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"The Great Compromiser" - Henry Clay

In the formative period of the American Republic, one of the most prominent people in American politics was Henry Clay of Kentucky. From 1807 when he came to Washington as a young Senator, until 1857 when he died, he was in the middle of many notable events. He was known as a skillful peacemaker and was instrumental in fashioning three great compromises of differences between different sections of our young country. During his life he served as an attorney, both a Senator and a Member of the House of Representatives from Kentucky, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, and ran for President three times. His negotiation skills earned him the nickname of “The Great Compromiser. Join us as we learn about the life and service of Henry Clay.

Early Life

Clay was born April 12, 1777, on a modest farm in Hanover County, Virginia during the American Revolution. He was the seventh of nine children born to the Reverend John Clay and Elizabeth (née Hudson) Clay. Almost all of Henry's older siblings died before adulthood. Clay’s father, a Baptist minister and tobacco grower nicknamed “Sir John,” died in 1781, leaving Henry and his brothers two slaves each. He also left his wife eighteen slaves and 464 acres of land.

The British raided Clay's home shortly after the death of his father, leaving the family in a precarious economic position. However, the widow Elizabeth Clay married Captain Henry Watkins, who was an affectionate stepfather and a successful planter. Although campaign biographies later portrayed him as rising from poverty, that depiction ignored an adequate education and family connections After his mother's remarriage, the young Clay remained in Hanover County, where he learned how to read and write.

In 1791, Watkins moved the family to Kentucky, joining his brother in the pursuit of fertile new lands in the West. However, fourteen-year-old Clay did not follow, as Watkins secured his temporary employment in a Richmond emporium, with the promise that Clay would receive the next available clerkship at the Virginia Court of Chancery. After Clay had worked at the Richmond emporium for a year, he obtained a clerkship that had become available at the Virginia Court of Chancery.

George Wythe
George Wythe

Clay adapted well to his new role, and his handwriting earned him the attention of College of William & Mary professor George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, mentor of Thomas Jefferson, and judge on Virginia's High Court of Chancery. Hampered by a crippled hand, Wythe chose Clay as his secretary and to write from Wythe’s dictation, a role in which Clay would remain for four years. While Clay studied under Wythe, Wythe had a powerful effect on Clay's worldview, with Clay embracing Wythe's belief that the example of the United States could help spread human freedom around the world. Wythe then arranged a position for Clay with Virginia attorney general Robert Brooke, with the understanding that Brooke would finish Clay's legal studies. After completing his studies under Brooke, Clay was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1797. However, the glut of lawyers in Richmond persuaded him to follow his family to Kentucky, where they had moved in 1791. Clay settled in Lexington in 1797 and soon had a thriving law practice.

In addition to handling lucrative cases dealing with disputed land titles, Clay developed a commanding courtroom presence that made him a formidable defense attorney. In 1821 he was the first attorney to file an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief with the U.S. Supreme Court. He may also have been the first attorney to use a successful plea of temporary insanity to save a client accused of murder from the gallows. Those strategies were among the innovations that marked him as a legal pioneer.

As a new resident of Lexington, Clay joined leading citizens to promote civic improvements and support Transylvania University, a prestigious institution where he taught law. He soon became a pillar of the Lexington community, but he also kept his youthful habits of drinking and gambling that had earned him the nickname “Prince Hal,” a reference to William Shakespeare’s portrait of the future Henry V cavorting with the boozy Sir John Falstaff.

Lucretia Hart Clay
Lucretia Hart Clay

In 1799 Clay married Lucretia Hart, whose family’s wealth, along with Clay’s own hard work, eventually made it possible for him to buy a large farm outside Lexington. He named the farm Ashland after its many blue ash trees. There he cultivated a variety of grains and bred sheep, blooded (entirely or largely purebred) cattle, and extraordinary racehorses. He was a member of one of the first syndicates in the United States to buy a Thoroughbred stallion for competition and stud service.

Because Clay seemed eager for social advancement and Hart was apparently a plain girl, their marriage has been described as a cold arrangement to save her from spinsterhood while providing him with social status and economic security. If others thought their marriage devoid of passion, they could have disagreed. They had eleven children, five were boys, and six daughters whom Clay especially doted on. To his and Lucretia’s heartbreak, two of the girls did not survive infancy, another died as a child, and the three others passed away in relative youth. Those losses made Clay and Lucretia closer in grief.

