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This guy was huge. In fact, Henry Clay is considered to be the single most important political figure in early American history to never win a presidential election…although we think Ben Franklin would probably fight him over that one.
One of the most prominent Democratic-Republicans (and later Whig), Clay got his hands dirty in pretty much every major political event in American history—from his entrance into politics in the early 1800s to his death shortly after Compromise of 1850.
And the timing of his death was probably best for Clay. He died believing he was the savior of the Union…rather than the architect of the road to the Civil War. Poor guy didn't know what was coming.
Clay wasn't always a big shot political heavyweight—but he was definitely in the political boxing ring for the majority of his life. Born a year after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Clay was part of the young up-and-comers who'd be the first generation of truly American politicians. (No news on whether he rocked an old-school American flag pin, but the odds are good.)
His beginnings are classic American politics: he began as a lawyer who kissed up to every political muckity-muck he could find. He then managed to get appointed to the Kentucky state legislature, despite the teensy-weensy inconvenience of being too young to even run for office. Nobody seemed to care much about his age—but they did care about his politics.
Because, weirdly for someone who is most famous for being a slick politician, Clay began his career by taking super-liberal stances on the state constitution. He even advocated for the gradual emancipation of slaves within the state.
But if anyone ever tells you that people don't change, hand them a bio of Henry Clay.
Clay went on to flip-flop on the issue when he realized that pretty much every person of political significance in Kentucky was a slave owner (including Clay himself: people are confusing).
This puts Clay as one of the forefathers of another great political tradition: selling out in order to secure political favor with moneyed interests. Hey: we call 'em like we see 'em.
Clay's ability to throw his own personal ethics out the window in order to succeed in politics served him well. By 1806, just three years after his political debut, the state legislature elected him to serve out the rest of recently deceased John Breckinridge term in the Senate. (Again, at age twenty-eight Clay was, once again, too young to run for the office. Fortunately for Clay, nobody seemed to care.)
Clay served only two months in the Senate before returning to Kentucky politics, where he began to build one of the key foundations of his illustrious career: hating the British. And not because they call what are obviously "cookies" "biscuits."
The American War for Independence was totally still the minds of Americans. It had only ended thirty years before, and people were still sore about it. In fact, most people were one insult away from using the British flag as Kleenex.
Clay knew this, and saw the British as a threat to American sovereignty and American trade. So he decided to capitalize on it for personal gain. Did we mention that Clay was a smooth operator? Dude was a smooth operator.
On his return to Kentucky, he was elected as Speaker of the state House of Representatives, and made one of his first orders of business a ban on legislators wearing any imported British textiles in favor of good American homespun varieties made by hardworking Americans.
Well, okay: made by slaves. But the profits were going to American citizens, and that was what Clay cared about anyway.
In 1810, thanks to Kentucky Senator Buckner Thurston's resignation, Clay found himself elected to the position by the Kentucky state legislature (although this time it was totally legal). He served the rest of Thurston's term, and upon completion returned to Kentucky and ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, which he won in 1811.
Clay's career up to this point had been impressive. What happened next made it legendary.
On Clay's first day in his first session, he was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, a feat that hadn't occurred before or since (other than on the very first day of Congress in 1789, but it was everybody's first day, so it was pretty much a gimme). This was the first of his five elections to be Speaker of the House, serving a total of nearly eleven years as Speaker (the second most in U.S. history).
Previous Speakers had taken a fairly passive role as the leader of the House of Representatives. Not Clay. In fact, Clay began an American political tradition: the Speaker of the House being pretty much the second most powerful person in America.
And what was Clay using all his role of Speaker to speak-er about? War with the Brits, naturally.
He appointed all of his war-hawk buddies to positions of power, giving Clay an enormous amount of authority. He then utilized all this authority to agitate for war against the British, who were edging in on U.S. maritime trade and basically enslaving American sailors to serve on British ships (they used the much nicer sounding term "impressment").
This resulted in the War of 1812, which saw nearly 20,000 U.S. and allied casualties, the burning down of the U.S. capitol, and the near bankruptcy of the U.S. Federal government.
It was not a good time.
Despite this, there were basically no significant strategic accomplishments for either side, and so a peace settlement was called for. Both sides left unhappy, and neither side got what they wanted: a sure sign of a successful negotiation.
Clay had been the primary representative of U.S. interests at the peace table, and so his position as Speaker was briefly taken over by Langdon Cheves. Once Cheves' congressional term was up, Clay decided he wanted to go on being Speaker and continue to advance his personal agenda: his vision of what the young United States should be when it grew up.
He instituted his American System designed to protect American trade and business, advocated for an independent Americas, and was a primary drive behind the Manifest Destiny movement. Throughout all this, he was pretty much about two main goals: to maintain (or increase) his own position of power, and to continue a course of steady growth of the Union.
