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Clay got a taste of politics early. When he was three years old, he watched as British troops invaded and plundered his family's home.
A native Virginian, Clay moved to Kentucky to practice law in 1797 and teach at Lexington's Transylvania University (no, that's not a typo). He was soon elected to the state assembly. In 1806, at the tender age of 29—several months short of the required age to be a senator he was appointed to the U.S. Senate to fill out the term of the man who had resigned the post. When he got back home to Kentucky, he was elected Speaker of the state House of Representatives. He didn't win any friends in Kentucky by pushing for the abolition of slavery while he was Speaker.
Clay returned for another year in the U.S. Senate before moving to the House, where he was elected on his first day as Speaker and where he spent the next ten years. He was a strong supporter of the War of 1812 and took a year off from the Senate to be part of the delegation that signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War.
After the war, Americans were united in national pride and were, for a while at least, able to set aside regional differences. Clay proposed a sweeping national agenda to coordinate agriculture, manufacturing, and commerce throughout the country. He called it the "American System" (source). It involved spending federal funds on internal improvements (roads, canals, etc.), tariffs to protect American manufacturing, and a national bank to stabilize the economy. He thought that selling western lands would be a great way to fund these ambitious projects.
You can imagine how Andrew Jackson would feel about this.
Clay had made some successful deals early on in his career, earning him the nickname, "the Great Compromiser." He was born into a Virginian slaveholding family, but he spent much of his time as a politician holding off the expansion of the slave system the best he could. The first instance of this was pushing through the 1819 "Missouri Compromise," which defused some regional arguments about slavery by permitting slavery in Missouri in exchange for prohibitions in other states and territories.
His negotiation skills were legend. He even got John C. Calhoun to support a tariff in 1816, and we all know how Calhoun felt about tariffs. Despite all this, trouble was attracted to Clay like a bear to honey. And trouble also happened to be Andrew Jackson's middle name.
For those of you keeping tabs, go ahead and add Henry Clay to your ever-expanding list of "People Who Hated Andrew Jackson." Clay was one of the men who criticized Jackson after his foray into Pensacola in 1818 despite lack of presidential and congressional authorization. This started a long history of trouble between the two. Clay always found himself in the middle of a rock and a hard place, but to his credit he always managed to get that rock and that hard place to shake hands and reach a compromise. That is, until he met Andrew Jackson.
Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, Treasury Secretary William Crawford, and John Quincy Adams were all running for president in 1824. Calhoun was also running, but he withdrew his candidacy before the election. Clay came in fourth. When no candidate secured a majority of the votes, the decision was thrown to the House, where Clay happened to be speaker.
As we know, Jackson's supporters ended up calling the election result a "Corrupt Bargain" because Clay gave Adams his support, and was nominated as Adams' Secretary of State.
Once Jackson was president, it became his pet project to destroy many aspects of Clay's American system. He vetoed sending on infrastructure within states and vetoed the charter of the Second Bank of the U.S.
Clay returned to the Senate after a short and sweet retirement. He'd continue to serve from 1831-1842 and again from 1849 until he died.
Clay gained a reputation in the Senate as a great orator. He was described someone who possessed "the true oratorical temperament, that force of nervous exaltation that makes the orator feel himself, and appear to others, a superior being, and almost irresistibly transfuses his thoughts, his passions, and his will into the mind and heart of the listener" (source). And he used his first speech as a senator to launch an all-out attack on Jackson and defend his own American System.
Clay ultimately helped to create a political party that rivaled the Jacksonian Democrats: the Whigs. Both Clay and Calhoun figured they could form a united front against the Jacksonian Democrats, creating a party that was more business-friendly; a party that wanted the national bank to remain intact, and that supported federal involvement in domestic infrastructure improvements.
Despite the mutual antagonism between him and Jackson, Clay managed to briefly put his disagreements aside and helped to broker the deal that would put an end to the Nullification Crisis by crafting the more acceptable Tariff of 1833.
Clay remained a popular figure in the political realm for the rest of his career, putting himself out there as a figure who opposed Jackson "the tyrant" but also as someone that believed in the power of working together. He became hugely influential in the creation of the Compromise of 1850, postponing a civil war for several more years. Clay's lifetime ambition had been to be president; he ran five times, but lost every time.
You know us Americans—we like fighters, not compromisers.