The New Student's Reference Work/Clay, Henry

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HENRY CLAY

Clay, Henry, a noted American statesman and orator, was born in Hanover County, Virginia, April 12, 1777. His father died when he was five years old, but his mother, a woman of great goodness and force of character, well supplied his place in the boy's training. After a meager amount of schooling, Henry entered a Richmond law-office. Commencing to practice at Lexington, Kentucky, he soon became known as an able lawyer, his high personal gifts, winning address and frank, hearty manner helping him here, as they did all through life. From the first he took an interest in public affairs, and after two years in the state legislature, was chosen United States senator to fill a vacancy. He at once became an advocate of the government's building roads, canals, etc., being known as a loose constructionist of the constitution, as it is called. His short term over, he went back to the Kentucky legislature. This was in the days of duels, and it is not strange that Clay should have fought two, one at this time in Kentucky and, later, one with John Randolph of Virginia, both growing out of politics. In 1809 he was chosen to fill a second vacancy in the senate. In this session he spoke in favor of protection to American manufactures against foreign traders. He also opposed the United States Bank, but later he changed his views in the matter, the only instance in which he ever changed his attitude on a political question. In 1811 he was elected a representative in Congress, and the day on which he took his seat was chosen speaker. He was heartily in favor of war with England, and named his committees with a view to an early declaration of war. The war party was in a majority in the 13th Congress, which met in May, 1813, and again Clay was made speaker. When overtures of peace were made by the British, Clay was appointed one of the commissioners, and helped to draft the treaty of Ghent. Re-elected to Congress while in Europe on this mission, he was chosen speaker for the third time, and, except one term, when he declined an election, he was a representative and speaker until 1825. At this session he made some of his finest speeches, in favor of the South American patriots who were struggling for independence from Spain; later on he was just as eager in behalf of Greece, when fighting to free herself from the yoke of Turkey. In 1821 he brought forward the famous Missouri Compromise; 20 years afterward, when South Carolina wished to secede on the tariff question, he proposed a gradual lowering of the tariff, such as would work the least harm to manufactures; and in 1850 he attempted, by compromise, to settle the slavery question, which his Missouri Compromise had failed to dispose of, and in other ways he stood between the warring factions of north and south, to bring about concessions that would, in a measure, satisfy both sides, thus winning the title of the Great Pacificator.

In 1824 Mr. Clay was one of the four candidates for president, and received 37 electoral votes. In 1832 he ran for president again; but was beaten by Jackson. He was nominated again by the Whigs in 1844, but beaten by Polk, who received 65 more electoral votes. Clay served as secretary of state in John Quincy Adams' cabinet, and, besides filling the two vacancies in the senate referred to, was chosen senator from Kentucky for three full terms. One of those who opposed him politically is on record as saying that as a congressional leader Mr. Clay had no equal in America. He was the most persuasive speaker in the country during what was called the golden age of American oratory. He was, further, most popular with his party, while few men had a larger following of personal friends. He died at Washington, D. C., on June 29, 1852.