Clay County MOGenWeb

Biography of Henry Clay

Source: Encarta

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 Great Pacificator.

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 Hawks”—the 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 slavery—as on most other issues—were 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.

Contributed By:

Edward Pessen, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of History, Baruch College of the City University of New York.
Author of Most Uncommon Jacksonian, Jacksonian Panorama,
The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents, and other books.


This page was last updated October 4, 2008.