The Cult of Bipartisanship and Henry Clay’s Long Shadow

1852 Painting of Henry Clay by Ambrose Andrews depicting Clay's American System. Clay hoped compromise would solve the slavery issue and make the U.S. a world power. He was wrong about one of those things.

1852 Painting of Henry Clay by Ambrose Andrews. Clay hoped compromise would resolve the slavery issue. It did, until 1860.

In the storied annuals of the history of the great American republic, the U.S. in 2013 finds itself at a distinctively low point. Like a stumbling barfly who breaks his neck after tripping over so many discarded Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, the United States federal government has ground to a halt because the United States federal government decided that it should grind to a halt.

Who is to blame for this epic display of stupidity-laced chutzpah? Look no further than the “people’s chamber” (pot). Its been over a week now since the pit of witless, but highly agitated Rancors known as the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress decided to throw one of the biggest collective tantrums in American history and shut down the federal government over the president’s shockingly anticipated refusal to defund his signature health care reform law.

Initially, the Republicans expected (not unreasonably, given the Democratic Party’s propensity for mimicking invertebrates) that by holding the government hostage, President Obama and Senate Democrats would cave and cut a deal to fund the government and raise the debt ceiling in exchange for defunding Obamacare. Surprisingly, however, the Democrats decided that the resounding reelection of their candidate in the 2012 White House race might actually justify their party’s right to implement its policies. Republicans, blind-sided by Democrats’ newfound ability to justify their political existence, have thus been left flailing in the legislative wind, unable to articulate what they hope to get out of the shutdown…or even how to end the shutdown.

So who’s to blame for all this? If you believe the always profound wisdom of the American public, there’s plenty of blame to go around, with both parties at fault. This idea, that “both sides do it,” is a false equivalence that ignores the radicalization of the Republican Party. But it’s nonetheless touted by the esteemed lap-dog academy that compromises the Beltway media, which has spent years bowing before the golden calf of “bipartisanship” to the point where compromise in the service of the political center has been lionized by journalistic toadstools like the New York Times‘ Thomas Friedman as the catch-all solution to political gridlock.

Those who promote the cult of compromised bipartisanship invoke, however unconsciously, the legacy of one of America’s towering political figures, the 19th-century Kentucky politician known as the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay.

Clay dedicated his political career to turning the United States into a great world power, and when it came to slavery, the issue that nearly tore the country apart, Clay viewed compromise between pro and anti-slavery factions as the key to moving the U.S. forward in its inevitable path towards national glory. Yet by devoting himself to bipartisan compromise, Clay only managed to stave off an uncompromisable issue, pushed by conservative slave-holding radicals, that finally blew apart in the form of the American Civil War. Contemporary compromise fetishists would do well to consider Clay’s career before attending their next bipartisan worship session.

Henry Clay was born in Virginia in 1777, but eventually relocated to Kentucky where he played out his long career in law and politics. One of the most influential political visionaries in U.S. history, Clay promoted the Whig Party “American System,” in which the federal government would promote economic development through protective tariffs and the creation of a national bank to fund commerce and subsidize internal improvements like canals and roads. Clay’s system won him plenty of enemies among those who favored limited government and federalism, particularly Andrew Jackson. Clay also ran afoul of powerful southern slaveholders wary that empowering the federal government would spur it to mess with the “peculiar institution.”

Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. senate. He was later primaried by a Tea Party challenger.

Henry Clay introducing the Compromise of 1850 to the U.S. senate. He was later primaried by a Tea Party challenger.

Though a devoted political leader of the Whig Party, Clay was, above all, an ardent American nationalist who often touted compromise in the name of national development, especially regarding the slavery debate. In 1819, for example, the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state, spurring anti-slavery New York congressman James Tallmage to propose an amendment that made ending slavery a perquisite for Missouri’s statehood.

Outraged southern slaveholders claimed that a free Missouri would tilt the congressional balance of power in the free states’ favor. One irate Georgia representative blew a gasket, claiming that the Tallmage Amendment would ensure a dissolution of the Union “which seas of  blood can only extinguish.”

