Henry Clay was known throughout his life as an orator, statesman and peacekeeper. Born 12 April 1777, the son of a Virginian farmer, his father died and left him heir to two slaves of his own when Henry was only four. His stepfather moved the family to Richmond, Virginia, where Henry went to work as a shop assistant, and later in the Court of Chancery. He showed an aptitude for law and received his legal education at the College of William and Mary. After being accepted to the bar, he set up a law practice in Lexington, Kentucky in 1797.
Henry Clay became known for his legal skills, which led to a lengthy career in politics. In 1803, he was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly and advocated the state’s gradual emancipation of slavery.
It was the beginning of a long career in politics. Clay would be appointed to various seats and elected three times to the United States House of Representatives where he served as Speaker of the House. He was the ninth United States Secretary of State and served four times as a United States Senator.
The Missouri Compromise
Henry Clay watched as the balance of power between slaveholders and antislavery advocates swung back and forth and feared for the growth and stability of the United States, a nation still in its infancy. In 1820, the Missouri Territory, part of the Louisiana Purchase, applied for statehood. Admission would mean that there would be twelve slave states to eleven free. In an effort to keep the peace in Congress, Clay proposed the Missouri Compromise in which Missouri would be allowed to enter as a slave state and the state of Maine would enter the Union as free soil. It also determined that any states north of the latitude 36degrees 30minutes would be free, with Missouri as the only exception.
Clay prevented the South’s first threat to secede over the Tariff of 1828. The tariff was intended to help protect the industry growth in the north. But it also put a financial burden on the agricultural south. The state of South Carolina refused to pay the tariffs and threatened secession. Matters grew worse until Clay brokered a deal in Congress to gradually lower the tariffs. It was a clear warning signal that tensions between the North and South over economics and slavery were mounting.
The Compromise of 1850
Henry Clay also foresaw that admitting Texas as a slave state would increase tension over slavery and provoke Mexico into war. He would later propose resolutions known as the Compromise of 1850 to appease both North and South over expansion policies regarding slavery.
In spite of his heritage as a slave owner and representative of a slave state, Henry Clay served the Union until his death from tuberculosis on 29 June 1852 at the age of 75. Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi said of Clay, “Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.”
Read about slavery in the US in American Slavery: History In An Hour and the civil war in The American Civil War: History In An Hour both published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats and as a downloadable audio.
See also article on the Missouri Compromise of 1820.