Biography of Henry Clay
Henry (1777-1852), American statesman, who was
secretary of state under John Quincy Adams and an
unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 1824,
1832, and 1844. He was one of the most popular and
influential political leaders in American history.
His genius in the art of compromise three times
resolved bitter political conflicts that threatened
to tear the nation apart, winning him the title The
Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County,
Virginia, to a middle-class family. After studying
for the bar with the eminent George Wythe, Clay, at
the age of 20, moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he
developed a thriving practice. He was blessed with a
quick mind, a flair for oratory, and an ability to
charm both sexes with his easy, attractive manner.
That he loved to drink and gamble was no drawback in
an age that admired both vices. Clay, ambitious for
worldly success, married into a wealthy and socially
prominent family and soon gained entry into
Kentucky's most influential circles. While still in
his 20s, he was elected to the state legislature, in
which he served for six years, until 1809.
Clay established his great reputation in the United
States House of Representatives, where he served
intermittently from 1811 to 1825. In his first term,
he became one of the leading War Hawksthe
young men whose clamor for hostilities with England
helped bring about the War of 1812. Clay was selected
as one of the commissioners who in 1814 negotiated
the Treaty of Ghent, ending that war. In 1820-21 it
was Clay above all who engineered the Missouri
Compromise, quieting the harsh controversy that had
erupted by maintaining an equal balance between free
and slave states. Although he himself was a slave
owner, Clay's views on slaveryas on most other
issueswere moderate. He was thus able to
command the support of men fearful of extremism.
In the presidential election of 1824, after his own
candidacy had failed, Clay threw his support to John
Quincy Adams, whom the House early in 1825 elected as
the sixth president. When Adams named Clay secretary
of state, his Jacksonian opponents charged corrupt
bargain! The charge was unfair, but Clay was
haunted by it throughout his subsequent career.
Although Clay was a practical politician of flexible
rather than rigid beliefs, he did emerge as the great
champion of the American System. He
called for a protective tariff in support of home
manufactures, internal improvements (federal aid to
local road and canal projects), a strong national
bank, and distribution of the proceeds of federal
land sales to the states.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1831, Clay served in
that body until 1842 and again from 1849 until his
death. In 1833 he devised a compromise tariff that
resolved the crisis brought on by South Carolina's
attempt to nullify the prevailing tariff
set by Congress. In the same period he became a
leader of the new Whig Party that emerged to oppose
Andrew Jackson's administration.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking event of Clay's career
was his close defeat in the presidential contest of
1844, when his reluctance to back the annexation of
Texas cost him support in the South. Many believe
that his greatest service to the nation came in 1850,
when he helped win acceptance for a compromise that
ended, at least temporarily, the threat of civil war
over the issue of slavery in the new territories. He
died in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 1852.
Edward Pessen, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of History, Baruch College of
the City University of New York.
Author of Most Uncommon Jacksonian, Jacksonian
The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the
Presidents, and other books.
This page was last updated October 4, 2008.