How Can Henry Clay Help Solve Modern Political Problems?
Last year, an op-ed piece in the Washington Post by Charles Lane titled “Is U.S. Presidential Democracy Failing?"...
...looked at a two-decade old study conducted by Yale University researcher Juan J. Linz over twenty years ago. Linz suggested that, generally, parliamentary systems with a Prime Minister (like England) are more stable than presidential systems like the U.S. Linz also suggested that the American presidential system, however, has continued to be stablestability because largely middle-class American voters have served as a “moderating influence,” as compared to presidential systems in South America, where the middle class is smaller and less influential. What does this have to do with Whigs and Henry Clay?
American Whigs have always stood against presidential power that overstepped constitutional limits. Henry Clay, one of the leaders of the original American Whig party, suggested that Whigs needed to “rescue the Government and public liberty from the impending dangers, which Jacksonism [Andrew Jackson’s imperial presidency] has created.” Clay’s warnings are relevant to voters even today. Lane’s op-ed points out that, as the middle class has disappeared in the United States, politics have become more polarized, and extreme candidates, like the ones we saw battling for the 2016 presidential nomination, are becoming too prominent. What is the answer to this problem? Clay’s statement again has some relevance. Clay might argue that modern Whigs need to “rescue the Government.”
What might “rescuing the government” look like? Another way of asking that question might be to say, what brought the American government to this point? As the American Congress has become increasingly less able to act, it seems like the President has, out of necessity, had to act on issues. President Trump has signed several executive orders to enact political priorities on immigration and climate; he has done this despite having majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Previously, because of Congress’ inability to come to agreement on gun control, President Obama (rightly or wrongly) used his executive powers to change enforcement of the law. President Bush was also well known for using signing statements on laws in order to establish his interpretation of laws (which arguably might be different from the intent of Congress). At the same time, corruption has become endemic in Congress. A recent study among millennial voters suggested that young voters’ greatest concern was the fact that money controlled politics. One might argue that, as voters are less able to control the actions of their elected senators and congressmen, they are turning to a national figure to get things accomplished (the president). Additionally, as the middle class’s “moderating influence” vanishes, such national figures as Trump, Sanders, and other presidential candidates are becoming more and more extreme.
It is understandable that voters are turning to the only electoral avenues open to them. Nonetheless, the answer to America’s problem is not to elect an imperial president. Rather it is to take a Whig approach. Henry Clay proposed the “American System.” An important aspect of Clay’s American System was to free American industry from foreign manipulation. Keep in mind that in Clay’s view, foreign commerce represented tyrannical rule by a small aristocracy, and not an economic system that benefited all citizens. Currently, the American economy seems to favor rich corporations (that use their influence to manipulate Congress), and appears similar to the aristocratic foreign systems that Clay was railing against.
A new American System would support a broad middle class, enriching all American citizens, not just a wealthy few. A new American System would ensure that Congress, which is supposed to represent the people, functions as efficiently as possible. A new American System would not try to elect an imperial (and extreme) executive in order to solve its problems. Lane’s op-ed asks whether American presidential politics are failing or not. The presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both talk about how the American System is broken. The way to solve the American System’s problems, however, is not to follow any of Trump or Sanders’ proposed policies, but to look back to Henry Clay’s vision: a prosperous American middle class that elects a Congress to work for them. As Clay himself stated “Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees. And both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.” Today that trust has been broken and it is time for the people to take back their whole government, not just their presidency.
Shawn Martin is an informationist and historian who, among other things, researches 19th-century American history. Former Pennsylvania State Chair. More information about Shawn is available at https://shawnmartin.net/.