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Henry Clay

Henry Clay

The American political leader and secretary of state Henry Clay (1777-1852) came to national prominence as leader of the "War Hawks," who drove the country into the War of 1812. For the next 40 years he worked for international peace and sought to reconcile warring factions in the nation.

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Va., the seventh of nine children of the Reverend John Clay and Elizabeth Hudson Clay. Henry's father died in 1781, the year British and loyalist soldiers raided the area and looted the Clay home. Ten years later his mother remarried and his stepfather moved the family to Richmond, where Henry worked as a clerk in a store and then, from 1793 to 1797, as secretary to George Wythe, chancellor of the High Court of Chancery. Henry had little regular education, but he read in Wythe's library and learned to make the most of scanty information. He moved to Lexington, Ky., in November 1797 and made a reputation as a lawyer. In 1799 he married Lucretia Hart, of a leading family in the community. They had 11 children.

Clay's life-style was that of the frontier South and West; he drank and gambled through the night for high stakes. John Quincy Adams commented, "In politics, as in private life, Clay is essentially a gamester." He fought two duels, one in 1809 and the other in 1826. This did not hinder a public career in young America, and Clay had attributes which served him well in politics. He was tall and slim with an air of nonchalance, and he had a sensitive, expressive face, a warm spirit, much personal charm, and an excellent speaker's voice. Adams, who had observed him closely, said Clay was "half-educated" but added that the world had been his school and that he had "all the virtues indispensable to a popular man."

Early Political Career

In 1803 Clay was elected to the Kentucky Legislature. In 1806 and again in 1810 he was sent to the U.S. Senate to fill out short terms. In 1811 he was elected to the House of Representatives. He was immediately chosen Speaker and was elected six times to that office, making it a position of party leadership.

By 1811 Clay was fanning the war spirit and the aggressive expansionism of the young republic. He said that the "militia of Kentucky are alone competent" to conquer Montreal and Upper Canada, and he organized the war faction in the House of Representatives. Clay was one of five men selected to meet British representatives at Ghent in 1814; there the failure of American arms forced them to a treaty in which no single objective of the war was obtained.

In the House again from 1815 to 1825 (except for the term of 1821-1823, when he declined to be a candidate), Clay developed his "American System," a program designed to unite the propertied, commercial, and manufacturing interests of the East with the agricultural and entrepreneurial interests in the West. It would establish protection for American industries against foreign competition, Federal financing of such internal improvements as highways and canals, and the rechartering of the United States Bank to provide centralized financial control. Clay succeeded for a time in part of his program: the Bank was rechartered and protective tariffs were enacted, reaching a climax in 1828 with the "Tariff of Abominations." But the internal improvements were not carried out in his lifetime (it required the Civil War to nationalize the country sufficiently for such measures), and long before Clay's death the Bank and the protective tariff had fallen at the hands of the Democrats.

Slavery and Politics

Missouri's application for statehood in 1819 raised the issue of slavery and shocked the nation "like a firebell in the night," as the aged Thomas Jefferson said. Clay had advocated gradual emancipation in Kentucky in 1798, asserting that slavery was known to be an enormous evil. Though he came to terms with the institution in practice—owning, buying, and selling slaves—he was never reconciled to it in principle. When he died he owned some 50 slaves. His will distributed them among his family but provided that all children born of these slaves after Jan. 1, 1850, should (at age 25 for females and 28 for males) be liberated and transported to Liberia. In 1816, Clay was one of the founders of the American Colonization Society, which promoted sending freed slaves to Africa. The racism which he shared with most Americans was an important motivation in the society. (His racism was not restricted to African Americans; he said Native Americans were "not an improvable breed," and that they were not "as a race worth preserving.")

In the Missouri debate he did not devise the basic compromise—that is, that Missouri be a slave state but that slavery henceforth be prohibited in territory north of 36°30'. But he resolved the second crisis caused by the Missouri constitutional provision that free Negroes could not enter the state; Clay got assurance from the Missouri Legislature that it would pass no law abridging the privileges and immunities of United States citizens. The role which Clay played in the debate was, in fact, as spokesman for the interests of the slave South. In the controversy over the activities of the abolitionists in the 1830s he defended the right of petition but secured the passage of resolutions in the Senate censuring the abolitionists and asserting that Congress had no power to interfere with the interstate slave trade.

