Study Guide

Henry Clay in Compromise of 1850

By Henry Clay

Henry Clay

Of all the American politicians whose names are also an art supply, Henry Clay has probably been the most influential. A staunch Unionist from a southern state, he did everything he could to prevent the breakup of the nation over the question of slavery.

Known even during his life as "The Great Compromiser" (is it a nickname if it's longer than the person's actual name?), Clay was the driving force behind the Compromise of 1850, as well as the Missouri Compromise 30 years earlier.

If that's not enough, he pioneered some important legal strategies, made treaties with the British, and once made the Earth spin the other way on its axis to turn back time.

Oh wait…that may have been Superman. We'll look it up.

Made Out of Clay(s)

You get extra American street cred if you were directly impacted by the Revolutionary War. Henry Clay's childhood home in Virginia was ransacked by British troops during the war, so that no doubt committed him to a career in politics. We should mention he was three years old at the time (source).

Clay grew up in pretty comfortable surroundings with his eight siblings, his mother, and his stepfather (his biological father died when he was four). His family had been in colonial Virginia for 150 years. After a pretty minimal education, he studied law at The College of William and Mary and has as his mentor Founding Father George Wythe, who was developing some abolitionist tendencies in his later years and planted the seeds of anti-slavery thought in young Henry.

Clay ended up moving to Kentucky to be a lawyer. At the time, Lexington, Kentucky was a good place for lawyers to make a living, because of all the land-title lawsuits. Virginia had too many lawyers and not enough property disputes, apparently (source). Clay also taught law at Transylvania University in Lexington, where his most famous case was defending the Cullen family against charges of nocturnal exsanguination.

We're serious—about the Transylvania University part. Check it out.

Clay's legal career was marked by some pretty impressive firsts. In 1821, he was the first to file an amicus curiæ, or amicus brief https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/amicus_curiae. He was also potentially the first lawyer to successfully prevent a client being executed by pleading insanity (source https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Clay).

Kentucky would end up becoming Clay's adopted home state, the state he represented for decades in Congress.

A Match Made in Lexington

In 1799, Clay married local heiress Lucretia Hart, solidifying his place in Lexington high society. For a while, he enjoyed a successful legal career, bought farm he named Ashland, and bred reportedly amazing race horses (source). He still liked to drink and gamble, earning him a less flattering nickname "Prince Hal," which is a Shakespeare reference to a drunk dude (source).

That's how they rolled at the turn of the 19th century. People's nicknames came from Shakespeare's plays.

Henry and Lucretia's marriage lasted for decades but faced some pretty serious troubles. Of their six daughters, only three survived to adulthood, and all three of those died shortly after. One of their five sons died in the Mexican-American War, a war Clay had strongly opposed (source). Lucretia got flak for not being a supportive enough political wife, but Clay had a reputation for drinking, gambling, and enjoying the company of attractive ladies. Neither characterization is probably super accurate, but that's public life for you (source).

Speaker? I Barely Knew Her.

Clay's long and distinguished career in congress would eventually lead to his being called part of the "Great Triumvirate" of the Senate, along with John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster. In 1806, he was elected senator from Kentucky. He spent most of his career, though in the House of Representatives, which he found more enjoyable because it had, let's say, more personality than the Senate (source).

Clay pushed for the War of 1812, but also helped stop the fighting after the war as a delegate to the peace talks. In fact, he helped broker a bunch of treaties during this stretch, especially with Britain about border disputes. He also promoted building ties between the U.S. and the increasingly independent Latin America (source).

During the War of 1812, Clay was Speaker of the House. He took the job of Speaker and made it what we know it today, a very active and influential position. He realized how he could use the appointments of committees to further his political agenda, and the job hasn't been quite the same since (source).

And that was all before 1820.

