Henry Clay

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Henry Clay

In office
March 4, 1825 – March 4, 1829
President John Quincy Adams
Preceded by John Quincy Adams
Succeeded by Martin Van Buren

In office
December 29, 1806 – March 3, 1807
Preceded by John Adair
Succeeded by John Pope
In office
January 4, 1810 – March 3, 1811
Preceded by Buckner Thruston
Succeeded by George M. Bibb
In office
November 10, 1831 – March 31, 1842
Preceded by John Rowan
Succeeded by John J. Crittenden
In office
March 4, 1849 – June 29, 1852
Preceded by Thomas Metcalfe
Succeeded by David Meriwether

In office
March 4, 1811 – January 19, 1814
President James Madison
Preceded by Joseph Varnum
Succeeded by Langdon Cheves
In office
March 4, 1815 – October 28, 1820
President James Madison
James Monroe
Preceded by Langdon Cheves
Succeeded by John Taylor
In office
March 4, 1823 – March 3, 1825
President James Monroe
Preceded by Philip P. Barbour
Succeeded by John Taylor

In office
March 4, 1811 – January 19, 1814
Preceded by William T. Barry
Succeeded by Joseph H. Hawkins
Constituency 2nd district (1813–1814)
5th district (1811–1813)
In office
March 4, 1815 – March 3, 1821
Preceded by Joseph H. Hawkins
Succeeded by Samuel Woodson
Constituency 2nd district

Political party Democratic-Republican (1797–1825)
National Republican (1825–1833)
Whig (1833–1852)
Spouse(s) Lucretia Hart

Henry Clay (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852) was one of the half-dozen most important American leaders in the 1812-1850 era, running three times for president, and losing each time. He represented the West—his state of Kentucky—in House and Senate, and founded and dominated the Whig Party during the Second Party System. Clay led the opposition to Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James Knox Polk and Jacksonian Democracy. He is called the "Great Compromiser" for his leadership that prevented the slavery issue from ripping the nation apart in the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Nullification Crisis in 1832, and the Compromise of 1850. His ideas greatly influenced Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party, which emerged after his death and promoted his ideas of national greatness through industry, banking and modernization. Clay was a leading nationalist.

Clay's economic goal was the modernization of the American economy, based on cities, railroads, factories, banks, and well-educated middle class entrepreneurs, in opposition to the Jacksonians who opposed modernization and wanted instead more western farms for their yeoman farmers. Clay opposed "Manifest Destiny", geographical expansion and the Mexican War. Clay is considered (along with Daniel Webster) the leading conservative of his age, even though he was often defeated by the Jacksonian liberals.

Clay owned slaves but tried to downplay or compromise the slavery issue, in opposition to John C. Calhoun who emphasized it. Clay served as Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and Senator and is noted for his three unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1824, 1832, and 1844. "I would rather be right than be president," he often said.


His father, a Baptist minister, died when Clay was four; the boy was limited to three years of country schooling. In 1791, when his mother remarried, the family moved to Richmond, where Clay spent a year clerking in a store and then became a copyist for the High Court of Chancery. He later became secretary and protégé of Chancellor George Wythe—the first professor of law in America and a co-author of the Constitution. During 1796 Clay studied law with the attorney general of Virginia, and in 1797 was admitted to the bar. Although well-connected in Richmond, he decided to move west, where opportunities seemed greater. In 1803 he moved to the growing city of Lexington, Kentucky, the center of the rich bluegrass region with an economy based on horses, hemp, tobacco, and farming. Clay soon won recognition as a criminal lawyer and specialist in land cases; he became wealthy from fees, business operations, and land speculation. His marriage in April 1799 to Lucretia Hart united him with a prominent family. Clay had a warm, likable personality. He enjoyed a happy home life at Ashland, his plantation, where he bred livestock; he introduced Herefords into Kentucky from England, improved the strains of mules, and bred race horses.

Kentucky leader

Clay's political base was not the whole of Kentucky but the bluegrass region - the plantation area where hemp farming was prominent. Lexington, the center of the bluegrass, was the major metropolis west of the Alleghenies. The town was surpassed by Louisville and Clay turned to help the hemp industry.[1] The hemp growers and rope makers sought protective tariffs on cotton bagging and ropes, the market was the lower South, which insisted upon free trade.

Political career

Clay had an unusually long legislative career, serving in the state legislature, in the U.S. Senate (1806-7, 1809–10, 1831–42, 1849-52), and U.S. House (1811–21, 1823–25, Speaker 1811-20 and 1823–25). He was a leader of the Jeffersonian Republicans until the party collapsed in the mid-1820s. He tried to create the "National Republican Party" (in 1828), then threw his energies into a new national Whig party.

War of 1812

Clay won election to the House of Representatives, taking his seat in 1811. His personality and skill in oratory had given him authority in Washington; Clay was promptly elected speaker, and by his unprecedented energy and competence gave the office a new significance. He was elected to the post six times, never meeting serious opposition.