Secretary of State

Clay was a candidate for the presidency in 1824, but three others received more votes, so that his name did not go to the House for election. He defied Kentucky's instruction to cast the state's votes for Jackson, saying he could not support a "military chieftain"; instead, his support elected John Quincy Adams. When Clay subsequently became secretary of state, the traditional steppingstone to the presidency, the cry of "corrupt bargain" was raised. The charge was unwarranted—he had merely supported the man whose views were closest to his own—but the charge lingered for the rest of his life.

Foreign affairs were not particularly important from 1825 to 1829, and most of Clay's diplomatic efforts did not succeed. The United States failed in efforts to purchase Texas from Mexico, nor was progress made toward acquiring Cuba. The State Department was unsuccessful in settling the Maine-Canadian boundary dispute, in securing trade with the British West Indies, and in getting payment from France for losses suffered by Americans during the Napoleonic Wars. Clay had taken a strong position in support of recent Latin American independence movements against Spain, and he tried unsuccessfully to promote active American participation in the Congress of Panama in 1826.

The Adams administration was defeated overwhelmingly in 1828; Clay's own state voted for Andrew Jackson. Adams offered to appoint Clay to the Supreme Court, but he declined and returned to Kentucky. In 1831 he was elected to the Senate and remained in that office until 1842. During these years of Jacksonian democracy Clay fought a losing battle for his American System. In 1833 he devised the compromise on the tariff which brought the nullification threat from John C. Calhoun's South Carolina; his measure provided that duties be lowered gradually until none were higher than 20 percent by 1842. He favored higher duties but said he made the concession to get past the crisis and on to saner times.

Clay correctly estimated that Martin Van Buren was unbeatable in 1837, but he expected the Whig nomination in 1840 and was bitterly disappointed when the aging military hero William Henry Harrison won nomination and election. Clay then anticipated that he would be the actual leader of the administration, but Harrison resisted him for the short time that he lived and Harrison's successor, John Tyler, proved to be opposed in principle to Clay's Whig program. Clay resigned from the Senate in disgust.

Clay was the Whig presidential candidate in 1844, but his equivocation on the expansionist issue of the annexation of Texas cost him the election. He made an abortive effort for the 1848 nomination, which went to the Mexican War general Zachary Taylor. Clay had condemned the initiation of the war but supported it once it got under way.

Compromise of 1850

The fruits of that war brought on another sectional crisis, with threats to dissolve the Union. Clay returned to the Senate in poor health and led in working out the Compromise of 1850. This series of measures admitted California as a free state, organized the new territories without reference to slavery, assumed the public debt of Texas while restricting its area, abolished the slave trade in the District of Columbia, and enacted a fugitive slave law which denied due process and equal protection of the laws to African Americans living in the North. Thus was the rupture of the Union delayed for a decade. Clay died in Washington on June 29, 1852.

Further Reading

The definitive edition of Clay's writings is James B. Hopkins, ed., The Papers of Henry Clay (3 vols., 1959-1963). The best biography of Clay, comprehensive and temperate in interpretation, is Glyndon G. Van Deusen, The Life of Henry Clay (1937). An excellent brief study is Clement Eaton, Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics (1957), which has a useful bibliographical essay. A fine study of Clay's early life is Bernard Mayo, Henry Clay: Spokesman of the New West (1937). The best 19th-century biography, and still very valuable, is Carl Schurz, Life of Henry Clay (2 vols., 1887-1889).

Additional Sources

Clay, Henry, The life and speeches of Henry Clay, Littleton, Colo.: F.B. Rothman, 1987.

Colton, Calvin, The life and times of Henry Clay, New York, Garland Pub., 1974.

