Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Henry Clay

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CLAY, Henry (1777-1852), a celebrated American politician, born near Richmond, in Virginia, on the 12th April 1777, was the son of a Baptist minister, who died when Henry was only five years old. His youth was consequently spent in some hardship, and for a time he worked on a farm; but at the age of fifteen he obtained a situation in the office of the clerk of the Court of Chancery. Having gained some influential friends, he began in 1796 to study law under Robert Brooke, the attorney-general. In 1797 he was admitted to the bar, and in the end of that year he commenced to practise in Lexington. His great power of influencing a jury soon brought him a flourishing practice; and having taken a prominent part in the discussions as to the constitution which was drawn up for the State of Kentucky, he was in 1803 chosen member of the Legislature of that State. Three years later he became for a few months member of the Senate of the United States. In the next year he again took his seat in the Legislature of Kentucky, of which in 1808 he was appointed speaker. It was during this session that he challenged a fellow-member, who had attacked him warmly in debate. The meeting took place; two shots were fired, and both parties were slightly wounded. In 1811 he became at once member for the first time and speaker of the House of Congress, and he subsequently held the latter position four times. All his energies were now devoted to bringing about a declaration of war with Great Britain, and maintaining the contest with all the vigour possible. At the end of the war (1814) he was appointed one of the commissioners who was sent to Ghent to conclude the treaty of peace, and it was he who caused the erasure of the clause allowing Great Britain to navigate the Mississippi. During his visit to Europe he spent two months at Paris, enjoying the society of which Mme. de Staël was the queen. On his return to America he was again made speaker of Congress. In 1824 he allowed himself to be nominated for the office of president; but the election did not give to any one the required majority, and the decision between the three who had obtained the greatest number of votes had to be made by Congress. Clay, who had been fourth on the list, gave his support to Quincy Adams, whence arose his second duel, that with John Randolph, in which neither was hurt. Under Adams Clay accepted the post of secretary of state. In 1832 he was again candidate for the presidency, and again unsuccessfully; and in 1844 he was nominated for the third time with a similar result. He now retired from public life; but in 1848 he was again called into the Senate; and in 1850 he carried a bill, which sought to avert the great battle on the slavery question. In 1851, however, the weakness of his health prevented him from taking any part in public life; and on the 29th July of the next year he died. On receiving the news of his death Congress adjourned; next day orations in his praise were delivered in both houses; and the day of his funeral was observed in New York and in all the chief towns of the State to which he belonged.

Henry Clay commenced his political career in 1799 by attempting to persuade the State of Virginia to abolish slavery. He never, however, made any attempt to free the whole country from the system; indeed the effect of his policy (and the most important of his measures were those concerning slavery) was to maintain it. His name is connected with the “Missouri Compromise,” which, while abolishing slavery in all other States north of lat. 36º 30′, permitted it in Missouri, and with several other measures sanctioning slavery in the slave States. His bill of 1850, nicknamed the “omnibus bill,” provided that New Mexico and Utah, the States newly acquired from Mexico, should be left to their own discretion as to slavery, and that California should be received into the Union as a slave State; while, on the other hand, slavery should be prohibited in Columbia. Another most important feature of Clay's policy was the desire to free America from European control, which led him to advocate, in some of his most powerful speeches, the recognition of the independence of the South American republics which had revolted from Spain. The part he took in the war with England has been already noticed. His action with regard to the tariff was not uniform; in 1832 he proposed to reduce gradually a large number of duties, but afterwards he more than once sought to make it more protective. Though first opposed to the establishment of a national bank, he subsequently spoke vigorously in its favour. For some time he was president of the Colonization Society. See the edition of his speeches and writings, with a life by Calvin Colton (1857 and 1864).