As the nation comes down from the upset of this past week and settles into an uneasy dread over the coming year, there have been a LOT of think-pieces dedicated to Donald Trump and how he represents a major change in American politics. There will only be more think-pieces to come. He hasn’t even been inaugurated yet and already every news source is flooded with articles on the man and his probable style of governance.
The election results have faded almost entirely and now we’re in damage control mode, trying to figure out what life is going to be like for the next four years. But based on the outcome of this election, in between dealing with the lingering dread, I’ve been wondering about Hillary Clinton and her role in our political system. She’s Henry Clay. Hillary Clinton is Henry Clay.
Who is Henry Clay, you might ask? He was vintage Hillary Clinton.
There are some major differences—Clinton’s support from black voters is partly what led to her selection as the Democratic nominee for president while Henry Clay actively tried to suppress the black vote. ANY black vote, to be exact. But it is important, as we think over the past week and wonder what the future of America is going to be like, that we look to the past. So many friends have tried to console me by mentioning facts that they half-remember from AP US History classes. “Jimmy Carter was a Southern populist!” they would tell me as we stare at TV screens streaming political coverage in poorly-lit bars. “And Andrew Jackson was actual human garbage!”
In their need to try and describe what a Trump presidency looks like, they’ve failed to describe Hillary Clinton and her unsuccessful second run for the White House. I’m here to tell you what it is—she’s Henry Clay. They even share the same initials. It is no coincidence that Henry Clay is one of my absolute favorite characters from American history, and Hillary Clinton is someone that I worship to an almost dangerous degree.
Both were lawyers, both served in the Senate and as Secretary of State, and both could wear the hell out of a suit (pantsuit or otherwise). Another component they had in common were their multiple failed bids for the White House. They lost spectacularly. What’s more, they lost spectacularly to a racist, elitist, opportunistic, sexist demagogue hell-bent on the suppression of minority groups to fuel their own twisted political agenda.
My friends who kept comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson were accurate in more ways than one.
Henry Clay is remembered in popular history from his decades-long career in American politics as serving as the voice of reason—able to facilitate discussion amongst groups that were literally trying to tear the country apart. The man was the Great Compromiser—someone instrumental to maintaining fractured relationships during the Nullification Crisis and Mexican Cession, and every time the South tried to pull apart from the North during the early stages of the 19th century. Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote said that if Henry Clay was in Congress during the 1860s, there would have been no Civil War. He was a major player in Washington politics for multiple presidents and highly respected for his eloquence, reason, and ability to keep Washington fuckboys in line.
And yet, and YET, the man ran for president on four separate occasions and lost every g-damned time.
I hope the similarities are pretty obvious at this point.
But even though I loved him, there’s no denying he was an asshole. Henry Clay, like every rich white man from the 19th century, was incredibly #problematic. He was a slave owner, and when one of his slaves tried to sue for her freedom and the freedom of her children, he was a real bastard about it and kept the woman’s son…just to be a spiteful dick.
And, you know, Hillary Clinton had that private email server! Truly, both had some serious issues of equal importance to work through.
But as I sit in this grimy dive bar and stare at election coverage until I can feel my eyeballs drying out, I find myself looking back on Henry Clay with love and affection. And my love for Hillary Clinton borders on blind devotion—these are two of America’s great, unrecognized leaders—dedicated to a lifetime of public service and repeatedly getting shat on for it. They both waded through the filth and muck that is our American political system to make a difference in people’s lives, working in the interest of thousands (millions!) of people, but who will only get one page dedicated to them in history books, while numerous chapters will be dedicated to Andrew Jackson’s foul-mouthed parrot, or President Trump's bargain-basement prostitutes that I’m assuming he’s going to hire for White House functions.
One of Clay’s more famous quotes seems applicable here: “Of all the properties which belong to honorable men, not one is so highly prized as that of character.”
This applies to honorable women, too.