Clay steps into Politics

The law was a natural path to politics. Clay had a powerful presence, a rich baritone voice, and the ability to speak extemporaneously. He could also memorize long texts for speeches that were persuasive as well as hypnotic. His talent saved him from occasional missteps that could have stalled a lesser man’s career.

Felix Grundy
Felix Grundy

In 1803, Clay won election to the Kentucky House of Representatives. His first legislative initiative was the partisan gerrymander of Kentucky's Electoral College districts, which ensured that all of Kentucky's presidential electors voted for President Jefferson in the 1804 presidential election. Clay clashed with legislators who looked to reduce the power of Clay's Bluegrass region, and he unsuccessfully advocated moving the state capitol from Frankfort to Lexington. Clay often opposed populist firebrand Felix Grundy, and he helped defeat Grundy's effort to revoke the banking privileges of the state-owned Kentucky Insurance Company. He advocated for the construction of internal improvements, which would become a consistent theme throughout his public career.

Clay's influence in Kentucky state politics was such that in 1806 the Kentucky legislature elected him to the United States Senate. During his two-month tenure in the Senate, Clay advocated for the construction of various bridges and canals, including a canal connecting Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River.

After Clay returned to Kentucky in 1807, he was elected as the speaker of the state house of representatives. That same year, in response to attacks on American shipping by Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars, President Jefferson arranged passage of the Embargo Act of 1807. In support of Jefferson's policy, which limited trade with foreign powers, Clay introduced a resolution to require legislators to wear homespun suits rather than those made of imported British broadcloth. Most members of the state house voted for the measure, but Humphrey Marshall, an "aristocratic lawyer who possessed a sarcastic tongue," voted against it.

Humphrey Marshall with whom Clay Fought a Duel
Humphrey Marshall with whom Clay Fought a Duel

In early 1809, Clay challenged Marshall to a duel, which took place on January 19. While many contemporary duels were called off or fought without the intention of killing one another, both Clay and Marshall fought the duel with the intent of killing their opponent. They each had three turns to shoot; both were hit by bullets, but both survived. Clay quickly recovered from his injury and received only a minor censure from the Kentucky legislature.

In 1810, U.S. Senator Buckner Thruston resigned to accept appointment to a position as a federal judge, and Clay was selected by the Kentucky legislature to fill Thruston's seat. Clay quickly appeared as a fierce critic of British attacks on American shipping, becoming part of an informal group of "war hawks" who favored expansionist policies. He also advocated the annexation of West Florida, which was controlled by Spain. On the insistence of the Kentucky legislature, Clay helped prevent the re-charter of the First Bank of the United States, arguing that it interfered with state banks and infringed on states' rights.

House of Representatives and the Speakership

After serving in the Senate for one year, Clay decided that he disliked the rules of the Senate and instead sought election to the United States House of Representatives. He won election unopposed in late 1810. The 1810–1811 elections produced many young, anti-British members of Congress who, like Clay, supported going to war with Great Britain. Buoyed by the support of fellow war hawks, Clay was elected Speaker of the House for the 12th Congress. At 34, he was the youngest person to become speaker, a distinction he held until the election of 30-year-old Robert M. T. Hunter in 1839. He was also the first of only two new members elected speaker. Between 1810 and 1824, Clay was elected to seven terms in the House.

Clay and other war hawks demanded that the British revoke the Orders in Council, a series of decrees that had resulted in a de facto commercial war with the United States. Though Clay recognized the dangers inherent in fighting Britain, one of the most powerful countries in the world, he saw it as the only realistic alternative to a humiliating submission to British attacks on American shipping. Clay led a successful effort in the House to declare war against Britain, following a request from President Madison. Madison signed the declaration of war on June 18, 1812, beginning the War of 1812. During the war, Clay often communicated with Secretary of State James Monroe and Secretary of War William Eustis, though he advocated for the replacement of the latter. The war started poorly for the Americans, and Clay lost friends and relatives in the fighting.

The American Commissioners to the Treaty of Ghent
The American Commissioners to the Treaty of Ghent

In October 1813, the British asked Madison to begin negotiations in Europe, and Madison asked Clay to join his diplomatic team, as the president hoped that the presence of the leading war hawk would ensure support for a peace treaty. Clay was reluctant to leave Congress but felt duty-bound to accept the offer, and so he resigned from Congress on January 19, 1814. Clay left the country on February 25, but negotiations with the British did not begin until August 1814. Clay was part of a team of five commissioners that included Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, Senator James Bayard, ambassador Jonathan Russell, and ambassador John Quincy Adams, the head of the American team.

