Few figures in American history have had as distinguished a political career as Henry Clay. First elected to office in 1803 as a member of the Kentucky state legislature, his career ended in 1851 when he died as a sitting member of the United States Senate. In his near half-century of public service, he also served as Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Secretary of State, founder of a new political party, and a three-time candidate for the presidency. Despite Clay’s distinguished career in public service, he is rarely appreciated as one of America’s great political thinkers. More often, Cay is seen as embodying the archetypical politician – dogged, compromising, and lacking a firm philosophic and moral foundation. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth; Clay was an incredibly thoughtful and someone we could do well to learn from today.

One of the most common traits associated with Henry Clay, in his lifetime and ours, was his complete unwillingness to discuss political philosophy. A historian can scour the pages of everything he wrote and find nothing remotely resembling the high-minded theorizing of Madison, Adams, or Jefferson. The closest Clay ever came to such talk tended to be generalities meant to rouse a crowd more than reveal his actual view of the “big questions.” There is no serious discussion of the end of government or the nature of human civilization. Because of this quirk, it is not hard to see why most historians paint Clay as a fairly typical power-brokering politician.

However, Clay’s silence on theoretical issues was not a deficiency. In Clay’s view, relying too heavily on principle and ignoring the importance of practice is the greatest threat to a stable republican government. In his long career, Clay witnessed the rise and fall of republicanism in France, Greece, and a multitude of South American nations. In every case, these republics quickly crumbled into monarchy, despotism, or anarchy. It was clear to Clay that republican ideals were not enough to sustain such a regime. Instead, they must rely on the work of prudential statesmen who pragmatically respond to crises as best they can, never allowing ideology to cloud their political judgment.

World famous as the “great compromiser”, Clay’s outlook on the nature of politics served as the core of his commitment to moderation. In a republican government, the sheer plurality of opinions makes it impossible for any single view to triumph. As Clay stated to a crowded Senate chamber: “Let him who elevates himself above humanity, above its weaknesses, its infirmities, its wants, its necessities, say if he pleases ‘I will never compromise, ’but let no one who is above the frailties of our common nature disdain compromise.”

Thus, Clay argued, the best political solution in a republic is very often that which brings together competing ideas and policy positions to produce a consensus. This mindset was visible in all of the political stances Clay took throughout his life, but is particularly evident in his proposed economic plan, the American System. The American System sought to integrate all parts of the country – rural and urban, manufacturing and agricultural, northern and southern – by funding large scale infrastructure projects and encouraging interconnection through economic development. Clay argued that this would unite the multitude of competing interests and in so doing work to forge a political consensus that could move past ideology and focus on sound policy for the benefit of all.

Though Clay’s economic vision was never fully adopted, and we cannot be sure it would have worked quite as well as he envisioned, there is still a great deal we can learn from his ideas. Clay’s form of politics, divorced from ideological squabbling and that dedicated to the defense of the institutions of republican government, produces stability, prosperity, and gradual innovation. While such thinking can never be all there is to politics, it can never be insignificant.

It is precisely this un-ideological approach to politics that is so conspicuously absent in our present age, the lack of which is responsible for many of our misfortunes. In this decade, no issue, no matter how obvious or trivial, can be discussed outside broad ideological frameworks. The average voter – following the lead of the average politician – sees politics as absolute warfare between the forces of progressivism and conservatism (no matter that the meaning of these terms is incessantly amorphous).

The problem with such politics – as Clay reminds us – is that it destabilizes otherwise prosperous republics. The United States faces serious threats but all of them can be solved if ideological entrenchment is abandoned in favor of compromise. Put another way, the only reason Rome is burning is because the alarmists themselves are setting the country ablaze. If we really want to put out the political fire raging around us, we should follow the example of Henry Clay. We must reject ideology and embrace compromise.