Study Guide

Henry Clay in Treaty of Ghent

By John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, J.A. Bayard, Jonathan Russell, Albert Gallatin, Henry Goulburn, William Adams, James Gambier

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Henry Clay

American Hawk

When Henry Clay was three years old, his family home was ransacked by the British during the Revolutionary War (source). No wonder he grew up to become a War Hawk.

A precocious leader, famous compromiser, shameless gambler, and infamous ladies' man—Henry Clay was arguably the most colorful figure to be involved with the Treaty of Ghent.

Clay was elected Speaker as soon as he made it into the House of Representatives in 1811.ot bad for a first day on the job (at that point most people are still learning how to use the copy machine). Over a political career spanning around fifty years, he became one of the most important legislators in the history of United States government.

As Speaker, Clay became the leader of the War Hawks (source), an anti-British faction agitating about British meddling in U.S. trade and shipping matters.

The Hawks mostly came from the South and West. They believed America's territorial expansion and domestic economic development were priorities, and woe to anyone that stood in the way of that (source).

Compared to the New England Federalists of the early 1800s, who supported preserving a trading relationship with Britain, Clay and the War Hawks were eager to stick it to the British in retaliation for impressment. Clay's leadership was a big reason that America ended up in the War of 1812, so it made sense that Madison later sent him to help clean up the mess.

Partying and Negotiating

Clay was the other main American negotiator at Ghent, alongside John Quincy Adams (source). The two men had very divergent personalities. Adams was a straight arrow, while Clay famously liked to stay up late, play cards, and flirt.

Idea for HBO drama: think The West Wing crossed with Ballers.

His main contribution to the negotiating process was talking down Britain on their demand for navigation rights on the Mississippi River (source). This was a major win for the United States, as it essentially barred the British from expanding their interests south of the Great Lakes. With the river passageway blocked to foreign interests, the frontier was wide open to American expansion.

Clay's role in the Ghent negotiations foreshadowed his future political achievements. After the war was over, the legislature was ready to get down to the business of domestic policy. Clay came up some big ideas that he pitched to President Madison wrapped up in a package called "The American System."

The ideas, which Adams adopted, including building federally-funded roads and canals that would connect different regions and improve business possibilities. He imagined a beefed-up standing army and navy and a national university that would promote scientific advancement. All this would be financed by land sales, protective tariffs that would favor American manufacturers over imported goods and national bank that would help stabilize the currency.

Congress approved some of these proposals, but when Andrew Jackson got to the White House, he was dead against a national bank and any federal spending on infrastructure. The American System lost its mojo.

I Walk the Line

Over the next thirty years Clay became known as "the Great Compromiser" for brokering deals between Northern and Southern states that held off the Civil War, at least for a while. The deal-of-the-century Louisiana Purchase had doubled the size of the country just about overnight, and the Senate was mighty anxious about whether any new states carved out of the territory would want to be free or slave states.

In the Missouri Compromise (1820) and the Compromise of 1850 Clay pulled some legislative rabbits out of his hat and brokered compromises that would keep the number of free and slave states equal. It pacified north and south (although neither were really happy about either compromise), kept the Senate in balance for the time being and managed to hold off secession until 1860.

In arguing for his compromise in 1850, Clay, tired of the political bickering that was keeping anything from getting done, had this to say:

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)

Some things never change.

Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

Clay's sense of principle, mixed with political shrewdness and a knack for striking deals, made him both loved and hated in Washington D.C.

The perfect example of this? Clay was nominated for president three times, but went 0-3 in his at-bats. Of his repeated losses Clay once said "I had rather be right than be president."

Clay died in 1852. Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote, who worked closely with Clay on the Compromise of 1850, said of him, "Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-'61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war" (source).

Clay was right about a lot of things. Could the Great Compromiser have been able to pull something out of his bag of tricks to avert secession? We'll never know, but his negotiating skills, starting with the Treaty of Ghent, are the stuff of political legend.

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