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Clay, Henry,1777–1852, American statesman, b. Hanover co., Va.
His father died when he was four years old, and Clay's formal schooling was limited to three years. His stepfather secured (1792) for him a clerk's position in the Virginia high court of chancery. There he gained the regard of George WytheWythe, George
, 1726–1806, American lawyer, signer of the Declaration of Independence, b. Elizabeth City co., Va. Admitted to the bar in 1746, Wythe was a member (1754–55, 1758–68) and clerk (1769–75) of the house of burgesses.
..... Click the link for more information. , who directed his reading. Clay also read law under Robert Brooke, attorney general of Virginia, and in 1797 he was licensed to practice.
Moving in the same year to Lexington, Ky., he quickly gained wide reputation as a lawyer and orator. He served (1803–6) in the Kentucky legislature and was (1805–7) professor of law at Transylvania Univ. Having spent the short session of 1806–7 in the U.S. Senate, he returned (1807) to the state legislature, became (1808) speaker, and remained there until he was chosen to fill an unexpired term (1810–11) in the U.S. Senate.
In 1810 Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served (1811–14) as speaker. As spokesman of Western expansionist interests and leader of the "war hawks," Clay stirred up enthusiasm for war with Great Britain and helped bring on the War of 1812. He resigned (1814) from Congress to aid in the peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Ghent.
He again served (1815–21) in the House, again was speaker (1815–20), and began to formulate his "American system," a national program that ultimately included federal aid for internal improvements and tariff protection of American industries. In 1821, Clay, to pacify sectional interests, pushed the Missouri CompromiseMissouri Compromise,
1820–21, measures passed by the U.S. Congress to end the first of a series of crises concerning the extension of slavery.
By 1818, Missouri Territory had gained sufficient population to warrant its admission into the Union as a state.
..... Click the link for more information. through the House. In the House for the last time (1823–25), he once more became (1823) speaker, and he did much to augment the powers of that office. In this session he secured the western extension of the National RoadNational Road,
U.S. highway built in the early 19th cent. At the time of its construction, the National Road was the most ambitious road-building project ever undertaken in the United States. It finally extended from Cumberland, Md., to St.
..... Click the link for more information. and, against much opposition, eloquently carried through the Tariff of 1824.
Secretary of State
As a candidate for the presidency in 1824, Clay had the fourth largest number of electoral votes, and, with no candidate having a majority, the election went to the House, where the three highest were to be voted upon. It became Clay's duty to vote for one of his rivals. Despite the Western interests of Andrew JacksonJackson, Andrew,
1767–1845, 7th President of the United States (1829–37), b. Waxhaw settlement on the border of South Carolina and North Carolina (both states claim him). Early Career
A child of the backwoods, he was left an orphan at 14.
..... Click the link for more information. and despite the instructions of the Kentucky legislature to vote for him, Clay's dislike for the military hero was so intense that he voted for John Quincy AdamsAdams, John Quincy,
1767–1848, 6th President of the United States (1825–29), b. Quincy (then in Braintree), Mass.; son of John Adams and Abigail Adams and father of Charles Francis Adams (1807–86).
..... Click the link for more information. . When President Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State, Jackson's friends cried "corrupt bargain" and charged Clay with political collusion. Evidence has not been found to prove this, but the accusation impeded Clay's future political fortunes. As Secretary of State (1825–29), he secured congressional approval—which came too late for the American delegates to attend—of U.S. participation in the Pan-American Congress of 1826.
In 1828, Clay again supported Adams for President, and Jackson's success bitterly disappointed him. Although he intended to retire from politics, Clay was elected (1831) to the U.S. Senate and now led the National Republicans, who were beginning to call themselves Whigs (because they opposed Jackson's "tyranny"; see Whig partyWhig party,
one of the two major political parties of the United States in the second quarter of the 19th cent. Origins
As a party it did not exist before 1834, but its nucleus was formed in 1824 when the adherents of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay joined forces
..... Click the link for more information. ). Hoping to embarrass Jackson, Clay led the opposition in the Senate to the President's policies, but when the election came Jackson was overwhelmingly reelected.
