- Hanover County, Virginia
- April 12, 1777 – Born
”If any one desire to know the leading and paramount object of my public life, the preservation of this union will furnish him the key.”
– Henry Clay
Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford WoodruffCopyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. U.S. Statesman, “The Great Compriser” 1777-1852
Early LifeBorn in 1777, at the beginning of this country’s struggle for freedom, Henry Clay became deeply affected by the circumstances of the time. When Clay was just four years old, his father died and his mother was driven from her home by British troops under the command of Tarleton. Even as an adult Clay remembered being visited by the troops of Tarleton, who ran their swords into the new-made grave of his father and grandfather, thinking they contained hidden treasures. 1 Tarleton’s cavalrymen ransacked the house, tearing open chests, breaking dishes, and filling the air with mattress fathers. This memory of this catastrophe so marked Clay’s thinking that much of his adult life was spent in devising compromises among the members of Congress in an effort to avoid another bloody war among the people of this land. Henry’s father, John Clay, was a Baptist preacher whose undying efforts in the cause of religious freedom were reflected in the America Revolution. Reverend Clay was an agitator for “soul liberty.”2 He preached against “diabolical, hell-conceived’ religious tyranny, defying a tax-supported state church.” Henry Clay was born on 29 June 1777 in Hanover Count, Virginia. The region of Virginia where the Clay family lived was a swampy area called the “slashes.” Clay was the fifth of seven children. After John Clay’s death, Mrs. Clay remarried Captain Henry Watkins, a kindly gentleman.
Clay’s EducationAs a child Clay saw the foundations of the new country laid. He heard the impassioned speeches of Patrick Henry. At the age of twelve he saw Madison, Wythe and others debate the Constitution in his home state of Virgina. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were his presidents. Henry Clay was, as he said, “rocked in the cradle of the revolution.”3 As an adult, he sat in the governing councils in Washington for many years. He authored the great compromises that held this nation through Southern threats of separation over the slavery issue. These compromises bought valuable time so that Webster and others could establish the constitution as a viable working document. No one knew that in a few years the constitution would have to pass the supreme test of a terrible civil war. As a child, Clay attended the “Field School” for three years. This was a dirt log cabin. The teacher was rairly sober, but he was able to give young Clay a basic education. Perhaps his greatest education came through listening to the great orators of the day, particularly Patrick Henry. The power of speech captivated him. To master such power became a passion with him. He began reading political and historical works and then practiced reciting them before cows and horses i the barn. He gained a fluency of speech and had an unusual does of self-confidence. As a young boy he discovered a runaway slave hiding in the forest and struck up a friendship with him. He gave him food and other assistance. When the runaway was eventually killed while resisting arrest, young Clay wept disconsolately. 4 With the Revolutionary war over and the Constitution established, the young nation began looking west. In 1791, Clay’s parents pulled up stakes in Virgina and pioneered the frontiers of Kentucky. But Clay stayed behind, working at his first job as a “counter-boy” in a small retail store. Then through the influence of his stepfather, Captain Watkins, Clay was able to obtain a position as a clerk in the office of Peter Tinsley, clerk of the High Court of Chancery. This position became a major turning point in his life. He copies legal documents, did general writing, and learned order. At first he received a few chuckles from other clerks for his homespun appearance; he was now fifteen and “very tall and very awkward.” But his co-workers soon learned to respect and like him well. Even though Captain Watkins had had to “lean” on his friend to make an opening for young Clay, in a short time he proved to be the brightest and most studious of the office boys. Night after night he was burn the candle down while reading a books. He sought learning in any form, and particularly enjoyed the recording wisdom and events of the past. Because of his diligence and quickness in learning, Clay began to attract the attention of none other than George Wythe, who was then the most eminent jurist in America. Wythe was one of the most cultivated and refined minds in Virginia. It was he, who years before had taken another young law student, Thomas Jefferson, under his wings Wythe’s influence can be seen in his writings of the Declaration of Independence, which he signed. As a jurist Wythe routinely traced law to its most remote source, both to Roman and Latin times, and his decisions were among the most noted ever given. Wythe’s decisions were among the most noted ever given. Clay became Wythe’s personal clerk, and for four years he regularly copied Wythe’s decisions. A deep and abiding friendship grew between the two. In this setting Clay also learned etiquette. A debating society was formed in Richmond, which gave Clay the opportunity to practice publicly the many things he had gathered and stored in his mind. All of this proved to be “better than an education.”5 In November of 1797 when he was approaching his twenty-first year he became licensed to practice law. He immediately went to Kentucky to be near his family and to try his luck in the fast-growing new state. He settled in Lexington a small village of about fifty houses. It was not long before he became very successful. People form all around loved to hear him talk. In his farewell address to the Senate in 1842, Clay referred to these early days in Kentucky: “Scarce had I set my foot on her [Kentucky’s] generous soil when I was seized and embraced with parental fondness, caressed as though a favorite child, and patronized with liberal and unbounded munificence.” 6
Married LifeIn 1799, he married Miss Lucretia Hart, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Hart, a respected citizen of Kentucky. A woman of great dignity, she aspired respect. The union, which lasted years was a happy one. Although they had eleven children, five sons and six daughters, only two daughters lived to womanhood. One of these, Anna, passed away while he was serving in Washington, D.C. Her death affected him so deeply that he fainted and was on his bed for several days. It was only by exerting himself that he was able to return to work. He was said to have remarked: “My country and my state need my services, so why should I bow down to my private grief.” 7 In 1806 Clay purchased the beautiful farm of Ashland. He wrote of Ashland: “I am in one respect better off than Moses. He died in sight of and without reaching the Promised Land. I occupy as good a farm as any he would have found had he reached it, and ‘Ashland’ has been acquired, not by hereditary descent but by my own labor.”8 The Clays resided at Ashland for nearly fifty years. It became a labor of love by both the husband and his wife. (However many of the day-to-day duties and the actual overseeing of Ashland was left to Mrs. Clay because her husband was away so often in Washington.)
