Life & Contributions

The American statesman Henry Clay was a longtime public servant in Washington, holding just about every high office except the presidency, which he wanted most of all. Nevertheless, his influence on the nation’s domestic and foreign policies was remarkable, spanning nearly half a century.

Clay is best remembered for his service in Congress. He had already been a senator from Kentucky when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810 and was immediately chosen as Speaker. He was one of the War Hawks, arguing that Great Britain’s continuing violation of the rights of neutral nations on the high seas demanded a military response. Congress declared war in 1812, and Clay was one of the peace commissioners who negotiated the treaty that ended it. Returning to the House, he promoted his American System, which called for federal support of commerce and economic development, specifically for roads and canals, and for high tariffs to protect American industries.

As secretary of state to President John Quincy Adams, Clay oversaw the settlement of twelve commercial treaties. His emphasis on U.S. economic expansionism proved to be a harbinger of modern U.S. diplomacy.

But Clay was also a master of domestic diplomacy. Three times, as a congressman and as a senator, he crafted compromises that settled tensions between North and South over slavery. In 1820–21 his Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri to gain statehood as a slave state, balanced by the admission of Maine as a free state. In 1833 his Compromise Tariff quieted a dispute with South Carolina over state’s rights and nullification. And in 1850 he designed a series of measures that would resolve issues relating to slavery in the territories, the slave trade, and the return of slave fugitives. The debate in the Senate is one of the most famous. “I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to Which I owe my allegiance,” Clay proclaimed. “My allegiance is to this Union.”1Henry Clay, speech to U.S. Senate, February 5–6, 1850, quoted in “Henry Clay: Compromise and Union,” Constitutional Rights Foundation website, crf-usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-24-3-c-henry-clay-compromise-and-union (accessed March 13, 2020) Clay tried to hold the Union together, and as the Great Compromiser he has been declared by the Senate as one of the greatest senators in its history.

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