The Great Compromiser: Advocating Peace before the Civil War, Henry Clay Paved the Way to Economic Prosperity and Unity in a Divided Nation

By Huso, Deborah R. | Success, October 2012 | Go to article overview

The Great Compromiser: Advocating Peace before the Civil War, Henry Clay Paved the Way to Economic Prosperity and Unity in a Divided Nation


Huso, Deborah R., Success


As the newly created United States of America gained its footing in the world, Henry Clay saw the need for cooperation to preserve what would become the world's greatest republican government. In an era of contentious political strife, he repeatedly advocated for consensus and unity.

We sat down with Clay's patriotic spirit at Ashland, his family plantation near Lexington, Ky.

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Q: Though you had little formal education, you managed to work your way up to some of the most prominent roles in American politics. Was there one thing in particular your family instilled in you that enabled you to have so much success as a young man?

A: "Of all the properties which belong to honorable men, not one is so highly prized as that of character."

One of nine children born to the Rev. John Hudson and his wife, Elizabeth, in rural Hanover County, Va., Henry Clay had few opportunities for formal education. At his birth in 1777, the American Revolution was still under way, and soon after his father's death 4-year-old Clay saw British raiders ransack his family home. Political and military conflict were something he saw from a young age, and it is no small surprise the young Clay sought a career in public service, coming to manhood at the same time his country was coming of age.

Clay's stepfather, Capt. Henry Watkins, helped him obtain a position as a clerk at Virginia's High Court of Chancery. By age 20, he had earned a license to practice law in Virginia. Having determined he would have greater luck in his career by heading to the frontier, Clay in 1797 moved to Kentucky, where his mother, stepfather and other family had settled. Within a decade, his diligence, oratory and character won him a reputation as a skilled trial lawyer.

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Q: You won a seat in the US Senate before you were even 30. What was your primary aim in public service?

A: "Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people."

As Clay built his legal career, he also made his way as a major Kentucky landowner through his marriage to Lucretia Hart, daughter of one of the state's most prominent families. His influence as both landowner and lawyer helped win him his first political position as a member of the Kentucky General Assembly in 1803, and three years later he was appointed a U.S. senator to fill a vacancy left by John Adair. Clay continued to serve alternately in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for most of the next five decades. He was speaker of the House and secretary of state.

Clay won election after election because of his passionate and determined support for economic development, transportation infrastructure on the burgeoning American frontier and a national banking system. He won friends and supporters with his magnetic personality and consistency of character. He remained a nationalist all his life, putting country before region, even in an era when North and South were deeply divided over the issue of slavery.

Q: How do you account for your eventual support of emancipation even though you were a slaveholder?

A: "An oppressed people are authorized, whenever they can, to rise and break their fetters.

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