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Henry Clay

the second-longest-serving Speaker of the House in U.S. history and author of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850

Henry Clay

Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia, on April 12, 1777, the son of a Baptist minister. He had little formal education, but he had a keen mind and loved to read. He studied law in Richmond, Virginia, in 1796, was admitted to the bar in 1797, and subsequently established a practice in Lexington, Kentucky. He married Lucretia Hart on April 11, 1799. Clay quickly established himself as one of the most successful attorneys of his day, and over the course of his career he won far more cases than he lost.

In addition to being a successful attorney, Clay was also an accomplished politician. Although he was a slave owner, he supported the emancipation of slaves; he was also a very vocal opponent of the Alien and Sedition Acts. He was a delegate to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention of 1801, and was elected to the Kentucky State Legislature in 1803. In 1806, Clay was elected as a Democratic Republican to fill the U. S. Senate seat vacated by the resignation of John Adair, and ultimately served from November 19, 1806 to March 3, 1807. He served another term in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1808 to 1809, and served as Speaker of the House during the 1809 term. In 1809, he was elected to fill the U. S. Senate seat vacated by the resignation of Buckner Thruston, and this time served from January 4, 1810 to March 3, 1811. Subsequently elected to the U. S. House of Representatives, Clay was elected Speaker of the House on the very first day of the 1811 session, and remained in that position until resigning on January 19, 1814.

During his terms in the Senate and House, Clay was such a vocal supporter of war with Great Britain that many called the War of 1812 "Clay's War." But, once the war started, he became one of the strongest supporters of peace, and actually served on the delegation that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent in 1814. After the war, he became an advocate for what he called "the American System," which included a protective tariff, a national bank, and government support of internal improvements for better transportation.

Clay was again elected to the U. S. House of Representatives in 1814, but when he left to help negotiate peace with Great Britain the Governor of Kentucky declared his seat to be vacant. Clay subsequently won the special election called to fill his own vacancy, and ultimately served from October 30, 1815 to March 3, 1821. In 1820, it was Clay's amendments to the Missouri Compromise that ultimately led to Congress admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. He was elected again in 1822, and this time served from March 3, 1823 to March 6, 1825. During his tenure in the House, Clay was elected Speaker of the House a total of six times, making him the longest-serving Speaker of the House in history, after Sam Rayburn.

In 1824, Clay was the Democratic Republican nominee for President, but he came in fourth, behind John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William H. Crawford. Since none of the candidates received a majority of the Electoral College votes, the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives. Since Clay had come in fourth he had little chance of winning in the House, so he gave his electoral votes to Adams, who was ultimately named as the 6th President of the United States. When Clay was subsequently appointed Secretary of State, Andrew Jackson and his supporters cried "foul!" and claimed that Clay had reached a "corrupt bargain" with Adams. Although Jackson's charges were untrue, Clay was haunted by them throughout the rest of his career. As Secretary of State, Clay worked for friendly relations with Latin America. In 1828, Clay turned down Adams's offer of appointment to the U. S. Supreme Court, and when Adams's term ended in 1829 he returned to his law practice in Lexington.

Clay returned to the U. S. Senate as a National Republican in 1831, was re-elected as a Whig in 1836, and ultimately served from March 4, 1831 to March 31, 1842. In 1832, he authored the Compromise Tariff Act, which helped end a conflict with South Carolina that began when that state nullified federal tariffs and refused to collect and pay them. That same year, he was the National Republican candidate for President; he lost overwhelmingly to Jackson due to his support for high tariffs and the United States Bank. On December 26, 1833, he recommended that the Senate censure Jackson for overstepping his authority by withdrawing federal money from the Federal Bank of the United States, and his recommendation was adopted by the Senate on March 28, 1834, by a vote of 26 to 20. He resigned before his term ended, and once again returned to his law practice.

Clay focused on his law practice, as well as his Ashland estate, and stayed out of the national spotlight until being nominated for the presidency by the Whig Party in 1844. His opponent, James Knox Polk, based much of his campaign on the annexation of Texas, but Clay refused to come down on either side of the issue. After losing the election, Clay again stepped out of the national spotlight and turned his attention back to law and farming. He again came out of "retirement" in 1849, when he was again elected to the U. S. Senate. His last great triumph came when he authored the Compromise of 1850, which outlawed slavery in any new states north of 36'30" and helped delay onset of the Civil War by 10 years. He died of tuberculosis in a Washington, D. C., hotel on June 29, 1852.

In addition to his political and legal career, Clay was also an active member of the American Colonization Society, which sought to resettle former slaves in Africa; he had presided over the Society's founding in 1816, and was elected its president in 1836. He was also an avid fan of horse racing, and did much to make Lexington, Kentucky, the center of horse racing in the United States; he was even the first person in America to own a syndicated Thoroughbred stallion.

Site of Interest

Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate

See Also

War of 1812
Missouri Compromise
Sam Rayburn
John Quincy Adams
Andrew Jackson
William H. Crawford
James Knox Polk
Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> 1845-1861 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on October 01, 2018.