Henry Clay

Sometime ago, I told you about the famous five United States senators whose portraits are placed on the walls of the Senate reception room just off the floor of the Senate. Can anyone tell me the names of these five senators? Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Bob La Follette, and Robert Taft. I gave you a short biographical sketch of these honored men, but I feel that they deserve more attention, so today my plan is to tell you more about the gentleman from Kentucky, Henry Clay.
Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia. He studied law in Richmond and was admitted to the Virginia bar. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, a year or two later where he practiced law and served as a state legislator for three years. A vacancy occurred in the United States Senate, and Clay was elected by the legislature to serve out the unexpired term of two years.
When his term in the Senate ended, he returned to Kentucky and again served in the state legislature for two years, this time as Speaker. Clay was again elected by his colleagues in the Kentucky legislature to fill another unexpired term of two years in the United States Senate. When that two-year term as Senator was up, Clay was elected to the House of Representatives in Washington where he served for fourteen years.
On arriving in Washington to take his seat in Congress, he found that his reputation as master parliamentarian was well known. And then something happened to Henry Clay that was unique—he was elected Speaker of the House. Although he had served two short terms in the Senate, he was a 35-year-old freshman congressman, and for a first term congressman to be elected Speaker was most unusual. It had never happened before, and it has never happened since.
For twelve of his fourteen years in the House, Clay was the Speaker. While Speaker, he ran for President against John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Jackson was the high man in the electoral votes, Adams was second and Clay third. No one got a majority, so the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Clay as Speaker of the House threw his support to John Quincy Adams, and Adams was elected the sixth President. Adams then appointed Henry Clay to be his Secretary of State where he served for four years.
A year after that, he again returned to the United States Senate where he served for fourteen years along with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, two other members of the famous five. While in the Senate, he made two more tries to gain the Presidency but was defeated by Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk. In his last campaign for President against Polk, he came very near winning. He lost the state of New York by 5080 votes. Had he carried New York, he would have become President.
Henry Clay was a man of magnetic and charming personality, and even his bitterest political enemies had to admit that he possessed extraordinary talents. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who had fought him for years, said, “I don’t like Henry Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes, but I love him.” John Randolph of Virginia, another political enemy who was noted for his abusive and salty language, said this, “Henry Clay is brilliant, but he is corrupt. He reminds me of a dead mackerel in the moonlight. He shines and stinks.”
Henry Clay deserves great credit for his tremendous efforts to work out peacefully the differences between the North and South that finally resulted in the unfortunate and ill-fated War Between the States. Three times over a span of thirty years, Clay worked out compromises that prevented the Civil War and preserved the Union. But Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who worked out the last great compromise that staved off the Civil War for the third time, were mortal men and within two years they were dead. Ten years later, the guns of Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, boomed out and the tragic war was on. Maybe if Henry Clay had lived, this terrible ordeal might have been avoided. Who knows?
Henry Clay’s statue today stands in The Hall of Fame in our nation’s Capitol, placed there by the people of Kentucky. His portrait hangs in the Senate reception room as one of the five immortals.
Just a personal note to give you an idea of how the people of Kentucky feel about their distinguished citizen—years ago when I was a young man in Jacksonville, Florida, I met a beautiful young lady from Jackson, Tennessee. Her name was Clay Long. I asked if this was a family name. She said, “No, our family came from Kentucky and my father was a staunch admirer of Henry Clay, and as there were no boys in our family, he named me Henry Clay Long.”

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