By Dr. Thomas D. Clark
On June 29, 1852, Henry Clay asked his son Thomas to come and sit by his bedside. Just before the hour of noon, “The Great Compromiser” drew his last breath. At that point his life became a completed major chapter in the political history of the United States. Henry Clay had lived through and served in some political position for a half a century. No single statement would adequately cover his active public life.Clay claimed to have been cradled in the American Revolution, a claim which had some substantial fact behind it. He was born the seventh son of nine children to Reverend John and Elizabeth Hudson Clay on April 12, 1777. As a three-year-old he had seen the British troops under the notorious raider Banastre Tarleton ransack his family home.
As a youth Clay had grown up in a rural slaveholding environment in Hanover County, Virginia, a county which had spawned Patrick Henry and other Virginia political leaders. In his political life Clay was to make some stout claim to having been a mill boy of the Slashes. More importantly his widowed mother had married Captain Henry Watkins who was able to get the adolescent Clay into Peter Tinsley’s chancery office as a clerk. Clay entered this public service in a lowly position with only a limited amount of formal education. In Tinsley’s office, and then as an amanuensis in Chancellor George Wythe’s office the young Clay developed a clear and precise angular style handwriting which remained clear until almost the moment of his death. During more than half a century Henry Clay was to produce literally thousands of handwritten letters, legal briefs, and public documents.
Little could that youth of twenty years of age, and a newly licensed attorney to practice his profession in Virginia, have imagined on that November morning, 1797, when he set forth to find clients and fortune in Kentucky, that the expanding West would become so vital a part of his life. In Lexington, Clay presented his Virginia license to the court and was given one to practice in Kentucky. Almost immediately the young Virginian entered into the public and social life of rapidly expanding central Kentucky. Within a decade he established a reputation as a highly successful trial lawyer.
He made a successful marriage with Lucretia Hart, the daughter of one of Kentucky’s major pioneering land families. Almost by force of environmental and family circumstances, Henry Clay was to become a major land owner, livestock breeder, and farmer. For half a century Ashland was to become not only a family home to the Clays, but also a focal agricultural center in Kentucky, and a national one in politics.
Henry Clay began his political career in 1803 when he was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly. In that body his Jeffersonian views were pitted against the conservative federalist one of Humphrey Marshall, a fact which resulted in a somewhat comic opera duel. In 1806 Clay was employed to defend Aaron Burr, a ticklish task which he abandoned when he was appointed to the United States Senate that year at the very young age of twenty-nine years. On January 11, 1808, he was chosen Speaker of the House of Representatives, and in January 1810 he was returned to the U.S. Senate. However, in August of that year he was elected once again to the House of Representatives and served as speaker in the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Congresses. Clay’s was to be a major voice in the troubled years in American-British relations from 1808-1814. He served as commissioner to the joint American-British peace negotiations in Ghent, Belgium in 1814.
Back home after 1815, Henry Clay became involved in nearly every national issue. He opposed the Adams-D’Onis Treaty, and supported the independence of the Latin American republics. The issues, however, which thrust him into the political limelight were the Missouri Compromise, the banking issues, opposition to Andrew Jackson, and promotion of his American System. No doubt the most important of these was the negotiation of the Missouri Compromise which was fundamental in maintaining American unity, providing some kind of workable sectional policy regarding slavery expansion, and some kind of western policy. At heart Henry Clay favored the gradual abolition of slavery as demonstrated in his strong support of the American Colonization Society attempt.
There burned deeply in the Clay psyche a yearning to be President of the United States. He made his first gamble for this office in 1824 with only a remote chance of winning. In 1832 he once again attempted to be elected president. He suffered his most disappointing loss for the office in 1844.
At the moment Henry Clay lay dying in Washington, he must have looked back upon his career as lawyer, state representative, United States Senator, Congressman, Speaker of the House, a peace commissioner, Secretary of State, on the Missouri Compromise, the compromise tariff bill revision in 1833, his American System, the Texas question, and the Compromise of 1850, his greatest victory.
Through the bitter raw political years in American history, Henry Clay prevailed. Even in the face of great family tragedy, he prevailed. Contemporaries branded him with numerous political epithets, but these he survived. Few American politicians could claim so many victories, or engage in so many gambles, and still claim an exalted place in political history. Perhaps Henry Clay’s greatest honor was the post mortem one he received when a great majority of American historians honored him as having been one of the greatest United States Senators. The name of Henry Clay was stamped deeply on the American political scene during his lifetime. But perhaps his true greatness has emerged since in the overflowing stream of impressive monographs and biographies of his life and achievements. In his image is reflected that of a young republic undergoing the trials and tribulations of becoming a mature, powerful nation.
For more information about Henry Clay, please see www.henryclay.org