Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, at the Clay homestead in Hanover County, Virginia. His parents were Reverend John Clay and Elizabeth Hudson Clay, and he was the seventh of nine children. The Clay family lived in a story-and-a-half frame house – “an above-average home for a common Virginia planter of that time.
Henry’s father, a Baptist minister nicknamed “Sir John,” died in 1781, four years after Henry’s birth. Sine he owned more than 22 slaves at the time of his death, he was part of the “planter class” in Virginia, meaning he owned 20 or more slaves. He left two slaves to each of his sons. He left 464 acres of land and 18 slaves to his widow.
Elizabeth Clay married Capt. Henry Watkins, and Watkins was “an affectionate stepfather” to the widow’s children. He moved the family to Richmond, Virginia, where he and Elizabeth had seven children together – making a total of sixteen children for her.
With the help of his stepfather, Clay obtained employment in the office of the Virginia Court of Chancery where he showed an aptitude for law and became friends with George Wythe. Wythe had a crippled hand and chose Clay to be his secretary. After working closely together for four years, “the chancellor took an active interest in Clay’s future … [and] arranged a position for him with the Virginia attorney general, Robert Brooke. Clay had no formal legal education but “read the law” by working and studying with Brooke and Wythe, who was the Chancellor of the Commonwealth of Virginia and also a mentor to Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and others. Clay was admitted to the bar in 1797 and started his law career.
Clay married Lucretia Hart on April 11, 1799, at the Hart home in Lexington, Kentucky. (Her brother, Captain Nathaniel G.S. Hart, died in the Massacre of the River Raisin in the War of 1812.) The couple became the parents of eleven children (six daughters and five sons): Henrietta (1800-1801, Theodore (1802-1870), Thomas (1803-1871), Susan (1805-1825), Anne (1807-1835), Lucretia (1809-1823), Henry, Jr. (1811-1847), Eliza (1813-1825), Laura (1815-1817), James Brown (1817-1864), and John (1821-1887).
Seven of the children preceded both their parents in death. In fact, all six of their daughters died by 1835: two died as infants or toddlers, two s children, and two as young adults. Their deaths were of varying causes, whooping cough, yellow fever, and complications of childbirth. Henry Clay, Jr. was killed in the Mexican-American War in the Battle of Buena Vista.
Lucretia Hart Clay died in 1864 at the age of 83 and was interred with her husband in the vault of his monument at the Lexington Cemetery. They are the great-grandparents of Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, the suffragette.
Clay relocated his law business in November 1797 to Lexington, Kentucky, near where his family resided in Woodford County. His legal skills and courtroom oratory helped establish a good reputation. He was paid by some of his clients with horses and/or land, and he soon owned town lots and the Kentucky Hotel. He owned a productive 600-acre plantation with slaves by 1812. He called his plantation “Ashland” where he owned as many as 60 slaves. He probably produced tobacco and hemp as they were the two chief commodity crops of the area known as the Bluegrass Region.
Among Clay’s numerous clients was his father-in-law, Colonel Thomas Hart, a prominent businessman and early Kentucky settler. His most well-known client was Aaron Burr in 1806. Burr was indicted by US District Attorney Joseph Hamilton Daviess for planning an expedition into Spanish Territory located west of the Mississippi River. With the help of his law partner John Allen, Clay successfully defended Burr. The case left a bad taste in his mouth some years later when Thomas Jefferson convinced him that Daviess had been right in his charges. When they met again many years later, Clay refused to shake Burr’s hand.
Clay began his political career in 1803 when he was elected to serve in the Kentucky General Assembly as the representative of Fayette County. In 1806 Clay was elected by the Kentucky legislature to complete the term of Senator John Breckinridge who had been appointed as US Attorney General. He was sworn in as senator on December 29, 1806, and served for less than one year. He was not constitutionally old enough to serve as Senator, a fact that no one seemed to notice, but he reached the age of eligibility three months and 17 days into his service in the Senate.
Returning to Kentucky in 1807, Clay was elected to the office of Speaker of the state House of Representatives. “On January 3, 1809, Clay introduced a resolution to require members to wear homespun suits rather than those made of imported British broadcloth. Two members voted against the measure. One was Humphrey Marshall, an `aristocratic lawyer who possessed a sarcastic tongue,’ who had been hostile toward Clay in 1806 during the trial of Aaron Burr.
“Clay and Marshall nearly came to blows on the Assembly floor, and Clay challenged Marshall to a duel. The duel took place on January 9 in Shippingport, Kentucky. They each had three turns. Clay grazed Marshall once, just below the chest. Marshall hit Clay once in the thigh.”
