Clay, Henry

views updated May 23 2018

Henry Clay

Born April 12, 1777 (Hanover County, Virginia)

Died June 29, 1852 (Washington, D.C.)

Statesman, U.S. senator, congressman

Henry Clay, a Virginian by birth and a Kentuckian by choice, was a fearless fighter for the cause of liberty and for the strength of the Union. A brilliant public speaker, he also inspired the common man in his role as an elected official. Clay was a man of action who successfully moved important legislation through Congress. Key to his success was his skill for compromising and for bringing different groups together for the common good.

Clay served many years in the U.S. House of Representatives, including ten years in an important position of leadership as Speaker of the House. He served in the U.S. Senate briefly from 1806 to 1807, again from 1810 to 1811, and then from 1831 until his death in 1852. Under President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29), Clay served as secretary of state from 1825 until 1829. In 1824, 1832, and 1844, Clay ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. presidency.

"[I was] rocked in the cradle of the Revolution.... I was born a democrat—was raised and nurtured a Republican."

Young Henry

Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia, near present-day Richmond. His parents were John Clay and Elizabeth Hudson, and his ancestors were some of the earliest Virginia settlers. While not wealthy, John Clay, a Baptist minister, kept his family financially comfortable. When Henry, the seventh of eight children, was four years old, his father died. The following year, Henry's mother married Captain Henry Watkins, a soldier, prosperous farmer, and kind stepfather.

Clay's formal education was limited to about three years in rural Virginia schools, but he was bright and had a talent with the spoken word. When orators, such as Patrick Henry (1736–1799; see box), passed through his community, Clay was intrigued and impressed by their speeches. In time, he learned to successfully imitate their persuasive manner of speaking.

Patrick Henry

Throughout his youth, Henry Clay was influenced by orators of great prominence during America's early years of independence. None were more gifted than Virginia legislator and prominent lawyer Patrick Henry. He was born into a wealthy Virginia family in Hanover County, Virginia. After trying other careers, Henry entered the legal profession. Largely self-taught, he gained acceptance to practice law. His oratory skills carried him forward quickly in his profession. Soon, in December 1763, he won a major court victory over the colonial government. This victory gained him great popularity and launched his political career.

Henry began serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature, just after the Stamp Act of 1765 was imposed by the British. The Stamp Act imposed a tax on all documents and various other items in the colonies, requiring colonists to purchase a stamp for each item. Henry led the charge in condemning what he asserted was an illegal measure exceeding British Parliament's authority over the colonies. Between his orations and the Stamp Act resolutions he drafted, Henry became a leading figure in the move towards independence.

In September 1774, Henry attended the First Continental Congress and captured attention with his speeches against British rule. When he attended the Second Continental Congress in May 1775, he made his famous statement, "Give me liberty or give me death!" From that time forward, Henry chose to serve only in Virginia public offices; however, his influence extended far beyond his state. In early 1776, he attended the Virginia convention that adopted a resolution for independence, a state constitution, and a Declaration of Rights. More than a decade later, this declaration came to serve as a model for the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Henry was elected the first governor of Virginia and served two terms, from 1776 to 1779 and 1784 to 1786.

Henry declined to attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787. As an ardent anti-Federalist, he opposed the creation of a strong federal government in the new U.S. Constitution. Recognizing Henry's broad influence, George Washington, who presided over the Convention, sent Henry a personal copy of the new Constitution with a letter asking his support. However, Henry became a leading spokesman against Virginia ratification of the Constitution in 1788. When Virginia narrowly voted for approval, Henry called for a second Constitutional Convention to change the Constitution, but to no avail. Through the early 1790s, Henry spoke out against the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton (c. 1755–1804; see entry in volume 1). However, by the mid-1790s, Henry saw a need for greater political and economic stability in the nation and began supporting Federalist measures. President Washington offered him positions as secretary of state, attorney general, Supreme Court justice, and foreign diplomat. Henry declined, partly due to poor health.

In March 1799, Henry ran successfully again for the Virginia legislature, but he died before taking office. Henry was the most well known anti-Federalist in the early Republic, greatly distrusting strong central governments. Though he never held public office in the new national government, he was one of the more influential participants in debates over the key issues.

