Clay, Henry

Born: 1777-04-12 Hanover County, Virginia

Died: 1852-06-29 Washington, D.C.

Flourished: Washington, D.C.

In 1797, Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky, to become a lawyer. There he married his wife, Lucretia Hart, and began his political career by winning a seat in the Kentucky General Assembly in 1803. Two years later, he also became a professor of law and politics at Transylvania University. Clay proved very successful in the state legislature, which selected him to represent Kentucky in the U.S. Senate twice (1806 and 1810) and elected him speaker of the lower house in 1807. In 1810, Clay won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and was immediately elected speaker. He continued to serve in Congress in various capacities for the rest of his life.

Clay's primary legacy was his role as the "Great Compromiser." He first showed his skill for brokering deals (particularly between slaveholding and non-slaveholding interests) in 1820, when he was instrumental in the passage of the Missouri Compromise. Clay's negotiating prowess proved critical again in 1833 through his efforts to negotiate a "tariff compromise" to ease tensions following the Nullification Crisis. The Compromise of 1850 was his final and most ambitious effort to decrease sectional tensions, although he fell ill before its passage, leaving that to his primary lieutenant, Stephen A. Douglas.

In 1824, Clay unsuccessfully ran for president and was one of the key figures in negotiating the bargain that elevated John Quincy Adams to the office and prevented Andrew Jackson from attaining it. He ran for president four more times but never won. Instead, Clay made his greatest ideological impact as the leader of the Whig Party, which he helped create following Jackson's election to the presidency in 1828. Clay's primary goal was the implementation of his "American System" which would foster industrial and economic growth through federal investment in internal improvements and manufacturing, the establishment of a national bank, and protective tariffs.

Clay was one of the most respected politicians of his day and the political idol of Abraham Lincoln.

David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American (New York: Random House, 2010); Biographical Directory of the American Congress 1774-1996 (Alexandria, VA: CQ Staff Directories, 1997), 825; Gravestone, Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, KY; Report of Speech Commemorating the Death of Henry Clay; Fragment of Speech Commemorating the Death of Henry Clay.