A Rising Nation: At the Center of It All
10 Nov 2010
Many great men have been credited with helping America transform from a fledgling group of colonies, trying to assert the independence won from the British, to a “real” nation capable of holding its own on stage in the changing world of the 19th century. For most non-historians, the names of the Presidents during that era like Jefferson, Madison, Quincy-Adams and Jackson would almost be synonymous with that change. However, there is one who history has largely forgotten; Henry Clay. Henry Clay failed to win bids for the presidency five times and was often said of him, that he was always acting for his own self-interest. The fact remains that for almost fifty years, he managed to be at the center of every major issue facing the American nation, thus securing his position as one of the great American patriots as serving one of two terms as a President never could. Who was Henry Clay?
Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia. From 1793 to 1797, he served as secretary to George Wythe, chancellor of the High Court of Chancery. Henry had little regular education, but he read in Wythe's library and learned to make the most of scanty information. He moved to Lexington, Ky., in November 1797 and made a reputation as a lawyer. In 1803 Clay was elected to the Kentucky Legislature. In 1806 and again in 1810 he was sent to the U.S. Senate to fill out short terms. In 1811 he was elected to the House of Representatives. He was immediately chosen Speaker and was elected six times to that office, making it a position of party leadership. Clay was a candidate for the presidency in 1824, but three others received more votes, so that his name did not go to the House for election. In 1831 he was elected to the Senate and remained in that office until 1842. Clay was the Whig presidential candidate in 1844, but his equivocation on the expansionist issue of the annexation of Texas cost him the election. He made an abortive effort for the 1848 nomination, which went to the Mexican War general Zachary Taylor.1 Clay, known as “the Great Compromiser”, for his ability to get people to compromise was also known by many other names. “Clay’s vast charm, beguiling to the humble and the mighty alike, the evident delight taken in a man of so many nicknames-“Gallant Harry of the West,” “the Cock of Kentucky,” “The Western Hotspur,” “The Western Candidate,” “The Western Star,” “The Mill-Boy of the Slashes,” “The Old Prince,” “The Sage of Ashland,”-unhappily, “The Judas of the West,”- and, as he tenderly referred to himself, the “Old Coon.”2 How was He able to Do it?
As a public servant, Mr. Clay was known as a skilled orator and pacificator. He was also thought of by some as one who would do whatever it took to further his own agenda. In 1825, Andrew Jackson lost the presidential election in the Electoral College after winning the popular vote. It was believed that Clay has an unjust influence on the election in favor of John Quincy Adams because he was subsequently named Secretary of State afterwards. Andrew Jackson was the one who referred to Clay as the “Judas of the West” who would “receive his thirty pieces of silver.”3 Inspite of this, he was able to accomplish so much through his eloquence. In a series of books written by Calvin Colton entitled the life and Times of Henry Clay, he was described in the following manner; “The voice of Mr. Clay has been one of great melody, compass and power… His person, tall, erect, commanding; his countenance, as well as his voice, capable of expressing every feeling and passion of the human soul... Mr. Clay’s eloquence, and appertain to that accumulation and concentration of influences, which have given his popular harangues, his forensic efforts, his various public addresses, and his parliamentary speeches, so much power over the minds, the hearts, and the actions of his...