Remini, Robert Vincent, Henry Clay: statesman for the Union, New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

Schurz, Carl, Henry Clay, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

Van Deusen, Glyndon G. (Glyndon Garlock), The life of Henry Clay, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1937, 1979. □

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Clay, Henry

CLAY, HENRY


Henry Clay (17771852) was a paradox. An eloquent speaker known for charm and generosity, Clay served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, as well as U.S. Secretary of State. He also ran for the presidency five times and lost each time. Clay was a leader of the "War Hawks"a group that pushed Congress to declare war against Britain in 1812but he opposed the war against Mexico and did much to avoid civil war in the United States. Though Clay was a slave owner and often spoke in support of the slavery dominated South, he also helped craft the compromise that kept slavery out of new U.S. territories.

The son of Reverend John Clay, a Baptist minister, and Elizabeth Hudson Clay, Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia. British and Loyalist soldiers raided the area during the American Revolution (17751783) and looted the Clay home in 1781. That year, the elder Clay also died. Henry Clay's mother remarried when he was fourteen. Clay's stepfather moved the family to Richmond. With only three years of formal schooling, Clay began working as a store clerk at his stepfather's recommendation.

From 1793 to 1797, Clay worked as secretary to George Wythe, chancellor of the High Court of Chancery. As secretary, Clay copied and transcribed records. Wythe encouraged Clay to continue his education, and in 1796 Clay took up the study of law under the Attorney General of Virginia, Robert Brooke. At age twenty, Clay graduated and immediately relocated to Kentucky, where his mother had moved. Frontier land disputes were fertile territory for a young lawyer, and Clay became well known as a defense attorney. He married into a leading family when he wed Lucretia Hart in 1799; they had 11 children. Clay prospered, and eventually owned a 600-acre estate, which he called "Ashland."

Henry Clay was tall and slim, with an expressive face, warm spirit, and personal charm. He had an excellent speaker's voice and became well known for his skill as an orator. Clay fought duels in 1809 and 1826. He lived the life of a frontiersman, and was prone to drinking and gambling. John Quincy Adams (17671848) noted that Clay was "half-educated," but that he possessed "all the virtues indispensable to a popular man."

Clay eventually became involved in politics. He participated in the constitutional convention for Kentucky in 1799, and in 1803 was elected to the Kentucky Legislature. He was appointed to two terms in the U.S. Senate, first from 1806 to 1807 and again from 1810 to 1811. Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811 and was immediately chosen to be Speaker of the House, a position he held six times during his tenure in the House, which lasted until 1821. In that year, Clay made his first bid for the presidency. From 1825 to 1826 he served as Secretary of State in the Cabinet of President John Quincy Adams (18251829). He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1831, where he served until 1842.

Clay was a lifetime advocate for business and protectionism. He pushed for federal support of infrastructure such as roads and canals. He developed the "American System," a program to improve home manufacturing and business. It was Clay's intention to unite the commercial and manufacturing interests of the East with the agricultural and entrepreneurial interests of the West. The American System was intended to establish protection for U.S. industries against foreign competition and also centralize financial control in the U.S. Bank. Clay backed the Tariff of 1816 and the annexation of West Florida by President James Madison (18091817). His protectionism reached its peak in the Tariff of Abominations in 1828.

As a nationalist and an expansionist, Clay advocated war with Britain in 1812 due to the British trampling of U.S. rights on the high seas. The "War Hawks" as they were known, supported the War in 1812 (18121814). Clay supported the Latin American rebellions against the Spanish, and the Greek rebellion against the Turks. He was not in favor of war with Mexico, but supported the government nonetheless, losing one of his sons in the Battle of Buena Vista (1847).

Clay worked hard but unsuccessfully in the Kentucky constitutional convention to abolish slavery in the new state. He never reconciled his attitudes over slavery, defending the southern states on the one hand and owning slaves himself, but working hard for slavery's abolition on the other hand. At his death, his 50 slaves were willed to his family, but with the provision that all children of these slaves after January 1, 1850, be liberated and transported to Liberia. Clay was a founder of the American Colonization Society in 1816 a society that advocated the repatriation of slaves to Africa.

