Henry Clay – The Great Compromiser, Part 1

Henry Clay

Only two men in our entire history hold the distinction of losing three presidential elections (losing being defined here as losing in the Electoral College as opposed to seeking their party nomination and failing). One of these men is Henry Clay, The Great Compromiser. Clay is best remembered for his leadership in passing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 that helped avert a civil war. He is also remembered for his famous statement “I would rather be right than President.” He was nominated for President three times, and came very close once, in 1844.

Clay’s father was a Baptist preacher who died in 1781 when Clay was four years old. He had little schooling until he was fourteen years old. That year, his mother remarried and the family moved to Richmond, Virginia. His new stepfather obtained for him a position as a copyist in the office of the clerk of the High Court of Chancery. The Chancellor of the High Court, George Wythe, took an interest in Clay and guided his education. After studying law in the office of Robert Brooke, the Attorney-General of Virginia, Clay was admitted to the bar.

Clay’s mother had moved to Kentucky and Clay joined her there. He soon married Lucretia Hart, a young girl from a prominent family. This fortunate marriage gained him entry into the most prominent social circles. His reputation up to the time of his marriage was that of a gambler and bon vivant. After his marriage, he seemed to settle down and quickly became known as one of the best criminal lawyers in the state.

In addition to being a great lawyer, Clay became a very able politician. As a lawyer, he developed to a very high degree the abilities that would serve him well in politics. His naturally winning personality made him popular with both male and female acquaintances. In the courtroom he honed his speaking skills, being a very dramatic speaker with a forceful presence. He could be witty, emotional, sarcastic, and was adept at eliciting the desired emotion from a jury. His first political success came easily enough, when he defeated Felix Grundy, a later political ally, in a race for the state legislature.

It was in 1803 during his first term in the legislature that Clay took his stand on slavery. He was opposed to slavery, favoring a gradual emancipation with financial compensation to the slave owners. Clay himself owned slaves, and defended the rights of the slave owners. He thought the states themselves ought to control the end of slavery, freeing slaves when they reached a certain age and paying the owners. Clay freed many of his own slaves during his lifetime, and in his will provided for the freeing of each of his slaves when they reached the age of 25.

When Clay was 29, the governor of Kentucky appointed Clay to fill the remainder of an unexpired term in the United States Senate. Even though he was not old enough under the provisions of the Constitution, the Senate allowed him to take his seat. At the end of the term the following year, Clay returned to Kentucky and was elected Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, a position he filled until 1809.

While serving as Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, Clay challenged a new Federalist member to a duel as a result of verbal abuse of Clay by the new member during the debate over President Jefferson’s Embargo Act. The duel was held on January 9, 1809, and the result was that both participants were slightly wounded. This incident was characteristic of Clay’s personality. He had a romantic sense of honor that often led to dramatic actions on his part. He was bold and decisive, but could also be impulsive and emotional. He had a quick temper that could be ignited by a perceived personal slight, but would shortly afterwards be completely forgiving.

Later in his career, he challenged Virginia Congressman John Randolph to a duel. Randolph, the acerbic, eccentric aristocrat had called Clay, among other things, a “blackleg” which referred to a dishonest gambler. Clay challenged Randolph, and Randolph accepted. They met on April 8, 1826 at half past four in the afternoon on the Virginia side of the Potomac. The weapons were pistols at ten paces.

The two men met, each with two seconds and a surgeon in attendance. Clay was positioned in front of a small tree stump and Randolph in front of a low bank of gravel. While they were waiting, Randolph was trying to adjust his pistol when the hair trigger discharged the weapon into the ground. He was given another pistol. When the call was given, both men fired. Randolph’s shot struck the small stump behind Clay. Clay’s shot knocked up some dirt from the gravelly bank behind Randolph. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, no stranger to duels, offered to mediate, but both men insisted on another exchange of fire. In the second round, Randolph received Clay’s fire, which pierced his jacket at the hip without injuring him. Randolph then fired his pistol into the air saying, “I do not fire at you, Mr. Clay.” The two shook hands, Randolph stating that Clay owed him a new coat. Clay made a gallant reply saying he was glad the debt was not greater. The following Monday, they exchanged cards and resumed normal relations. Senator Benton said it was the last “high-toned duel” he ever saw.

From that first year in the Senate, Clay was a strong advocate of the American System, which included internal improvements (such as roads, canals and bridges) at federal expense and a high protective tariff. The purpose of this program was to increase American productivity by helping each section of the nation and tying the different sections together economically.

Clay returned to Congress, having been elected to the House of Representatives in 1810. He had the singular honor of being elected as Speaker of the House his first day in Congress. Clay made an excellent presiding officer, liked and respected by friends and foes alike. New Hampshire’s John Adams Harper said of Speaker Clay, “Our Speaker is a fine man, gives universal satisfaction, and not even Randolph himself has yet attempted to embarrass him.” Clay remained in Washington for most of the rest of his life.

In the next article, we will examine Clay’s emergence as a nationalist and War Hawk, and his lifelong opposition to Andrew Jackson. We will also review his great service to his country as a peace negotiator and as The Great Compromiser, averting civil war on at least one occasion, as well as his lifelong pursuit of the Presidency.