Jenny thinks I am in love with Henry Clay and really, there may be some truth to this. (Though as I told her, if I were going to fall for someone from history, it would be Thomas Jefferson hands down.) I tell you this, because my first two Historical Figures were, shall we say, slightly off the mainstream, whereas you may have heard of Henry Clay before. If you haven’t, that’s okay too. I’ll tell you all about him.
Henry Clay was a man who served as a US Congressman, was elected Speaker of the House at the very young age of thirty-four, headed more than one political party, ran for president numerous times, engineered a few pieces of major legislation, helped to postpone the Civil War, and lived forever. Ahem. Well, he… eh… did nearly all of those things, anyway.
Clay started out as a strong political leader of the new Republicans that followed the administrations of presidents Jefferson and Madison. Strongly nationalistic, this party advocated economic development and westward expansion. These new Republicans were eager to go to war. We’ll fight anyone. No, really, we mean it. War is good for the economy… uh… and things. These aggressive Congressmen helped to push the young republic into the War of 1812. They were known, quite rightly, as the War Hawks. Henry Clay was their leader. After the war was over, Clay proudly proclaimed “Let any man look at the degraded condition of this country before the war. The scorn of the universe, the contempt of ourselves… What is our present situation? Respectibility and character abroad- security and confidence at home.”
The next time Clay appears in the history books is when he arranged the Missouri Comprimise. You may have heard of it, because it is vitally important to American history. It admitted Maine to the union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and drew a line across the country between the Northern (free) states and the Southern (slave) states of the west.
In the election of 1824, Clay ran for president, winning a disapointing 34% of the popular vote. There was some tricky business with the election that year, and the top three candidates had to be presented to the House of Representatives, who would choose a winner. Though Clay was out of the race by then, he was still Speaker of the House, and that pretty much gave him the power to choose the next president. Good old Henry convinced the House to elect John Quincy Adams, and two days later Adams named him Secretary of State. (Incidentally, Secretary of State is a great stepping-stone to the presidency.) When Adams decided not to run for re-election, Clay stepped up and led the Republican party, but in the confusion, the Democrats won the election. Clay ran for president again in 1832, this time gaining the party vote, but he lost to the popular returning candidate, Andrew Jackson.
By the time Jackson’s term was done, the Republican party had fallen apart. Henry Clay, however, had not. Clay was now leading the Whigs, a new party to oppose the Democrats. He came up with the idea of an “American System” that would support the economy through bolstering manufacturing. When he ran for president again in 1844, he was unanimously nominated among the Whig party. And he very nearly won that time. Honestly. Just not quite.
Clay’s next acheivement was to engineer the Compromise of 1850. He became well-renowned for his sectional compromises, which is almost ironic for someone who formerly headed the War Hawks. The secret to this was his strong feelings of Nationalism, which supported both war with outsiders and internal connection and wholeness. Though the Compromise of 1850 was not accepted all at once, it was eventually taken on, and it kept the Civil War at bay once again. At this point, Henry was seventy-three years old, suffering from a habitual cough, and nearing the end of his political and natural life. You could say the Compromise was his last huzzah, though his strong influence on Abraham Lincoln should be taken into account.
Henry Clay was a true politician. Not afraid to change his position if it meant getting ahead, always willing to enter an election, even one he couldn’t win. His entire life was devoted to politics, and he influenced greatly almost four decades of American political life. The sad thing is, many people don’t know about his existence. Rachel tells me that the Regents US History courses at her High School don’t even talk about Henry Clay. Perhaps such a complicated man is too much for them, but it is sad to think that a person so devoted to the United States doesn’t even merit a place on the bulleted list of Important People. It really makes you wonder what kind of influence you will have in your lifetime and beyond, doesn’t it?
This mini-biography is summarized from several chapters of Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic, Volume I: To 1877, Fifth Edition. Authors listed are Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff.