Henry Clay, Sr. (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852) was a nineteenth-century American statesman and orator who represented Kentucky in both the House of Representatives and Senate. He was a dominant figure in both the First Party System to 1824, and the Second Party System after that. Known as "The Great Compromiser" and "The Great Pacifier" for his ability to bring others to agreement, he was the founder and leader of the Whig Party and a leading advocate of programs for modernizing the economy, especially tariffs to protect industry, a national bank, and internal improvements to promote canals, ports and railroads. He was a leading war hawk and, according to historian Clement Eaton, was "more than any other individual" responsible for the War of 1812. Clay was also called "Henry of the West" and "The Western Star." Although his multiple attempts to become president were unsuccessful, to a large extent he defined the issues of the Second Party System. He was a major supporter of the American System, and had success in brokering compromises on the slavery issue, especially in 1820 and 1850. He was part of the "Great Triumvirate" or "Immortal Trio," along with his colleagues Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. In 1957, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy named Clay as one of the five greatest senators in U.S. history. In his early involvement in Illinois politics and as a fellow Kentucky native, Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Clay.

Henry Clay

Early lifeEdit

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, at the Clay homestead in Hanover County in a story-and-a-half frame house, an above average home for a Virginia farmer of the time. He was the seventh of nine children of the Reverend John Clay and Elizabeth Hudson Clay. His father, a Baptist minister called "Sir John," died four years later (1781). He left Henry and his brothers two slaves each and his wife eighteen slaves and 464 acres (1.88 km2) of land. She soon married Capt. Henry Watkins, who proved himself to be an affectionate stepfather to Clay. Elizabeth had seven children with Watkins to add to the nine she had with John Clay When Henry was six, three of his young cousins were killed in an Indian attack on Clover Bottom, now the Shawnee Lake section of Mercer County, West Virginia, with one child shot, another viciously stabbed to death and the other taken to Chillicothe, Ohio to be burned at the stake. Clay received an elementary education from Peter Deacon, a British teacher. He was then hired as a shop assistant in Richmond, Virginia. He was hired after his family had relocated to Versailles, Kentucky to run a tavern,leaving Clay to be raised and educated by a boy's club. His stepfather later secured Clay employment in the office of the Court of Chancery, where he displayed an adeptness for understanding the intricacies of law. Here he became friends with George Wythe., who was hampered by a crippled hand and chose Clay to be his secretary because of his neat handwriting. While Clay was employed as Wythe's amanuensis, the chancellor took an active interest in Clay's future and arranged a position for him with the Virginia attorney general, Robert Brooke. Clay received a formal legal education at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, studying under George Wythe. Under Brooke, Clay prepared for the bar, to which he was admitted in 1797.

Legal careerEdit

Seeking to establish a lucrative law practice, Clay relocated in November 1797 to Lexington, Kentucky, near where his family then resided in Woodford County. He soon established a reputation for his legal skills and courtroom oratory. Some of his clients paid him with horses and with land. Clay came to own town lots and the Kentucky Hotel. His father-in-law, Colonel Thomas Hart was an early settler of Kentucky and a prominent businessman. Clay became manager of Hart's legal workings. In 1803, as a representative of Fayette County in the Kentucky General Assembly, Clay focused his attention mostly on trying to move the State capital from Frankfort to Lexington. He also worked diligently to defend the Kentucky Insurance Company, which he saved from an attempt in 1804 by Felix Grady to repeal its monopolistic charter. In 1806, United States District Attorney Joseph Hamilton Daviess indicted Aaron Burr for planning an expedition into Spanish Territory west of the Mississippi River. Clay and John Allen successfully defended Burr. Some years later Thomas Jefferson convinced Clay that Daviess had been right. Clay was so upset by this that many years later when he met Burr again, Clay refused to shake his hand. Clay's influence in Kentucky state politics was great enough for him to be selected by the Kentucky legislature to serve as United States Senator for two short terms (1806-7 and 1810-11), completing the unexpired terms of John Adair, who had to resign his seat for his alleged part in the Burr Conspriacy and Buckner Thruston, who resigned to serve as a judge on the United States Circuit Court. Interestingly, Clay was below the constitutionally appointed age of thirty when elected to his first term as U.S. Senator in 1806.


