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As the newly created United States of America gained its footing in the world, Henry Clay saw the need for cooperation to preserve what would become the world’s greatest republican government. In an era of contentious political strife, he repeatedly advocated for consensus and unity.
We sat down with Clay’s patriotic spirit at Ashland, his family plantation near Lexington, Ky.
Q: Though you had little formal education, you managed to work your way up to some of the most prominent roles in American politics. Was there one thing in particular your family instilled in you that enabled you to have so much success as a young man?
A: “Of all the properties which belong to honorable men, not one is so highly prized as that of character.”
One of nine children born to the Rev. John Hudson and his wife, Elizabeth, in rural Hanover County, Va., Henry Clay had few opportunities for formal education. At his birth in 1777, the American Revolution was still under way, and soon after his father’s death 4-year-old Clay saw British raiders ransack his family home. Political and military conflict were something he saw from a young age, and it is no small surprise the young Clay sought a career in public service, coming to manhood at the same time his country was coming of age.
Clay’s stepfather, Capt. Henry Watkins, helped him obtain a position as a clerk at Virginia’s High Court of Chancery. By age 20, he had earned a license to practice law in Virginia. Having determined he would have greater luck in his career by heading to the frontier, Clay in 1797 moved to Kentucky, where his mother, stepfather and other family had settled. Within a decade, his diligence, oratory and character won him a reputation as a skilled trial lawyer.
Q: You won a seat in the U.S. Senate before you were even 30. What was your primary aim in public service?
A: “Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.”
As Clay built his legal career, he also made his way as a major Kentucky landowner through his marriage to Lucretia Hart, daughter of one of the state’s most prominent families. His influence as both landowner and lawyer helped win him his first political position as a member of the Kentucky General Assembly in 1803, and three years later he was appointed a U.S. senator to fill a vacancy left by John Adair. Clay continued to serve alternately in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for most of the next five decades. He was speaker of the House and secretary of state.
Clay won election after election because of his passionate and determined support for economic development, transportation infrastructure on the burgeoning American frontier and a national banking system. He won friends and supporters with his magnetic personality and consistency of character. He remained a nationalist all his life, putting country before region, even in an era when North and South were deeply divided over the issue of slavery.
Q: How do you account for your eventual support of emancipation even though you were a slaveholder?
A: “An oppressed people are authorized, whenever they can, to rise and break their fetters.”
Clay disapproved of slavery as an institution and supported gradual emancipation, supporting the resettlement of freed slaves in Africa through the American Colonization Society. He was also unusual in being a defender of the rights of the Five Civilized Tribes, believing Native Americans had rights to their land. In addition, he opposed the annexation of Texas, believing it would lead to war with Mexico, which it did.
Though Clay was a noted “War Hawk” during the War of 1812, advocating war with Great Britain as the only way to maintain American markets abroad, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. Afterward he remained devoted to peace. That devotion to conciliation extended to his views on other controversial issues of his day.
Q: How, in an increasingly divided nation, did you continue to hold true to your belief in a strong national government? As a Southerner, did you not feel tempted to pledge your allegiance to the South?
A: “I have heard something said on this and a former occasion about allegiance to the South. I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to which I owe any allegiance. I owe allegiance to two sovereignties and only two: one is the sovereignty of this Union, and the other is the sovereignty of the state of Kentucky.”
Because Clay believed so strongly in national unity and fought for it throughout his almost 50-year political career, he became known as “the Great Compromiser.” His actions likely helped postpone civil war for decades.
His first opportunity came when he helped draft the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which established the boundary line between Slave States and Free States in the wake of westward expansion. He did not want to see the nation torn apart over the issue of slavery, and the document helped maintain an equal balance of power in Congress between Slave States and Free States.
When South Carolina declared protective tariffs imposed by the federal government as unconstitutional and, therefore, null and void within the state’s borders, Clay and fellow Sen. John C. Calhoun came up with the Compromise Tariff of 1833 to gradually reduce taxes on imports.
Q: You ran for president multiple times but were never elected. Your controversial views may have played a role in your defeats. Was that a great disappointment?
A: “Sir, I would rather be right than be president.”
Always a proponent of moderation in the interest of maintaining a strong national union, Clay was a presidential candidate three times, the last time as a Whig in 1844. And while he never won election to the highest office in the country, he remained at the forefront of American politics during a trying period in history. He drafted the Compromise of 1850, a series of five laws balancing the interests of Free and Slave States; it delayed the outbreak of the Civil War.
Although the Civil War followed nine years after his death in 1852, Clay had helped stem disunion for nearly three decades through his dedicated spirit of compromise and his desire to bring lawmakers and citizens together in a spirit of commitment to the federal union. President Abraham Lincoln later claimed Clay was the greatest American politician and called him “my beau ideal of a statesman.”