As an expansionist Clay worked for the addition of states and territories to the Union. A lifelong proponent of the ideals of the American Revolution (17751783), he worked for the preservation of the Union. He supported the Missouri Compromise, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state while preventing slavery above the 36th parallel. He personally acquired the assurance of the Missouri Legislature that it would not pass any laws that would affect the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens. During the Missouri debates, Clay argued the side of the southern States, continuing the dualism that would be present throughout his lifeadvocating the rights of slave states while working at the same time to abolish slavery.

In 1849, aligned with statesman Daniel Webster (17821852), Clay advocated the Compromise of 1850, which was credited as postponing the American Civil War (18611865) for a decade. The compromise was actually a series of proposals that admitted California to the Union as a free state, abolished slavery in the District of Columbia, set up the territories of New Mexico and Utah without slavery, and established a more rigorous fugitive slave law.

Clay ran unsuccessfully for the presidency five times. He was a fearless fighter for his ideas, even if his positions on issues were primarily based on his own self interests. He was devoted to the Union, even if his compromises only postponed an inevitable clash between the North and the South. He considered himself an advocate of Jeffersonian democracy and was involved in party politics, including the establishment of the Whig party. He owned slaves, advocated the removal of blacks from the United States, and worked continuously for the abolition of slavery. As such a self-contradictory individual, Clay had as many fervent supporters as he did enemies.

Henry Clay was well respected by ordinary citizens. In his old age Clay was considerably in debt and when it became known that he was thinking of selling his beloved estate Ashland, common people donated enough money to clear his debts. Few of Clay's children survived him; many did not live to maturity. His son Thomas was ambassador to Guatemala under President Abraham Lincoln (18611865). His son James was charge d'affairs at the U.S. embassy in Portugal under President Zachary Taylor (18491850). Clay left no surviving descendents, however, when he died in Washington, DC, on June 29, 1852.

See also: Protectionism, Slavery, Tariff of Abominations


FURTHER READING

Clay, Henry. The Papers of Henry Clay. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 195988.

Hewsen, Robert H., and Anne Commire, eds. Historic World Leaders. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc. 1994, s.v. "Clay, Henry."

Howe, Daniel Walker, The World Book Multimedia Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book, Inc., 1998, s.v. "Clay, Henry."

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1998, s.v. "Clay, Henry."

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Clay, Henry

CLAY, HENRY

Fiery southern lawmaker, Speaker of the House, and secretary of state Henry Clay played a pivotal role in preserving the Union during the early and middle years of the nineteenth century. Clay rose from modest origins to become a well-known politician. During his lifetime, the self-educated leader was known as the Great Compromiser and the Great Pacifier, epithets earned for his ability to find the necessary middle ground between the federal government and the states over issues such as slavery, tariffs, and the admittance of new states to the Union. Argumentative, eloquent, and quick to propose a duel if insulted, he helped forge the missouri compromise of 1820 during a career that included five bids for the presidency. His contributions to federal policy ranged from trade and finance to foreign affairs in the administration of President john quincy adams.

Born in Hanover County, Virginia, on April 12, 1777, Clay became a lawyer by the age of 20. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he entered private practice while keeping an eye open for an entry to politics. Frontier life suited him. He especially liked gambling and drinking, pursuits that only exacerbated his hot temper. But he flourished as an attorney. His sharp oratory brought him prominence and while not yet thirty he represented former vice president aaron burr in grand jury proceedings involving Burr's real estate dealings.

In 1799, Clay married the socially prominent Lucretia Hart. Clay and his wife eventually had eleven children, and great tragedy. All six daughters and one son died at a young age.

Clay rose quickly through Kentucky politics. He used his opposition to the repressive alien and sedition acts of 1798 as a springboard into the state legislature in 1803, where he ultimately served seven terms. Immensely popular with his fellow lawmakers, Clay was their choice to fill an expired term in the U.S. Senate in 1806—despite his not having reached the constitutionally mandated minimum age of thirty. In 1810, he assumed a vacant seat in the Senate for a one-year period.