Clay's chagrin was buried in the crisis developing over the tariff. South Carolina's nullificationnullification,
in U.S. history, a doctrine expounded by the advocates of extreme states' rights. It held that states have the right to declare null and void any federal law that they deem unconstitutional.
..... Click the link for more information. of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 as well as Jackson's threats of armed invasion of that state allowed Clay to gain politically—working, even at the cost of his own protectionist views, toward a compromise with the John C. CalhounCalhoun, John Caldwell
, 1782–1850, American statesman and political philosopher, b. near Abbeville, S.C., grad. Yale, 1804. He was an intellectual giant of political life in his day. Early Career
Calhoun studied law under Tapping Reeve at Litchfield, Conn.
..... Click the link for more information. faction, he helped to promote the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
Clay opposed the Jackson regime at every turn, particularly on the bank issue. When Jackson had the deposits removed (1833) from the Bank of the United StatesBank of the United States,
name for two national banks established by the U.S. Congress to serve as government fiscal agents and as depositories for federal funds; the first bank was in existence from 1791 to 1811 and the second from 1816 to 1836.
..... Click the link for more information. to his "pet banks," Clay secured in the Senate passage of a resolution—later expunged (Jan., 1837) from the record—censuring the President for his act.
Refusing to run for President in 1836, Clay continued his opposition tactics against Van Buren's administration and fought the subtreasurysubtreasury.
After President Andrew Jackson vetoed (July 10, 1832) the bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States, the deposits were removed and placed in state banks that came to be called Jackson's "pets.
..... Click the link for more information. system in vain. In 1840, Clay lost the Whig nomination to William H. Harrison, mainly because of Thurlow Weed's adroit politics. Clay supported Harrison and, when Harrison was elected, was offered the post of Secretary of State, but he chose to stay in the Senate. He now planned to reestablish the Bank of the United States, but the unexpected accession of John TylerTyler, John,
1790–1862, 10th President of the United States, b. Charles City co., Va. Early Career
Educated at the College of William and Mary, he studied law under his father, John Tyler (1747–1813), governor of Virginia from 1808 to 1811, and was
..... Click the link for more information. to the presidency and his vetoes of Clay's bills caused Clay to resign his Senate seat.
In 1844 he ran against James K. PolkPolk, James Knox
, 1795–1849, 11th President of the United States (1845–49), b. Mecklenburg co., N.C. Early Career
His family moved (1806) to the Duck River valley in Tennessee and there, after graduating from the Univ.
..... Click the link for more information. , an avowed expansionist. Earlier Clay had publicly opposed the annexation of Texas, and he restated his position in the "Alabama letters," agreeing to annexation if it could be accomplished with the common consent of the Union and without war. This maneuver probably lost him New York state, with which he could have won the election. His failure was crushing for him and for the Whig party. In 1848 his party refused him its nomination, feeling that he had no chance, and his presidential aspirations were never fulfilled.
He reentered (1849) the Senate when the country faced the slavery question in the territory newly acquired following the Mexican WarMexican War,
1846–48, armed conflict between the United States and Mexico. Causes
While the immediate cause of the war was the U.S. annexation of Texas (Dec., 1845), other factors had disturbed peaceful relations between the two republics.
..... Click the link for more information. . Clay denounced the extremists in both North and South, asserted the superior claims of the Union, and was chiefly instrumental in shaping the Compromise of 1850Compromise of 1850.
The annexation of Texas to the United States and the gain of new territory by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the close of the Mexican War (1848) aggravated the hostility between North and South concerning the question of the extension of slavery into the
..... Click the link for more information. . It was the third time that he saved the Union in a crisis, and thus he has been called the Great Pacificator and the Great Compromiser.
See his works (7 vol., 1896) and his papers (ed. by J. Hopkins et al., 11 vol., 1959–92); biographies by C. Schurz (1887, repr. 1968), G. Van Deusen (1937), B. Mayo (1937, repr. 1966), and D. S. and J. T. Heidler (2010); studies by C. Eaton (1957), R. V. Remini (2010), and F. M. Bordewich (2012).