question that that is. No, I have to have both. I thought you were going to say, which do I prefer. I might be willing to say something on that, but they're both, in different ways, fascinating men. I would love to have a conversation with Andrew Jackson and I would also love to have a conversation, which would be of a different kind. The people who knew Henry Clay thought that his natural talents and intellectual ability far exceeded that of Jefferson and Madison, and this, you know, I've gotten from the sources.

And others would say, "That's ridiculous, he couldn't write as well as Jefferson. He didn't have the ideas of Madison," but this person who is insisting on his superiority, said, "Their great achievements were the result, not only of their talent, but of the education that allowed them to do so much." Think of what Henry Clay might have achieved had he had the education that those two did, and his education, he himself admitted, was rather meager.
LAMB: You dedicated this book "In memory of my brothers, Vincent J. and William Remini."
REMINI: Remini.
LAMB: Do people mispronounce your name a lot?
REMINI: All the time. It's alright.
LAMB: It's not alright.
REMINI: Those are my younger brothers. They were both, they're both dead now, and...
LAMB: But one of them worked on your book?
REMINI: Well, one of them helped me. My second brother, who lived in Kentucky, in Louisville, he worked for Brown Foreman and every time I came down to do research, I would stay with him. And he was retired by that time because he had a heart condition, and he would go to the library and help me locate the documents. He knew a great deal about Henry Clay because he was in Kentucky. He knew people who were descendants and those who knew a great deal about him and his home, and he was very anxious then to assist in research for this book. Unfortunately, he died before it was published, and so I decided to dedicate it to him, and to my younger brother too, who was killed tragically in an automobile accident.
LAMB: How long ago?
REMINI: Five years, I would think, offhand.
LAMB: Are these tough things to do, these books?
REMINI: They're not easy, but I was obsessed, that's the only word. At four o'clock in the morning I would get up. Suddenly I had an idea that I had to develop. My poor wife didn't know what was happening. She thought I was ill, and I would get to the computer. This was a book that almost wrote itself, for some reason. I really did find it in some ways easier, and it was easier for this reason; I did not have to traipse all over the country and the world looking for documentation, as I had to do with Andrew Jackson, because his papers were just beginning to be collected at the Hermitage, his home outside Nashville, Tennessee, where with Henry Clay, the papers had not only been gathered at the University of Kentucky, they had already published.

I believe it was at that time, eight or nine volumes, and it was so much easier for me to sit in my own study and read, not manuscripts, in which their handwriting can be so dreadful it is almost impossible to decipher them, but to read printed text, and to have the footnotes, which help to explain what's happening or who they're referring to, and not have to do that kind of research myself. So in that way, it was much easier. The writing was difficult. Much more difficult than with Andrew Jackson, because Andrew Jackson's life was much more exciting. He is a frontiersman who fought Indians. He was a man who fought duels. His life, I think, had a greater excitement and vigor to it. Clay's was much more intellectual, if you will, dealing more with ideas than Andrew Jackson -- not that Andrew Jackson was without ideas, please don't misunderstand me.
LAMB: Now, the book has been out since last year.
REMINI: Since last October, yes.
LAMB: It's still in the book stores.
REMINI: I hope so.
LAMB: You don't want it to be too long.
REMINI: No, that they're still stocking it.
LAMB: How long do they normally stock a hardback biography like this?
REMINI: Well, this being a scholarly biography, it would depend. Not all book stores will carry it because they don't think people are that interested, but I would hope that they would keep in on hand, in the larger book stores, for more than a year.
LAMB: How did...
REMINI: I'm not really knowledgeable about that.
LAMB: Okay. But how do you know this is a success? What, what indications have you gotten already?
REMINI: Well, when it sells. When you get your royalty statement, and I'm happy to say that the Clay is moving very, very well. Within a month, they were into a second printing, and, and now they're going into a third, and it's not six months yet since it's been out. I think that has to do with the fact of Clay's importance and the fact that there hasn't been anything done on him in so long.
LAMB: 50 years.
REMINI: 50 years.
LAMB: Now, did you go back and read all those biographies that have been done on him?
REMINI: Absolutely. I had already, to a large extent, when I was doing Andrew Jackson. You see, much of the research was background that I had been doing for the last 40 years. When I started researching Van Buren, for example, in 1947, I think it was, I was reading about Henry Clay. I was reading his letters. I was reading his speeches. I was reading the biographies of him, along with those of Jackson and, and Webster and many, many others.
LAMB: So, what is different about your biography compared to the others?
REMINI: Well, there is a great deal more information, I trust. Ah, it's based on a great many -- that we had, that have been brought to light, that have been made available to scholars. The sheer number of documents, the material itself, the knowledge that we now have is many, many, many times greater.
LAMB: When you were a doctoral student, those people that follow history will know the name Dumas Malone ...
REMINI: Indeed so.
LAMB: What kind, I mean, tell us who he was and ...
REMINI: A truly great man.
LAMB: And what impact did he have on you?
REMINI: Well, he taught me how to write. He didn't actually teach me how to write, but he told my writing was dreadful. He didn't say that. He was the most gracious, he was true southern gentleman. I did, as I said before, my master's with Richard Hofstetter, but he did not, at that time, offer doctoral seminars.
LAMB: And, who's Richard Hofstetter?
REMINI: Richard Hofstetter was a really distinguished historian, who is dead, who died unfortunately at a very early age, who wrote a great many influential books, that influenced the entire profession.
LAMB: And Dumas Malone wrote?
REMINI: Well, he wrote Thomas Jefferson, among other things. He did Thomas Cooper. He as the great editor of the “Dictionary of American Biography”, and, he had already completed, I think, the first volume when I joined his seminar at Columbia University. And, as I say, he set us about our topic, and mine was Van Buren. We began to write sample chapters, and I remember once that he sent it back to me, gave it back to me, shaking his head. I had had a very classical education, a lot of Latin, and Ciceronian sentences I quite appreciated. My sentences went on for paragraphs, a paragraph, anyway. And he said at the top of it, I was prolix, I'm still prolix, I suppose, but it alerted me to the fact that I needed to really work on my style so that it could convey, as best I could, the personality, the excitement, the color of the events of that time. And that does take work and going over and over. I have to revise many times, my writing, to get it so that I think that the man is alive on the pages, and ...
LAMB: You also talk about how you financially got through this period. The Rockefeller Foundation provided a month's residence at it's study and conference center in ...
REMINI: Palagio, in Italy.
LAMB: Palagio, Italy....
REMINI: Yes.
LAMB: How do you get to do something like that?
REMINI: Well, you apply to them, and you tell them what you're going to do, and they decide whether they think it's a good idea. They don't have any research facilities there, but they provide that kind of atmosphere, the collegiality of scholars in many other fields, in which you can do whatever work it is that you say you want to do. And what I told them was, I had written 12 chapters of the Henry Clay -- I wanted to get away and study it carefully to be sure that it wasn't prejudiced by my deep feelings for Andrew Jackson.

