Henry Clay

Henry Clay, known as “The Great Compromiser,” ran for president and lost three times. He spent 35 years trying to resolve the slavery question through Congressional compromise. He was the youngest Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and one of its most powerful and effective ever.

That’s what we learned in school. He never came through as a person.

Charlton Heston played Clay’s arch-enemy Andres Jackson in a major movie, and Jackson was referred to in many others, including Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett.

I can’t recall a single mention of Clay in a movie.

Clay’s Personal, Political War With Andrew Jackson

Clay and Jackson were the most important Americans between the War of 1812 and the Civil War.  Jackson was an an erratic, unpredictable person, a Washington outsider who bent people and situations to his will.

He established the Presidenrcy as the dominant branch of government, above Congress and the courts.  He committed genocide against Native Americans, and won all his political battles against Clay.

Jackson left behind a legacy of controversies, and a larger-than-life persona that still affects American politics and culture, and inspire biographers to this day.

The First Washington Insider

 Clay was the consummate Washington insider, the first career insider, according to a 2010 biography by Jane and David Heidler.  He was a man of Congress and the Establishment, a brilliant legislator and accomplished diplomat, a great lawyer and public speaker.

But personally and politically, he was overshadowed by Jackson.  His grand compromises did not resolve slavery.  And insiders are inherently less exciting than outsiders who change the world.

Youngest Speaker of the House

Clay worked the Washington social circuit as effectively as he did the halls of Congress, and he expanded the power and influence of the House Speaker to make himself a key player in all U.S. policy.

Before Clay, the Speaker merely conducted floor debates like a traffic cop, like the speaker of the British Parliament.

Clay was the first Speaker to appoint all members of all House committees, and he used that usurped power to enforce discipline, reward “good” behavior, and stack committees with majorities to do what he wanted.

That was particularly important in the run-up to the War of 1812. He was leader of the “War Hawks,” the Congressional faction that urged war with England. He was then a member of the three-person delegation that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.

He was the first Speaker to come out of the chair to speak from the floor for or against bills.

The “Corrupt” Backroom Deal

Andrew Jackson

When the country was ready to elect its first Western president in 1824, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, the Washington outsider and war hero, got the most popular votes.

Clay of Kentucky, the “other” Westerner, and consummate Washington insider, finished third. The other top Establishment insider, John Quincy Adams, finished second.

When none of them got a majority in the Electoral College, the election was decided in the House of Representatives.

In an infamous backroom deal, Clay threw the election to Adams in exchange for becoming Secretary of State, a recognized steppingstone to the White House. Jackson was elected four years later, and outmaneuvered Clay for the next eight years.

Clay ran for president two more times, but the ‘corrupt” backroom deal and Insider status were instrumental in his defeat each time.

Slavery Compromises

Before the 13th Amendment was ratified after the Civil War, the central government had no authority to end slavery in the Old South, states that already had it when the Constitution was ratified.

The argumnent was over extending slavery to new states like Missouri.

In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Clay drew a line across Missouri; north would be free, south slave.  The Compromise of 182o closed Kansas to slavery.

But in 1854, the year Clay died, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise. In an effort to open millions of acres to farmers, and build  a transcontinental railroad, Kansas and Nebraska were admitted.

The Act provided for “popular sovereignty.”  Whoever was there on Election Day would vote to decide if the new states would be slave or free.  Pro- and anti-slavery forces rushed into Kansas, and they fought a bloody civil war.


Seidler, David S. and Jeanne T., Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House, 593 pages, 2010

Copyright Ken Braiterman. Contact the author to obtain permission for republicati



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