Henry Clay of Kentucky was another politician who dominated the antebellum period. He began his political career as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, became a National Republican and eventually helped found the Whig party. He was to serve most of his adult life as a legislator.
Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777 at the Clay homestead in Hanover County, Virginia. His father, at the time of death, owned 22 slaves which made him a member of the planter class. Clay’s father was also a Baptist minister. Unfortunately, he died when Henry was 4 years old leaving him two slaves. Henry’s mother inherited most of the remaining slaves and 464 acres of land.
Elizabeth Clay remarried Capt. Henry Watkins, who was an affectionate stepfather. Henry Watkins then moved the family to Richmond, Virginia. Clay’s stepfather secured employment for the young man at the Virginia Court of Chancery, where he displayed an aptitude for law.
There he became friends with George Wythe. Hampered by a crippled hand, Wythe employed Clay as his secretary, a position that he held for four years. Clay “read the law” under Wythe and Virginia Attorney General, Robert Brooke. It was a common practice of the time and by 1797 he was admitted to practice law.
In the same year Clay relocated to Lexington, Kentucky where he met and married Lucretia Hart in 1799. They would have 12 children together, 7 of whom died before him. Clay soon established a reputation for his legal skills and courtroom oratory. Some of his clients paid him with horses and others with land.
Clay came to own town lots and the Kentucky Hotel. By 1812 he owned a 600 acre plantation where he grew tobacco and hemp. At the peak of operations Clay owned 60 slaves.
In 1803 Clay began his political career when he was elected to the state legislature. As a legislator, Clay advocated a liberal interpretation of the state’s constitution and initially the gradual emancipation of slavery in Kentucky, although the political realities of the time forced him to abandon that position.
In 1806 Clay was appointed as one of Kentucky’s two senators. Clay was below the constitutionally required age of thirty but no one complained. He served for less than a year in his first time in the Senate.
Clay left the Senate in 1807 and was reelected to the state legislature. The representatives elected Clay the Speaker of the state House of Representatives. Clay introduced a bill in January 1809 that required members to wear homespun suits rather than British broadcloth. Every member but two voted for the bill.
However, Humphrey Marshall objected and he almost came to blows with Clay on the Assembly floor. Clay challenged Marshall to a duel.The two men met and both were slightly wounded.
In 1810 Clay was again appointed to fill a vacant Senate seat but again he only served for a year. 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 never 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.
Clay revolutionized the power of the Speaker, making it the second most powerful position in the country next to the president. He immediately appointed members of the War Hawk faction (of which he was the “guiding spirit”) to all the important committees, effectively giving him control of the House.
He was opposed to the National Bank in part because of his personal ownership of several small banks in Lexington. Later, he was to change his position and support the Second Bank of the United States.
The War Hawk faction advocated a declaration of war against the British because of their repeated violations of United States maritime rights and its treatment of US sailors. They also feared that Britain had designs on the Old Northwest Territory. After the war, Clay was one of the peace negotiators who negotiated the the Treaty of Ghent and signed it on December 24, 1814. He then remained in Europe to negotiate a commerce treaty with Great Britain.
In 1816, Clay was one of the founders of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. The society founded Monrovia in what would later be Liberia.
In the same year, he joined John C. Calhoun to pass the Tariff of 1816 as part of the national economic plan Clay called “The American System.” It was an attempt to protect American manufacturers from being undercut by their British counterparts.
In 1820, Clay engineered the “Missouri Compromise“. It brought in Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state (thus maintaining the balance in the Senate, which had included 11 free and 11 slave states), and it forbade slavery north of 36° 30′ (the northern boundary of Arkansas and the latitude line) except in Missouri.
The Presidential election of 1824 was one of the most unusual in American history. The Democratic-Republican Party had driven all opposition from the field but four candidates ran for the Presidency, including Clay himself.
No candidate secured a majority and the tie between the two front runners, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, was broken in the House of Representatives. Clay used his position to secure the victory for Adams but when he was appointed Secretary of State his opponents accused him of a corrupt bargain. He served from 1825 until 1829.
He was returned to the Senate in 1831 and stayed in that position until 1842. At the time South Carolina had precipitated the “Nullification Crisis” in opposition to the Tariff of 1828, dubbed the “tariff of abominations” which raised tariffs considerably in an attempt to protect fledgling factories built under previous tariff legislation. Clay was able to step in to the crisis and gradually reduce the tariff duties and defuse the volatile situation.
During this period Clay became one of the founders of the Whig party in opposition to the policies of Andrew Jackson. In 1832, the Whigs nominated him as their candidate for president but Jackson crushed him 55% to 37%. In 1840, he was again a candidate for the presidency but he was defeated at the convention by William Henry Harrison who defeated the incumbent Martin Van Buren. Harrison died a month after his inauguration and was succeeded by John Tyler.
After losing the Whig Party nomination to Zachary Taylor in 1848, Clay decided to retire to his Ashland estate in Kentucky. Retired for less than a year, he was in 1849 again elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. Returning to the SEnate, Clay helped to engineer the Compromise of 1850.
The initial attempt to pass an omnibus bill fail when Clay’s own Whig party voted overwhelmingly against it. He promised to persevere but weakened by tuberculosis he left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island. Stephen A. Douglas separated the bills and guided them through the Senate.
Clay continued to serve both the Union he loved and his home state of Kentucky. On June 29, 1852, he died of tuberculosis in Washington, D.C., at the age of 75. Clay was the first person to lie in state in the United States Capitol. Clay’s headstone reads: “I know no North — no South — no East — no West.” His will freed all of his slaves.