Clay was a candidate for President in 1824. It was clear he didn't have the votes, so he threw his support behind John Quincy Adams even though the Kentucky legislature had told him to support fellow southerner Andrew Jackson. In 1825, after Adams was elected president, he made Clay secretary of state. What's wrong with that? Well, the problem was that the 1824 election was so close, Congress had to make the final decision between Adams and Andrew Jackson. Clay supported Adams. Adams become president. Adams made Clay secretary of state. It definitely looked like a thank-you present.

Jackson immediately called it a "corrupt bargain," and it's been known that way ever since. Clay's reputation never fully recovered from it (Source).

Putting the "Can" in "American System"

When Clay was rising through the political ranks of Washington, the U.S. was still a pretty young country. Yeah, it was like 40 years old, but in country terms that's like seventh grade. The nation could function on its own but was definitely still figuring things out. Like whether they should ask Britain to dance with them or totally dump her.

After the war of 1812, Americans quit squabbling with each other and were ready, Clay thought, to get down to the business of rebuilding the nation. He proposed what he called the "American System". The System was basically a way to promote America's industrial and agricultural development and focused on improving infrastructure like roads and canals, and instituting high tariffs—taxes on imported goods. It was a way to get everyone on the same profitable page.

This was all fine and dandy, except that it required a strong national bank. The history of the national bank in the U.S. is complex, but the basic idea was that the government's money would be held in this active bank, instead of tucked away in a treasury like it is now. It was vital to financing the American System.

Then Andrew Jackson became president. He hated (and we mean hated) the national bank, and made it his mission to destroy it. He did. Plus, Jackson vetoed any federal spending on infrastructure. Clay had a pretty nasty rivalry with Jackson from early in his career, and ended up leaving politics for a while when Jackson won the presidency in 1831.

Putting the "Promise" in "Compromise"

All Clay's efforts at compromise were motivated by the same thing: keeping the Union together.

It all started with the Missouri Compromise in 1820.

The setup was similar: Missouri wanted to be a state, people questioned whether or not to allow slavery, heated discussion ensued. Henry Clay came up with a package deal that made Missouri a slave state, Maine a free state, and drew a horizontal line across the country to show where slavery was and wasn't allowed.

Like its future brother, the Missouri Compromise didn't leave everyone happy, but it prevented secession or civil war for the time being.

Another feat of compromise was over the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 that nearly led to the secession of South Carolina. Prez Jackson proposed a Tariff in 1828 that South Carolina believed favored the North and would be disastrous to the state's economy. South Carolina decided it could nullify the tariff as unconstitutional and threw a strong states' rights argument at Jackson.

A second tariff in 1832 was the last straw for South Carolina. They threatened to secede if Jackson tried to enforce the tariff. Jackson was not amused.

Just when things seemed hopeless, Clay teamed up with John C. Calhoun (who had started all the trouble over the tariff to begin with) and drafted the Tariff of 1833, which the states were able to accept.

So by the time 1850 rolled around, Clay had built up a reputation as someone who was pretty good at making deals that kept the Union together.

He was also a lot older, even earning another nickname "Ancient Henry" (seriously what is it with this guy and nicknames?). He had retired from politics for a while, and was slowly dying of tuberculosis. But he got a "thunderous ovation" when he entered the Senate chamber as a member once again (source).

When California wanted to enter the Union as a free state, and other territories needed to be organized, Clay put together a complex package deal to give to Congress to avoid protest, and possibly secession, from the South. He presented this omnibus deal on January 29, 1850, and spent the next six months trying to get it passed.

The Hard Sell

On February 8, 1850, Clay kicked off the party in Congress by defending the resolutions he had proposed to fix the California situation. He admits that he had "never before arisen to address any assembly so oppressed, so appalled, so anxious" (source).

He fully admits that there's serious discord in the country at the moment. Some of his frustration seems oddly familiar in the 21st century: "Let us look wherever we may, we see too many indications of the existence of the spirit and intemperance of party. […] what have we seen there during this very session? One whole week—I think it was an entire week—exhausted in the vain endeavor to elect a Doorkeeper of the House!" (source).

Government not functioning properly because of extreme partisanship? Never heard of such a thing.

He begged and pleaded for everyone to come to their senses:

Mr. President, it is passion, passion—party, party—and intemperance; that is all I dread in the adjustment of the great questions which unhappily at this time divide our distracted country […] All now is uproar, confusion, menace to the existence of the Union and to the happiness and safety of the its people. I implore Senators […] by all that is dear to them here below […] to look at their country during this crisis—to listen to the voice of reason […] (source https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=024/llcg024.db&recNum=135).

He warned that, if the Senators couldn't settle their differences in this Compromise, secession and war would be the result.

Not everyone agreed on the dire picture Clay was painting of the state of the Union. Senator Thomas Hart Benton protested:

I know of no distress in the country, no misery, no strife, no distraction, none of those five gaping wounds of which the senator from Kentucky made enumeration on the five fingers of his left hand, and for the healing of which, all together, and all at once […] he has provided this capacious plaster in the shape of five old bills tacked together (source).

The Great Compromiser refused to take a break from the debate, even forbidding the annual changing of the carpets in the Senate chamber because he didn't want to give them a recess. He was on the brink of collapse for months, swatting aside people's suggested amendments like flies, but he powered through only to see the bill defeated. He incessantly gathered intel on why it had failed, which helped Douglas pass the piecemeal version later, but lost Clay some friends in the process (source).

Well, if he'd lived another decade, at least he could have said "I told you so."

Always a Congressman, Never a President

Like many people, Henry Clay dreamed of becoming President of the United States. Like not-so-many people, Clay actually had a shot. The crowds loved him. He ran five times in all, and thought he'd get nominated in 1840 but was passed over. A contemporary observer said he "can get more men to run after him to hear him speak and fewer to vote for him than any man in America" (source).

One of Clay's most famous quotes was, "I would rather be right than be president" (source), which is a nice way of re-framing the situation.

Clay had pretty good reason to expect the presidency. People idolized him. He was like the Mick Jagger of his day – not traditionally handsome, but apparently people were obsessed with getting a smooch. One woman even cut off a piece of his hair after another one bragged about how many times he'd kissed her (source).

Who knew orchestrating political compromises could get you groupies?

When Clay eventually died of tuberculosis in 1852, he became the first American to be given a state funeral in the Capitol rotunda. It's thought today that millions of people came to see him (source).

Clay's policies, approach to governance, and protection of the Union were not only respected during his lifetime, but were a significant influence on later politicians. Abraham Lincoln in particular was a big fan (source). Clay's compromises represented the strongest attempts to keep the Union together in the antebellum era when the U.S. got to the brink of civil war time after time.

The Anti-Slavery Slaveowner

Possibly one of the reasons Clay was always making compromises about slavery for the states is that he was making compromises with himself.

Remember that abolitionist mentor he had as a law student? After Clay finished law school and went to practice in Kentucky, he began to advocate for the gradual emancipation of slaves. That didn't go over too well with Kentuckians.

Then Clay inherited slaves from his family and from his wife's family when they married. He was pretty conflicted about it (source), and he got called on his hypocrisy from time to time by abolitionists.

In 1849, Clay penned a lengthy letter to his brother-in-law Richard Pendell, where he let loose about his real views of the evils of slavery. He thought the immediate emancipation of all slaves would cause chaos, but that at a given age, slaves should be granted their freedoms. He described how he regretted his failure to convince Kentucky to free its slaves, and described in some detail how an emancipation plan might be carried out (source).

He knew that the runaway slave sitch had become a disaster for everyone involved. At the same time, he didn't want to meddle in the affairs of other sovereign states, knowing it could lead to the breakup of the Union. And for a staunch Unionist like Clay, that was the ultimate unhappy ending.

Clay finally dealt with his ambivalence about slavery in his will, which freed his slaves and made arrangements for their education.

No more compromise necessary.