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Henry Clay, the Most Powerful American Politician Who Was Never President

Kentucky Legislator Was a Major Force in American Politics In the Early 1800s

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Henry Clay

Henry Clay

Library of Congress
Henry Clay was one of the most powerful and politically significant Americans of the early 19th century. Though he was never elected president, he held enormous influence in the U.S. Congress.

Clay's oratorical abilities were legendary, and spectators would flock to the Capitol when it was known Clay would be giving a speech on the floor of the senate. But while he was a beloved political leader to millions, Clay was also the subject of vicious political attacks and he collected many enemies over his lengthy career.

Following a contentious senate debate in 1838 on the perennial issue of slavery, Clay uttered perhaps his most famous quote: "I'd rather be right than be president."

Early Life of Henry Clay

Henry Clay was born in Virginia on April 12, 1777. His family was relatively prosperous for their area, but in later years the legend arose that Clay grew up in extreme poverty.

Clay's father died when Henry was four years old, and his mother remarried. When Henry was a teenager the family moved westward to Kentucky, and Henry stayed in Virginia.

Clay found a job working for a prominent lawyer in Richmond. He studied the law himself, and at the age of 20 he left Virginia to join his family in Kentucky and begin a career as a frontier lawyer.

Clay became a successful lawyer in Kentucky, and was elected to the Kentucky legislature at the age of 26. Three years later he went to Washington for the first time to finish the term of a senator from Kentucky.

When Clay first joined the U.S. Senate he was still 29, too young for the Constitutional requirement that senators be 30 years old. In the Washington of 1806 no one seemed to notice or care.

Henry Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811. He was named speaker of the house in his first session as a congressman.

Henry Clay Became Speaker of the House

Clay turned the position of speaker of the house, which had been largely ceremonial, into a powerful position.

Along with other western congressmen, Clay desired a war with Britain as it was believed that the United States could actually seize Canada and open the way for more westward expansion.

Clay's faction became known as the War Hawks.

Clay helped provoke the War of 1812, but when the war proved costly, and essentially pointless, he became part of a delegation that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the war.

The American System of Henry Clay

Clay had realized, while having to travel from Kentucky to Washington over very poor roads, that the United States had to have a better transportation system if it hoped to advance as a nation.

And in the years following the War of 1812 Clay became very powerful in the U.S. Congress, and often promoted what became known as the American System.

Henry Clay and Slavery

In 1820, Clay's influence as speaker of the house helped bring about the Missouri Compromise, the first compromise that sought to settle the issue of slavery in America.

Clay's own views on slavery were complicated and seemingly contradictory. He professed to be against slavery, yet he owned slaves.

And for many years he was the leader of the American Colonization Society, an organization of prominent Americans which sought to send freed slaves to resettle in Africa. At the time the organization was considered an enlightened way to bring an eventual end to slavery in America.

Clay was often hailed for his role in trying to find compromises on the issue of slavery. But his efforts to find what he considered a moderate path to eventually eliminating slavery meant he was denounced by people on either side of the issue, from abolitionists in New England to planters in the South.

Clay's Role in the Election of 1824

Henry Clay ran for president in 1824, and finished fourth. The election had no clear electoral college winner, so the new president had to be determined by the House of Representatives. Clay, using his influence as speaker of the house, threw his support to John Quincy Adams, who won the vote in the House, defeating Andrew Jackson

Adams then named Clay as his secretary of state. Jackson and his supporters were outraged, and charged that Adams and Clay had made a "corrupt bargain."

The charge was probably baseless, as Clay had an intense dislike for Jackson and his politics anyway, and would not have needed the bribe of a job to support Adams over Jackson. But the election of 1824 went down in history as The Corrupt Bargain.

Henry Clay Ran For President Several Times

Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828. With the end of his term as secretary of state, Clay returned to his farm in Kentucky. His retirement from politics was brief, as the voters of Kentucky elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1831.

In 1832 Clay ran for president again, and was defeated by his perennial enemy Andrew Jackson. Clay continued to oppose Jackson from his position as a senator.

The anti-Jackson Clay campaign of 1832 was the beginning of the Whig Party in American politics. Clay sought the Whig nomination for president in 1836 and 1840, both times losing out to William Henry Harrison, who was finally elected in 1840. Harrison died after only a month in office, and was replaced by his vice president, John Tyler.

Clay was outraged by some of Tyler's actions, and resigned from the senate in 1842 and returned to Kentucky. He ran again for president in 1844, losing to James K. Polk. It appeared that he had left politics for good, but Kentucky voters sent him back to the senate in 1849.

Henry Clay Is Considered One of the Greatest Senators

Clay's reputation as a great legislator is based mostly on his many years in the United States Senate, where he was known for giving remarkable speeches. Near the end of his life, he was involved in putting together the Compromise of 1850, which helped hold the Union together in the face of tension over slavery.

Clay died on June 29, 1852. Church bells across the United States tolled, and the entire nation mourned. Clay had gathered countless political supporters as well as many political enemies, but Americans of his era recognized his valuable role in preserving the Union.

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