Henry Clay: American Political Genius

  By Emp. Barbarossa , February 2006; Revised
Photograph of Henry Clay, 1844
Photograph of Henry Clay, 1844
On April 12, 1777, Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia as the seventh son to John and Elizabeth Clay. His father was a Baptist Preacher and a tobacco planter whom helped out in the effort to gain religious freedom from the Church of England. During the American Revolution, John Clay would die with another sixty mounted militia, defending the Hanover Court House against Banastrae Tarleton's 500 dragoons. Tarleton was notorious for such raids throughout the American Revolution, as he would later do many of these raids in Carolina, before he was terribly beaten at the Battle of Cowpens. After the raid, some dragoons even thrust their swords into the grave of John Clay because they thought that it held treasures. They would stop only because of the appeals of Elizabeth Clay. Henry Clay witnessed these events when he was only four years old. Elizabeth would not stay a widow for much longer as she would marry Henry Watkins, a twenty-six-year-old planter and captain of the militia, whom was her sister's brother-in-law.

Henry Clay's career started in 1791, when he moved to Richmond and became an apprentice under George Wythe, an old law professor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In late 1796, after five years of being an apprentice under Wythe, Clay was referenced to Robert Brooke, Virginia's governor. In November of 1797, twenty-year-old Henry Clay was officially a lawyer. However, Clay would soon say goodbye to his patrons and Richmond friends and move with his family to Kentucky. Kentucky offered many opportunities, and as many as another 200,000 Americans at the time agreed and also moved to Kentucky.

Henry Clay's mother moved to Versailles, Kentucky. However, Henry Clay would make his future in Lexington, where his brother, John, was a merchant. There in Lexington, Henry Clay was already well recommended by the former secretary of the Virginia Chancellor to John Breckenridge, George Nicholas, James Brown and other lawyers whom had once studied under Wythe. From his arrival in December, 1797 to March 1798, Clay studied Kentucky's laws and court usages, and assisted Brown, Breckinridge, and other attorneys in preparing their cases and collecting their debts. One time, Clay was sent to collect a debt in the frontier country surrounding Lexington. The man who owed the debts was at a political meeting, and Henry Clay was asked to tell of his views of the candidates. Henry Clay did not know much about the candidates, but Clay came up with an impromptu speech detailing the heroics of Daniel Boone. The impromptu worked to perfection and both sides applauded the speech. The man would, in the end, pay his debt.

Clay would not only be interested in legal matters, but also in politics. In May, 1798, during the elections, John Breckinridge was running on a very pro-slavery platform. Henry Clay, however, would write under the pen name of 'Scaevola' in the Kentucky Gazette. He charged Breckingridge with being an enemy to the rights of man, and a proponent of the Tory doctrine which stated “whatever is, is right”. He also said of slavery, “All America acknowledges the existence of slavery to be an evil, which, while it deprives the slave of the best gift of heaven, in the end injures the master too by laying waste to his lands, enabling him to live independently, and, thus, contracting all the vices generated by a state of idleness.” Many Kentucky slaveholders denounced his arguments because Clay was just a “beardless Virginian boy”, and Clay's opponents said that Clay had allied himself with the smug individuals who had no stake in society, yet sought to govern it. Nevertheless, Breckinridge was defeated in the May election. This was Henry Clay's first entry into politics, and it was surprisingly successful.

Henry Clay would re-enter politics in January 1799, when Breckinridge and other conservatives ran again on the ticket to protect property. Clay would, once again, oppose them. Clay would write, “It is error alone that demands the support of intrigue and of external forces. Their [slaveholders] argument runs like this: We will not put the posterity of the present race of negroes in possession of their rights because, if we do, we are not sure but we may afterwards proceed farther and emancipate all the hogs in the state, or divide them amongst ourselves. We will, therefore, tie up our hands. We have no confidence in ourselves.” However, Clay was not an abolitionist: ”Thirty thousand slaves without preparation for enjoying the rights of a free man, without property and principal, let loose upon a society would be wretched themselves, and render others miserable.” Clay's efforts would do no good as the new constitution of Kentucky in 1799 would add more slavery articles than the original one of 1792.

Henry Clay would not only be interested in politics. On April 11, 1799, he married Lucretia Mott. By this marriage, Clay became connected with the ruling families of Kentucky. James Brown, the husband of Lucretia's sister Nancy, was a thirty-three year old lawyer and professor of law at the University of Transylvania. James Brown would help Henry Clay in helping him acquire his practice of law and recommending Clay to many of his powerful friends. Clay was a very convincing lawyer, as he would win many hard cases. This would help him later in politics as he is known for being able to get two sides to compromise.

Henry Clay's first role as a representative would be when he became the representative of Fayette County for Kentucky's state legislator, in 1803, as a Democrat-Republican. From 1803-1806, he was a constant critic of corrupt land legislation. In 1806, a bill was finally passed making it possible for landowners, within a fixed period of time, to redeem millions of acres seized for non-payment of the Kentucky tax on land. At the 1804 session, Clay tried to help the farmers of Frankfort be able to borrow money. Henry Clay would also help get the state's superior judges' wages increased. When he was just twenty-nine years of age, he was appointed to fill a vacant seat in the Senate. This was illegal because the United States Constitution states that the minimum age for a senator is thirty. After this, he again served as a representative in the House (1808-1809), and was made the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In 1811, Clay would become a representative in the House of Representatives. One his first day of session, he was elected to be the Speaker of the House, the highest ranking of a representative. He would become a leader of the “War Hawks”, a group that would lead the United States into the War of 1812. Henry Clay and his other War Hawks saw Jay's Treaty, a treaty that made America look as if it was still weaker than the British. The treaty did not deal with impressment, the stealing of American sailors at sea by the British navy. The British claimed that these men were deserters. Usually, they were former sailors in the British navy that had deserted to the Merchant Marines for better pay. Henry Clay would use his position as both Speaker of the House and as the leader of the Democrat-Republican Party to start the war. The Americans were very over-confident in their military. They started the war by invading Canada. This invasion would ultimately fail, as had happened in the American Revolution, and would lead to a counterattack by the British. While the Americans invaded Canada, they burned the Parliament Building, and, as retribution later in the war, the British would burn the White House. Clay, though a War Hawk, would ironically be on the Peace Commission at the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

Shortly after the war, Clay would come up with the American System. This would be a very bold move. The National Bank, created by Alexander Hamilton, was expiring. Henry Clay called for three things in the American System: To keep the National Bank, to make a protective tariff, and to make a national transportation network. This led to the National Bank of 1816, the Tariff of 1816, and the building of the Cumberland Road and the Erie Canal.

Henry Clay would serve in the House of Representatives as the Speaker of the House until 1820. In 1820, he came up with the Missouri Compromise. Under this compromise, the slavery border would be the 36° 30 latitude, the southern border of Missouri. This solved a possible war over the difference of opinion on whether Missouri should come into the Union as a free state or a slave state. Henry Clay would leave the House of Representatives in 1820. He would come back from 1823-1825. In the 1824 election, he had made what would be called the “Corrupt Bargain” by Jackson's supporters. During the 1824 election, there was not a majority (over 50%) of electoral votes to any of the four candidates: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford, and Henry Clay. The House of Representatives would now vote for the president. Henry Clay, though he was popular in Kentucky, received the least amount of votes. He gave his support to John Quincy Adams because he feared that Andrew Jackson, a man who still had a bullet in his body because of a duel, would become president. In return, Clay would become the Secretary of State. Henry Clay, because of his influence in the House of Representatives, gained enough votes for Adams.

When Adams was defeated in 1828, Henry Clay was no longer the Secretary of State, and went back to Kentucky. In 1831, he would become a Senator. In the 1832 election, he was the National Republican's candidate. The deciding issue was to either recharter or remove the National Bank. Jackson wanted to remove it, and Clay wanted to recharter it. In the end, Jackson defeated Clay. After this, Clay went back the U.S. Senate, from which he would serve until 1842. In 1833, he helped stop the Nullification Crisis through a compromise. The Nullification Crisis started in 1828, when the high British Tariff hurt the south. In 1832, Vice President John C. Calhoun, deemed the “Voice of the South”, threatened that South Carolina would secede from the Union if nothing was done. Ironically, South Carolina would be the first state to secede from the Union before the American Civil War. The arguments were getting so bad that President Andrew Jackson claimed that he would find a branch and hang the traitor Calhoun. However, Henry Clay got the two sides to compromise by reducing the tariff.
Portrait of Henry Clay
Portrait of Henry Clay
In 1839, before the 1840 election, Clay was going to run as a Whig candidate. However, William Henry Harrison, the famous war hero that won the Battle of Tippecanoe, beat him at the Whig Convention. The Whigs would nominate Henry Clay to run against the incumbent president James K. Polk. The possible annexation of Texas was the deciding issue of the election. Since Clay was neutral on the issue of annexation, James K. Polk won. Clay would return to the U.S. Senate in 1849, and would come up with the Missouri Compromise. After the Mexican Cession, there was much debate on whether the new states would be free, slave, or decide for themselves. The Compromise would say that California would be admitted as a free state, there would be no slave trade in Washington D.C., Texas could not claim New Mexico, New Mexico would be split up into two states. However, there would be tougher Fugitive Slave Laws. This part of the Compromise of 1850 would be called the Fugitive Slave Act. This law made it illegal to aid a slave to escape, which meant that the northerners would have to give escaping slaves back to their owners. This caused great anger and many abolitionists were furious because if slavery was outlawed in their states, then why should they have to help the institution. The Compromise of 1850 would be overridden by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which would enact popular sovereignty in Kansas and Nebraska. The Kansas-Nebraska Act would be a major cause of the American Civil War. Henry Clay would not live to see the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He died on June 29, 1852.


1. Henry Clay, by Bernard Mayo
2. http://www.en.wikipedia.org
3. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress