Henry Clay was an important American politician in the 19th century and played a significant role in major historical events such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. Due to his role in these events, Henry Clay is often discussed as an influential figure in the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. As well, a major issue at the center of both the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 was the practise of slavery in the United States. As such, Henry Clay is an important figure in the history of slavery in the United States and the eventual abolishment of slavery.
HENRY CLAY'S EARLY LIFE
Henry Clay was born on April 12th, 1777 in Hanover County, Virginia. His father, John Clay, was a Baptist minister and died in 1781, when Henry was just 4 years old. Henry’s mother, Elizabeth, remarried to Henry Watkins. The newly formed family moved to Kentucky in 1791 to farm, however Henry Clay stayed back in Virginia. He did this to pursue his own education and find work in the Virginia Court of Chancery. In fact, Henry found employment just over a year later in 1792, when he was hired as a clerk in the Court of Chancery. At the same time, he began working for George Wythe, who was the first American law professor and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The opportunity to work with Wythe was significant for Clay, as it helped him study law. In fact, Clay was eventually admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1797, and he became a lawyer.
Henry Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 1797 and began practising as a lawyer. He soon gained a reputation for his legal skills, which helped him begin his political career. For instance, he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1803. Clay was later elected as the Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1810. As such, his political career was on the rise.
HENRY CLAY & THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE
As stated above, Henry Clay was an important political force in the United States throughout the timeframe of the 19th century. More specifically, he was elected to both the Senate and House of Representatives for the State of Kentucky, at different times in his political career. For instance, Clay was elected as Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1811. At the time, he was the youngest ever Speaker of the House at just 34 years old. He continued to represent Kentucky in the House of Representatives until 1825. During those years he accomplished many different things, but none was bigger than the Missouri Compromise.
The Missouri Compromise was an act of federal legislation from 1820 that came to play an important role in American history. In general, the Missouri Compromise dealt with the issue of slavery and created a divide between the Northern and Southern states on the practise of slavery in the United States. The territory of Missouri first came under the control of the United States government following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The Missouri territory was established just north of the new state of Louisiana, and quickly came under pressure to allow slavery. This was because, slave owners in Louisiana saw economic potential in creating plantations in the region of the Missouri territory.
At first, the idea that Missouri would become a ‘slave’ state was not necessarily controversial. However, during the Congressional Debate on the status of Missouri’s statehood in 1819, it became a major issue due to United States Representative James Tallmadge Jr. of New York. Tallmadge was politically against the practise of slavery and during the debates over Missouri’s statehood, proposed an amendment against allowing slavery in the new state.
To overcome this political divide, a compromise was proposed that became known as the Missouri Compromise. Henry Clay played a significant role in the development and passage of the Missouri Compromise. During the timeframe of the Missouri Compromise, which was 1819 to 1820, Clay also served as the Speaker of the House. From this role, Clay proposed a compromise to Missouri’s statehood and slavery problem.
Clay argued that Missouri should be added as a ‘slave’ state, while Maine should be added as a ‘free’ state. At the time, Maine had wanted to separate from Massachusetts and gain its own statehood. Clay argued that the addition of Maine as a ‘free’ state alongside Missouri as a ‘slave’ state would maintain the balance in the country. Furthermore, the compromise also included a rule that no new slave states could be added in the western regions of the Louisiana Territory that were located north of the latitude ‘36°30’ line. The bill of the Missouri Compromise was eventually passed in March of 1820 and signed by President James Monroe on March 6th, 1820.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was a vitally important event in American history of the 19th century. It highlighted the growing divide in the country over the issue of slavery. In fact, while some viewed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 a success at maintaining peace within the United States, others thought that it was delaying an eventual conflict between those who supported slavery and those who were against it.
As such, many historians view the Missouri Compromise of 1820 as an imperfect piece of legislation that eventually led to the outbreak of violence with events, such as Bleeding Kansas and the American Civil War. For example, tensions surrounding slavery eventually resurfaced with the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Henry Clay again played a significant role in the Compromise of 1850.