Clay's stepfather used his influence to secure a job for fifteen-year-old Henry as a court clerk. George Wythe (1726–1806), a prominent Virginia lawyer and professor at the College of William and Mary, recognized the intelligence of the sociable and talkative young man. Wythe had a habit of discovering rising leaders of Virginia. He had taught both Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9; see entry in volume 1), who became the third U.S. president, and John Marshall (1755–1835; see entry in volume 2), who served as a powerful chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Wythe oversaw Clay's education in literature, history, and the law. Clay decided to pursue a legal career and completed his training under Virginia attorney general Robert Brooke.

A Kentucky lawyer and legislator

Meanwhile, Clay's parents moved west to Kentucky, and the young lawyer followed in early 1798. Settling in the high-spirited community of Lexington, Clay had all the work he could handle, representing clients in disputes over land claims. Before long, he was known as the best attorney in Kentucky. He debuted on the political scene with a fiery speech attacking the 1798 Alien and Sedition Laws, repressive legislation intended to suppress growing attacks on the administration of President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1).

In 1799, Clay married Lucretia Hart, a member of a prominent Kentucky family. Just like Wythe a few years earlier, the wealthy and connected of Kentucky viewed Clay as a rising political star. In 1803, he began his public career when elected to the Kentucky legislature, and he quickly gained a reputation as an able lawmaker. During this time, his fame grew when he successfully defended former U.S. vice president Aaron Burr (1756–1836; see entry in volume 1), who was accused of a conspiracy against the U.S. government in the western states.

Clay served in the Kentucky legislature from 1803 to 1809, except for a few months in late 1806 and early 1807. In November 1806, the legislature sent twenty-nine year-old Clay to the U.S. Senate to fill an unexpired term in the Senate. Either no one noticed or everyone overlooked the fact that he was not yet thirty, the required age to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Jeffersonian Republican

Throughout Clay's long and eventful political career, he always maintained that he was a Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican. This group generally supported the power of state government over the central or federal government. More importantly for Clay, the political base of Democratic-Republicans came from farmers. Most rugged, independent westerners, those living in the region west of the Appalachian Mountains and extending to the Mississippi River, including those in Kentucky, were Democratic-Republicans. President Jefferson and James Madison (1751–1836; see entry in volume 2), Jefferson's secretary of state and the fourth president of the United States, were the leaders of the Democratic-Republicans.

After more outstanding service in the state legislature, in January 1810 Clay again returned to the U.S. Senate to fill an unexpired term. At the time, U.S. relations with Britain were severely strained, and war seemed to be on the horizon. For years, Britain had been seizing U.S. ships on the high seas and taking not only cargo but American seamen as well. The practice of capturing seamen and forcing them to work on British ships was called impressment. Americans were outraged. All diplomatic efforts to calm the situation had failed.

Clay's talent for combining words into moving speeches had increased with experience. He gave impassioned speeches in the Senate in favor of strengthening the central government to resist European threats.

Representative Clay

In August 1810, rather than run for the seat he had filled in the Senate, Clay chose to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected by a wide majority, he began service in the House in March 1811. Clay joined a group of newly elected Democratic-Republican representatives from the West and South that demanded war with Britain. The group, known as war hawks, pushed the nation toward war, a war that was declared in 1812.

Clay was immediately elected as Speaker of the House, a position he would hold a total of ten years, longer than anyone in the nineteenth century. Clay elevated this position to the second most powerful office in the government. Madison, chief author of the U.S. Constitution, had intended the Speaker of the House to merely facilitate House activities. Instead, Clay managed and controlled the House. He set up and chose members of committees and then decided when to refer bills to committees. He also maneuvered to hold onto the right of the Speaker of the House to participate in debate and to cast a vote.


In 1814, President Madison sent Clay to Ghent, Belgium, as one of the five American commissioners charged with negotiating an end to the War of 1812 (1812–15). The British marched on Washington, D.C., in August 1814 and burned most of the city's public buildings, including the capitol and the President's House. However, only a few days later, Americans successfully resisted British troops at Baltimore, and the British retreated. American troops had also halted a British advance toward New York City. As both countries grew weary of war, Clay and the commissioners were able to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, signed on December 24, 1814.