Clay in 1811 became the leader of the "War Hawks," a combination of Westerners and Southerners that included Felix Grundy of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Displaying aggressive nationalism at a time Britain and France were at war, they were outraged by Great Britain's refusal to permit American trade with France, and its impressment of American seamen into the British navy. Kentuckians resented what it considered British influence among western Indians, which turned to massacre settlers on the American frontiersmen. Clay boasted that the Kentucky militia alone could seize Montreal and Upper Canada and so settle all frontier problems. As speaker of the House, he appointed "War Hawks" to key committees and supported President James Madison demands for war (the War of 1812) with Great Britain. The House and Senate declared war in June, after stormy debates, which showed New England strongly opposed the war. During the ensuing hostilities—which were made more difficult by the noncooperation of New England Federalists, who felt that Madison had foisted an unwanted war on them—Clay's appeals for patriotism and fortitude were a source of strength to the administration.

In 1814 he was at Ghent with the American delegation, which negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, signed Christmas eve 1814. His shrewd surmise that the British would accept moderate terms despite their land victories, served the United States better than did John Quincy Adams' readiness to give the British free navigation of the Mississippi River in exchange for the right of New Englanders to fish in Canadian waters.

American System

Clay resumed the speakership of the House of Representatives and, looking toward the presidency, began to develop his famous "American System." It called for national defense, construction of roads and canals with federal aid, protection of home industry through duties on foreign imports, and establishment of a second Bank of the United States, which was chartered in April 1816. His defense of the South American revolution against Spanish rule broke ground for the Monroe Doctrine. In 1820, when Missouri's proposed statehood threatened the balance between free and slave states, Clay emerged as "the Great Compromiser," holding a unique political position through his status as a Southerner and a slaveholder on the one hand and as a friend to Northern industry on the other. Under his solution, known as the Missouri Compromise, Missouri entered the Union as a slave state, Maine entered as a free state to preserve the balance, and slavery was prohibited thereafter in any other new state north of 36°30'.

Land issue

Van Atta (2004) shows that the Panic of 1819 and the ensuing economic depression helped shape the public lands policy proposed in Clay's American System. To achieve stability in the West, Clay favored land prices low enough for men of average means yet sufficiently high to protect the region from undesirable emigrants and to maintain the supply of workers needed by manufacturers. In opposing the transfer of public lands to control by the states, Clay advocated congressional distribution of public land proceeds to the states for use toward education, internal improvements, and colonization. Despite the failure of his land bills in 1832 and 1833, Clay articulated what became the Whig party position on public land issues. From the very first Clay wanted to include the newly independent Spanish American states in his system. As early as 1818 Clay indicated that the system of political democracy and commercial freedom should operate throughout the hemisphere, while tariffs could protect the Americas from further entanglements with Europe. Although the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 fulfilled the political aspects of the system, Southerners in Congress were able to obstruct Clay's continued attempts to establish its commercial policies. Nor was he any more successful as Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829. Yet Clay is still considered by many to have been the first North American Pan-Americanist.[2]

A leader of the Jeffersonian Republican party, he was defeated for president in 1824. He was Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams (1825–29). Andrew Jackson accused Clay and Adams of a "corrupt bargain" to elect Adams instead of Jackson in 1824. Clay and Jackson became bitter enemies, and Jackson defeated him for the presidency in 1832.

Forming the Whig Party

Clay formed the Whig Party in 1832, to support what he called "The American System," involving a National Bank, promotion of industrialization through tariffs, and support for internal improvements like canals and railroads. A rich slaveowner, he nevertheless brokered a series of north–south compromises over slavery, especially the Compromise of 1850, as well the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the "Corrupt Bargain" Compromise of 1825, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, the Slavery Compromises of 1837–39, the Texas Annexation Compromise of 1844, and his noncompromise on a protective banking system scheme in 1841. He was the foremost advocate of modernization, and was great admired by aspiring young men like Abraham Lincoln.

1844 campaign; Texas

In 1844 the issue was annexation of Texas, which Clay opposed and his Democratic opponent James K. Polk supported. Polk won and Texas was annexed. As Morrison (1990) shows, Whig opposition was consistent with their beliefs in controlled expansion in a market economy. Clay opposed immediate annexation of Texas, arguing that gradual development of occupied land was preferential to a policy that could lead to war with Mexico. Whigs dismissed the Democrats' notion that expansion and democracy were intertwined and instead argued that personal and economic prosperity came from ordered progress, harmony, enterprise, and economic growth through the federal government. The Whigs perceived Texas annexation as a retreat from the foreign policy tenets established in the Federalist period, an attack on union stability, and an invitation to selfishness and fragmentation. Furthermore, Whigs concluded that Democrats carefully concocted annexation in order to pander to the laboring classes and extend slavery. The ability of the Democrats to make Texas annexation the paramount issue in the election of 1844 and equate territorial expansion with individual freedom was critical to Polk's defeat of Clay.

