Henry Clay (1777-1852)

Henry Clay (April 12, 1777 in Hanover County, Virginia - June 29, 1852 in Washington, D.C.) was an American statesman and orator who served in both the House of Representatives and Senate. He also made five failed bids for the presidency, but was nevertheless extremely influential in U.S. politics.

From the beginning of his career, he was in favor of internal improvements as a means of opening up the fertile but inaccessible West, and he was opposed to the abuse of official patronage known as the spoils system. The most important of the national questions with which Clay was associated, however, were the various phases of slavery politics and protection to domestic industries. The most prominent characteristics of his public life were his passionate devotion to the Union and his predisposition to compromise.

Early career

As a young man, Clay was taken into the Richmond, Virginia office of well-known lawyer George Wythe. After Clay's admission to the bar in 1797, he relocated to Lexington, Kentucky, where he developed his own law practice. He quickly earned both a brilliant reputation and a lucrative income.

In 1799, at the age of twenty-two, he was elected to a constitutional convention in Kentucky; at twenty-six, to the Kentucky legislature; and at twenty-nine—despite being under the 30-year minimum age required by the United States Constitution—he was appointed to an unexpired term (18061807) in the United States Senate. Contrary to custom, he plunged into the business of Congress as though he had been there all his life. After leaving, he again served in the Kentucky legislature (18081809), was chosen Speaker of its lower house, and achieved distinction by preventing an intense and widespread anti-British reform campaign from excluding the common law from the Kentucky code. A year later, he was elected to another unexpired term in the United States Senate, serving 18101811.

Congress

In 1811, at the age of thirty-four, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and was chosen Speaker of the House on the first day of the session. One of the chief sources of his popularity was his activity in Congress as one of the "War Hawks," promoting the war with the United Kingdom in 1812, while as one of the peace commissioners he reluctantly signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814.

During the fourteen years following his first election, he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership; retiring for one term (18211823) to resume his law practice and retrieve his fortune. He served as Speaker in 18111814, in 18151820 and in 18231825. One time he was unanimously elected by his constituents, and another nearly defeated for having at the previous session voted to increase congressional salaries. Clay was a friend of the Spanish-American revolutionists (1818) and of the Greek insurgents (1824).

From 1825 to 1829, he served as Secretary of State in President John Quincy Adams's Cabinet, and in 1831 he was elected to the United States Senate, where he served until 1842, and again from 1849 until his death. Many believe that Clay's appointing to the Secretary of State was done through a corrupt bargain between Clay and John Q. Adams. This stated that Henry Clay helped to get votes from the House of Representatives to get Adams elected, so in turn Adams would help to appoint Clay to Secretary of State.

Personality

According to the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, Clay succeeded for the following reasons:

"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, too, 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.'"

Protectionism

He first championed protectionism by introducing a resolution introduced in the Kentucky legislature in 1808 which favored its members wearing home-made clothes. He introduced another in the United States Senate on behalf of home-grown and home-made supplies for the navy, but only to the point of making the nation independent of foreign supply.

In 1816, he advocated the Dallas tariff, with duties ranging up to 35% on articles of home production, the supply of which could satisfy the home demand; the avowed purpose being to build up certain industries for safety in time of war.

In 1824, he advocated high duties to relieve the prevailing economic distress, which he pictured in a brilliant and effective speech. Although they were caused by the reactionary effect of a disordered currency and the inflated prices of the War of 1812, he ascribed the problems to the country's dependence on foreign suppliers and markets. He said that the United Kingdom was a shining example of the wisdom of a high tariff; and no nation ever flourished without one. He closed his principal speech on the subject in the House of Representatives with a glowing appeal in behalf of what he called the "American System."

Henry Clay's American System was a plan to strengthen the nation's economy by tying the North, South, and West together. It called for: 1) Federal funding of infrastructure improvements (such as the Erie Canal and a series of highways) funded by a raised tariff on imported goods. 2) Using protective tariffs to encourage development of domestic industry. 3) Reliance on domestic financial resources.

In spite of the opposition of Daniel Webster and other prominent statesmen, Clay succeeded in enacting a tariff which the people of the Southern states denounced as a "Tariff of Abominations." As it over-inflated revenue, in 1832 he vigorously favored reducing the tariff rates on all articles not competing with American products. His speech on behalf of the measure was for years a protectionist textbook; but the measure reduced the revenue so little and provoked such serious threats of nullification and secession in South Carolina, that, to prevent bloodshed and to forestall a free trade measure from the next Congress, Clay brought forward in 1833 a compromise gradually reducing the tariff rates to an average of 20%. To the Protectionists, this was "like a crash of thunder in winter," but it was received with such favor by the country generally, that its author was hailed as "The Great Pacificator," as he had been thirteen years before at the time of the Missouri Compromise (see below). However, the discontent with the tariff in the South was only a symptom of the real trouble there: the sensitivity of the slave-power. Clay subsequently confessed his serious doubts of the polity of his interference.

