Felix Grundy, Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Law
Continuing the rich tradition of biography as illustrative of time and place as well as people, J. Roderick Heller, III has produced a vivid portrait of an important American statesman of the nation's formative years. Often portrayed as a foil, an ally, or both for leaders such as the Great Triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, Felix Grundy emerges from this exhaustively researched and well-written biography as an important political leader and groundbreaking attorney in his own right. It is a worthy endeavor. Though a talented and jovial man with few enemies and many friends, Grundy never rose above the secondary tier of the period's American statesmen. Possibly his unwavering devotion to family hindered his rise. In any case, he has become obscure, and Heller strives to rescue him from that undeserved state while ably explaining why Americans should know this fascinating figure.
Grundy's life mirrored his country's. Heller traces Grundy's boyhood on the Virginia and Kentucky frontiers where he suffered considerable hardship, including the loss of two brothers in clashes with Native Americans. In describing this frontier existence, Heller paints a colorful picture of the pioneering entrepreneur of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Grundy's parents were exemplars of that spirit even as they doted on Felix, their youngest son. His accomplished mother, Elizabeth Burkham Grundy, continued to run the family businesses after the untimely death of her husband and insisted that young Felix acquire a good education, a rarity in the American wilderness of the eighteenth century. It gave him a notable advantage as he embarked on a successful legal career, earned a reputation for outstanding oratory, and became an accomplished member of the Kentucky and Tennessee legislatures and of Congress where he always upheld George Washington's dictum of legislative [End Page 299] supremacy. As a War Hawk freshman representative in 1811-1812, he worked well with former rival Henry Clay to bring about war with Great Britain, an example of Grundy's greatest political gift. A talent for talk was matched by his principled advocacy for the common man, but it was his habit of treating opponents as fairly as allies that won him friends and admirers throughout the country as he became notable as an honest broker and a reasonable man.
Heller makes a valuable contribution with his able assessment of Grundy's legal career. Most western lawyers dreamed of the day they could escape the rigors of riding their circuit, but Grundy relished the work. He became one of America's best criminal defense attorneys, with an uncanny ability to choose and then persuade jurors. While honing his craft, Grundy developed a profound empathy for frontiersmen often deprived of swift and fair justice by remote courts. As a legislator, he worked to create local courts to correct that inequity.
In addition to his portrait of Grundy, Heller provides excellent insights on the legal, political, and financial history of the period. Transcending traditional interpretations of western anger at Britain as merely stemming from a desire to defend American honor, he explains how British policies posed a material threat to the economy of the region by stifling trade out of New Orleans. His account of local and national bank policies during the Kentucky Insurance Company controversy is more than cogent, and his nuanced analysis of Grundy's complicated relationship with Andrew Jackson, an alliance that made neither man very comfortable, provides a convincing argument that Grundy's resulting loss of independence possibly cost him the national prestige he deserved. Sadly, as Grundy was beginning to reassert some of that independence lost to Jackson, he died in 1840.
As with all books, this one has flaws. Easily avoidable factual errors occasionally detract from the narrative, as when Heller describes Willie Blount as William Blount's nephew (they were half-brothers) or when he relates the discredited story that War Hawks in 1812 likely held James Madison's...