Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a nineteenth-century statesman extraordinaire. For nearly 50 of his 75 years, he served the American people and those of Kentucky as U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, Speaker of the House, and Secretary of State, the latter under John Quincy Adams. He was dubbed “the Great Compromiser” and “The Great Pacifier” for his ability to broker resolutions to various crises that beset the fledgling nation, from tariff disputes to slavery. He professed that the “leading and paramount object” of his public life was the preservation of the Union. It is in Clay’s spirit of compromise, negotiation, and commitment that the second annual Henry Clay Student Congress gathered this past June in Lexington, Kentucky. And it was in this place that Thomas Parisi, UNH dual major in Political Science and Cinema Studies, represented the State of New Hampshire as its sole congressional delegate.
Supported by a National Advisory Committee co-chaired by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum, the Henry Clay Student Congress is an all-expenses-paid course aimed at developing statesmanship skills in promising college students. The 2009 Congress comprised 51 rising college seniors, one from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, all nominated by either a U.S. Senator or by a college or university official. The Congress’ theme was Global Statesmanship in a Changing World, and, amidst lectures and visits to historic sites, the students’ work was to develop a “Threat Index,” a list of the five greatest threats facing the next generation of Americans, along with ideas for their mitigation.
Parisi explains that an initial list of 10 threats was created through a simple tally of the students’ most commonly suggested ideas. Then the real work began. The Congress was split into 10 working groups, each of which was assigned the task of developing written and verbal arguments for the inclusion of its particular threat in the final Threat Index. Groups were asked to provide recommendations to reduce the level of threat. The students then met as a full Congress: “…on the floor of the old legislature, we debated the 10 issues that were selected. We each had the opportunity for a rebuttal and conclusion, and then got to vote for what we thought were our top three choices. The top issues and arguments were presented in the Global Threats Index” says Parisi. The top five issues, as established by the Congress, are (1) Middle East and U.S. relations, nuclear proliferation, and terrorism; (2) education and gender equity; (3) sustainability and environmental concerns; (4) threat of global pandemics; and (5) global warming. The full text of the Threat Index can be read online at http://www.henryclaycs.org/pdf/062609StudentThreatIndex.pdf.
For Parisi, the collaboration within the smaller groups and the give and take during the debates were enlightening, as was the diversity of the congressional body. “By coming from such diverse backgrounds, we were able to challenge each other with approaching problems from different perspectives,” says Parisi. “Although we all came from different places, we were able to see first-hand that we all definitely shared some common ground.” Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Student Congress was nonpartisan; students were not asked to affiliate themselves with any party or ideology. But, Parisi says, it was often obvious on what part of the liberal to conservative spectrum participants sat. However, this was all to the good. “In terms of our debates over issues such as health care, having different affiliations definitely caused us to reevaluate our stances” Parisi reports. This civil exchange of arguments, along with lectures on the art of diplomacy and negotiation, emerging global issues, and the history of Clay provided an invaluable experience for Parisi.
Parisi has now returned to UNH for his final year of study. He hopes to continue on to graduate school and pursue a career in entertainment law or public policy. Wherever his choices take him, he will surely benefit from skills in civil public discourse. But these skills provide benefits beyond the individual. As the Henry Clay Center contends, the values of public discourse, as exhibited and advanced by Henry Clay, are still very much relevant and needed in the twenty-first century. As the country and world face a host of challenges, the U.S. will need people who can effectively communicate both domestically and abroad to resolve conflict, solve problems, and move the country safely, wisely, and surely into the future.
‹‹ back to top