On April 11, 1799 Clay married Lucretia Hart at the Hart home in Lexington, Kentucky. She was a sister to Captain Nathaniel G. T. Hart, who died in the Massacre of the River Raisin in the War of 1812. Clay and his wife had eleven children (six daughters and five sons): Henrietta (1800), Theodore (1802), Thomas (1803), Susan (1805), Anne (1807), Lucretia (1809), Henry, Jr.(1811), Eliza (1813), Laura (October 1815), James Brown (1817), and John (1821). Seven of Clay's children preceded him in death. By 1835 all six daughters had died of varying causes from whooping cough to yellow fever to complications of childbirth, and Henry Clay Jr. was killed at the Battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War. His wife Lucretia died in 1864 at the age of 83 and is interred with her husband in the vault of his monument at the Lexington Cemetery. Clay was a second cousin of abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay and the great-grandfather of suffragette Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.


On January 3, 1809, Clay introduced to the Kentucky General Assembly a resolution requiring members to wear homespun suits rather than British broadcloth. Only two members voted against the patriotic measure. One of them was Humphrey Marshall, an "aristocratic lawyer who possessed a sarcastic tongue" and who had been hostile toward Clay in 1806 during the trial of Aaron Burr. Clay and Marshall nearly came to blows on the Assembly floor and Clay challenged Marshall to a duel. The duel took place on January 9 in Shippingport, Indiana. They each had three turns. Clay grazed Marshall once, just below the chest. Marshall hit Clay once in the thigh.

Speaker of the HouseEdit

In the summer of 1811 Clay was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was chosen Speaker of the House on the first day of his first session, something that had never been done before or since. During the fourteen years following his first election, he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership. Before Clay's entrance into the House, the position of Speaker had been that of a rule enforcer and mediator. Clay turned the speakership into a position of power second only to the President of the United States. He immediately appointed members of the War Hawk faction (of which he was the "guiding spirit") to all the important committees, effectively giving him control of the House; quite a maneuver for a 34-year-old House freshman. The War Hawks, mostly from the South and the West, resented British violation of U.S. maritime rights and treatment of U.S. sailors. They advocated for a declaration of war against the British. As the Congressional leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, Clay took charge of the agenda, especially as a "War Hawk," supporting the War of 1812 with the British Empire. Later, as one of the peace commissioners, Clay helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent and signed it on December 24, 1814. In 1815, while still in Europe, he helped negotiate a commerce treaty with Great Britain. Also during his early House service, he strongly opposed the creation of a National Bank, in part because his personal ownership in several small banks in his hometown of Lexington. Later he changed his position and gave strong support for the Second National Bank when he was seeking the presidency. Henry Clay's tenure as Speaker of the House shaped the history of Congress. Evidence from committee assignment and roll call records shows that Clay's leadership strategy was highly complex and that it advanced his public policy goals as well as his political ambition. [Strahan et al. 2000] Henry Clay helped establish the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to send freed slaves to Africa and that founded Monrovia in Liberia for that purpose. Clay presided at the founding meeting of the ACS on December 21, 1816, at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C. Attendees also included Robert Finley, James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster.

The American SystemEdit

Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun helped to pass the Tariff of 1816 as part of the national economic plan Clay called "The American System," rooted in Alexander Hamilton's American School. Described later by Friedrich List, it was designed to allow the fledgling American manufacturing sector, largely centered on the eastern seaboard, to compete with British manufacturing. After the conclusion of the War of 1812, British factories were overwhelming American ports with inexpensive goods. To persuade voters in the western states to support the tariff, Clay advocated federal government support for internal improvements to infrastructure, principally roads and canals. These internal improvements would be financed by the tariff and by sale of the public lands, prices for which would be kept high to generate revenue. Finally, a national bank would stabilize the currency and serve as the nexus of a truly national financial system. The American System was supported by many in both the North and the South at first. Only later, with the Tariff of 1828, did the South break away from their support, leading to the Nullification Crisis. It was ultimately both a cause and a casualty of the increasing sectionalism between north and south (and to some extent between east and west) that was continually to worsen in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. It would take the defeat of the South to restore the nation's protectionist policies, which then continued through the early 20th century.