Everything was going pretty well…until Missouri had to come in and screw it all up.
Missouri's bid for statehood raised a bit of an issue for Clay. On the one hand, he was an immensely powerful representative for one of the major slave states in the Union, at a time when (thanks to the Three-Fifths Clause, a.k.a. The Crazy-Racist Clause), it was a very good time to be a slave state politician.
On the other hand, the whole "all men are created equal" thing upon which America had been founded was really starting to make people rethink the whole slavery thing.
Clay had abolitionist sympathies. (The guy had begun his career as an advocate for gradual emancipation, after all.) But as much as Clay sympathized, his hands were tied by the fact that if he supported limitations on slavery too loudly, he'd lose all support in his home state. And Clay was hyper-ambitious: he had his eyes on the presidency.
He wasn't old enough to run yet…but he would be soon. Missouri threatened to throw all of that out the window if he didn't tread carefully.
Clay was lucky in this, since he was once again Speaker of the House and was in control of the vast majority of House appointments. When the Tallmadge Amendment was passed by the House in 1819, Clay had hoped that would be the end of it: his name wasn't on the bill, and there would be a gradual process of emancipation in Missouri just like Clay had wanted in Kentucky back in 1804.
Then the Senate decided to shoot that down and it was back to the drawing board.
The whole process threatened to throw Congress into total chaos. The issue of slavery hadn't gotten much attention yet, mostly because it stirred up so much trouble. Pretty much everyone in the political know recognized it was the single most divisive issue in American politics…and that was exactly why nobody wanted to deal with it.
Forcing the issue would likely destroy any possibility of a future in politics no matter what side of the issue was taken. So the rot at the center of American politics was just ignored.
Missouri, unfortunately, had other ideas.
The would-be state wanted to have its cake and eat it too, upgrading to a full-fledged state while getting its slavery on at the same time. It was the backbone of their economy after all, just as it was for nearly every southern state. With the introduction of Alabama as a slave state in 1819, Missouri threatened to muck up the carefully maintained balance that Congress had informally created between slave and free states.
Something, clearly, needed to be done.
Fortunately for Clay, just as John W. Taylor was proposing admittance of Missouri as a slave state, there was also a bill proposing the breakaway of the Maine county of Massachusetts to form its own state. Also, Maine would virtually certainly be a free state.
This presented a unique opportunity for Clay: if both states could be admitted simultaneously, the balance would be maintained in the Senate and Clay's slave faction would grow slightly stronger in the House, since Missouri's population would almost certainly be larger than Maine's.
With a little luck, the Senate would pass both measures as well, and as long as Missouri's constitution wasn't total nonsense—and then both states could enter the Union and Clay's position would be that much stronger.
Both measures passed the House and the Senate, and were signed into law by President Monroe in 1820. Unfortunately, the issue wasn't over for Clay.
Missouri's could enter the Union with the right to its own Missouri-drafted constitution…but only if Congress gave it the green light. Everything appeared to be in order, except for one small, seemingly insignificant detail: Missouri wanted to "prevent free n****es and mulattoes from coming to and settling in this State, under any pretext whatsoever." (Source)
Whoa, Missouri. Hold your (racist) horses.
This was a blatant violation of the Federal government's power, and it just wasn't going to fly. It seemed the issue of Missouri's statehood had come back to haunt Clay.
Clay, however, had a plan. (The guy always had plans.)
Northern Congressman found the blatant racial provisions less than completely awesome, but the real problem was the threat this clause represented to Federal authority. You don't just get to make up rules about who gets to live in your state: that's Federal territory.
So Clay suggested that the clause be allowed under one condition: that the clause wasn't allowed to interfere with/ muck up the rights of free U.S. citizens. The Missouri State Legislature agreed, and Clay got the fairly sweet nickname "Great Compromiser" for his role in First and Second Missouri Compromises.
Clay definitely used his shiny new nickname to amp up his political career: "Hey, my name's Henry. But you can just call me the Great Compromiser—G.C. for short." And he'd continue to engage in strong-arming tactics and shady almost-outright corruption for the rest of his career… right up until his death in 1852.
While the guy had an enormous impact on American politics, it's hard to see the man outside his whole "let's keep slavery a thing" shtick and his incessant drive to improve America's rep, regardless of the consequences.
He was an advocate of a bunch of foreign wars and was big on Manifest Destiny—you know, the idea that would lead to the slaughter of Native Americans. He was basically #1 self-serving politician of his day. Despite this, it is clear that he cared deeply about the Union and thought he was serving its best interests.
Which, in a happy coincidence for Clay, just so happened to be his own interest as well. Huh. What are the odds?