Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Birth Dates of Notable Kentuckians: April 12, 1777 - Henry Clay

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From The Kentucky Encyclopedia -
Henry Clay, U.S. senator under several presidents who is remembered for his devotion to the Union, was born in the Slashes section of Hanover County, Virginia, on April 12, 1777. He was the son of John and Elizabeth (Hudson) Clay. His father, a Baptist minister and farmer, died when the child was four years old, and his mother later married Henry Watkins. Clay had a rudimentary education at local schools. When he was fifteen, Clay's mother and stepfather moved to Versailles, Kentucky, leaving him in Virginia. Watkins had secured a place for his stepson as deputy clerk in Virginia's High Court of Chancery, where Clay attracted the attention of the chancellor, George Wythe, a classical scholar and law professor. Clay served as Wythe's copyist for four years while the chancellor directed his studies, giving Clay his mastery of the English language.

In 1796 Clay entered the law office of Robert Brooke, former Virginia governor, and after a year of study was licensed to practice law. In November 1797, Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he soon became a successful lawyer. On April 11, 1799, he married Lucretia Hart, daughter of Thomas Hart, a prominent Lexington merchant. The couple had eleven children: Henrietta, Theodore Wythe, Thomas Hart, Susan Hart, Anne Brown, Lucretia, Henry, Jr., Eliza, Laura, James Brown, and John Morrison.

In 1799, in the campaign for election for delegates to the Kentucky constitutional convention, Clay championed the cause of gradual emancipation of the state's slaves. In 1803 he was elected to the Kentucky legislature as a Jeffersonian Republican, serving there until 1806, when he was appointed to fill the unexpired term of John Adair in the U.S. Senate. During his short time in the Senate, from November 19, 1806, to March 3, 1807, Clay emerged as a spokesman for a system of federally funded internal improvements such as roads and canals. In 1807 he was again elected to the lower house of the Kentucky legislature and was chosen Speaker of the House on January 11, 1808, following the resignation of William Logan from that post.

Despite the Anglophobia aroused by British attacks on U.S. shipping, Clay successfully fought a bill that would have destroyed Kentucky's common law by forbidding the citation of any British legal decision in the state's courts. Clay devised a compromise by which only British decisions rendered after July 4, 1776, were excluded. In 1809 he introduced a resolution to require members of the state legislature to wear garments of domestic manufacture. A heated debate on this measure with Humphrey Marshall , a leading Federalist, led to a duel in which both men were wounded.

Clay was chosen in 1810 to fill the unexpired term of Buckner Thruston in the U.S. Senate, serving from January 4, 1810, to March 3, 1811. In the next Congress, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and was elected Speaker in 1811, a position he held for most of the next fourteen years. He quickly became known as a spokesman for the West and leader of the "war hawks" -- a group of young men in the House who advocated war with Great Britain. Believing that the British were inciting Indian attacks on the frontier and outraged by their violations of neutral shipping, Clay strongly supported the declaration of war against Britain on June 18, 1812.

President James Madison named Clay as one of five U.S. peace commissioners sent to Ghent in 1814 to negotiate an end to the war. When Clay returned to Kentucky, he was reelected to the U.S. House and the speakership. A more confirmed nationalist as a result of the war and his European travels, he began to formulate the program known as the American System, which included federal aid for internal improvements, a protective tariff for industry, and a national bank. In fact, reversing his 1811 vote against a national bank, Clay in 1816 voted for a bill creating the Second Bank of the United States. The following year he attacked Andrew Jackson for his invasion of Florida, thereby making a lifelong enemy. When Missouri's application for statehood pointed up the question of the extension of slavery, Clay supported a compromise: allowing slavery to continue in Missouri but otherwise prohibiting it north of the 36 degree 30 minute latitude. When the controversy again erupted over Missouri's attempt to prohibit the movement of free blacks into the state, Clay emerged in 1821 as the leader of the second Missouri Compromise, whereby the legislature of Missouri agreed not to deprive a citizen from another state of equal rights and privileges.

In 1821 Clay resigned from the House and returned to Kentucky to recoup financial losses caused by the bankruptcy of a brother-in-law whose notes Clay had endorsed. In 1823 Clay was returned to the House and was again chosen Speaker. His early successes in law, politics, and diplomacy had aroused an ambition to be president of the United States, and the Kentucky legislature, along with the legislatures of several other states, nominated him for that office. In the 1824 presidential contest, Clay ran fourth, after Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William H. Crawford. Since no one received a majority, the election was decided by the House of Representatives, where Clay helped elect Adams.

Adams appointed Clay secretary of state, an office that often led to the presidency. Jackson and Crawford supporters immediately charged Clay and Adams with having made a "corrupt bargain," an accusation that dogged Clay for the rest of his political life. Despite their previous dislike of each other at the Ghent peace treaty negotiations, Adams and Clay worked well together. The U.S. State Department had few noted accomplishments under Clay, but he was proud of the commercial treaties negotiated and especially of his instructions to delegates to the 1826 Pan-American Congress.

