Clay, Joseph

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Clay, Joseph

CLAY, JOSEPH. (1741–1804). Merchant, politician. Born in Beverly, Yorkshire, England, Clay moved to Savannah in 1760 to join his uncle, James Habersham. A respected and successful merchant and planter, Clay served his state in a number of capacities throughout the war and afterwards.

Clay became involved in the revolutionary movement in 1774. He participated in Georgia's first two provincial congresses and served on the council of safety in 1775. At the council's direction he appraised and took an inventory of Savannah property in March 1776, prior to the defense of the capital against British ships seeking rice. He opposed the state constitution of 1777 as too radical and expressed his concern that people of little experience were assuming positions of authority in the state for economic gain alone. Henry Laurens, a friend of Clay's and a member of the Continental Congress for South Carolina, relied on him for information regarding Georgia, which often went unrepresented in the Congress. He asked Clay to become deputy paymaster general for the Continental army in Georgia. Clay reluctantly agreed and eventually held this position for South Carolina as well.

Clay worked in this capacity until the end of the war. His job was difficult, for there was often no Continental money available either to pay the soldiers or purchase supplies. He felt his reputation as a trustworthy gentleman was in danger of being destroyed through nonpayment of debt accrued by the army under his name and so borrowed money to keep the army's credit, and thus his own, sound. Although his position disqualified him from public office, he served as a member of the short-lived supreme executive council formed in Augusta during July 1779. He became well-known to Continental Generals Benjamin Lincoln and Nathanael Greene, among other prominent individuals in the war effort. His contact with these men served to bolster Georgia's reputation and make the state's many difficulties better understood. In June 1781 Greene sent him to Augusta to assist in the formation of the institutions of state government, which settlers in the backcountry had been without for over a year. While never in a combat role, Clay traveled with the troops and earned the respect of militia Colonel James Jackson for his ability to share in their danger and hardship.

It took Clay a long time to close his government books after the war, and this delay hurt his business activities. Additionally, many could not pay him the debts they owed, and he in turn found it hard to pay off British creditors. He had moved his family out of state in 1779, abandoning his holdings when the British reoccupied Georgia. As the British evacuated the state in 1782, he purchased nearly four thousand acres of land from confiscated estates. The income from these and other holdings carried him through the next few years. He served the state as treasurer (1782), justice of his county (1783), and member of the assembly. He also participated in the successful campaign to modify Georgia's constitution of 1777.


Carp, E. Wayne. To Starve the Army at Pleasure: Continental Army Administration and American Political Culture, 1775–1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Ernst, Joseph Albert. Money and Politics in America, 1755–1775: A Study in the Currency Act of 1764 and the Political Economy of Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973.