The Missouri Compromise and 1820sEdit

In 1820 a dispute erupted over the extension of slavery in Missouri Territory. Clay helped settle this dispute by gaining Congressional approval for a plan called the "Missouri Compromise." It brought in Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state (thus maintaining the balance in the Senate, which had included 11 free and 11 slave states), and except for Missouri it forbade slavery north of 36º 30' (the northern boundary of Arkansas).


Portrait of Henry Clay

In national terms, the old Republican Party caucus had ceased to function by 1820. Clay ran for president in 1824 and came in fourth place. However, none of the candidates had received a majority of the votes, so the House of Representatives chose the victor. Clay used his influence to support John Quincy Adams, a fellow nationalist, who won despite having trailed Andrew Jackson in both the popular and electoral votes. Adams then appointed Clay as U.S. Secretary of State in what Jackson partisans termed "the corrupt bargain." Clay, undeterred, then used his influence to build a national network of supporters, called National Republicans. In 1824, Clay challenged to a duel Virginia Representative John Randolph, who had referred to Clay as "this being, so brilliant yet so corrupt, which, like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, shined and stunk." The first time both fired and missed. The second time Clay shot a hole in Randolph’s coat. Randolph fired into the air and then offered Clay a handshake saying, “You owe me a coat, Mr. Clay." Clay shook Randolph’s hand, saying, “I am glad the debt is no greater." Thomas Hart Benton called this "the last high-toned duel I have witnessed." Andrew Jackson, outmaneuvered for the Presidency in 1824, combined with John C. Calhoun to form a coalition that defeated Adams in 1828. That new coalition became a full-fledged party that, by 1834, called itself the Democrats. By 1836, Clay had merged the National Republicans with other factions to form the Whig Party. In domestic policy Clay promoted the American System, with a high tariff to encourage manufacturing, and an extensive program of internal improvements (such as roads and canals) to build up the domestic market. After a long fight he did secure a high tariff in 1828, but did not get the spending for internal improvements. In 1822, President James Monroe vetoed a bill to build the Cumberland Road (crossing the Allegheny mountains). In foreign policy, Clay was the leading American supporter of independence movements and revolutions in Latin America after 1817. Between 1821 and 1826, the U.S. recognized all the new countries, except Uruguay (whose independence was debated and recognized only later). When in 1826 the U.S. was invited to attend the Columbia Conference of new nations, opposition emerged, and the American delegation never arrived. Clay supported the Greek independence revolutionaries in 1824 who wished to separate from the Ottoman Empire, an early move into European affairs.

The Nullification CrisisEdit

After the passage of the Tariff Act of 1828, which raised tariffs considerably in an attempt to protect fledgling factories built under previous tariff legislation, South Carolina attempted to nullify U.S. tariff laws. It threatened to secede from the Union if the Federal government tried to enforce the tariff laws. Furious, President Jackson threatened to lead an army to South Carolina and hang any man who refused to obey the law. The crisis worsened until 1833 when Clay, again a U.S. Senator re-elected by Kentucky in 1831, helped to broker a deal in Congress to lower the tariff gradually. This measure helped to preserve the supremacy of the Federal government over the states, but the crisis was indicative of the developing conflict between the northern and southern United States over economics and slavery.

Candidate for presidentEdit

As the Whig Party emerged in 1832-34, Clay immediately became its dominant leader, centering its program around the "American System," a program designed to unify all portions of the country through the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton in his Report on Manufactures. The Democratic Party, which emerged from the old Democratic-Republican Party at the same time as the National Republican Party, opposed the American System of the Whig Party in each successive election until the emergence of the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln in the late 1850s. Clay ran for president five times but was never able to win, though in expectation of his election to the presidency, a massive set of Gothic Revival bedroom furniture was commissioned by some of Clay's wealthy supporters that would fit in the White House master bedroom.

