ABOUT HENRY CLAY
Known as the “Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay (1777-1852) of Kentucky served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He was Speaker of the House, U.S. secretary of state, and a perennial Whig presidential candidate. During an illustrious political career that spanned almost half a century, Clay crafted three major legislative compromises in an attempt to resolve the sectional struggle threatening the Union.
Clay promoted the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850, both designed to solve the problem of admitting new western states while maintaining a delicate balance between the free states of the North and the slave states of the South. In 1850 Clay’s “omnibus bill” offered concessions to the North, such as admitting California as a free state, but also provided solace to the South by enacting a tougher fugitive slave law. He died in 1852, believing that the Union had been saved. By 1861, however, political compromise had broken down and the nation plunged into civil war.
Clay’s legacy as the "Great Compromiser" was so strong that it influenced the decision of his home state of Kentucky to remain loyal to the Union. Kentucky’s strategic position as a border state was so vital to the Union effort that Abraham Lincoln reportedly exclaimed, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”