Henry Clay

"Henry Clay"
William Warner, Jr., after painting by John Neagle

"The United States Senate, A.D. 1850."
Robert Whitechurch, after Peter Frederick Rothermel


Henry Clay

He was the leader of the Whig senators, he was the greatest orator—the fire of his eyes—his voice was distinct and clear, rich and captivating. His head hung on a long neck. When speaking he would step forward and backward. He was rather restless when sitting in his seat. He was remarkably fond of snuff and he often displayed bad temper to me and brought blushes to my little face. When I would go to him with messages from ladies and gentlemen sometimes I thought he was excusable. Often when he was preparing to speak he was swayed by persons sending to him to admit them to the floor of the Senate to hear him speak. He was not over cautious in debate of phrases and epithets.

I shall never forget that Henry Clay was tall and slender his mouth was large, his forehead high. As an orator he ranked the highest, his style when speaking was peculiarly happy his voice was deep and commanding. His actions when speaking were graceful. I must be permitted to say that from the time I entered the Senate as a page up to the time that I penned these words which is the 14th day of May 1885, I have never heard his equal as an orator. [19A4]

Thursday Feby. 2, 1832

Mr. Clay spoke in reply to Mr. Hayne’s speech, another immense crowd attended. The ladies had the blessing of the two pages for they had to bring the chairs in and I must say that they were put closer together than I ever saw them before. Every inch was occupied, even the platform of the vice president’s desk was occupied by the ladies. After Mr. Clay had concluded his speech for that day the Senate adjourned on account of he being very much fatigued. A very handsome lady beckoned to me to come to her. She was sitting very near to Mr. Clay and said these very words, “Won’t you go to Mr. Clay and say that a lady wishes to kiss him for that speech?” That it was the grandest that she had ever heard him make and she had heard him make most all of his speeches in the Senate. That lady was the wife of a senator. Of course I declined to deliver her message for while she was talking to me Mr. Clay passed out of the door of the Senate. On Monday Feby. 6, Mr. Clay finished his speech. He spoke more than three hours. The crowd was greater than on any former day. In the galleries men stood on each other’s shoulders and it was impossible for us to furnish seats on the floor. The ladies stood in “Compact Mass,” and this for five hours. This speech is published in the National Intelligencer of Jany. 14, 1832. [19A5]

Henry Clay

In the Senate January 11, 1832 made one of his powerful speeches on a resolution submitted by him that the existing duties upon articles imported from foreign countries ought to be forthwith abolished. The Senate Chamber on this day was crowded with ladies and gentlemen. Even the floor was taken possession of by the ladies and we poor little pages had to bring chairs in and place them between the seats of the senators. This was the day that I stepped on that lady’s corn that I speak of in another part of my notes which created quite an excitement.

Quite an exciting scene occurred to February 6, 1832 between Mr. Clay and Mr. Smith of Maryland. Immediately after Mr. Clay finished speaking, Mr. Smith took the floor and replied to Mr. Clay. In the conclusion of his remarks, he said he could draw a picture of the gentleman, but he would refrain. Mr. Clay under great excitement defied him. Mr. Smith said he should take his own time. Mr. Clay alluded to the age of Mr. Smith—now about eighty. Mr. Smith replied that he would have him to know that he was not too old, that he was prepared to meet him on any and every occasion. [19A6-19A7]

Editor's Note:

Henry Clay, a native of Virginia, moved to Kentucky where he practiced law with great success. He entered the Kentucky legislature, eventually serving as Speaker, before moving to the U.S. Senate in 1806, and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811. He was elected Speaker on his first day in the House and quickly made a name for himself by fueling anti-British sentiment and helping bring about the War of 1812. In 1814 he served as one of the commissioners negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. In 1825 Clay was appointed secretary of state under John Quincy Adams, a position he held until 1829. Subsequently he was elected to the U.S. Senate, from 1831 to 1842, and again from 1849 to 1852. Clay distinguished himself as one of the Senate’s most effective and influential members. He earned the title “Great Compromiser” by crafting three major legislative compromises over the course of 30 years. Each time, he pulled the United States from the brink of civil war. Of interest in this story is the account of young Bassett stepping on a lady's foot. He also attributes this incident to January 26, 1830 (see "Webster's Reply to Hayne" under the "Events" theme).

People, Places, & Things:

  • Snuff - Snuff is a type of finely ground tobacco that is inhaled through the nose, it was popular in the 19th century.
  • Page - For more than 175 years, messengers known as pages have served the U.S. Senate. Page duties consist primarily of delivering correspondence and legislative material within the Capitol complex. Other duties include preparing the Senate Chamber for Senate sessions, and carrying bills and amendments to the presiding officer’s desk.
  • Senator Robert Young Hayne’s Speech - In this speech Hayne argued that maintaining high protective tariffs on imports would ruin the southern region’s economy, which depended upon these goods. In opposition to that position, Henry Clay launched into a three-day speech entitled “In Defense of the American System,” arguing the importance of maintaining the tariffs.
  • Vice President - Under the Constitution, the vice president serves as president of the Senate. In the Senate Chamber, the vice president sits on the platform at the front of the Senate. He is allowed to vote only in the case of a tie. The president pro tempore, or others designated by that officer, presides in the absence of the vice president.
  • Samuel Smith (Democratic Republican, Crawford Republican/Jacksonian - MD) U.S. senator 1803-1815 and 1822-1833.