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 at the presidency 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 American history. In his early involvement in Illinois politics and as a fellow Kentucky native, Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Clay.
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.
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.
On April 11, 1799 Clay married Lucretia Hart at the Hart home in Lexington, Kentucky. They 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 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.
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.
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. He immediately appointed members of the War Hawk faction (of which he was their "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 of 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.
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 defeat of the South to restore the nation's protectionist policies, which then continued through the early 20th century.
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.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.
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.
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.
"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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