Two ironies emerged from Clay's early political career. Both would bear on his future course as a national leader. First, he opposed slavery and favored emancipation, an unusual and unpopular position in nineteenth-century southern politics. Clay saw slavery as evil. He was not, however, ultimately interested in African Americans sharing in U.S. society: he would later become an originator of the American Colonization Society, which sought to return former slaves to Africa, and at his death, his will would free the fifty slaves he had owned and provide for their transportation to Liberia. Second, Clay's sensitivity to insult and his hair-trigger temper landed him in personal crises that would continue throughout his career. He fought his first duel with a fellow Kentucky lawmaker in 1809, and by the time he became secretary of state, he would be dueling with a U.S. senator.

Brief service in Washington, D.C., whetted Clay's appetite for a national political career.

From 1811 to 1821, and 1823 to 1825, he was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democratic-Republican. He served as Speaker of the House for all but two of those years. Clay advocated a national economic policy that he called the American System, an ambitious attempt to link the East and West through transportation reforms, protectionism in the form of tariffs to boost U.S. industries, a plan for national defense, and a reorganization of the National Bank. Calling for war with Britain in 1812, he became nationally prominent as a leading member of the so-called War Hawks. In 1814, he acted as a representative to the Ghent Peace Commission, which ended the war of 1812. Strong stands were his trademark: in 1819, opposing General Andrew Jackson's invasion of Florida, he resigned as Speaker of the House.

"I would rather be right than President."
—Henry Clay

In 1820 Clay helped bring about the Missouri Compromise. This was a federal response to a bitter controversy over new slave states' joining the Union, which came to a head when the slave-owning Missouri Territory applied for admission in 1818. Northerners objected to the entry of more slave states. Southerners protested when the House considered a measure that would block further slavery in Missouri. Thomas Jefferson declared the Missouri issue—and in particular questions of constitutional authority—to be part of a Federalist conspiracy to destroy the Union. Clay drafted a compromise, persuading northern lawmakers to drop the slavery restriction, while southern lawmakers agreed to limit the geographic boundaries of slavery. In 1821 he secured a second compromise in the form of a resolution that prohibited Missouri from discriminating against citizens from other states. Clay won wide praise for his work, although the compromise would be undone in time by the Supreme Court and the question of slavery would be ultimately decided by the Civil War.

As a candidate of the whig party, Clay made his first of five bids for the White House in 1824. He never succeeded, but the first failure bore fruit. In a runoff between Jackson and Adams that was decided in the House, Clay gave his support to Adams, who won. Clay's reward was the job of secretary of state, one he had long coveted.

For years, Democrats bitterly scorned the obvious deal, and the criticism wounded Clay. By 1826, he became the target of a particularly venomous attack by Senator John Randolph, an old opponent, who compared Clay to one of the scoundrels from Henry Fielding's novel Tom Jones in a series of blasts at Clay's competence and ethics as secretary. Clay promptly challenged Randolph to a little-celebrated pistol duel—a series of bad aims and misfires in which neither man could hit anything and the two ended up shaking hands.

In 1831 Clay was elected to the Senate. He represented Kentucky for an eleven-year stretch, to which he added another term from 1849 to 1852. Two of his achievements were significant. One was the Compromise Tariff of 1833, which eased the situation caused by South Carolina's nullification policy—a political doctrine under which a state held that it could reject any federal law that it deemed unconstitutional. Upset over federal tariffs that it found discriminatory, South Carolina had refused to allow tariffs to be collected in its state and had threatened to secede from the Union. This refusal brought the first test of a state's decision to invoke nullification, and the reaction was swift: President Jackson, declaring that the state had no right to nullify a federal law, threatened to send troops. Clay's compromise called for a gradually declining tariff, which pleased South Carolina, averting further trouble. But, like the Missouri Compromise, it was a temporary balm to the aggravations between the North and the South.

Clay's greatest achievement occurred at the end of his long career. In 1850, as the question of slavery threatened to split the nation, he formulated a plan that fairly decided the admission of California and the New Mexico and Utah territories as free or slave states. Again, a compromise of his averted civil war.