Slavery

Henry Clay was only twenty-two, when, as an opponent of slavery, he vainly urged an emancipation clause for the new constitution of Kentucky. Clay never ceased regretting that its failure put his state, in improvements and progress, behind its free neighbors. In 1820, he congratulated the new South American republics on having abolished slavery. The same year, the threats of the Southern states to destroy the Union caused him to advocate the Missouri Compromise which, while keeping slavery out of the rest of the territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri's southern boundary, permitted it in that state. Then, greeted with the title The Great Pacificator as a reward for his success, he retired temporarily to private life, with a larger stock of popularity than he had ever had before.

At various times, he helped to strengthen the law for the recovery of fugitive slaves, declining as Secretary of State to aid the United Kingdom in the further suppression of the slave trade, and demanding the return of fugitives from Canada. He was for years the president of the American Colonization Society which deported free black Americans to the Society's private colony, Liberia, on the west coast of Africa.

Henry Clay believed that slavery was the "deepest stain upon the character of the country," opposition to which could not be repressed except by "blowing out the moral lights around us" and "eradicating from the human soul the light of reason and the law of liberty."

Clay generally favored freedom of speech and press as regards the question of slavery. When the slave power became more aggressive, in and after the year 1831, Clay defended the right of petition for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and opposed John C. Calhoun's bill forbidding the use of the mails to transmit abolition newspapers and documents. He was lukewarm toward recognizing the independence of Texas, lest it should aid the increase of slave territory.

Yet his various concessions and compromises resulted, as he himself declared, in the abolitionists denouncing him as a slaveholder, and the slaveholders as an abolitionist. In 1839, only twelve months after opposing the pro-slavery demands, he prepared an elaborate speech, in order to set himself right with the South, which, before its delivery, received pro-slavery approval. While affirming that he was "no friend of slavery," he held abolition and the abolitionists responsible for the hatred, strife, disruption and carnage that menaced the nation. In response, Calhoun extended to him a most hearty welcome, and assigned him to a place on the bench of the penitents. Being a candidate for the presidency, Clay had to take the insult without wincing. It was in reference to this speech that he made the oft-quoted remark that he "would rather be right than be president." While a candidate for president in 1844, he opposed in the Raleigh letter the annexation of Texas on many grounds except that of its increasing the slave power, thus displeasing both anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions.

Bids for the presidency

In the election of 1824, although Andrew Jackson won a plurality of the popular and electoral votes, no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes, forcing the election to be determined by the House of Representatives. Clay redirected his supporters towards John Quincy Adams, and Adams was selected as the next president. Following Adams' inauguration, Clay was appointed Secretary of State. This made Jackson Clay's lifelong enemy, and Jackson kept Clay busy explaining and denying the allegation made by Jacksonians that the election results were due to a "corrupt bargain" between Clay and Adams.

In 1832 Clay was unanimously nominated for the presidency by the National Republicans; Jackson, by the Democrats. The main issue was the policy of continuing the Second Bank of the United States, which in 1811 Clay had originally opposed, but favored warmly from 1816 onward. A majority of the voters approved of Jackson's fight against what Clay had once denounced as a dangerous and unconstitutional monopoly. Clay made the mistake of supposing that he could arouse popular enthusiasm for a moneyed corporation against the great military hero of New Orleans.

In 1839, Clay was a candidate for the Whig nomination, but his enemies defeated him in the party convention and nominated William Henry Harrison. The result threw Clay into paroxysms of rage. Clay complained that his friends always used him as their candidate when he was sure to be defeated, and betrayed him when he or anyone could have been elected.

In 1844, he was nominated by the Whigs against James K. Polk, the Democratic candidate. By an audacious fraud that represented him as an enemy of protection, and Polk as its friend, Clay lost the vote of Pennsylvania. Clay then lost the vote of New York by his own letter abating the force of his previous opposition to the annexation of Texas. Even his enemies felt that his defeat by Polk was almost a national calamity.

In 1848, Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero—and hardly even a convert to the Whig party—defeated Clay for the nomination, with even Kentucky deserting her favorite son. Clay died in Washington, D.C., four months before the next presidential election. He is buried in Lexington Cemetery (Kentucky).

Clay's home for many years was his farm and mansion, Ashland, at Lexington, Kentucky. Although rebuilt and remodeled by his heirs, it is now a museum. The museum includes about 20 acres of the original estate grounds and is located on Richmond Road in Lexington. It is open to the public (admission charged). For several years, the mansion was used as a residence for the university regent of the University of Kentucky. Ashland was the namesake of a county in Ohio.