Clay remained in England for a few months to develop a trade treaty in which Britain and the United States agreed to give first preference to each other's products. This idea developed into a foreign policy still used in the twenty-first century and known as the "most favored nation" policy.

American system

Clay returned to the United States in 1815 and resumed his role as Speaker of the House of Representatives. In support of President Madison's programs for strengthening the nation through internal improvements and protections for U.S. industries, Clay developed the "American System."

The American System was based on four points: (1) issuance of protective tariffs, fees on goods brought into the United States so that those imported goods cost more than goods manufactured at home; (2) improvements of internal roads, bridges, and canals connecting manufacturing and shipping industries of the East Coast with western farmland; (3) the recommendation that money received from western land sales be used for schools and internal improvements such as roads; and (4) the reestablishment of a national bank whose charter had expired in 1811. Although Democratic-Republicans had traditionally opposed a national bank and instead supported state banks, most Democratic-Republican leaders had come to the understanding that a national bank was essential for organizing finances, developing businesses, and making internal improvements. Not only was Clay's American System intended as a cornerstone of economic growth but as a means of unifying the nation.

Many of Clay's plans for the American System became reality. Congress passed three protective tariffs of 1816, 1824, and 1828, and passed measures to use money received from settlers purchasing western land for the nation's road building projects, the creation of schools, and the establishment of the Second National Bank in 1816. In order for a legislator to see so many of his proposals passed, he had to be a compromiser, one who could bring warring factions together for a common good. Clay's mastery of that skill led Americans to call him the "Great Compromiser." A key piece of legislation illustrating his legislative skills was the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Missouri Compromise

Like former President Jefferson and President Madison, Clay deplored slavery but had no solution to the problem. And like Jefferson and Madison, he owned slaves but wanted to see them gradually freed. Nevertheless, early in his career, he stopped promoting the end of slavery in Kentucky when he realized it was an unpopular and seemingly impossible cause.

When Missouri applied for statehood as a slave state in 1818, the bitter controversy that erupted between slave and non-slave states threatened the Union. By 1820, Clay worked out a compromise. Missouri entered statehood as a slave-state, Maine was admitted as a free state, while all territory north of Missouri would be carved into non-slave states.

Secretary of state runs for the presidency

After years of public service, Clay experienced financial problems. In 1821, he retired for a few years to "Ashland," the home he had built in 1811 near Lexington, and successfully rebuilt his finances by returning to his legal practice. In 1823, he self-confidently returned to the position of Speaker of the House. A year later, he mounted his first presidential campaign. The three other candidates were U.S. senator Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; see entry in volume 1) of Tennessee, military hero of the Battle of New Orleans; Secretary of State John Quincy Adams; and Secretary of the Treasury William H. Crawford (1772–1834). No candidate received a majority, so under law, the House of Representatives was required to choose the next president from the top two vote-getters. Of the four candidates, Clay had received the fewest number of votes, but the powerful Speaker of the House gave his support to Adams.

President Adams selected Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson supporters claimed Clay had thrown his support over to Adams in exchange for the Cabinet post, a scheme referred to as the "corrupt bargain." But Clay countered that he was merely backing the candidate whose views were closest to his. Clay relished the appointment since the secretary of state post had often led to the presidency, a job he very much wanted. As secretary of state from 1825 to 1829, he actually accomplished little primarily due to opponents in Congress who followed the leadership of Jackson. Jackson believed that Clay, as Speaker of the House during the 1824 presidential election, used his influence to block Jackson's presidency. Jackson and Clay became and remained strong enemies.

Clay ran for the presidency again in 1832 and 1844, but he was defeated in both attempts. However, in 1831, when the general public did not yet elect senators, the Kentucky legislature elected Clay to the U.S. Senate. He remained in the Senate until his death.