Clay died two years later, on June 29, 1852, in Washington, D.C. The war he had helped forestall came less than a decade after his death.

further readings

Baxter, Maurice G. 2000. Henry Clay the Lawyer. Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky.

Clement, Eaton. 1957. Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics. Boston: Little, Brown.

Remini, Robert V. 1991. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York: Norton.

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Clay, Henry

Henry Clay, 1777–1852, American statesman, b. Hanover co., Va.

Early Career

His father died when he was four years old, and Clay's formal schooling was limited to three years. His stepfather secured (1792) for him a clerk's position in the Virginia high court of chancery. There he gained the regard of George Wythe, who directed his reading. Clay also read law under Robert Brooke, attorney general of Virginia, and in 1797 he was licensed to practice.

Moving in the same year to Lexington, Ky., he quickly gained wide reputation as a lawyer and orator. He served (1803–6) in the Kentucky legislature and was (1805–7) professor of law at Transylvania Univ. Having spent the short session of 1806–7 in the U.S. Senate, he returned (1807) to the state legislature, became (1808) speaker, and remained there until he was chosen to fill an unexpired term (1810–11) in the U.S. Senate.

Congressman

In 1810 Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served (1811–14) as speaker. As spokesman of Western expansionist interests and leader of the "war hawks," Clay stirred up enthusiasm for war with Great Britain and helped bring on the War of 1812. He resigned (1814) from Congress to aid in the peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Ghent.

He again served (1815–21) in the House, again was speaker (1815–20), and began to formulate his "American system," a national program that ultimately included federal aid for internal improvements and tariff protection of American industries. In 1821, Clay, to pacify sectional interests, pushed the Missouri Compromise through the House. In the House for the last time (1823–25), he once more became (1823) speaker, and he did much to augment the powers of that office. In this session he secured the western extension of the National Road and, against much opposition, eloquently carried through the Tariff of 1824.

Secretary of State

As a candidate for the presidency in 1824, Clay had the fourth largest number of electoral votes, and, with no candidate having a majority, the election went to the House, where the three highest were to be voted upon. It became Clay's duty to vote for one of his rivals. Despite the Western interests of Andrew Jackson and despite the instructions of the Kentucky legislature to vote for him, Clay's dislike for the military hero was so intense that he voted for John Quincy Adams. When President Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State, Jackson's friends cried "corrupt bargain" and charged Clay with political collusion. Evidence has not been found to prove this, but the accusation impeded Clay's future political fortunes. As Secretary of State (1825–29), he secured congressional approval—which came too late for the American delegates to attend—of U.S. participation in the Pan-American Congress of 1826.

Senator

In 1828, Clay again supported Adams for President, and Jackson's success bitterly disappointed him. Although he intended to retire from politics, Clay was elected (1831) to the U.S. Senate and now led the National Republicans, who were beginning to call themselves Whigs (because they opposed Jackson's "tyranny" ; see Whig party). Hoping to embarrass Jackson, Clay led the opposition in the Senate to the President's policies, but when the election came Jackson was overwhelmingly reelected.

Clay's chagrin was buried in the crisis developing over the tariff. South Carolina's nullification of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 as well as Jackson's threats of armed invasion of that state allowed Clay to gain politically—working, even at the cost of his own protectionist views, toward a compromise with the John C. Calhoun faction, he helped to promote the Compromise Tariff of 1833.

Clay opposed the Jackson regime at every turn, particularly on the bank issue. When Jackson had the deposits removed (1833) from the Bank of the United States to his "pet banks," Clay secured in the Senate passage of a resolution—later expunged (Jan., 1837) from the record—censuring the President for his act.

Refusing to run for President in 1836, Clay continued his opposition tactics against Van Buren's administration and fought the subtreasury system in vain. In 1840, Clay lost the Whig nomination to William H. Harrison, mainly because of Thurlow Weed's adroit politics. Clay supported Harrison and, when Harrison was elected, was offered the post of Secretary of State, but he chose to stay in the Senate. He now planned to reestablish the Bank of the United States, but the unexpected accession of John Tyler to the presidency and his vetoes of Clay's bills caused Clay to resign his Senate seat.