HENRY CLAY & THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
Following his success with the Missouri Compromise, Henry Clay ran for President of the United States in 1824. He ultimately lost to John Quincy Adams. However, Clay was appointed as the Secretary of State by Adams, which he held from 1825 until 1829. After his time as Secretary of State, Henry Clay returned to Kentucky and won the 1831 election for the Senate. He remained in the Senate until 1842. During that time, he often expressed anti-slavery views that were popular in the Northern states at the time. However, his next major political move was to again run for president in 1844. Although Clay was popular throughout many of the Northern states, he lost the election to James Polk. Clay then returned to work as a lawyer and didn’t return to politics again until his election to the Senate for Kentucky in 1849. The issue of slavery was again in the forefront, and Clay played an important role with the Compromise of 1850.
The Compromise of 1850 was an important set of five bills that was passed by the United States Congress in September of 1850. In general, the Compromise of 1850 dealt with the issue slavery and the divide it had created in the United States in the years before the start of the American Civil War. For example, while slavery had been practised in the United States for a long period, it was a controversial issue by 1850. This is because of the emergence of the American Abolitionist Movement, which sought to bring about an end to slavery in the United States. As such, the Compromise of 1850 was proposed to deal with the issue and the new western territories of the expanding country.
More specifically, the bills were centred around the issue of slavery in new territories that were gained from the Mexican-American War. The control over these territories created a crisis in the United States in relation to the issue of slavery.
At the time, slavery was only practised in the states south of the 36°30′ latitude. Whereas, the states north of the 36°30′ latitude banned the practise of slavery. This was the result of the earlier Missouri Compromise, which was agreed to following the Louisiana Purchase.
Senator Henry Clay proposed a compromise on January 29th in 1850 as a means of solving the issue and resolving the tensions. For the Compromise of 1850, Clay argued for several key factors, that he believed would help avoid a crisis. First, Clay’s proposal called for California to be added as a ‘free’ state. Second, he argued that Texas should give up some of its territory for debt relief. Third, Clay called for the establishment of new territories, which included Utah and New Mexico. Fourth, he favored a ban on slavery in the District of Columbia. Collectively, these first four proposals did not offer much for Southern ‘slave’ states, as they were generally more favored by the Northern states. As such, for Clay’s fifth proposal he argued in favor of a more powerful fugitive slave law. Escaped slaves were a problem for the Southern slave owners. This was due, in part, to the Underground Railroad, which helped slaves from the Southern states escape to freedom in the Northern states and Canada. As a result of this, legislators created the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which sought to stop the practise of escaped slaves. However, the 1793 law failed to stop fugitive slaves from escaping north, so Henry Clay proposed a new fugitive slave law that would offer more protections for the slave owners and force escaped slaves to be returned to the slave plantations. In fact, Clay’s proposal eventually became the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Clay hoped that his proposal would be enough to gain support by both Northerners and Southerners. While it did gain some support, it was also widely criticized by both sides. As such, the compromise faced fierce debate. In fact, United States President Zachary Taylor did not support the idea. Regardless, debate over the compromise continued throughout the summer of 1850. In fact, President Taylor died in July of 1850 with the issue still not resolved. Taylor’s death was significant, because his Vice President, Millard Fillmore, became the next President of the United States. This was significant because Fillmore supported Clay’s Compromise and quickly began to work on its passage. At the same time, Henry Clay was suffering from tuberculosis, and could no longer argue in favor of his compromise. As such, Senator Stephen A. Douglas took over for Clay and went to work on passing the proposal. In fact, it quickly passed through the Senate after Douglas settled some outstanding issues related to borders and it was next sent to the House of Representatives, where it was also passed. Next, President Fillmore signed the separate bills and they became law. The main issues covered in the bills surrounded the settlement of borders, the new fugitive slave law and the end of slavery in the District of Columbia.
HENRY CLAY'S DEATH & LEGACY
As stated above, Henry Clay began to suffer from health complications in the later years of his life. In fact, he died on June 29th in 1852 from tuberculosis. He was 75 years old at the time and one of the most significant figures in American political history. In fact, he was celebrated in his own lifetime as an important figure in relation to maintaining the unity of the nation. His leadership on both the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850 helped guide the United States through a difficult period where the different states were conflicted over the issues of slavery and states’ rights. He was recognized for his efforts by being the first ever person to lie in state in the United States Capitol rotunda.
His body was buried on July 10th, 1852 in Lexington, Kentucky. His headstone reads ‘I know no North—no South—no East—no West’. This is in relation to his work to keep the United States unified and avoid an internal crisis. His work was important to maintaining this unity, but ultimately the nation descended into war a decade later with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861.