Great Compromiser

Clay's political career as the Great Compromiser is noted for not only the Missouri Compromise of 1820 but also for the Compromise Tariff of 1833 and the Compromise of 1850. Like the Missouri Compromise, the other two compromises were aimed at reducing sectionalism (severe differences) among the states and holding the Union together.

Compromise Tariff of 1833

With the Compromise Tariff of 1833, Clay again avoided a serious break in the Union. A predominately agricultural state, South Carolina, imported most of its manufactured goods from European countries. South Carolinians hated the series of protective tariffs that hindered trade by increasing the cost of imported goods. In response to the protective tariff passed in 1828, Vice President John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), a South Carolinian, asserted that a state did not have to abide by a law if the state believed that the law passed by the U.S. Congress was unconstitutional.

Congress passed yet another protective tariff in 1832. Outraged, the South Carolina legislature passed the Ordinance of Nullification, which declared the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 "null and void." President Jackson threatened to send U.S. troops into South Carolina to force compliance with the law. Clay stepped in and negotiated a compromise tariff that lessened the burden of import fees. South Carolina withdrew the Nullification declaration, and Clay's compromising skills had once again averted a rift in the Union.

Compromise of 1850

A series of proposals related to slavery was collectively called the Compromise of 1850. These proposals staved off the Civil War (1861–65) for a decade. By 1850, the Northern free-states were locked in bitter controversy with Southern slave states. Clay worked out a brilliant set of compromises. In the South, Clay persuaded Texas to give up its claims on New Mexico for the sum of $10 million, an amount that Texas needed for debt repayments. Second, the Fugitive Slave Law, which returned runaway slaves to their owners, was strengthened. For the North, Clay introduced proposals to ban slavery in California as it entered the Union, to ban slavery in Washington, D.C., and to not mention slavery when the territories of New Mexico and Utah were created.

Clay combined all the measures into one bill, but the bill was defeated at the end of July 1850. However, shortly thereafter, each bill was reintroduced individually and passed.

Laying in state

Although he was disappointed at never serving as president, Clay remained a passionate lawmaker until the end. He died from tuberculosis in Washington, D.C., in 1852. His body was placed in the Capitol's rotunda, so that mourners could pay their respects; it marked the first time a person was "laid in state" in such a manner in the Capitol Building.

For More Information


Baxter, Maurice G. Henry Clay and the American System. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Mayo, Bernard. Henry Clay: Spokesman of the New West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937.

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

Van Deusen, Glyndon G. The Life of Henry Clay. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Web Sites

Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate. (accessed on August 12, 2005).

Henry Clay

views updated May 23 2018

Henry Clay

Born April 12, 1777
Hanover County, Virginia

Died June 29, 1852
Washington, D.C.

Speaker of the House, politician

Henry Clay was one of the most important U.S. statesmen of the period between the Revolutionary War (1775-83) and the Civil War (1861-65). As a congressman from Kentucky, he served as Speaker of the House (the top leadership position in the House of Representatives) before and during the War of 1812, and was the leader of a group of legislators called the War Hawks. These men—most of them young and from the southern or western states—believed that the United States should go to war against Great Britain. Although he lacked the brilliance of men like Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and James Madison (1751-1836; see biographical entry), Clay was an effective speaker with a charming, persuasive personality. He gained enough of a following to run for president five times, but he never gained that office.

A boy from Virginia

Henry Clay was born in the middle of the American Revolution, the seventh of eight children of a Baptist minister named John Clay and his wife, Elizabeth Hudson Clay. The family lived in an area of Hanover Country, Virginia. His father died in 1781, when Clay was four years old.

Ten years after his father's death, Clay's mother married Henry Watkins, a resident of Richmond (now the capital of Virginia), who treated his stepchildren kindly and took a special interest in young Henry. The family moved to Richmond, where the fourteen-year-old Clay began working as store clerk. His stepfather felt he was qualified for more challenging work, and secured him a job as a clerk at the High Court of Chancery (a court of law during that period in Virginia). The bright young man came to the attention of George Wythe (1726-1806), chancellor (the top official) of the court, who made Clay his secretary.