In 1844 he ran against James K. Polk, an avowed expansionist. Earlier Clay had publicly opposed the annexation of Texas, and he restated his position in the "Alabama letters," agreeing to annexation if it could be accomplished with the common consent of the Union and without war. This maneuver probably lost him New York state, with which he could have won the election. His failure was crushing for him and for the Whig party. In 1848 his party refused him its nomination, feeling that he had no chance, and his presidential aspirations were never fulfilled.

He reentered (1849) the Senate when the country faced the slavery question in the territory newly acquired following the Mexican War. Clay denounced the extremists in both North and South, asserted the superior claims of the Union, and was chiefly instrumental in shaping the Compromise of 1850. It was the third time that he saved the Union in a crisis, and thus he has been called the Great Pacificator and the Great Compromiser.

Bibliography

See his works (7 vol., 1896) and his papers (ed. by J. Hopkins et al., 11 vol., 1959–92); biographies by C. Schurz (1887, repr. 1968), G. Van Deusen (1937), B. Mayo (1937, repr. 1966), and D. S. and J. T. Heidler (2010); studies by C. Eaton (1957), R. V. Remini (2010), and F. M. Bordewich (2012).

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Clay, Henry (1777-1852)

Henry Clay (1777-1852)

Source

Senator and presidential candidate

Early Years. Henry Clay was born in April 1777 in Henrico County, Virginia. The seventh of eight children, his parents John and Elizabeth had ties to the earliest settlers but were of modest means. Henrys father died when he was four, and his only formal education took place in a local log school. Fortunately, Clays mother married a kind man who took an interest in Clays future. After working briefly as a court clerk, Clay began to study law with Virginias attorney general, Robert Brooke. He was licensed within a year and moved to Lexington, Kentucky. He became the citys most successful criminal defense attorney. In 1799 he married Lucretia Hart, and the two had eleven children. He outlived six daughters and one son.

Politician. Clay was politicized by the Alien and Sedition Acts and firmly supported the Kentucky Resolutions. He served in the Kentucky legislature from 1803 to 1809, interrupted by a few months in 1806 and 1807 in the United States Senate, filling in the remainder of another senators term. He returned to the Senate in 1809, where he supported programs that favored the West, including territorial expansion, internal improvements, and banking, but he also praised Thomas Jeffersons embargo. In 1810 Clay was elected to the House of Representatives and was chosen Speaker. There he advocated his American System. Intended to make the countrys sections interdependent, Clays system was based on a central bank, internal improvements, and a protective tariff. Clay also became the leader of the nationalist War Hawk faction, and during the War of 1812 James Madison selected him to help negotiate a peace treaty with Britain. He returned to Congress after completing the treaty and pushed his American System, passing several key portions, including a new bank charter, a protective tariff, and an internal improvements bill. In 1820 he was instrumental in arranging the Missouri Compromise that established the 36° 30 line across the Louisiana Purchase territory, separating future free and slave states.

Ambition. Clay believed that his experience and talent qualified him to be president, but his ambition went unfulfilled. In 1824 he ran for the office but polled fourth of four candidates. As Speaker of the House, Clay influenced the outcome of the election by throwing his support to John Quincy Adams instead of the more popular Andrew Jackson, contrary to the instructions of his constituents. Adams immediately made him secretary of state, and Clay subsequently fought several duels in defense of his honor against those who charged that he and Adams had made a corrupt bargain. These four years apparently bored Clay, who missed debating and parliamentary maneuvering. Adamss defeat in 1828 left Clay without a post, but he returned to the Senate in 1831 to oppose what he considered Jacksons arbitrary exercise of power and to fight for tariffs, internal improvements, and the Second Bank of the United States. He proposed the rechartering of the bank four years ahead of schedule in order to make the bank an issue in the 1832 election, when he challenged Jackson for the presidency as the candidate of the nascent Whig Party and lost again. In 1833 he returned to his role as the Great Compromiser by working out a compromise tariff that helped to defuse the nullification crisis.