In 1824 Clay ran together with John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford, all as Democratic-Republican candidates. There was no clear majority in the Electoral College. In 1823, Crawford suffered a stroke. Even though he recovered in 1824, this crippled his bid for the presidency. The election was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives. As per the Twelfth Amendment, only the top three candidates in the electoral vote were candidates in the House: Jackson, Adams, and Crawford. Clay was left out, but as Speaker of the House, would play a crucial role in deciding the presidency. Clay detested Jackson and had said of him, “I cannot believe that killing 2,500 Englishmen at New Orleans qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the Chief Magistracy.”[16] Moreover, Clay's American System was far closer to Adams's position on tariffs and internal improvements than Jackson's or Crawford's, so Clay threw his support to Adams. John Quincy Adams was elected President on February 9, 1825, on the first ballot. Adams's victory shocked Jackson, who expected that, as the winner of a plurality of both the popular and electoral votes, he would be elected President. When President Adams appointed Clay his Secretary of State, essentially declaring him heir to the Presidency — Adams and his three predecessors had all served as Secretary of State — Jackson and his followers accused Adams and Clay of striking a "corrupt bargain." The Jacksonians would campaign on this claim for the next four years, ultimately leading to Jackson's victory in the Adams-Jackson rematch in 1828. Clay denied that any bargain had been struck, and no evidence has ever been found to show that there was. In 1832 Clay was unanimously nominated for the presidency by the National Republicans; Jackson, by the Democrats. The main issue was the policy of continuing the Second Bank of the United States. He lost by a wide margin to the highly popular Jackson (55% to 37%). In 1840, Clay was a candidate for the Whig nomination, but he was defeated in the party convention by supporters of war hero William Henry Harrison. Harrison was chosen because his war record reminded people of Jackson and he was seen as more electable than Clay. If the Whigs had been more aware of the political weakness of President Martin Van Buren, they would have probably selected Clay. In 1844, Clay was nominated by the Whigs against James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate. Clay lost due in part to national sentiment for Polk's program "54º40' or Fight" campaign which was to settle the northern boundary of the United States with Canada then under the control of the British Empire. Clay also opposed admitting Texas as a state because he felt it would reawaken the slavery issue and provoke Mexico to declare war. Polk took the opposite view and public sentiment was with him, especially in the Southern United States. Nevertheless, the election was close; New York's 36 electoral votes proved the difference, and went to Polk by a slim 5,000 vote margin. Liberty Party candidate James G. Birney won a little over 15,000 votes in New York and may have taken votes from Clay. Clay's warnings came true as annexation led to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) while the North and South came to heads over the extending slavery into Texas and beyond during Polk's Presidency. In 1848, Zachary Taylor, a Mexican-American War hero, won the Whig nomination, again depriving Clay of the nomination. Henry Clay lost his first two presidential bids by wide margins, due mainly to his failure to form a national coalition or to build political organization that could match the Jacksonian Democrats. And although the Whigs had become as adept at political organizing as the Democrats by the time of Clay's final presidential bid, Clay himself failed to connect to the people, partly because of his unpopular views on slavery and the American System in the South. When Clay was warned not to take a stance against slavery or be so strong for the American System, he was quoted as saying, "I'd rather be right than be President!" This remark has been quoted or paraphrased by several presidential candidates since, as a statement of principle over ambition.