Clay and Adams kept an uneasy relationship marked by frequent clashes, and Gallatin appeared as the unofficial leader of the American team. When the British finally presented their first peace offer, Clay was outraged by its terms, especially the British proposal for an Indian barrier state on the Great Lakes. After a series of American military successes in 1814, the British delegation made several concessions and offered a better peace deal. While Adams and Gallatin were eager to make peace as quickly as possible even if that meant sub-optimal terms in the peace treaty, Clay believed that the British, worn down by years of fighting against France, desired peace with the United States. Partly due to Clay's hardline stance, the Treaty of Ghent included relatively favorable terms for the United States, essentially re-establishing the status quo ante bellum between Britain and the U.S. The treaty was signed on December 24, 1814, bringing a close to the War of 1812. After the signing of the treaty, Clay briefly traveled to London, where he helped Gallatin negotiate a commercial agreement with Britain.

Clay returned to the United States in September 1815; despite his absence, he had been elected to another term in the House of Representatives. Upon his return to Congress, Clay won election as Speaker of the House. As speaker, Clay wielded considerable power in making committee appointments, and like many of his predecessors he assigned his allies to important committees. Clay was exceptional in his ability to control the legislative agenda through well-placed allies and the establishment of new committees and ignored precedent by often taking part in floor debates. Yet he also gained a reputation for personal courteousness and fairness in his rulings and committee appointments. Clay's drive to increase the power of the office of speaker was aided by President James Madison, who deferred to Congress in most matters.

John Randolph, a member of the Democratic-Republican Party but also a member of the "tertium quids" group that opposed many federal initiatives, appeared as a prominent opponent of Speaker Clay. While Randolph often tried to obstruct Clay's initiatives, Clay became an expert in parliamentary maneuvers that enabled him to advance his agenda even over the attempted obstruction by Randolph and others.

Map Showing the Details of the Missouri Compromise
Map Showing the Details of the Missouri Compromise

In early 1819, a dispute erupted over the proposed statehood of Missouri after New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced a legislative amendment that would support the gradual emancipation of Missouri's slaves. Though Clay had previously called for gradual emancipation in Kentucky, he sided with the Southerners in voting down Tallmadge's amendment. Clay instead supported Illinois Senator Jesse B. Thomas's compromise proposal in which Missouri would be admitted as a slave state, Maine would be admitted as a free state, and slavery would be forbidden in the territories north of 36° 30' parallel. Clay helped assemble a coalition that passed the Missouri Compromise, as Thomas's proposal became known. Further controversy ensued when Missouri's constitution banned free blacks from entering the state, but Clay was able to engineer another compromise that allowed Missouri to join as a state in August 1821.

1824 Presidential Bid

President Monroe planned to retire after two terms, just as his predecessors had and so, by 1822, several members of the Democratic-Republican Party had begun exploring presidential bids to succeed him. With the Federalist Party was near collapse, the 1824 presidential election would be contested only by members of the Democratic-Republican Party, including Clay. Having led the passage of the Tariff of 1824 and the General Survey Act, Clay campaigned on his American System of high tariffs and federal spending on infrastructure.

Three members of Monroe’s Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun were Clay's strongest competitors for the presidency. Though many, including Clay, did not take his candidacy seriously at first, General Andrew Jackson emerged as a presidential contender, eroding Clay's base of support in the western states. In February 1824, the sparsely attended Democratic-Republican congressional caucus endorsed Crawford's candidacy, but Crawford's rivals ignored the caucus results, and various state legislatures nominated candidates for president. During the campaign, Crawford suffered a major stroke, while Calhoun withdrew from the race after Jackson won the endorsement of the Pennsylvania legislature.

By 1824, with Crawford still in the race, Clay concluded that no candidate would win a majority of electoral votes; in that scenario, the House of Representatives would hold a contingent election to decide the election. Under the terms of the Twelfth Amendment, the top three electoral vote-getters would be eligible to be elected by the House. Clay was confident that he would prevail in a contingent held in the chamber he presided over, so long as he was eligible for election. Clay won Kentucky, Ohio, and Missouri, but his loss in New York and Louisiana relegated him to a fourth-place finish behind Adams, Jackson, and Crawford. Clay was humiliated that he finished behind Jackson and the invalid Crawford, but supporters of the three remaining presidential candidates at once began courting his support for the contingent election. For assorted reasons, supporters of all three candidates believed they had the best chance of winning Clay's backing, but Clay quickly settled on supporting Adams. Of the three candidates, Adams was the most sympathetic to Clay's American System, and Clay viewed both Jackson and the sickly Crawford as unsuitable for the presidency.