A young Kentucky lawyer

Up to this point in his life, Clay had still not acquired much formal education, but Wythe encouraged him to use his library to augment his learning. In 1796 he began to study law under the attorney general of Virginia, Robert Brooke. During this period Clay lived in Brooke's home and had opportunities to meet many prominent people in Virginia politics. He was licensed as a lawyer at age twenty, and in November 1797 he moved to Lexington, Kentucky. At this period Lexington was an important, lively center of activity in the still-young west, and Clay's mother had already moved there.

Clay quickly established himself as the best defense lawyer in Kentucky, specializing in criminal cases. In 1798 he made a very well-received speech against the Alien and Sedition Acts, which Clay and others saw as intended to stifle criticism of the government. A year later, Clay was elected to Kentucky's Constitutional Convention (the meeting at which the state's constitution was written), and he offended some Kentuckians through his unsuccessful attempt to abolish (end) slavery in the state. Clay was himself a slaveholder, but he felt that slavery was wrong and should gradually be eliminated.

Also in 1799 Clay married Lucretia Hart, the daughter of a Kentucky businessman. The couple moved to a six-hundred-acre estate called Ashland where, during the next several decades, they would breed livestock and raise not only crops but a family of eleven children. Tall and slim with an expressive face and warm manner, Clay was gifted at making others feel at ease. Although he was not well-educated, he gained admirers through his personal charm, but he also made some enemies. Clay lived the somewhat rough-and-tumble life of the American frontier: he enjoyed drinking and gambling, and even fought in two duels (in 1809 and 1826).

Beginning a public service career

In 1803 Clay was elected to Kentucky's state legislature, where he established himself as a Democratic Republican like President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Members of this political party (which eventually became simply the Republican party) believed that government should play a limited role in people's lives, and they tended to support the interests of farmers and plantation owners over merchants and city dwellers. During these years, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) in Europe between France and Great Britain (along with its other European allies) had created problems for U.S. trade. As a result, Clay advocated the development of domestic industries.

In 1806 and again in 1810, Clay served two short terms in the U.S. Senate, filling out terms that had been vacated before they expired. He often was involved in heated debates with another senator, Humphrey Marshall (1760-1841), with whom he fought a duel in 1809 (both men were injured but neither was killed). Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811, Clay settled in to the legislative role he enjoyed more than any other job he had held before or after.

A dedicated Speaker of the House

Soon after his arrival in Congress, Clay was elected Speaker of the House, which was an unusual honor for a first-term representative and proof of his personal charm and persuasiveness. During his long career in politics, Clay would be elected Speaker six times, and he helped to shape this into a position of true leadership rather than a fancy but empty title. He gained respect through his fairness and ability to forge compromises.

The War Hawks are eager for war

Clay soon became the leading member of a group that became known as the War Hawks. These men were mostly young, mostly western and southern legislators who favored war with Great Britain. They claimed that the honor of the United States had been insulted by British actions on the high seas (including trade restrictions and impressment, by which American citizens were forced into the British navy) and that the British also were encouraging Native Americans to attack white settlers in the western part of the United States. The War Hawks hoped to use the war to fulfill expansionist aims (such as possibly acquiring Spanish-held Florida or even British-held Canada). When the Twelfth Congress met in November 1811, the trade and impressment disputes between the United States and Great Britain were at their peak. In addition, the victory of U.S. troops against a Native American force at the Battle of Tippecanoe in early November would help to stir up the prowar spirit.

As Speaker of the House, Clay was able to appoint men who agreed with his views to important committee positions. He also pushed through legislation that would prepare the United States for war (such as an increase in taxes to help finance the war effort). He and the other War Hawks—who included John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) of South Carolina and Clay's fellow Kentuckian, Felix Grundy (1777-1840)—put a lot of pressure on President James Madison, who was not as enthusiastic about the idea of war as they were. While pushing the president along on the path toward war, they also tried to influence public opinion through confident talk; Clay, for example, announced proudly that the Kentucky militia (a military force that is made up of citizens rather than professional soldiers, and called out in times of emergency) alone could carry off a successful invasion of Canada.

