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Congressional Lions: Henry Clay


Three statesmen dominated American politics for the first half of the nineteenth century, and no book on influential members of Congress would be complete without including a detailed discussion of the trio. Known collectively as the “Great Triumvirate,” Henry Clay of Kentucky (nicknamed “Prince Hal”), Daniel Webster of Massachusetts (“Black Dan”), and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (“Cast-Iron Man”) served in both houses of Congress as well as in the position of secretary of state, the premier post in the executive cabinet. Each man harbored ambitions to become president of the United States, and yet each fell short. Despite their failure to ascend into the top position, however, these three men could properly be called, in the words of one historian, “heirs of the founders.”

The eldest of the three, Henry Clay, was born in Virginia on April 12, 1777, less than a year after the Second Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain. He became emblematic of the restless American who abandons the eastern states to try his luck on the frontier. After studying law under the legendary William & Mary professor George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and mentor to Thomas Jefferson, Clay headed west to make his way in Kentucky, which had recently joined the Union. He married into a wealthy Kentucky family, ensuring that he would possess the financial means to make his way in politics, which was not a lucrative field. Clay and his wife, Lucretia, eventually produced 11 children, seven of whom predeceased him.

He tried his hand at practicing law, and he excelled in his field, but he preferred politics to a legal career. In 1803, Clay was appointed to the state legislature to represent Fayette County. It was the start of a lengthy career that would take him in and out of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

My book-in-progress, Congressional Lions, discusses Clay’s roles in Congress in great detail. In this blog, however, I want to highlight a few noteworthy accomplishments. The “Great Pacificator,” as he was sometimes called, became famous for engineering a series of legislative compromises to mollify northern and southern congressional representatives upset over both tariffs and slavery.

The first major compromise came in 1820. The Founders had passed from the scene and the slavery issue had emerged with a vengeance. Henry Clay, then a congressman and speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was in the thick of it. Late in 1818, he had submitted a petition forwarded from settlers in the Missouri Territory seeking statehood. St. Louis was a growing city, and the territory was an obvious candidate for admission into the Union. The difficulty was that the citizenry sought to become a slave state, which would upset the rough balance between so-called free states and slave states. The free state population of 5.152 million already exceeded the slave state population of 4.485 million, but the Constitution’s three-fifth’s clause granted the South 76 House seats, as opposed to the 59 seats that it would hold if only the free population was counted.

Everyone wondered what would become of the status quo if Missouri favored the South. As part of the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Missouri was an important test case to determine whether, and under what conditions, new states would be admitted into the Union.

Congress began debating the Missouri question in February 1819. Clay recognized a golden opportunity to appease a majority of legislators when Maine, which then existed as the northern district of Massachusetts, petitioned for admission as a free state. Lacking the votes to push through a compromise in the House, Clay allowed the Senate to take the lead in offering a measure to establish a demarcation line of 36º 30’. States above the line outlawed slavery, and those below the line allowed the institution to survive.

The House rejected the Senate compromise, but Clay was not ready to admit defeat. As speaker of the House, he appointed a committee of House conciliators to sit down with senators and hammer out a suitable solution. On March 2, 1820, the group reported out three separate bills. One bill admitted Maine as a free state, a second allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state, and a third established the 36º 30’ line.

One congressman facing the end of his term, James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York, offered an amendment to the statehood bill proposing that “the further introduction of slavery or involuntary servitude be prohibited, except for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been fully convicted; and that all children born within the said State, after the admission thereof into the Union, shall be free at the age of twenty-five years.” The measure risked alienating the South, and Clay, himself a slaveholder, understood the stakes. Although he was sympathetic to opponents of slavery, Clay was anxious to find a solution that did not threaten to dissolve the Union.

Accordingly, he maneuvered to strike out Tallmadge’s amendment before sending the measure to the Senate for a vote. When Congressman Randolph of Virginia moved to reconsider the bill, Clay ruled him out of order until the rest of that day’s business had been concluded. Afterward, Clay had the bill, sans Tallmadge’s amendment, moved over to the Senate. Later that day, Randolph moved again for reconsideration. This time, Clay ruled him out of order because the bill was already being debated in the Senate. The trick was widely regarded as a smooth, albeit slightly shady, means of getting what Clay wanted by hook or by crook.

The Missouri Compromise, as it came to be called, revealed Henry Clay as a master legislator. One prominent historian commented that “Clay entered the Missouri crisis a clever if conventional border state politician. He came out of it a statesman.” From that point on, his reputation was assured.

