Henry Clay and the American Presidency


Miscalculating the mood of the American voter, Henry Clay was his own worst enemy when it came to running a successful presidential campaign.

Henry Clay attempted the Presidency three times yet each time he miscalculated the mood of the American people. In 1824 he came in last in a four-way race; building his campaign on Andrew Jackson’s Bank Veto in 1832, Clay failed to realize that voters saw the veto as an extension of Jackson’s heroic nature and champion of the common man. Finally, in 1844, Clay’s “waffling” on the issue of Texas annexation caused enough voters in the North to switch their support to James Birney and the new Liberty Party, costing him crucial swing states.

The 1824 Election is Decided by the House of Reprentatives

When the results of the 1824 election were tabulated, Henry Clay was in fourth place with 37 electoral votes. Although no candidate received enough electoral votes to win the presidency, John Quincy Adams would be selected by a vote in the House of Representatives. As Speaker of the House, Henry Clay played a pivotal role in denying Andrew Jackson the presidency. Jackson, with 99 electoral votes and almost three times the popular votes of Clay and William Crawford, would never forget Clay’s role in the so-called “corrupt bargain.”

The 1832 Issue of Re-chartering the National Bank Hurts Henry Clay’s Presidential Bid

President Andrew Jackson rejected a premature rechartering of the SBUS (Second Bank of the US) in 1832 after Henry Clay convinced bank President Nicholas Biddle to seek a new charter. It was the issue Clay hoped would bring him into the White House. Portraying Jackson as a despotic tyrant and recalling images of King George III, Clay and his supporters believed that the voters would agree and retire Jackson.

Jackson, however, was seen as a man of the people, a hero who championed the cause of simple, hard working Americans. Jackson, who hated all banks, saw the national bank as the “great whore of Babylon.” Everywhere he went, everyday people cheered him as their advocate. The bank issue backfired. According to Paul Boller, “For the first time in American history a President took a strong stand on an important social issue and then asked for the approval of the voters at the polls.” [1]

The Annexation of Texas and the 1844 Election Denies Henry Clay the Presidency

The annexation of Texas was the chief issue in the 1844 election. Democrat James K Polk favored annexation. Significantly, Polk’s stance was based on his sincere views favoring immediate expansionism. Polk wanted to unite the nation between both oceans, assert American claims in the Oregon Territory, and bring Texas into the Union.

Henry Clay, however, viewed the issue in terms of his own presidential ambitions. At first, Clay opposed Texas annexation, gambling on the Northern vote. Northern voters, for the most part, rejected the idea of bringing in another slave state. Sensing that his chance of victory might be better if he switched positions, Clay came out for annexation. This cost him crucial Northern votes.

The Role of a Third Party in Presidential Elections can be Decisive

Page Smith [2] gives an interesting analysis of the 1844 vote. Polk won the election with less than 1 percent of the popular vote, yet in pivotal states like Ohio, James Birney, the antislavery candidate, polled over 8,000 votes. In Pennsylvania Polk won “by a bare 6,000 votes out of more than 328,000 cast.” Birney’s total in the election was 62,300. Had Clay not switched his position on Texas, many of the Birney votes might have gone to him.

Although Henry Clay never became President, his long political career left an indelible mark on American History. Returned to the National Senate in 1850, Clay would endeavor to craft a final compromise designed to avert Civil War. For this he was vilified by many Southerners.


  1. [1] Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981) p. 207.
  2. [2] Paul F. Boller, Jr. Presidential Campaigns From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 53.