Union Whig. As the leader of the anti-Jacksonians, Clay continued to oppose Democratic initiatives, including Jacksons removal of federal deposits into pet banks and Martin Van Burens independent treasury plan. He argued that Jackson had become far too powerful and was a threat to the peoples liberty. He refused to run for president in 1836, sensing that Van Buren would win the contest on the strength of Jacksons popularity. The collapse of the economy during Van Burens administration, following the Panic of 1837, seemed to ensure a Whig victory in 1840, and Clay fully expected his partys nomination. He was disappointed by the Whig decision to run a Democratic-style campaign replete with a war hero, William Henry Harrison, as candidate. Clay refused to join the administration and remained in the Senate to engineer the Whig economic program, but Harrisons sudden death and John Tylers vetoes ended Clays efforts. Clay resigned from the Senate in 1841, but eager for another run at the presidency, he accepted the Whig nomination in 1844. He opposed Texass annexation, however, because he feared a war with Mexico. His opposition to expansion cost him his best chance at victory, and he lost to James K. Polk, who vigorously favored adding Texas to the Union. Clays fear that annexation would lead to war proved accurate, but once the war was under way he supported it, even after the death of his son, Henry Jr., at the Battle of Buena Vista. Clay returned to the Senate in 1849, hoping to end sectional conflict over the Mexican Cession. In 1850 his last great attempt at compromise initially failed (later to be revived by Stephen Douglas), and he left Washington to recover his health. He died on 29 June 1852.

Source

Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: Norton, 1991).

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Clay, Henry (1777-1852)

Henry Clay (1777-1852)

Sources

Statesman

An Enduring Career . Despite losing five presidential races, Henry Clay played a central role in Westernand nationalpolitics for more than four decades. As Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1811 to 1820 and from 1823 to 1825, longer than anyone else in the nineteenth century, Clay emerged as the outstanding Western leader of the period. He also served as John Quincy Adamss secretary of state from 1825 to 1829 and was regarded as the most influential senator of his era.

A Pioneer Nationalist . Although one of the most prominent leaders to come out of the West, Clay was first and foremost a nationalist. As Speaker of the House in 1812, Clay advocated war against Great Britain to preserve the overseas markets of the nations producers. After the War of 1812 Clay introduced plans for an integrated system of protective tariffs, a national bank, and subsidized internal improvements known as the American System. Although Clay intended this program to foster economic development and integrate the regions of the United States politically, many of its provisions joined the North and West, yet isolated the South.

The American System . The American System had direct bearing on westward expansion. Under this scheme the federal government sold public land in the West rather than give it away to settlers, with the proceeds benefiting transportation projects and schools. The plans supporters in Congress expected these projects, in turn, to benefit all sections of the nation and tie them together economically. The American System became central to the political beliefs of Whigs, who arose in opposition to Andrew Jackson and the Democratic Party.

A Great Compromiser . Clay was also known as the Great Compromiser for his leading role in two watershed legislative compromises: the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850. Though Clay intended these compromises to relieve sectional tensions, neither was able to prevent Southern secession and Civil War.

Sources

Daniel Walker Howe, The Political Culture of American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979);

M. D. Peterson, The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay and Calhoun (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987);

Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: Norton, 1991).

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Clay, Henry

Clay, Henry (1777–1852) US statesman He served in both the House of Representatives (1811–14, 1815–21, 1823–25), several times as speaker, and in the Senate (1831–42, 1849–52). He was one of the ‘war hawks’ who favoured the War of 1812. He ran for president (1824), and when the election went to the House of Representatives, he threw his support behind the eventual winner, John Quincy Adams. One of the founders of the Whigs, he ran against Andrew Jackson (a bitter political enemy) in 1832. He ran for president again (1844) but was defeated by James Polk. Clay's last years in the Senate were spent trying to work out a compromise between the slave-owning states of the South and the free Northern states. The Compromise of 1850 was one result of those efforts.

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