Elected to the LegislatureClay soon became active in local politics, advocating the policies of President Jefferson, for whom he had great admiration. In 1798, Clay made earnest efforts for the eventual phasing out of slavery in Kentucky. Even though he was not successful in his efforts, Clay felt that his proudest memory was the effort he had made at the very outset of his career to free Kentucky from slavery. His political career began in 1803 when he was elected to the legislature in Kentucky. During this time he defended Aaron Burr, who was charged with treason. He accepted no fee, thinking it was an occasion for generosity toward an eminent man in misfortune. Although he had first obtained a pledge in writing from Burr concerning the facts, he later learned that Burr had deceived him. Clay had a tremendously successful law career. It was so successful that he won even most of the criminal cases. Near the end of his life, however, he regretted being so successful in obtaining freedom for criminals who truly deserved punishment. Service in the Kentucky Legislature lasted until 1806, when he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. (History now shows that he was under the age limit to serve in the congress, being only twenty-nine at the time.) He plunged into legislative activity as if he had been there all his life, pushing for the protection of American interests which were being threatened by England. When his term expired in 1807, he returned home and re-entered the Kentucky Legislature. It was at this time that he became embroiled in a political dispute with a Mr. Marshall and according to the foolish custom of the time the two men fought a duel in which both were wounded.
In the House of RepresentativesClay returned to Washington in 1811, this time to the House of Representatives. He began his career in the House as a Speaker of the House, the only man in history to do so. It was his political leadership that left its mark upon the destiny of the United States. Unlike Webster and Calhoun, Clay loved a crowd. He would walk across a street to converse with a group there. He absorbed the public pulse and responded to it. The first thing Clay tackled was the growing troubles between England and the Untied Sates. England had been forving American seamen on the high seas to serve on British shops. Britian lamely exccused its action by saying it did not have amrk by which it could recognize its own defected sailors. Clay spoke positivly for war as did Jogn C. Calhoun. Nevertheless, although Clay pushed for war, he was ready for peace at the first moment. He was appointed as one of the commissioners to the signing of the peace treaty at Ghent. His negotiations brought about peace between the two countries. Next Clay turned his energies to other pressing problems. He pushed relentlessly for the cause of the South American revolutionists, who, he believed, were entitled to recognition as independent republics. In a speech before Congress he said of their cause: “Spanish America for centuries had been doomed to the practical effects of an odious tyranny. If we were justified, they were more than justified.”9 He then teamed up with Danial Webster to push for the recognition of Greece. Clay also played a prominent part in the famous controversy between North and the South which arose with the debate over the admission of Missouri as a slave state. It was by almost superhumen effort that through his figted leadership that he was able to bring about “The Missouri Compromise.” This compromise kept slavery out of the area acquired by the purchase of the Louisiana Territory north of Missouri and “pacified” for a time both the North and the South. In 1824, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Wiliam H. Crawford, and Henry Clay were canidates for the U.S. Presidencty. Because of the lack of a majority it became necessary for the Hosut to vote on the top three canitdates. Clay used his influence for the votes to go to Adams. Adams was elected president and subsequently appointed Clay to be Secretary of State. Immediatly Jackson’s supporters said that Clay had been “bought” for his influence. Histroy has shown that the charge was malicious and false. But it jurt Clary for the rest of his political career. Clay’s integrity, however, remained intact. He was so given to a princeiple that he sometimes voted against old political lfriends. This habit had an advers affect on his oppertunity for the Presidency and when warned about it he replied: “I would rather be right than be President.” 10 Upon his retirement from government he said: “I have honestly a faithfully served my country; that I have never wronged it; and that however unprepared I lament that I am to appear in the Divine presence on othe accounts, I invoke the stern justice of hsi judgement on mu public conduct, without the smallest apprehension of his displeasure.” 11 Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 12
- Duyckinck, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women. New York: Henry J. Hohnson, 1873, p. 228.
- Mayo Bernard. Henry Clay Spokesman of the West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1937 p.l.
- Ibid., p. l.
- See ibid., p. 15.
- Clay Thomas Hart (grandson). Henry Clay. Philadelphia: Geroge Jacob Co., p. 20.
- Ibid. p. 23.
- Caldwell, Howard. Henry Clay: The Great Compromiser. Chicago: Union School Furnishing Co., 1912, p. 1.
- Clay, p. 29.
- Ibid., p. 40.
- Ibid., p. 174.
- Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.