With the help of Clay, Adams won the House vote on the first ballot. After his election, Adams offered Clay the position of secretary of state, which Clay accepted, despite fears that he would be accused of trading his support for the Cabinet post. Jackson was outraged by the election, and he and his supporters accused Clay and Adams of having reached a "Corrupt Bargain." Pro-Jackson forces at once began preparing for the 1828 presidential election, with the Corrupt Bargain accusation becoming their central issue.

Secretary of State

Clay served as Secretary of State from 1825 to 1829. As secretary of state, he was the top foreign policy official in the Adams administration, but he also held several domestic duties, such as oversight of the patent office. Clay came to like Adams, a former rival, and to despise Jackson. They developed a strong working relationship. Adams and Clay were both wary of forming entangling alliances with the emerging states in Central and South America, and they continued to uphold the Monroe Doctrine, which called for European non-intervention in former colonies.

Clay failed in his efforts to reach a commercial treaty and a settlement of the Canada–United States border with Britain and was also unsuccessful in his attempts to make the French pay for damages arising from attacks on American shipping during the Napoleonic Wars. He had more success in negotiating commercial treaties with Latin American republics, reaching "most favored nation" trade agreements to ensure that no European country had a trading advantage over the United States. Seeking deeper relations with Latin American countries, Clay strongly favored sending American delegates to the Congress of Panama, but his efforts were defeated by opponents in the Senate. Adams did, however, propose an ambitious domestic program based on Clay's American System.

Clay grew to detest the clerical demands of directing diplomacy, and many projects he mounted—whether it was U.S. participation in the Pan-American Congress or favorable trade arrangement with Great Britain—being hobbled by foreign intransigence or Jacksonian political mischief (retribution for the 1824 election).

Clay and his American System

Throughout most of his political life, Clay promoted his American System as both an economic program and a means for unifying the country. Clay's American System rejected strict constructionism in favor of an activist government that would help ensure a fairer and more efficient distribution of economic gains. The American System had four key tenets: high tariffs, a stable financial system, federal investment in internal improvements, and a public land sale policy designed to raise revenue and support carefully managed expansion into the American frontier.

The main points of the American System were:

  • The establishment of a protective tariff, a 20%–25% tax on imported goods, would protect a nation's business from foreign competition. Congress passed a tariff in 1816 which made European goods more expensive and encouraged consumers to buy cheaper American-made goods. Clay protested that the West, which opposed the tariff, should support it since urban factory workers would be consumers of western foods. In Clay's view, the South (which also opposed high tariffs) should support them because of the ready market for cotton in northern mills. This last argument was the weak link. The South never strongly supported the American System and had access to plenty of markets for its cotton exports.

  • Clay looked to ensure a stable financial system through the establishment of a national bank which would promote a single currency, making trade easier, and issue what was called sovereign credit, i.e., credit issued by the national government, rather than borrowed from the private banking system. In 1816, Congress created the Second Bank of the United States.

  • Clay's support for federally financed subsidies for internal improvements, such as the National Road, stemmed from his belief that only the federal government could construct the transportation system necessary for uniting the country commercially and culturally. The improvement of the country's infrastructure, especially transportation systems, would make trade easier and faster for everyone. Poor roads made transportation slow and costly. His land policy focused on using federal revenue from land sales to fund states' investments in education, infrastructure projects, and other priorities. Funds for these subsidies would be obtained from tariffs and sales of public lands. However, the national system of internal improvements was never adequately funded; the failure to do so was due in part to sectional jealousies and constitutional squabbles about such expenditures.

Clay’s Later Career

With Jackson’s defeat of Adams in the 1828 election Clay returned to private life. Even with Clay out of office, President Jackson continued to see Clay as one of his major rivals, and Jackson even suspected Clay of being behind the Petticoat affair, a controversy involving the wives of his Cabinet members. In 1831, Clay returned to federal office after being once again elected to the Senate from Kentucky.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson

With the defeat of Adams, Clay became the de facto leader of the National Republicans, and he began preparing for a presidential campaign in the 1832 election. In 1831, Jackson made it clear that he was going to run for re-election, ensuring that support or opposition to his presidency would be a central feature of the upcoming race. Jackson's Democrats rallied around his policies towards the national bank, internal improvements, Indian removal, and nullification, but these policies also earned Jackson various enemies, including Vice President John C. Calhoun. Clay's National Republican followers arranged for a national convention that nominated Clay for president. Clay had initially hoped that the national bank re-charter would work to his advantage, but Jackson's allies seized on the issue, redefining the 1832 election as a choice between the president and a "monied oligarchy." Clay was unable to defeat a popular sitting president. Jackson won 219 of the 286 electoral votes and 54.2% of the popular vote, carrying almost every state outside of New England.