I still regard myself as a great friend and advocate of Jackson and his ideas, and I was afraid that Henry Clay, who was his enemy -- as I said he called him a Judas. When he was dying, supposedly somebody said to him, "Have you left, General -- have you left anything undone?" And he said, "Yes, I didn't shoot Henry Clay, and I didn't hang John C. Calhoun."

So, they said, "Fine, take your material, go there and work for a month." And I did, and polished those chapters to my satisfaction, and came back. I was very grateful for that time. They're only one, of course, of the ... The University of Illinois at Chicago was most helpful with the support that they gave my research. They have a University Scholar Program that provides the funds, so that you can do your research.
LAMB: And you're at the University of Richmond right now?
REMINI: Just for this semester, yes.
LAMB: Are you teaching?
REMINI: Yes, of course. I like to teach very much.
LAMB: How much teaching have you been able to do over these years when you're writing?
REMINI: Well, you have to work at finding the time, because you spend your summers and your holidays ... but as I say, I could very often get up at 4 and 5 and, and spend several hours working at my desk. And then when I get back from teaching, I try to put in a few more before supper, and then I don't do anything usually in the evening except perhaps read or watch television, or do something else.
LAMB: What do you think of the students today?
REMINI: I very much like the students that I have ...
LAMB: Are they sharp?
REMINI: Quite.
LAMB: Are they interested?
REMINI: Yes. This, this is an elective course. They're different. This is a private school compared to the University of Illinois at Chicago. I went to the University of Illinois at Chicago because they were opening a new campus, in Chicago. Of course the great campus is down at Urbana, and it is a really distinguished school. It's the premiere public institution in the state, and it seemed, of course, rather strange that one of the great cities, the second city, Chicago, did not have a great public institution. It had a great university, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University and there are others, but a public institution was something that was missing. So that young men and women from the working class, who very often themselves have to work, but who want an education, need an education, if they are to advance themselves -- they would have this opportunity, and it was a great challenge.

So, they're different and they have other pressures, but they all are pressured in one way or another, which makes it very difficult for them. But, I'm not really an educator in the sense of what I think is right or wrong with them. I think the students that I had right after the war were better motivated and much more willing to work, and I gave them much more work, in the form of papers to write and books to read, than I find that these students are capable of handling. And part of the problem is of course the distractions that they have to content with, such as television, and increased mobility -- that they can go from place to place to spend holidays instead of in the library doing their papers.
LAMB: We only have a short time left. If you were a member of the House and the Senate today, currently, or if you were advising them, what could they learn about running a government out of reading this book on Henry Clay?
REMINI: I always tell my students, you see, that I have all the answers but nobody really asks me for them. Ah, first of all, the whole sense of the man's love of this country and of the duty of a Congressman to make the common wheel their primary concern, that they are there to advance the interests of this nation, and the American people as a whole. They are not there to serve special interests. They are not there to serve a special class, or a particular group. That really they have to have what these men had, who knew that they were building a nation, and that unless they kept themselves devoted -- they were great patriots, they were great nationalists -- devoted to the ends of good government ... which is to preserve the liberty of individuals, the integrity, the honor and the strength of this country.

Really, to be a good public servant, you had to divest yourself of any personal motives, any private needs. You're not there because you want money or to acquire power; you are there to serve. And these men ... I know Henry Clay did, and Andrew Jackson did believe they were serving the American people and that they both had goals, ideas, programs, that would do that.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It sells for $35. It's published by Norton. It's called "Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union", and our guest author is Robert Remini.
REMINI: Of course.
LAMB: Thank you for joining us.
REMINI: You're very welcome.


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