The Compromise of 1850Edit

After losing the Whig Party nomination to Zachary Taylor in 1848, Clay decided to retire to his Ashland estate in Kentucky. Retired for less than a year, he was in 1849 again elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. During his term, the Northern and Southern states were again wrangling over slavery extension, as Clay had predicted they would, this time over the admission or exclusion of slavery in the territories recently acquired from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Though always the "Great Compromiser," Clay helped work out the misnomer known as the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act was an act passed by Congress, pursuant to the United States Constitution's Art. IV, Sec. 2, cl. 3, forcing citizens to turn in runaway slaves (North or South) or face a sentence of up to 6 years of prison or a fine in excess of 1,000 dollars. Also, it set up courts to handle disputes of runaway slaves, a point of great contention between the North and South. The judges in these courts were paid $5 to let a slave go and $10 to send him back to his owner.*

Corruption AllegationsEdit

Some notable historians, such as Clay Biographer Maurice Baxter in Henry Clay: Lawyer have hinted at ethics impropriety by the standards of today's Senate and bar ethics codes. A conflict of interest tantamount to bribery allegedly exists in Clay's capacity as an officeholder in the United States Senate vis-a-vis the Second Bank of the United States. (see The Real Henry Clay: The Corrupt American Architect of Mercantilism and Protectionism)

Clay in courtEdit

According to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor: Some of the cases Clay argued continue to be cited as precedent today. In Osborn v. United States [34 U.S. 573 (1824)], Clay argued on behalf of the Bank of the United States, which was a nationwide bank chartered by Congress. Clay challenged the constitutionality of an Ohio tax levied upon the bank and sought an injunction to force the state's auditor to return the improperly seized taxes. The Supreme Court agreed with Clay and ordered the auditor to return the taxes. In doing so, the Court found that the Eleventh Amendment — which bars lawsuits against the states — did not apply to the state auditor. Osborn is still relevant today: It has been cited twenty-six times since I took the bench in 1981, and was cited just last term by Justice David Souter in a dissent. [See Seminole Tribe.] Nor is Osborn the only case argued by Clay to be cited in recent times. Clay also argued on behalf of a Kentucky creditor who sought to collect a debt from a person who declared bankruptcy under New York law. In that case, Ogden v. Saunders [25 U.S. 213 (1827)], the Court concluded that the New York bankruptcy law was constitutional, so that the debtor was no longer liable to the Kentucky creditor. The case has been cited 86 times since it was decided, three times since I came on the bench. Other cases of note include: Groves v. Slaughter and Green v. Biddle.


According to Carl Schurz, Clay succeeded for the following reasons: "Clay's quick intelligence and sympathy, and his irreproachable conduct in youth, explain his precocious prominence in public affairs. In his persuasiveness as an orator and his charming personality lay the secret of his power. He early trained himself in the art of speech-making, in the forest, the field and even the barn, with horse and ox for audience. By contemporaries his voice was declared to be the finest musical instrument that they ever heard. His eloquence was in turn majestic, fierce, playful, insinuating; his gesticulation natural, vivid, large, powerful." "In public he was of magnificent bearing, possessing the true oratorical temperament, the nervous exaltation that makes the orator feel and appear a superior being, transfusing his thought, passion and will into the mind and heart of the listener; but his imagination frequently ran away with his understanding, while his imperious temper and ardent combativeness hurried him and his party into disadvantageous positions. The ease, also, with which he outshone men of vastly greater learning lured him from the task of intense and arduous study. His speeches were characterized by skill of statement, ingenious grouping of facts, fervent diction, and ardent patriotism; sometimes by biting sarcasm, but also by superficial research, half-knowledge and an unwillingness to reason a proposition to its logical results." "In private, his never-failing courtesy, his agreeable manners and a noble and generous heart for all who needed protection against the powerful or the lawless, endeared him to hosts of friends. His popularity was as great and as inexhaustible among his neighbors as among his fellow-citizens generally. He pronounced upon himself a just judgment when he wrote: 'If any one desires to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of this Union will furnish him the key.'"


Clay continued to serve both the Union he loved and his home state of Kentucky until June 29, 1852, when he died in Washington, D.C., at the age of 75. Clay was the first person to lie in state in the United States Capitol. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery and the eulogy was provided by Theodore Frelinghuysen, who ran as Clay's Vice-Presidential candidate in the election of 1844. Clay's headstone reads simply: "I know no North - no South - no East - no West."

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