The failure to recharter the national bank united Jackson's opponents into one party for the first time, as National Republicans, Calhounites, former Democrats, and members of the Anti-Masonic Party coalesced into the Whig Party. The term "Whig" originated from a speech Clay delivered in 1834, in which he compared opponents of Jackson to the Whigs, a British political party opposed to absolute monarchy. Neither the Whigs nor the Democrats were unified geographically or ideologically.

Whigs tended to favor a stronger legislature, a stronger federal government, a higher tariff, greater spending on infrastructure, re-authorization of the Second Bank of the United States, and publicly funded education. Conversely, Democrats tended to favor a stronger president, stronger state governments, lower tariffs, hard money, and expansionism. Neither party took a strong national stand on slavery. The Whig base of support lay in wealthy businessmen, professionals, the professional class, and large planters, while the Democratic base of support lay in immigrant Catholics and yeomen farmers, but each party appealed across class lines.

For personal reasons, Clay chose not to run in the 1836 presidential election, and the Whigs were too disorganized to nominate a single candidate. Three Whig candidates ran against Van Buren: General William Henry Harrison, Senator Hugh Lawson White, and Senator Daniel Webster. By running multiple candidates, the Whigs hoped to force a contingent election in the House of Representatives. Clay personally preferred Webster, but he threw his backing behind Harrison who had the broadest appeal among voters. Clay's decision not to endorse Webster opened a rift between the two Whig party leaders, and Webster would work against Clay in future presidential elections. Despite the presence of multiple Whig candidates, Van Buren won the 1836 election with 50.8 percent of the popular vote and 170 of the 294 electoral votes. Throughout the Van Buren, Harrison, and Tyler Administrations, Clay remained in the Senate. In early 1842, he resigned from the Senate and in 1844 won the Whig Party’s nomination for President. Running against “dark horse” Democratic candidate James K. Polk. Polk narrowly won the election. After the 1844 election, Clay returned to his career as an attorney, however, he stayed extremely interested in politics.

Map Showing the Details of the Compromise of 1850
Map Showing the Details of the Compromise of 1850

Clay was again elected to the Senate in 1849. In January 1850, with Congress still deadlocked regarding the status of the Mexican Cession, Clay proposed a compromise designed to organize territory acquired in the Mexican American War and address other issues contributing to sectional tensions. His legislative package included the admission of California as a free state, the cession by Texas of some of its northern and western territorial claims in return for debt relief, the establishment of New Mexico and Utah territories, a ban on the importation of slaves into the District of Columbia for sale, and a more stringent fugitive slave law. Though it faced opposition from Southern extremists like Calhoun and Northern abolitionists like William Seward, Clay's proposal won the backing of many Southern and Northern leaders.

President Taylor, who favored the immediate admission of California and New Mexico as free states without any attached conditions, opposed the plan, and Clay openly broke with the president in May 1850. Debate over Clay's proposal continued into July when Taylor unexpectedly died of an illness. After Taylor's death, President Fillmore, who supported Clay's compromise bill, consulted with Clay in appointing a new Cabinet. Exhausted by the debate in the Senate, Clay took a leave of absence shortly after Taylor's death, but Fillmore, Webster, and Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas took charge of pro-compromise forces. By the end of September 1850, Clay's proposal, which became known as the Compromise of 1850, had been enacted.

In December 1851, at the age of seventy-four, with his health declining, Clay announced that he would resign from the Senate the following September. Clay never recovered from his illnesses and died of tuberculosis aged seventy-five in his room at the National Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 1852. He was the first person to lie in state in the United States Capitol rotunda.

Clay's Tomb in Lexington, KY
Clay's Tomb in Lexington, KY

We hope you enjoyed today's post on The Great Compromiser," Henry Clay. We hope this article will encourage you to learn more about this influential leader of early America. Please join us again in two weeks when we will discuss another leader in the early United States, America’s longest serving Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn.

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Baxter, M. G. (1995). Henry Clay and the American System. Frankfort, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

Eaton, C. (1957). Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.

Heidler, D. S., & Heidle, J. T. (2010). Henry Clay, The Essential American. New York: Random House.

Van Deusen, G. G. (1937). The Life of Henry Clay. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.


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