Vol. 10 No. 8 (August 2000) pp. 498-500.

HENRY CLAY THE LAWYER by Maurice C. Baxter. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. 141 pp. Cloth $24.95.

Reviewed by Samuel B. Hoff, Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy, Delaware State University.

This short book deals with a neglected area of Henry Clay's life. Author Maurice Baxter states that, "many histories, biographies, and articles have described his public and private characteristics. None has fully focused on the Kentuckian's activity as a lawyer, though for more than fifty years he earned much of his living in the legal profession" (Preface, p. vii). Employing official papers and correspondence, law cases from various court jurisdictions, and a plethora of secondary sources, Baxter traces the legal training and career of Clay, who was without question one of the most prominent citizens of nineteenth century America. The picture that emerges is "one of a skilled lawyer influenced by his political commitments who addressed in an informed way the central legal and economic issues of his day" (Preface, p. x).

Chapter 1 details the legal environment in which Henry Clay and others operated. Many states revised their constitutions to improve judicial procedures following the ratification of the federal Constitution. At the national level, the Supreme Court emphasized oral arguments over written briefs, meaning that lawyers had the opportunity to influence the direction of American legal development. Baxter finds that Clay's political service influenced the courts. For example, as a state legislator he helped to improve the judicial code in Kentucky, and as an U.S. senator he approved the appointment of an additional high court justice.

Chapter 2 examines Clay's legal practice up to 1812. He studied under George Wythe, head of the Virginia Court of Chancery, and Robert Brooke, Virginia attorney general and former governor. Clay acquired his law license in Virginia in 1797 and in Kentucky one year later. His personal character, speaking skill, and bold style were assets throughout his legal career. Most of Clay's initial cases included collecting debts owed to eastern merchants and land matters. Because he often asked for a portion of land as compensation in land cases, Clay obtained a great deal of property. Though he didn't practice criminal law as often, he was regarded as effective in that area, and he even defended Aaron Burr against treason charges. Clay was appointed professor of law and politics at Transylvania University in Kentucky during the early 1800s, and he maintained a long- term relationship with the institution thereafter.

Chapters 3 and 4 cover Clay's participation in economic and banking issues. Clay argued many such cases before the Supreme Court, including OGDEN v. SAUNDERS (1827), which defined the constitutional limits of state bankruptcy laws. His association with the Bank of the United States meant that he litigated cases on taxation, circulation of bank notes, and debt collection. Although Baxter rejects the

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argument that Clay's aggressive debt collection tactics adversely affected his political standing, he views Clay's efforts to advance state power over banks as potentially inconsistent with his staunch nationalist approach.

Chapter 5 reviews Clay's record on nonconstitutonal issues, primarily land cases. These cases "arose from disputes about titles administered by states and conveyances accomplished by sale or will, all in a bewildering, disorderly setting of public policy" (p. 79). Being normal at the time to tap courts as mediators, Clay did not outrightly win or lose most cases in that area. However, his specialization in land matters earned him sizable fees and a national reputation.

Chapter 6 illustrates that Henry Clay, like other lawyers of antebellum America, could not avoid the question of slavery. As a politician, he successfully negotiated compromises about slavery in western territories. "As a lawyer in local and federal courts, he had professional business relating to slavery, and he showed his characteristic caution in handling it" (p. 93), according to the author.

The concluding chapter offers a summary and assessment of Clay's legal career. Baxter believes that Clay was able to balance his law practice along with other activities, including the War of 1812, his political positions, and his service as Secretary of State in the John Quincy Adams administration. Overall, Clay could look back on his law vocation and "feel satisfied with its character and quality during a formative era of American law" (p. 109).

Though no other book concentrates entirely on Henry Clay's legal career, the present text may be compared to recent studies of Clay's life. Harry Watson (1998) contrasts Clay to Andrew Jackson. Stephen Aron (1999) traces the transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Clay. Finally, Kimberly Shankman (1999) comprehensively depicts the political thought of Clay.

Baxter's book is insightful in many ways. First, it shows how Henry Clay and other contemporaries literally wrote many of the rules implemented by various American courts. Second, the study highlights the depth of Clay's legal experience and contributions, whether pertaining to civil, criminal, or constitutional law. Baxter does not avoid criticizing Clay where warranted. He questions Clay's change of position on slavery from his youth to his later years together with his apparent lack of concern over the harsh treatment of Native Americans.

Aside from its brevity and repetitiveness, Baxter's work achieves its modest aims. The book should be utilized in conjunction with other biographies of Clay in order to furnish a complete picture of the man. Politician, statesman, and lawyer are often three distinct occupations in modern America. The fact that Henry Clay successfully combined all of these roles is a testament to his immense abilities and to his unassailable legacy in American history.



FROM DANIEL BOONE TO HENRY CLAY. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University


Shankman, Kimberly C. 1999. COMPROMISE AND THE

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Ogden v. Saunders, 12 Wheat. 213 (1827).

Copyright 2000 by the author.