In 1828 Clay worked actively for Adams's reelection to the presidency; he returned to Kentucky shortly after Andrew Jackson's victory. During the short retirement that followed, Clay maintained a vast political correspondence, with the expectation of being a presidential candidate in 1832. The Kentucky legislature nominated him for that office in 1830 and in 1831 elected him to the U.S. Senate, where his term began on November 10, 1831; reelected, he served to March 31, 1842. Clay led the opposition to the Jackson administration. Knowing the president's opposition to a national bank, he pushed through a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States. Jackson's veto of the measure became one of the main issues in the 1832 presidential campaign, in which Clay lost to his opponent by an electoral vote of 219 to 49.

Clay supported the highly protective tariff of 1832, which precipitated a nullification ordinance by South Carolina. Faced with the possibility of civil war, Clay in February 1833 led the passage of a compromise tariff that gradually lowered the tariff rates in exchange for South Carolina's repeal of the nullification ordinance.

As the various opponents of Jackson coalesced into the Whig party , Clay became their leader. He was able to block Senate ratification of many of the president's nominations for government office; he secured the passage of a bill to distribute to the states the surplus revenue from the sales of public lands, only to have the president pocket-veto it; he led a successful move in the Senate to censure Jackson for his removal of the government's deposits from the Bank of the United States; he opposed, unsuccessfully, the administration's Indian removal policy; and he was able to block congressional authorization for Jackson to make reprisals against the French for nonpayment of indemnities. When petitions to Congress for the abolition of slavery were being tabled without being referred to a committee, Clay eloquently defended the right of petition, and he opposed a bill to forbid the dissemination of abolitionist literature in the U.S. mail.

The issue of slavery posed the greatest quandary in Clay's personal and political life. A slaveholder, he urged gradual emancipation and colonization in Africa, and he helped found and served for twenty-six years as president of the American Colonization Society. Yet Clay consistently argued that Congress had no right to interfere with slavery in the states where it already existed; his famous words "I had rather be right than be president" were uttered in 1839 in defense of a speech he was about to make in the Senate, attacking abolitionists. That speech and the political maneuvers of Thurlow Weed, editor of New York's Albany Evening Journal, cost Clay the presidential nomination at the Whig national convention in 1839. Though angered by this rejection, Clay campaigned for the successful Whig ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.

Apparently expecting to guide the new Whig administration from the Senate, Clay declined Harrison's offer of the office of secretary of state. He soon found himself in conflict with the president over patronage matters and the question of calling a special session of Congress. When Harrison died a month after taking office and Tyler became president, Clay was fearful of the reception the Whig party's program would receive from Tyler. Although Clay and Tyler had long been friendly, Clay recognized Tyler as a states' rights Democrat rather than a Whig. Clay was able to obtain repeal of the subtreasury system, a higher protective tariff, and a land distribution bill, but collided head-on with the president when Tyler twice vetoed national bank bills. Long before the election of 1844, it was generally conceded that Clay would be the Whig nominee. On March 31, 1842, he retired from the Senate and returned to Kentucky to begin his campaign. The Democratic nominee was James K. Polk, an ardent proponent of the annexation of Texas, a popular cause in the South and West; the North opposed annexation of Texas, where slaveholding was legal. Clay explained his position in three letters that differed in emphasis, one appearing to oppose annexation and the other two seeming to favor the addition of Texas to the Union if it could be done without dishonor or war and with the general consent of the states. The latter viewpoint alienated many opposed to slavery and cost Clay critical support in the North. In a campaign filled with slander and voting fraud, Polk won 170 electoral votes to Clay's 105 but had only a 38,000-vote popular majority.

In retirement, Clay opposed the declaration of war against Mexico that came soon after the annexation of Texas. His son Henry Clay, Jr., was one of the war's casualties. Although Clay still hoped for the presidency in 1848, he was defeated at the Whig nominating convention by Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor. In the crisis over the extension of slavery into the areas of California and New Mexico acquired from Mexico, Clay was returned to the Senate on March 4, 1849. To settle the controversy, he introduced a series of resolutions that became law as the Compromise of 1850, thanks to the efforts of Stephen A. Douglas. It made California a free state, opened the new territories of Utah and New Mexico to popular sovereignty, and redrew the Texas boundary. His health deteriorating, Clay returned to Washington, D.C. in December 1851, but made only one appearance in the Senate before his death in the city on June 29, 1852. He was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

Selected Sources from UK Libraries:

Shankman, K. (1999). Compromise and the Constitution : The political thought of Henry Clay. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Young Library   Books - 4th Floor   E340.C6 S427 1999

Bean, R. (1960). A history of the Henry Clay family properties : Ashland, Ashland-on-the-Tates-Creek Pike, Mansfield, Woodlands, Clay Villa, Maplewood. S.L.: S.n.].
Special Collections Research Center - Research Room   F457.F2 B440 1960  

Clay, H. (1854). Sketch of the life and some of the principal speeches of Henry Clay (Beyond the shelf, serving historic Kentuckiana through virtual access (IMLS LG-03-02-0012-02) ; B92-84-27376103). Cincinnati: U.P. James.
Special Collections Research Center - Biography Collection   copy 2 B C578sk  

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