Professor Donald Elder – Fifty Greatest Americans- Henry Clay and the Art of Compromise

Apr 29, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder – Fifty Greatest Americans- Henry Clay and the Art of Compromise

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Henry Clay is a person who proverbially stands head and shoulders above many of the many Senators and representatives that we have had in our nation’s history. What do we know about his early education and early experiences?

Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia on April 12, 1777. Clay’s father was a Baptist minister who died when Clay was four years old.  His mother remarried Henry Watkins a year later. Clay went to both a local public school and a church school during his childhood years. Clay’s step-father and mother moved to Kentucky in 1791, but they decided to have him move to Richmond to study law. Clay’s step-father arranged for him to become a clerk in Virginia’s chancery office, and before long Clay became the secretary to the state chancellor. This service was followed by a two-year stint in the Virginia Attorney-General’s office. In 1797, Clay passed the bar examination in Virginia, and decided to follow his family to Kentucky. He became a very successful lawyer, and used that as a basis to launch a political career.

2. What first got him involved in public service and politics?

 Clay was elected in 1803 to the Kentucky state legislature. He was chosen to serve out the remainder of a term in the US Senate in 1806, and when that term expired he returned to Kentucky and was reelected to the state legislature. He was briefly reappointed to fill out a term in the US Senate in 1810, and then won a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1811. He was immediately chosen as the Speaker of the House of Representatives, thus becoming the only person to ever achieve that distinction. Clay became one of the five Americans tasked with bringing the War of 1812 to an end, and played a big role in crafting the peace treaty that accomplished that goal. Clay was chosen by the president-elect John Quincy Adams to be his Secretary of State in 1825, and after leaving that office Clay was sent to the US Senate by the Kentucky legislature. He would serve in that capacity until his death in 1852.

3. When did he receive his title of ” The Great Compromiser” and what were the circumstances that led up to this?

Clay first gained attention as a man who could bring factions together during a crisis in 1820 regarding Missouri. Since the original 13 states had ratified the Constitution, new states had entered the Union by going through a three-stage process.

First, the U.S. Congress would create a territory. Second, that territory would have to reach a population of 60,000 inhabitants. And finally, the territory would have to submit a constitution for approval by Congress.

In 1820, the Missouri Territory seemed to have met all the requirements for statehood, but its application was denied. This was because Missouri’s constitution would have allowed slavery to exist there and would have excluded free blacks from living there. These provisions were objectionable to the many Northerners who did not want any more slave states to enter the Union. Because they had a majority in the House of Representatives, these opponents of slavery were able to stymie Missouri’s effort to become a state.

A series of bills were then introduced to resolve this contentious issue based on three actions: (1) Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state; (2) Maine would be separated from Massachusetts and would enter the Union as a free state; and (3) a line would be drawn at the southern boundary of Missouri, and north of that point no new state entering the Union could be a slave state. Clay, as the Speaker of the House, was largely responsible for ushering this complex arrangement (which became known as the Missouri Compromise) through Congress. This, and his efforts to help end the War of 1812, positioned him perfectly to help negotiate the compromise that ended a sectional crisis in 1850.

4. The Compromise of 1850- what were the implications of it?

Although we can never know for sure, it certainly seemed that our nation was headed towards fracturing over the question of what would be the status of slavery in the territory acquired during The Mexican War. Clay’s idea of compromising on not only that question, but other issues troubling the nation as well, clearly seems to have been a major reason why a civil war did not occur at that time. Ironically, Clay’s own plan to save the Union, which contained eight major provisions, was not enacted by Congress. It was Congressman Stephen Douglas of Illinois that actually got the compromise approved by sending the provisions to Congress as eight separate bills. But since Clay suggested the principles of the compromise, he is generally given credit for it. Some historians have argued that the ambiguities of popular sovereignty contained in Clay’s compromise merely delayed the conflict that would occur 11 years later, but others assert that a good faith effort on the part of territorial governments to peacefully decide the question of slavery could have averted a civil war.

One thing that the Compromise of 1850 did do by postponing the Civil War was to ensure that the Union would have even more significant advantages in terms of money, manpower, and manufacturing when the conflict finally did begin.

5. Henry Clay has a long history of public service and could you summarize some of his contributions to his time period and to his country?

Clay was clearly one of the most effective legislators of all time, but he is chiefly known for playing a large role in ending the War of 1812 and moving both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 through Congress. But along the way, Clay had made a number of enemies, and on the three occasions that he was a candidate for president he lost the elections.

6. What were his later years like? And what have I neglected to ask?

Henry Clay reminds us what leadership is all about. Our nation was built and sustained on compromise, and we can only hope that our legislators recognize that this principle is vital to sustaining our democracy.

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