Henry Clay the Lawyer (Maurice G. Baxter)

Henry Clay (1777-1852) is best known in American history for being a politician, but like many politicians, he was first a lawyer. What especially distinguishes him in the legal field is the illustrious 50+ years he spent actively practicing law and consequently playing a major role in shaping the modern American legal system. Clay’s legal foundation was established by his instructor Chancellor George Wythe, the same role-model of Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and many other notable figures. Throughout his career, the bulk of his cases were especially focused on land title disputes, and historians and readers alike note this connection with the current political issues of the day, distributing public land to settlers and interstate slave trade. His expertise of the same subject in both practices of politics and law culminated in his influence on the Supreme Court case Groves v Slaughter (1841).

His personal character traits also influenced his professional endeavors. In fact, there are two recorded instances in which rising anger led him to challenge his opponent to a duel. Thankfully neither resulted in significant bloodshed. Though such passion, when properly channeled, became a great asset on the courtroom floor and understandably contributed to his continued success as a lawyer.

This unique analysis of Clay’s career in law begins with an overview of the existing legal system in America within which he practiced he practiced, thus providing a basis for continued discussion on what the legal system ought to look like for posterity. It follows his notable cases of land disputes, banking matters, notably those with the Bank of the United States, and the important constitution cases in which Clay took part. The conclusion reached is this:

The picture that emerges from this study of Clay’s career is one of a skilled lawyer influenced by his political commitments who addressed in an informed way the central legal and economic issues of his day


You can find all these stories and more in our book on this great American figure. Order your own exquisite, leather-bound edition today on our website!DSC01934-1

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