Henry Clay – The Great Compromiser, Part 2

Henry Clay

Now in Congress, and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Henry Clay joined with other young, newly elected members and became a War Hawk. The War Hawks were nationalistic and wanted England to be forced to stop attacking American shipping and to honor the American flag and American rights on the high seas. The War Hawks also accused England of inciting Indians to attack American settlements in the west.

Clay used his position as Speaker to place other War Hawks in important positions on House committees. This added to the growing movement that favored war with England, and led to the eventual declaration of war in 1812. As a result of his leadership throughout the resulting war, President Madison appointed Clay as one of the five peace commissioners to negotiate a peace treaty with England. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1815 and Clay returned home. President Madison offered him the positions of Secretary of War and Minister to Russia, but he declined both positions and instead was re-elected to the House of Representatives, and was again chosen as Speaker. He was hoping newly elected President Monroe would name him Secretary of State, but Monroe picked John Quincy Adams instead. Monroe did offer Clay the position of Secretary of War, but Clay again declined the position.

It was during this period that Clay earned the lasting enmity of Andrew Jackson. Clay criticized Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida during the Seminole War, and further criticized his mistreatment of the Seminole Indians. During a speech in the House, Clay compared Jackson to the greatest military dictators in history. From this time on, Clay and Jackson became each other’s bitterest opponents for the rest of their political lives.

Clay is most remembered for his role as the “Great Compromiser” or the “Great Pacificator” because of his role in hammering out crucial compromises at various points in our early history. His first such opportunity came during the debates over the admission of Missouri to the Union, which eventually resulted in the Missouri Compromise.

The debate in 1820 concerned slavery, but Clay’s main concern was not slavery but the preservation of the Union. Missouri was asking for admission as a slave state, which would upset the even balance of slave and free states in the U.S. Senate. The compromise Clay worked out as tempers flared and heated words were exchanged was to admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Maine, up to this point, had been part of Massachusetts and called the Northern District of Massachusetts. For a long time, the people in the Northern District had felt neglected by Massachusetts and wanted to separate. Everyone agreed, and Maine was formed. The last portion of the compromise was to divide the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase lands into slave and free territory along the line of 36.5 degrees north latitude. This compromise prevented further conflict over the slavery issue for thirty years, and gained Clay even greater fame as a legislator and leader.

With the Missouri Compromise accomplished, Clay returned to Kentucky. His ten years in Washington had caused him financial problems and left him in debt. Some of these problems were the result of his gambling and some the unfortunate habit of co-signing promissory notes and loans for friends. He spent two years in Kentucky practicing law and getting his financial affairs back in good order.

In 1823, he returned to Congress, again having been elected to the House of Representatives, and again being elected Speaker of the House. He was Speaker during the Presidential election of 1824, a fact that would prove crucial in the outcome of the election. In 1822, the Kentucky legislature had nominated Clay for the Presidency in the 1824 election, and a few other states joined in recommending Clay to the nation.

Clay had continued to be a leading advocate of the American System, which passed Congress only to be vetoed by President Monroe who felt that internal improvements at federal expense were unconstitutional. This program was an attempt by Clay to link the agricultural West where internal improvements were needed to the commercial Northeast that favored protective tariffs. Unfortunately for him, both sections had a favorite candidate other than Clay. The Northeast supported John Quincy Adams and the West put forward Andrew Jackson. In a four-way race, Clay finished fourth behind Jackson, Adams and Secretary of the Treasury Crawford. Since no candidate received a majority of the electoral votes, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives, where Clay was Speaker. Clay would become the kingmaker, ultimately deciding the election. In such cases, the House must choose from the top three on the list of electoral votes.

Clay came very close to becoming President in 1824. In Louisiana, several legislators traveling to the meeting of the legislature, where the state’s electors would be chosen, had an accident and arrived too late to vote. These legislators were Clay men, and would have changed the close vote in favor of Clay, giving him the state. This would have placed Clay among the top three candidates, and chances are the House, which had almost unanimously elected him Speaker his first day in Congress, would have quickly chosen Clay President, had he been eligible.

Crawford suffered a stroke during the campaign, and was not seriously considered by the House. It came down to a race between Jackson and Adams. A few weeks before the House was to meet and decide who would occupy the “Presidential chair,” Clay attended a dinner party given in honor of Marquis de Lafayette. Jackson and Adams were also present. Clay, according to another Congressman, “was in fine spirits and amused himself a little at the expense of the rivals.” Adams and Jackson were sitting next to each other near the fireplace with “a vacant chair intervening.” Clay walked over to them and sat down in the chair in between them, and “in his inimitably impudent significant manner” loudly stated “Well, gentlemen, since you are both so near the chair, but neither can occupy it, I will step in between you, and take it myself.” Everyone in the room laughed, but Adams and Jackson did not seem to find the joke funny.

Clay had much more in common with Adams, both personally and politically, than with Jackson. Although some of Clay’s supporters met with Adams to discuss the possibility of Clay receiving a high office under Adams, there is no proof that Clay was directly involved, or that any specific deal was made. Clay preferred Adams, and had already had several serious disagreements with Jackson. Clay also opposed military men seeking high political office. Clay threw his support and influence to Adams, and Adams was elected President.

Adams offered Clay the position of Secretary of State, and Clay accepted. This was a serious mistake on Clay’s part. Jackson’s followers charged Adams and Clay with having made a “corrupt bargain.” This charge followed both men for the rest of their careers, and Clay spent much time and energy trying to refute the charge. (It was during this period that Congressman Randolph called Clay a “blackleg” and the duel described in Part I occurred.) Clay made no significant contributions as Secretary of State, and did not enjoy the office. He did not like the duties, which were mainly administrative. He did get along well with President Adams, and the two men agreed on most issues. He supported Adams for re-election in 1828, but Adams lost and Clay returned to Kentucky.

After two years, a vacancy allowed Clay to return to the U.S. Senate. He became a leader of the group opposing President Jackson. The most important issue where Clay disagreed with the President was the Bank of the United States. Clay favored the Bank and Jackson did not. Clay engineered a bill that would renew the charter of the Bank of the United States four years early, knowing Jackson would veto it, which Jackson did. This gave Clay the issue he thought he could use to defeat Jackson in the election of 1832. This would be Clay’s second attempt to win the White House, and his greatest loss.

In the next article, we will look at this election, and Clay’s remarkable career in Congress that lasted over forty years. We will also see his final try for the White House in 1844, which was the closest he ever came to winning. His career ended with his greatest achievement, another of his great compromises, which prevented civil war in 1850.