In June 1812 Madison delivered a message to Congress in which he recommended war against Great Britain. The tensions between the two countries had finally met a breaking point. The two major issues were Britain's maritime policy of impressment (the act of British officials boarding U.S. ships to capture deserters from the British navy) during its war with France and the friendly relations between the British and the Native Americans. Americans believed that the British were encouraging Native Americans to attack white settlers who were moving west. The Native Americans believed that the settlers were encroaching (gradually taking over) their land. The declaration was passed by a vote that revealed a sizable amount of opposition, especially in the New England states. Many gave the persuasive Clay most of the credit (or the blame, if they disagreed with him) for getting the declaration passed.

Active in war and peace

During the less than two years that the War of 1812 lasted, Clay continued to work in Congress for measures that he thought would help the United States win. He was especially motivated by his belief that Madison was not capable of managing the war well on his own and that the nation needed especially strong leadership from others. Among Clay's efforts was helping to put U.S. troops in the crucial Northwest Territory (what would become the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and parts of Minnesota) under the command of William Henry Harrison (1773-1841; see biographical entry), the governor of Indiana Territory and a skillful military leader. He also took an active role in defending the Madison administration and the war in general against attacks from Federalists (members of the opposition party, who had been opposed to the war from the beginning).

By the end of 1813, Clay felt that the conflict must come to an end soon. The nation was financing the war, which—despite a few impressive victories—had not gone as well as expected. Like other political leaders, Clay was relieved when, in December 1813, the British offered to begin peace negotiations. Madison appointed Clay to serve on the five-member commission that went to Ghent, Belgium, for the talks; the other members were diplomat John Quincy Adams (1767-1848); Federalist senator James Bayard (1767-1815), former secretary of the treasury Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), and Jonathan Russell (1771-1832), the top U.S. diplomat in London.

The representatives from the United States and Great Britain met at Ghent in August 1814, and their discussion continued during the next four months, ending with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve. The treaty resolved none of the issues that had brought about the war in the first place (for Great Britain had removed its trade restrictions soon after the war began, and impressment was no longer an issue now that Great Britain's war with France was over); rather, it stated that things would remain just as they had been before the conflict began. Nevertheless, most Americans chose to believe that their side had won, for they had taken on the mighty Great Britain and survived.

A distinguished legislator

Except for a short period as a private citizen (1821-23) Clay served in the House of Representatives from 1815 to 1825. During these years, he tried to encourage people in the eastern and western United States to work together to make the U.S. economy stronger. Clay also pushed for protective tariffs, which were duties or fees paid by those importing goods into the United States; he believed that these tariffs would benefit Americans who were producing goods and crops in competition with foreign traders.

Clay's skills as a negotiator were useful in 1819, when Missouri applied to join the union as a slave-holding state. By this time slavery had become a hotly contested issue, with many U.S. citizens (most of them in the northern part of the country) passionately opposed to it and others (most of them in the South, which depended on slave labor to grow cotton and other crops) upholding the rights of states to decide for themselves whether they would allow slavery. Missouri's admission as a slave state would tip the balance toward the slaveholders, since there would be one more slave state than free state, and that prospect ignited a controversy.

The Missouri Compromise

The congressional debate that followed Missouri's application highlighted the growing differences between the various parts of the United States (especially the North and the South), differences that would erupt into violence when the Civil War began four decades later. The initial debate resulted in what came to be known as the Missouri Compromise: Missouri would be admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state (thus maintaining the balance), while slavery would be prohibited north of the Missouri border. Clay was not responsible for crafting that compromise, but he did resolve a subsequent conflict that came about when Missouri wanted to prohibit free blacks (those who had never been slaves or who had bought or been given their freedom) from entering the states. Clay got the Missouri legislature to agree that it would not restrict the privileges of anyone (black or white) who was a U.S. citizen.

In 1820 and 1822 Clay took time off from public service to attend to his private affairs as a Kentucky farmer and head of a large family. He was re-elected to Congress in 1823 and again elected Speaker of the House. One of four candidates for president in 1824, Clay had the lowest number of votes, so his name was not placed before the House of Representatives (which votes for the president if the Electoral College fails to determine a majority for any candidate).

