Henry Clay was born into a middle-class family in Hanover County, Virginia, on April 12, 1777, the seventh of nine children. He studied law with the noted George Wythe, mentor of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. At age 20, Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky and quickly established himself as a successful lawyer. His oratorical skills, friendly manner, and inclinations to engage in gambling and drinking made him immensely popular. On April 11, 1799, Henry Clay married Lucretia Hart, youngest daughter of Colonel Thomas Hart, a well-to-do land speculator and merchant. He soon developed considerable personal property and began his association with the conservative landed classes that would continue through his lifetime.
Belonging to the Jeffersonian-Republican party, Clay became interested in politics in Kentucky. He supported emancipation of slaves and voiced opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts. Elected to the Kentucky legislature in 1803, he went to Washington in 1806 to complete an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate. In 1807, he was re-elected to the Kentucky legislature and became its speaker of the house. Re-elected in 1809, he was again sent to take an unexpired U.S. Senate term in 1810. Returning to Kentucky, he won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, which elected him as its speaker in 1811.
As Speaker of the House, Henry Clay was a prominent War Hawk, pushing for expansion and war with Britain. He also served as a peace commissioner in Ghent in the negotiations ending the War of 1812.
Clay’s efforts to forge the Missouri Compromise (1820) were the first of several such ventures dealing with expansion and the spread of slavery. Clay was himself a slave owner, but he favored the emancipation of slaves and their resettlement in Africa.
The Election of 1824 was decided in the House of Representatives. John Quincy Adams won the presidency and selected Henry Clay as his secretary of state — a move that encouraged critics to claim a "corrupt bargain." Clay gained widespread support in his home state and throughout the West for advocacy of the American System.
In 1831, Henry Clay returned to the Senate and emerged as the leader of the National Republican party, which later became the Whig Party. He lost a bid for the presidency in 1832, but figured prominently in Jackson's and Biddle's Bank War and the Tariff of 1833.
After vetoing the bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, Jackson took steps to crush the bank by withdrawing the crucial deposits of federal money. He instructed the Secretary of the Treasury William Duane to do so but Duane would not comply so Jackson replaced him with the more pliant Roger B. Taney. Taney promptly put the federal funds in the Girard Bank of Philadelphia.
Henry Clay responded to this by proposing on December 26, 1833, that the Senate censure Jackson for overstepping his authority. On March 28, 1834, the Senate adopted Clay's recommendation by a vote of 26 to 20.
Clay’s perhaps most notable achievement came in the Compromise of 1850, in which the “Great Pacificator” or “Great Compromiser” managed temporarily to tame sectional passions. The Whig Party lasted only a short while following Clay’s death, but their ideas, particularly the American System, were taken over by the new Republican Party.
Henry Clay did not have much time to live after the Compromise of 1850. He spent the summer of 1851 as his estate Ashland. Although dying of tuberculosis, he returned to Washington and made another appearance in the Senate, but afterwards was confined to his room in the National Hotel, where he died on June 29, 1852.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Henry Clay.
Regarding War of 1812
Strike wherever we can reach the enemy, at sea and on land. But if we fail, let us fail like men, lash ourselves to our gallant gars, and expire together in one common struggle, fighting for free trade and seamen's rights.
During the War of 1812
Regarding Causes of the Mexican War
This is no war of defense, but one of unnecessary and of offensive aggression. It is Mexico that is defending her firesides, her castles and altars, not we.
Regarding The Union
I have heard something said about allegiance to the South. I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to which I owe any allegiance... The Union, sir, is my country.
Speech in the US Senate, 1848
Regarding United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity—unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.
Speech in the US Senate, 1850
Regarding War Hawks
The militia of Kentucky are alone [able] to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet.
Speech in Congress urging war with Britain in 1812
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