Henry Clay, a member of that antebellum Great Triumvirate of Senators Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, served intermittently in the Senate from 1806 until his death in 1852. His longest span of service ended in 1842, when he resigned from the Senate to prepare for the upcoming 1844 presidential election. This marked his third and final attempt at winning the presidency, a goal he would never achieve.
Henry Clay of Kentucky“Harry of the West”remains the epitome of a United States senator. Possessed of a keen intellect and elegant manner, Clay could both beguile and enrage his colleagues with equal ease. He was the master of debate, persuading even his most adamant opponents to forge those compromises so important to successful legislation. Ambitious, arrogant, even dictatorial, but always eloquent and charming, Clay dominated the American political scene for 40 years as state legislator, U.S. representative and senator, diplomat, cabinet member, and presidential candidate. It was in the Senate, however, that Clay shone the brightest. In the elegant and intimate Senate Chamber, his unique talents and personality were perfectly suited to the needs of the world’s “greatest deliberative body.”
Born in Hanover County, Virginia, in 1777, Henry Clay was an intelligent and gifted child but had little interest in formal education. As he later confessed, he often “relied too much upon the resources of my genius.” While still a teen, however, he came to the attention of the noted jurist George Wythe, the Revolutionary-era teacher of Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall. Wythe took Clay on as secretary, and became his instructor in law, history, and the classics, instilling a profound respect for learning in the young man. After receiving his law degree in 1797, Clay began practicing in the frontier city of Lexington, Kentucky, where he married into one of Kentucky’s wealthiest and most respected families. Clearly, an impressive political career loomed on the horizon.
Clay entered the Kentucky state legislature in 1803, where he quickly gained attention from his peers and the public. Even at this young age, his oratorical skills were renown. No one was surprised when, three years later, that same state legislature elected the 29-year-old Henry Clay to the United States Senate. Despite the fact that he had not yet reached the age of 30, the constitutionally required age for U.S. senators, Clay took his seat in the U.S. Capitol, launching a 40-year career in national politics that included a total of 16 years in the Senate. By the time of his death in 1852, Henry Clay would serve in every major political office with the exception of the one he desired the mostthe presidency.
Clay first forged a national identity in the House of Representatives, where he was elected Speaker on his first day of service and soon became the political leader of the dominant Jeffersonian Republican Party. In 1815 President James Madison appointed him as one of the negotiators of the treaty with Great Britain ending the War of 1812. During this time, Clay began to articulate his “American System” for national development, a plan that included protective tariffs to promote domestic products, a centralized banking system, and an ambitious plan for internal improvements such as roads, canals, and ports. With his origins in the Republican Party of the early 19th century, Clay became a principal architect of the new Whig Party that defined American politics from the 1830s to the 1850s. Three times, first as a Republican and then as a Whig, he ran for president, but that goal remained elusive.
Henry Clay is best remembered as “the Great Compromiser.” Beginning with the admission of Missouri into the Union in 1820, and lasting through the monumental Compromise of 1850 that staved off civil war for another decade, Clay served as a unifier, repeatedly bringing the competing interests of North and South, abolitionists and slaveholders, to the bargaining table of the U.S. Senate. Clay’s longest period of service in the Senate ended in 1842. At that time, he resigned his Senate seat with the intention of mounting a new presidential campaign. On March 31, 1842, with tears in his eyes, Clay bid the Senate “a long, a last, a friendly farewell.” It proved to be a premature valedictory, but it went as follows.
At the time of my entry into this body, . . . I regarded it, and still regard it, as a body which may be compared, without disadvantage, to any of a similar character which has existed in ancient or modern times. . . .
[D]uring my long and arduous services in the public councils, and especially . . . in the Senate, the same ardor of temperament has characterized my actions, and has no doubt led me, in the heat of debate . . . to use language offensive and susceptible of ungracious interpretation towards my brother senators.
If there be any who entertain a feeling of dissatisfaction resulting from any circumstance of this kind, I beg to assure them that I now make the amplest apology. . . . I assure the Senate, one and all, without exception and without reserve, that I leave the Senate Chamber without carrying with me to my retirement a single feeling of dissatisfaction towards the Senate itself or any one of its members. I go from it under the hope that we shall mutually consign to perpetual oblivion whatever of personal animosities or jealousies may have arisen between us during the repeated collisions of mind with mind.
. . . I beg leave to deposit with [the Senate] my fervent wishes, that all the great and patriotic objects for which it was instituted, may be accomplished—that the destiny designed for it by the framers of the Constitution may be fulfilled—that the deliberations now and hereafter, in which it may engage for the good of our common country, may eventuate in the restoration of its prosperity, and in the preservation and maintenance of her honor abroad, and her best interests at home. . . . May the blessings of Heaven rest upon the heads of the whole Senate, and every member of it; . . . and when they shall retire to the bosoms of their respective constituencies, may they all meet there that most joyous and grateful of all human rewards, the exclamation of their countrymen, “well done thou good and faithful servants.”1
Denied the presidency again in 1844, he returned to the Senate for three tumultuous and pivotal years, 1849 to 1852. Those final years proved to be Clay’s greatest challenge of all, as a statesman, an orator, and compromiser. In the last great effort by the Great Triumvirate to shape the destiny of the nation, Clay presented the Senate with a series of resolutions designed to calm the argument over slavery, settle the dispute over westward expansion, and hopefully avoid the secession of southern states and preserve the Union. His “omnibus bill” went down to defeat in 1850, but individually each resolution was passed, and civil war was once again avoided.
Clay enjoyed a national reputation as a western orator who colored his speech with entertaining stories tailored for a wide audience. He adopted a deliberative style that made effective use of calculated pauses, well-timed body gestures, and simple arguments. As Clay himself admitted on several occasions, the heat of debate often led him to harsh criticism of his opponents, and certainly placed him among the best-loved but also most-hated men in American politics. When he decided to resign from the Senate in 1842 to once again pursue the presidency, one contemporary likened it to “the soul’s quitting the body.”
In a fitting tribute to Clay and to the nature of the Senate, his colleague and strongest opponent, John C. Calhoun, commented: “I don’t like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn’t speak to him, but, by God, I love him!”
1. Congressional Globe, 27th Congress, 2d sess., 1842, 376-7.