When US Senator Buckner Thurston resigned in 1810 to serve as a judge on the United States Circuit Court, Clay was again selected to fill his seat. Clay was elected to the US House of Representatives in the summer of 1811. On the first day of his first session in the House, he was chosen to be Speaker of the House – “something never done before or since.” During the next fourteen years, “he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership….
“Before Clay’s election as Speaker of the House, the position had been that of a rule enforcer and mediator. Clay made the position one of political power second only to the President of the United States….”
A dispute arose in 1820 over the extension of slavery in Missouri Territory; it was settled when Congress – with help from Clay - approved a plan known as the “Missouri Compromise.” This compromise “brought in Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state” and forbade slavery north of Arkansas except in Missouri. This compromise kept the number of slave states and the number of free states equal.
By 1824 there was only one political party but four major candidates for the office of President, including Clay. “Because of the unusually large number of candidates receiving electoral votes, no candidate secured a majority and the tie between the two front runners, Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, was broken in the House of Representatives.
“Clay used his political clout to secure the victory for Adams, who he felt would be both more sympathetic to Clay’s political views and more likely to appoint Clay to a cabinet position. When Clay was appointed Secretary of State, his maneuver was called a `corrupt bargain’ by many of Jackson’s supporters and tarnished Clay’s reputation."
In 1831 Clay was once again elected by Kentucky to serve in the U.S. Senate. “His return to the U.S. Senate, after 20 years, 8 months, 7 days out of office, marks the fourth longest gap in service to the chamber in history.”
After Andrew Jackson was elected to the office of President of the United States, Clay led the opposition to his policies. Clay’s “supporters included the National Republicans, who were beginning to identify as `Whigs’ in honor of ancestors during the Revolutionary War. They opposed the `tyranny’ of Jackson, as their ancestors had opposed the tyranny of King George III….”
The National Republicans unanimously nominated Clay for the office of President, and the Democrats nominated Jackson. Jackson was “highly popular” and won by a big margin of 55% to 37%. Clay was nominated for the Whig Party in 1840 but lost at the party convention to William Henry Harrison, a war hero who was seen as more likely to win the election.
Clay was nominated in 1844 to run against James K. Polk of the Democrat Party but lost the election. Clay opposed the admittance of Texas to the Union for fear “it would reawaken the slavery issue and provoke Mexico to declare war…. [Clay’s] warnings about Texas proved prescient. The US annexation of Texas led to the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) (in which his namesake son died). The North and South came to increased tensions during Polk’s Presidency over the extension of slavery into Texas and beyond.”
After unsuccessfully campaigning for the Whig Party nomination for President and losing to Zachary Taylor in 1848, Clay made the decision to retire and go back to his Ashland estate in Kentucky. He was there for less than a year, when he was once again elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky in 1849. There was a new controversy over slavery in the area ceded to the United States by Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War. Clay proposed a series of resolutions on January 29, 1850, which became known as the Compromise of 1850. The resolutions were put into one bill and included the following: 1) Admit California to the Union as a free state even though it would end the balance of free and slave states in the Senate; 2) Organize the Utah and New Mexico territories without any slavery provisions and allowing the populations of the territories to make the decision; 3) Prohibit slave trade – not slave ownership – in the District of Columbia; 4) Strengthen the Fugitive Slave Act; 5) Establish “boundaries for the state of Texas in exchange for federal payment of Texas’s ten millions dollar debt;” 6) Congress make a declaration that “it did not have the authority to interfere with the interstate slave trade.”
Clay’s bill was opposed by the majority of the Whig Party and failed to pass. He announced the next day that he intended to pass each part of the bill individually but was too physically exhausted to do it. He “left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island, [and] Stephen A. Douglas separated the bills and guided them through the Senate.
“Clay was given much of the credit for the Compromise’s success. It quieted the controversy between Northerners and Southerners over the expansion of slavery, and delayed secession and civil war for another decade. Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi … late said, `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.’"
Even though he was ill, Clay continued to serve both the Union and Kentucky. He died of tuberculosis on June 29, 1852, in Washington, D.C., at the age of 75. He was survived by two sons, James Brown Clay and John Morrison Clay, who inherited his estate. He was the “first person to lie in state in the United States Capitol. He was buried in Lexington Cemetery. His headstone reads: “I know no North – no South – no East – No West.” The “1852 pro-slavery novel Life at the South – better known as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”As It Is, by W.L.G. Smith, is dedicated to his memory.” His “Will freed all the slaves he held.”
Clay named his plantation and mansion Ashland “for the many ash trees on the property.” He owned as many as 60 slaves at peak of his operations. He also “introduced the Hereford livestock breed to the United States.” Clay is honored by a submarine, a dormitory, many schools, streets, towns, counties, etc. being named after him as well as several statues and stamps bearing his likeness.