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Senate Leader Apologizes

March 14, 1841

Image of Senator Henry Clay

Three major portraits of Henry Clay occupy prime space in the Capitol. In each of them, the Kentucky statesman wears the genial look of a man confident about his place in history. In March of 1841, however, Clay looked worried. He was in deep trouble.

The trouble began when Senator William King of Alabama rose on the Senate floor to defend a fellow Democrat against a verbal attack by Clay, a leader of the Whig Party. For years, the two men had clashed over the era's great polarizing issues.

The issue that divided King and Clay at the start of the new Congress in March 1841 related to selection of a private contractor to handle the Senate's printing needs. With the Whigs now in control of the Senate's majority, Clay as their leader had sought to dismiss Democrat Francis Blair, editor of the Washington Globe, as official Senate printer and to hire a Whig printer. Clay said he "believed the Globe to be an infamous paper, and its chief editor an infamous man." When King responded that Blair's character would "compare gloriously" to that of Clay, the Kentucky senator jumped to his feet and shouted, "That is false, it is a slanderous base and cowardly declaration and the senator knows it to be so."

King answered ominously, "Mr. President, I have no reply to make—none whatever. But Mr. Clay deserves a response." King then wrote out a challenge to a duel and delivered it to Clay. Only then did Clay realize what trouble his hasty words had unleashed.

As Clay and King selected seconds and prepared for the imminent encounter, the Senate sergeant at arms arrested both men and turned them over to a local court. Clay posted a $5,000 bond as assurance that he would keep the peace, "and particularly towards William R. King." King insisted on "an unequivocal apology."

On March 14, 1841, Clay formally apologized to King and noted that he should have kept his intense feelings to himself. King then delivered his own apology. After King finished, Clay walked to the Alabama senator's desk and said sweetly, "King, give us a pinch of your snuff." As both men shook hands, senators burst into applause. Clay brightened and once again looked as if he were ready for the portrait painter.