United States Senator Profile: Henry Clay of Kentucky

April 12, 1777 - June 29, 1852

This is the second in a series of profiles of Unites States Senators who made lasting contributions to the civic life of our nation.  If there is a Senator whose service you would like us to highlight, please click on this link and share your views with us.

In 1957, a Senate Committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy chose five outstanding Senators to honor with portraits on the walls of the ornate Senate Reception Room adjacent to the Senate Chamber. Blank spaces for the portraits had been purposefully left by the artist, Constantino Brumidi, when he originally painted the room. The five Senators chosen for this honor were: Senator Robert M. La Follette, Sr. of Wisconsin; Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina; Senator Robert A. Taft, Sr. of Ohio; Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts; and “The Great Compromiser” Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Henry Clay
Photo credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Henry Clay was one of the nation’s most prominent political leaders of the 19th century. From the time he was first appointed to the United States Senate in 1806, at the age of 29, until his death in 1852, he held a broad array of significant offices. Clay served in the House of Representatives for five terms and as Speaker for ten years. He would go on to serve as Secretary of State and would run for President on five different occasions (1824, 1832, 1840, 1844, and 1848). Clay died in 1852 while serving in his eighteenth year in the United States Senate.

Following his election to the House in 1811, Clay achieved something that no other House Member in U.S. history has accomplished by being elected Speaker in his very first term. While in the House, Clay got a reputation as a war hawk advocating for a hard U.S. stand in the face of British aggressions preceding the War of 1812. He would also play a prominent role in negotiations on the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which brought the War of 1812 to its conclusion.

Because of his immense political skill and the deep respect with which his Congressional and Senate colleagues held for him, Clay was able to help forge important solutions to thorny political issues like continuation and possible expansion of slavery and regional economic conflicts throughout his career, earning him the nickname “The Great Compromiser.”

Three of his most famous legislative compromises are credited with preventing the United States from descending into civil war. The first became known as the “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 and 1821, which admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. The second consequential compromise Clay helped craft came a decade later when the state of South Carolina attempted to nullify the high protective tariffs that Clay had so vocally supported to help build America’s industrial base. Clay is credited with finding a peaceful resolution to the so-called “Nullification Crisis.”

The third major compromise Clay helped craft came in 1850 at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War and concerned whether newly annexed territories to the United States would be admitted as free or slave states. Clay’s actions consisted of a series of resolutions, which would become collectively known as the “Compromise of 1850,” and would set the stage for the peaceful admission of California and Texas, as well as the Utah and New Mexico territories.

With the Compromise of 1850, which came two years before his death, Henry Clay’s deft handling of a controversial issue that inflamed political passions was credited with bringing America back from the brink of civil war for the third time in thirty years.

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