He was called on again to help broker a compromise in the 1830s. At the time, Clay was a United States senator. He favored high tariffs, but southerners did not agree because the tariffs hurt raw material suppliers, which often lived in the South. Enraged southern men began to speak of nullification or secession. President Andrew Jackson threatened military action against secessionists. For his part, Clay feared that Jackson’s bellicose rhetoric only worsened the rift between North and South. Reaching out to John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian who had started his career as a nationalist but appeared to be moving into the state rights camp, Clay again relied on his penchant for compromise to broker a deal. It appeared to be an unbridgeable chasm. For Clay to step away from a protective tariff after he had spent so much of his political career talking up the need to protect American manufacturing was almost unthinkable. Even more unimaginable was the notion that Calhoun, the stern man of principle, unyielding where the interests of the South were concerned, would agree to any sort of compromise. Yet something had to be done to loosen the Gordian knot.

The Compromise of 1833, with a new tariff, eased the crisis, deciding that all tariff rates above 20 percent would be reduced by a tenth every two years, with the final reductions amounting to 20 percent—the original rate—in 1842. The measure please everyone, and no one, as compromise measures often do. Southerners could claim that they successfully reduced tariff rates, albeit gradually, and northerners could brag that they refused to kowtow to southerners’ insistence on immediate tariff relief, and they were not intimidated by talk of nullification or secession.

Clay flirted with retirement as the 1840s progressed, but he had one last issue to confront from his perch inside the Congress. Worried that slavery might tear the Union apart, he agreed to lead the United States Senate toward one final compromise. In 1849, he initially remained on the sidelines while a new president, Zachary Taylor, formed a cabinet and pursued a “non-action” policy that allowed new territories to enter the Union without engaging in an extensive debate on slavery. Disgusted, Clay eventually sought middle ground to soothe tensions between northern and southern congressional representatives, but a suitable plan proved elusive. After President Taylor’s sudden death in 1850, however, the calculus changed. Clay prepared a compromise measure to handle the lands ceded by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which formally ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.

Even before Taylor died, Clay had introduced a series of resolutions into the Senate to address the slavery question and reconcile northern and southern interests. He had hoped to debate the resolutions separately, but southerners urged him to compile the resolutions into one package. Collectively, the series became known as the Compromise of 1850. As chairman of a Committee of Thirteen, Clay proposed an omnibus bill admitting California to the Union as a free state; organizing Utah and New Mexico without resolving the slavery question in those territories; prohibiting the slave trade (but not slave ownership) in the District of Columbia; establishing boundaries for Texas and paying the state’s $10 million debt; enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act; and offering a declaration that Congress could not interfere with the interstate slave trade.

Like any compromise, the bill held something for everyone, but it also risked alienating hardliners on both sides of the slavery question. Calhoun, although too ill to speak at length, offered a blistering critique of the compromise, which another senator read aloud in his stead. In the meantime, anti-slavery men such as New York’s William H. Seward found the call for vigorous enforcement of the odious Fugitive Slave Act too outrageous to support. Daniel Webster, New England’s champion anti-slavery man, to the surprise of many, offered his support for the plan, upsetting many of his constituents and supporters in the North.

The president opposed the compromise after Clay offered the bill, but Taylor died in July 1850, and his successor, Millard Fillmore, agreed to support the measure. Passage appeared more promising with Fillmore’s support, but the bill failed on July 31. Clay redoubled his efforts to enact the measure by agreeing to separate the components for a vote on each part. With his advanced age, declining health, and physical exhaustion from overwork hampering his effectiveness, Clay left the task of redrafting the legislation and securing passage to Stephen A. Douglas, a freshman senator from Illinois. After Douglas deftly maneuvered to have the individual bills enacted, the compromise was put into place and, once again, the Union was preserved. The compromise would not last indefinitely, but it succeeded in keeping the peace for more than a decade, an impressive achievement.

The Compromise of 1850 was Henry Clay’s swan song. He had already announced his intention to resign from the Senate in September 1852. Before that could happen, the old lion, 75 years old, died of tuberculosis in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 1852. He was the first public man to lie in state in the Capitol rotunda. Afterward, his body was returned to Lexington, Kentucky, for burial. His gravestone reads “I know no North—no South—no East—no West.” He left behind a distinguished legislative legacy that made him one of the most influential persons ever to serve in the United States Congress.


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