As a representative, Clay cast his own vote for John Quincy Adams, even though most voters in his state favored Andrew Jackson (1767-1845; see biographical entry), who had been a popular general during the War of 1812. Clay was following his own convictions—he strongly believed that Jackson was simply a military leader and thus not qualified to serve as president—but his vote for Adams angered many Kentuckians. When Adams made Clay his secretary of state (a very important position that often led to the presidency), many suspected that Clay had made an under-the-table bargain with Adams (in other words, Clay had agreed to cast his vote for Adams in exchange for the appointment as secretary of state). Clay denied this, but the accusation continued to follow him throughout the rest of his career. Clay served as secretary of state for the next four years, but it was not a happy period for him. He missed his legislative work, and many of the efforts he led in his new position did not succeed.

Leaving and returning to politics

As the 1828 election approached, Jackson joined with John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) and others opposed to the Adams administration and the Republican Party, to form the Democratic Party. Jackson won the election and, turning down Adams's offer to appoint him to the Supreme Court before he left office, Clay returned to Kentucky. Although he was tempted to settle into the life of a country gentleman, the acclaim he received from people as he toured his home state—added to his opposition to Jackson's policies—convinced him to return to politics.

In 1831 Clay was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he would serve for the next eleven years. He was nominated to run for president in 1832, but Jackson won again by a wide margin. Two years later Clay gained respect for working out a compromise on a tariff issue that had nearly caused South Carolina to nullify (cancel) a federal law, which might have led to the state's seceding (leaving) from the union.

The Whigs' nominee for president

Convinced that the Democratic Party candidate, Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), was unbeatable, Clay did not enter the 1837 presidential election. He became a leading member of the new Whig political party and expected its nomination in the 1840 election. Clay was bitterly disappointed, however, when the Whigs instead nominated William Henry Harrison. Nevertheless, Clay campaigned hard for Harrison, who won the election but died after only one month in office. His successor, John Tyler (1790-1862), opposed most of Clay's ideas, and Clay soon resigned from the Senate.

Clay was again the Whig Party's presidential candidate in 1844, but his shifting position on Texas independence—as he tried to balance the interests of southern and northern voters—cost him the election. The United States entered a war with Mexico when Texas seceded from Mexico and joined the union. Even though Clay opposed the war, he supported the government once it began, and one of his sons died on a Mexican battlefield.

The Compromise of 1850

Clay tried for the Whig nomination in the 1848 presidential election, but it went to Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), a general of the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). For the third time in his career, Clay had been passed over in favor of a candidate whose only qualification lay in his military heroism. Despite his disgust over this turn of events, Clay returned to the Senate in 1849, in time to take the lead on a series of compromises—collectively referred to as the Compromise of 1850, the year in which they were passed—that were all related to the slavery issue and that helped to postpone the coming crisis of sectionalism (divided interests and tension between regions of the country). For his role in resolving this crisis, Clay earned the title of "The Great Pacificator" (peacemaker).

As he neared the end of his life, Clay found himself so deeply in debt that he had to consider selling his beloved Ashland. Instead, his supporters around the nation took up a collection for him and raised $50,000, which was enough to cover his debts. After he died in Washington, D.C. (where he was still serving in the Senate) in 1852, Clay's remains were returned to Kentucky, with stops in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, and Cincinnati for mourners to pay their respects. He was buried in a Lexington, Kentucky cemetery.

For More Information


Colton, Calvin. The Life and Times of Henry Clay. New York: Garland Publishers, 1974.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.

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

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

Clay, Henry

views updated Jun 11 2018


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


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."

Henry Clay

views updated May 17 2018

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. □

Clay, Henry

views updated May 23 2018


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.

Clay, Henry (1777-1852)

views updated May 14 2018

Henry Clay (1777-1852)


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.


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

Clay, Henry

views updated May 14 2018

Henry Clay

Henry Clay was one of the leading American statesmen in the first half of the nineteenth century. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and also as secretary of state. He ran for the presidency five times and lost each time. Although Clay was a slave owner and often supported the South, he helped craft the compromise that kept slavery out of new U.S. territories and played a key role in postponing the Civil War (1861–65).

