Henry Clay: Compromise and Union

Kentuckian Henry Clay held political office for almost 50 years. He struggled to bring North and South together with compromises.

Henry Clay had a long political career. He served as a state legislator, member of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Under the banners of different political parties, he ran for president three times and lost each time. His passion was to preserve the Union. His method was compromise.

Henry Clay (Links to an external site.) was born into a modest Virginia family in 1777. His father, a Baptist minister, died when Henry was only 4. He had little schooling but studied law in the office of the Virginia attorney general.

After Clay earned his attorney’s license in 1797, he moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he established a successful law practice. He married Lucretia Hart, the daughter of a wealthy Lexington businessman. Clay gained a reputation as a skilled courtroom orator.

In 1798, during the debate over a new constitution for Kentucky, Clay argued for gradually abolishing slavery in the state by freeing children of slaves born after a certain date. His proposed constitutional provision failed, and he temporarily lost popularity. He never, however, changed his view that slavery was a curse on both slave and master.

In 1803, Clay won election to the Kentucky state legislature on a platform of building roads and canals, establishing banks, and developing industry. He was re-elected six times to the state legislature. On two occasions, he filled out the unexpired terms of U.S. senators from Kentucky. In 1810, he launched his national political career by winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Jeffersonian Republican.

From ‘War Hawk’ to ‘Great Compromiser’

In 1811, the 34-year-old Clay arrived in Washington to start his freshman term in the House of Representatives. He joined the “War Hawks,” members of Congress who called for war against Great Britain in retaliation for its seizing American merchant ships and kidnapping American seamen. Clay impressed the War Hawks with his dedication to their cause and his skills as an orator. They then won enough votes to make him speaker of the House.

Up to this time, the speaker was mostly a symbolic figure who presided over legislative sessions. Clay, however, quickly made this position a powerful one in Congress. For example, he assigned his War Hawk friends to important House committees.


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