Born in 1777, Henry Clay made his debut into the public square as a Kentucky senator, where he had been practicing law on the frontier. He was just 29 years old and would spend the rest of his life in public service. Clay continued to pursue political experience when he became a U.S. Representative in 1811 and one of the “War Hawks” who were pressuring for war with Britain, though he also became of of the five delegates to broker peace in Belgium, once the conflict ended and America’s complete independence determined.
Having been chosen as Speaker of the House on his first day in session, Clay quickly earned the nickname “The Great Compromiser“. His political career was marked by skillfully negotiating peaceful terms between feisty sides, whether that meant the Missouri Compromise of 1820 for continuing expansion westward or introducing the bill allowing California to enter the Union as a non-slave state. Additionally, he was a strong proponent of the “American System,” which implemented the Hamiltonian model of using federal funding to build infrastructure and create a national bank. Without these measures, it is highly dubious that the American economy would be what it is today.
In the election of 1824, Clay threw his weight behind John Quincy Adams and was appointed as the Secretary of State within his cabinet, although this instigated animosity with Andrew Jackson, who returned again and won the next term. Clay himself was never able to secure the presidency, although he was the Whig Party candidate for the election of 1844. The deciding issue of the election was the annexation of Texas, which Clay was opposed to due to since it would throw off the balance of slave vs. non-slave states and severely aggregate Mexico. Clay viewed slavery as “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country” and upon losing his fifth presidential election, he famously remarked,
I’d rather be right than be president.
Notably, Abraham Lincoln cast his first presidential vote for Clay and would eventually deliver a moving eulogy on the statesman he regarded so highly. In a letter to Clay’s son John, Lincoln once wrote,
I recognize his (Clay’s) voice, speaking as it ever spoke, for the Union, the Constitution, and the freedom of Mankind.
Henry Clay died in 1852 of tuberculosis and is the first person to be buried in the Capitol rotunda, given his lifetime of leadership, peacemaking, and public service to the United States of America.
The Gryphon Editions consultation has placed Henry Clay on our list of the 100 Most Influential People because he is largely responsible for the economic measures that fostered the American powerhouse and the fact that his compromises held the Union together long enough for the North to gain the strength to win. The story of this great man will be immortalized once again in our leather-bound biography, part of our 100 Most Influential People Library.