In 1820, then-Speaker of the House Henry Clay, a slaveholder himself (albeit of the Charlie Brownish variety that, like Thomas Jefferson, disliked slavery but wanted to hold onto it nonetheless) supported a compromise that admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state, and banned new slave states in the portion of the old Louisiana Purchase above the 36 30′ north latitude line. Clay squeezed the so-called Missouri Compromise through the congressional sausage factory by stacking its committees with supporters and breaking the bill up into its component parts so that separate majorities could approve individual provisions of a bill that most found odious as a whole. When the House successfully passed the Missouri Compromise in March of 1820, Clay emerged triumphant as the “Great Compromiser.”

Three decades later, when the debate over slavery once again threatened to rip the country in two, Henry Clay engineered another uneasy compromise. Pro-slavery southerners, led by Democratic Party chieftains like John C. Calhoun, demanded that the vast southwestern land cessions won during the Mexican War be open to slavery’s extension. If northerners did not bend to these demands, southern Fire-Eaters threatened the slave South’s secession from the Union.

Now a Kentucky senator, Clay proposed maintaining the slave and free state balance of power by admitting California as a slave state while organizing the rest of the Mexican cession without restrictions on slavery. An additional measure, the Fugitive Slave Act, permitted southern slave catchers to enter northern free states — irrespective of those state’s laws forbidding slave-catching — and bring them back south. Once again breaking an unappetizing whole bill into slightly more palatable individual parts, Clay and fellow compromisers Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Stephen Douglas of Illinois helped pass the Compromise of 1850. The “Great Compromiser” had again averted secession and Civil War, at least for another decade.

Though Henry Clay’s famous bipartisan compromising over the slavery issue helped stave off bloodshed for decades, it also had the effect of empowering the radical conservative slaveholding elements in southern society by appeasing to their increasingly totalistic demands. In the name of the greater national good, Clay willingly put the moral issues regarding slavery on the historical back burner to be dealt with when sectional passions cooled. But they never did cool. Emboldened by decades of appeasement by the likes of Clay, radical pro-slavery Fire-Eaters’ demands for total recognition of the South’s right to maintain slavery heated up further until, following Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, they took the South out of the Union and initiated a bloody Civil War.

The Tea Party: Trust me, even Henry Clay couldn't negotiate with these folks.

The Tea Party: Trust me, even Henry Clay couldn’t negotiate with these folks.

Contemporary political pundits who urge President Obama to compromise with radical conservative Republicans over Obamacare and the debt ceiling, such as the dunder-headed Ron Fournier of the National Journal, are oblivious to the fact that you cannot compromise with zealots who do not respect the traditional operations of the political system. Like the pro-slavery fanatics of the 19th century, today’s conservatives view compromise as a weakness. Like Henry Clay before them, in 2011 President Obama and the Democrats already compromised with the raging Tea Party menace over long-term governmental budgeting, and again like Clay, they only emboldened the conservative radicals to demand further concessions.

Now, I’m not arguing against the idea of compromise. Heck, the American political system was built for compromise, and to eschew the idea of bipartisan compromise altogether won’t cut it. The U.S. is not a parliamentary democracy, and will thus need to rely on the tradition of tried and true backroom deal-making. But valuing compromise as inherently superior by virtue of its bipartisanship alone misses the forest for the big, slobbering troll that’s ripping trees out by the roots.

Obama cannot compromise with the GOP because the GOP doesn’t want compromise; they want total submission, and like their secessionist forebears, they’re willing to take the government hostage to achieve their goals. Pundits stricken by what columnist David Sirota termed “Obsessive Compulsive Bipartisanship Disease” are leaning far too heavily on the old Henry Clay model by complaining that if only the U.S. could compromise to resolve its own internal dysfunctions, it could sail off into the horizon of greatness.

To this day, Henry Clay is revered as a great American statesman, and, in many ways, he was just that. But his great weakness was mistaking fanaticism for a principled political stance, and that mistake ultimately plunged the nation into Civil War. President Obama can’t afford to follow Clay’s lead with the government shutdown, and pundits would do a great service to the nation by supporting the Democrats’ stance against Republican hostage-taking, even if doing so means becoming apostates from the Cult of Bipartisanship.

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