By Erin Baggett, Northridge High School, Tuscaloosa, AL
Born on April 12, 1777, Henry Clay was just another member of a large Virginia family. As a young child, he experienced hard times. When Clay was four years old, his father, John Clay died. Soon after, Henry personally witnessed British soldiers invade the family home during the later years of the American Revolution. Thus, historians suggest that this form of military and political conflict influenced the career that he chose—being a successful public servant. Despite a reputable family, Clay had little schooling or training. However, he did have the privilege of working under George Wythe, one of the most notable Virginia lawyers, according to the website “How Stuff Works” (2008). At the youthful age of twenty, Clay passed the bar and was able to become a lawyer in the state of Virginia. Not wanting to compete with the large number of lawyers, he decided to move to the frontier, also known as Kentucky. After developing his own law practice in Lexington (Edwards, 2007), Clay married Lucretia Hart in 1799, who was a member of a prosperous Kentucky family. As a result, he was able to gain status as a landowner, which further built his growing reputation among the locals in Lexington.
With a thriving career and an enjoyable union, Clay ventured into a new path—legislator. In 1806, he was elected by voters in Lexington to the state legislature, in which he spent five years serving the interests of common people (according to the website of Ohio History Central, 2010). While in office, he was also chosen twice to finish terms of men who left the United States Senate early. For the first time, in 1811, Clay was elected by Kentucky voters to a new position—a representative in the United States House of Representatives. Consequently, he was soon selected to be the Speaker of the House, a position that he would hold two more times (according to the website of Ohio History Central, 2010).
As a member of the Democratic Republicans originally, Clay became an active member of the War Hawks, a group of national legislators who supported war against Great Britain. In actuality, some even assume that Clay encouraged President James Madison to enter war of 1812, according to the website “How Stuff Works” (2008). Two years later, he was chosen as one of the American commissioners to attend the peace conference where he was influential in writing the Treaty of Ghent that ended the fighting between the United States and Great Britain. Through Clay’s persistence and hard work, the threat of Native American resistance came to an end, allowing the borders of the United States to expand westward into unclaimed territory and into northern land once a part of Canada (Bryant, 1985).
One of Clay’s most famous accomplishments was the creation of the Missouri Compromise in 1820. As a way to please both the North and the South, he proposed the agreement that permitted the admittance of Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state into the union. Therefore, the number of slave states and free states had remained balanced. Another part of the Missouri Compromise dealt with the future of slavery in the United States. Clay was able to construct a line that divided states that would be eligible to have slavery and those states that were prohibited from having slavery, which would hopefully prevent any future quarrels from occurring.
Clay was also known for his nationalist views. Long after the War of 1812, Clay had been determined to bring the nation back together. He stated: “I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to which I owe any allegiance. The Union, sir, is my country.” This belief became the major idea for his national program known as the American System. Through this plan, Clay became a supporter of public roads, canals, and river improvements. He also promoted the idea of manufacturing goods within the United States instead of importing products from countries such as Great Britain and France. The final element of this national program was to create a central bank to manage money that was earned from the higher tariffs put on foreign goods. Certain areas of the country such as the North praised Clay for his nationalist ideas, while other parts of the country including the South were totally opposed to higher prices on imported goods and a more active role of the national government in banking and transportation. Clay even defended the existence of the American System by giving a speech in Congress in February 1832, which focused on some people’s negative reactions towards the growing number of tariffs that the national government was developing.
However, Clay was a man surrounded by controversy. The biggest blunder of his political career became known as “the corrupt bargain”. With the hopes of becoming the President of the United States, Clay decided to run in the election of 1824. When he did not receive enough help or attention from voters, he decided to give his support to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson in the election. Many questioned this action because as Speaker of the House Clay had the opportunity to “encourage” other politicians to vote for Adams (Bryant, 2007). Once the election was over with, Adams is named President. However, the issue that upset many of Jackson’s followers was that Adams appointed Clay as the Secretary of State, which they felt validated the wrong-doings of Clay during the election.
After losing two more runs for president, Clay continued to play an active role in national politics. For instance, during John Tyler’s presidency, Clay believed that he could control what Tyler did including the way to vote on specific legislation. In addition, there were even reports that Clay was somehow involved in President Zachary Taylor’s sudden death, possibly poisoning him.
But, those controversies didn’t prevent Clay from being remembered as “the Great Compromiser”. As seen in the engraving created by Robert Whitechurch and Peter F. Rothermel, Clay, for the last time, kept the nation from breaking apart in 1850. Through his fiery speech, he was able to highlight the ways that the North and the South could compromise on the important issues of 1850 including the extension of slavery to the territories. Considered as one of the top United States senators in history, Clay built a legacy that other politicians tried to live up to such as Abraham Lincoln. Despite never winning a Presidential election, he did make remarkable contributions to Congress. Many politicians and historians believe that if Clay would have died in 1852, he would have been able to prevent the start of the Civil War.
Bryant, R. (2005, April 29). Henry Clay egged on War of 1812, then compromised an end. The Kentucky Memory.
Bryant, R. (2007, December 14). Though strong, Clay never became United States President. The Kentucky Gazette.
Edwards, D. (2007, April 11). The Henry Clay Estate: Enough stories for a book. The Hearld-Leader.
“Henry Clay” 27 February 2008. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://history.howstuffworks.com/american-civil-war/henry-clay.htm> 23 July 2013.
“Henry Clay” 24 May 2013. Ohio History Central. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/index.php?title=Henry_Clay&oldid=32138.