Compromise of 1850

Clay appeals for compromise in the Senate, 1850
In 1849 Clay returned to the Senate in a last effort to modify the influence of the increasing numbers of extremists, Northern and Southern. His Compromise of 1850 was intended to satisfy both sections, brought California into the Union as a free state, ended the slave trade in Washington DC (but did not abolish slavery there), and included other provisions intended to balance Southern and Northern interests. Its most controversial provision, the Fugitive Slave Law, would have guaranteed slaveholders the return of their runaways and thus presumably have done away with the root of sectional differences. Clay hoped that this, his last and greatest compromise, would forever prevent a civil war. Alongside Clay in the Senate were the other two of the great triumvirate which had dominated American politics for more than thirty years.[3] The dying John C. Calhoun demanded for the South what was in effect equality with the federal government. Daniel Webster, on the other hand, joined with Clay in his famous Seventh of March address and pleaded for an end to sectional strife. Clay was unable to get his compromise passed but Democrat Stephen A. Douglas unpackaged the compromise so that each component was passed by a different coalition. The compromise effectively postponed war for another decade, but Clay did not live to see the collapse of his Whig party after it lost the 1852 elections.


He died in Washington on June 29, 1852. Clay lacked Webster's powerful logic and learning and Calhoun's cast-iron principles, but he was equal to both men in national power and he outranked them in the affection he inspired. Although his program of compromise suffered a loss of prestige during the secessionist crisis, it was renewed in the vision of one of his admirers: Abraham Lincoln called his fellow Kentuckian "my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life."[4]


  • "The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity-unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity."[5]
  • "I always have had, and always shall have, a profound regard for Christianity, the religion of my fathers, and for its rights, its usages and observances."[6]


  • Baxter, Maurice G. Henry Clay and the American System (1995) 261pp
  • Baxter, Maurice G. Henry Clay the Lawyer U. Press of Kentucky, 2000. 141pp
  • Brown, Thomas. Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party (1985) ch 5 online edition
  • Brown, David. "Jeffersonian Ideology and the Second Party System." Historian 1999 62(1): 17–30. Issn: 0018-2370 Fulltext: in Swetswise and Ebsco
  • Campbell, Randolph B. "The Spanish American Aspect of Henry Clay's American System." Americas 1967 24(1): 3-17.
  • Eaton, Clement. Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics (1957), short
  • Gammon, Samuel R. The Presidential Campaign of 1832 (1922)online version
  • Holt, Michael F. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (1999) the standard history (over 1000 pages) online version
  • Knupfer, Peter B. "Compromise and Statesmanship: Henry Clay’s Union." in Knupfer, The Union As It Is: Constitutional Unionism and Sectional Compromise, 1787-1861 (1991), pp. 119–57.
  • Mayo, Bernard. Henry Clay, Spokesman of the West (1937)
  • Morrison, Michael A. "Westward the Curse of Empire: Texas Annexation and the American Whig Party." Journal of the Early Republic (1990) 10(2): 221–249. Issn: 0275-1275 Fulltext: in Jstor
  • Peterson, Merrill D. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1987)
  • Poage, George Rawlings. Henry Clay and the Whig Party (1936)
  • Remini, Robert. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (1991), 818pp; the standard scholarly biography
  • Schurz, Carl. Life of Henry Clay: American Statesmen. 2 vol. (1899) online edition vol 1 online edition vol 2
  • Shankman, Kimberly C. Compromise and the Constitution: The Political Thought of Henry Clay. 1999. 129 pp.
  • Strahan, Randall; Moscardelli, Vincent G.; Haspel, Moshe; and Wike, Richard S. "The Clay Speakership Revisited" Polity 2000 32(4): 561–593. ISSN 0032-3497 in JSTOR
  • Strahan, Randall. Leading Representatives: The Agency of Leaders in the Politics of the U.S. House (2007)
  • Van Atta, John R. "Western Lands and the Political Economy of Henry Clay's American System, 1819-1832." Journal of the Early Republic 2001 21(4): 633–665. Issn: 0275-1275 in Jstor
  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. The Life of Henry Clay (1937)
  • Watson, Harry L. ed. Andrew Jackson vs. Henry Clay: Democracy and Development in Antebellum America (1998) brief collection of readings
  • Zarefsky, David. "Henry Clay and the Election of 1844: the Limits of a Rhetoric of Compromise" Rhetoric & Public Affairs 2003 6(1): 79–96. ISSN 1094-8392 fulltext in Swetwise

Primary sources

  • Clay, Henry. The Papers of Henry Clay, 1797–1852. Edited by James Hopkins, Mary Hargreaves, Robert Seager II, Melba Porter Hay et al. 11 vols. University Press of Kentucky, 1959–1992. vol 1 online, 1797-1814
  • Clay, Henry. Works of Henry Clay, 7 vols. (1897) online edition


  1. Hemp was used only to make rope and cordage.
  2. Campbell (1967)
  3. Peterson 1987
  4. Mark E. Neely, Jr. "American Nationalism in the Image of Henry Clay: Abraham Lincoln's Eulogy on Henry Clay in Context." Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 1975 73(1): 31-61.
  5. https://quotes.thefamouspeople.com/henry-clay-1607.php
  6. https://quotefancy.com/quote/1135971/Henry-Clay-I-always-have-had-and-always-shall-have-a-profound-regard-for-Christianity-the

External links