Henry Clay was one of the most influential American politicians of the early-to-mid 18th century. Born in Virginia, Clay is most closely associated with the state of Kentucky. Clay served as one of the state’s Senators, then one of its Representatives (ascending to the role of Speaker of the House) and then returned to the Senate. In addition to being a dominant presence in Congress, Clay also served as the 9th Secretary of State and mounted three unsuccessful runs for President. Nicknamed The Great Compromiser, Clay helped found The Whig Party and dominated American politics for decades.
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Henry Clay was more than just a fancy speechifier. Early in his career, Clay served as the defense attorney for Aaron Burr when Burr was called before a Lexington Grand Jury in 1806. Clay’s fellow Kentuckian, Humphrey Marshall, first cousin to US Supreme Court Justice John Marshall and a staunch federalist, became Clay’s bitter enemy after he represented Burr. In 1809 Marshall opposed a bill Clay had authored requiring Kentucky state legislators to wear clothes made from homespun cloth rather than imported British broadcloth. Tensions flared, and Clay challenged Marshall to a duel. (You would think Burr would have tipped him off that this was a bad idea.) Both men were wounded in the ensuing duel, but both survived.
THE AMERICAN SYSTEM Clay was a legislative mastermind, but not even he could not fully realize his pet project: The American System. First introduced by Clay in an 1824 speech, the American System was a plan to link the developing United States together economically. The American System had three objectives: 1) Improving Transportation—Improving infrastructure to allow the exchange of goods between different parts of America, 2) Raising Revenue—The government would raise money by selling public lands and instituting a tariff, and 3) Maintaining a Federal Bank—A strong federal bank was essential to maintaining American currency. Unfortunately for Clay, his fellow legislators soured on specific objectives of the American System. South Carolinian congressman John C. Calhoun notably referred to the tariff the “Tariff of Abominations.”
AMERICAN COLONIZATION SOCIETY
Henry Clay was an early founder of the American Colonization Society (ACS). This group aimed to resettle African Americans who were not enslaved on the west coast of Africa. Born out of racial fears, the ACS was a strange mix of slaveholders (like Clay) and abolitionists. The ACS purchased the land that would later become the country of Liberia, which named its capital, Monrovia, after James Monroe—a supporter of the ACS movement.
THE CORRUPT BARGAIN Clay first ran for president in 1824, a momentous election which pitted five candidates against each other. War hero Andrew Jackson managed to secure the largest share of the popular vote as well as the most electoral votes. However, Jackson failed to secure a majority of electoral votes. This circumstance threw the election to the House of Representatives. Clay, then Speaker of the House, used his influence to help secure the election for John Quincy Adams. Once in the White House, Adams appointed Clay as Secretary of State. Andrew Jackson interpreted this as a quid-pro-quo and denounced the proceeding as a “Corrupt Bargain,” a slogan which would be the rallying cry for his ultimately successful 1828 presidential candidacy.
THE GREAT COMPROMISER
A member of the Great Triumvirate of US Congressmen (alongside Calhoun and Webster), Clay knew a thing or two about crafting a compromise. He was one of the senior negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent. Several years later, he was instrumental in the passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This tendency for compromise lasted almost to the end of Clay’s life. Suffering from tuberculosis at 72, Clay still proposed an omnibus bill that would eventually become The Compromise of 1850.
Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:
Despite Clay’s support for the American Colonization Society, he had few compunctions about keeping his own slaves.
While advocating for the Compromise of 1850, Clay brought an unusual prop into the Old Senate Chamber.
Read this article to learn more about each of the candidates in the “Corrupt Bargain” election of 1824.
Would Clay’s idea have worked? Check out this video for a quick overview of the American System:
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