Early years

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, the son of a Baptist minister. His father died in 1781, and Clay's formal education was cut short when his mother remarried and the family moved to Richmond, Virginia . There, Clay began working as a store clerk at his stepfather's recommendation. From 1793 to 1797, Clay worked as secretary to a judge, copying and transcribing records. In 1796, he took up the study of law. At age twenty, he moved to Kentucky , where he began a practice as a defense attorney. He married into a leading family and prospered, eventually owning a six-hundred-acre estate. Clay became well known for his skill as an orator. He lived the life of a frontiersman in Kentucky and was prone to drinking and gambling.

Political career begins

Clay eventually became involved in politics, and in 1803 he was elected to the Kentucky legislature. He briefly served in the U.S. Senate from November 1806 to March 1807 and January 1810 to March 1811, filling vacancies following resignations. Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811 and was immediately chosen to be Speaker of the House (presiding officer), 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 for President John Quincy Adams (1767–1848; served 1825–29). He was elected to the U.S. Senate again in 1831, serving until 1842.

In his early career in Congress, Clay was a leading “war hawk,” someone who supported going to war with Britain in the War of 1812 (1812–1814). He was not always pro-war, however. He later opposed the Mexican-American War (1846–48), but he supported the government nonetheless, losing one of his sons to the war.

Clay was a lifetime supporter of business interests and championed protectionism, an economic policy that protects U.S. producers of goods by placing restrictions on foreign competition. He also pushed for federal support of roads and canals. It was Clay's intention to unite the commercial and manufacturing interests of the East with the agricultural and small business interests of the West. He also called for centralizing the country's economy in a federal bank.

Clay's protectionism reached its peak in the so-called tariff of abominations in 1828, an act that placed an extremely high tax on goods coming into the United States from other countries. By making foreign goods less competitive, the act raised demand for goods produced within the country. Southerners strongly objected to the tariff of 1828 because it protected only goods manufactured in the industrial North and damaged the European market for the agricultural goods of the South.

The issue of slavery

Clay was divided in his attitudes about slavery, on the one hand defending the Southern states and owning slaves himself, but on the other hand working hard for slavery's abolition. Clay took part in the failed attempt by the Kentucky constitutional convention to abolish slavery in the new state. In 1816, he founded the American Colonization Society (ACS), an organization that advocated freeing slaves and sending them to live in an African colony.

Clay was an expansionist, one who believed in broadening the nation's borders, so he worked for the addition of states and territories to the Union. He strongly believed in preserving the Union. Both of these positions put him at odds with other Southerners, who feared that adding new states would tip the balance of free states (states that did not allow slavery) and slave states.

Two historic compromises

The free state–slave state controversy came to a head when the territory of Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state early in 1819. Clay, earning his nickname as the Great Compromiser, supported a plan known as the Missouri Compromise . This compromise allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state while at the same time admitting Maine as a free state, thus preserving the balance of free and slave states. It also prevented slavery in states north of the present-day southern border of Missouri. To ensure that free blacks would be allowed to enter Missouri, Clay personally acquired the assurance of the Missouri legislature that it would not pass any laws that would restrict the rights and privileges of U.S. citizens.

In 1849, aligned with statesman Daniel Webster (1782–1852), Clay advocated the Compromise of 1850 , a series of proposals that admitted California to the Union as a free state, abolished slavery in Washington, D.C. , set up the territories of New Mexico and Utah without slavery, and established a more rigorous fugitive slave law. The Compromise of 1850 is credited with postponing the American Civil War (1861–65) for a decade.

Clay was a fearless fighter for his political ideas. He was devoted to the Union, even if his compromises only postponed an inevitable clash between the North and the South. He died in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 1852.

Clay, Henry (1777-1852)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Henry Clay (1777-1852)



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.


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).

Clay, Henry

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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.

Henry Clay

views updated May 18 2018

Henry Clay

British inventor who, in 1772, introduced the technique of papier-mâché. This process, consisting of soaking paper strips in thin starchbased paste and applying them to a surface to form a shape upon hardening, is now used primarily for decorative objects. When first introduced, it was also used to create trays, moldings, and other objects.

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