Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 175

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 175


This is the grave of Henry Clay.

Born in 1777 in Virginia, Clay, along with his political enemy Andrew Jackson, were the quintessential men of the early 19th century South. He moved to Kentucky in 1797 and found a society where men could rise rapidly. Jackson, despite being completely uneducated and a violent maniac, found the same in Tennessee. Clay was more genteel. He was born into the planter class, albeit not at the peak of Virginia society. But his father owned around 20 slaves and his son would become a major planter and slaveholder as well. Clay rose in life for a rather odd reason–he had really great handwriting. Seriously. As a young clerk, his excellent handwriter got the attention of George Wyeth, the leading Virginia politician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Wyeth had bad hands and so hired Clay to write for him. Wythe also mentored Clay and helped start him on the road to success.

Clay moved to Kentucky at the age of 20 and with so many young Virginians in Kentucky, his connections helped establish himself quickly. He married in 1799 and had 11 children. Just to get a sense of what life was like in the early 19th century, even for the elite, of the 11, 7 died before Clay. All 6 of his daughters died as before they were 30. One son died in the Mexican-American War. Another went insane and spent most of his life in a psychiatric hospital. And this was with the best health care money could buy. Which wasn’t really any better than no health care at all. I believe this is called the 2017 Republican Party health care plan.

In any case, Clay rose quickly and in 1804 bought his plantation in Lexington, the remnants of which you can visit today. He became a slaveowner as well, owning up to 60 slaves at one time, growing hemp and tobacco and raising racehorses. Clay was a huge horseracer, which was a major part of life in what was then the southwestern part of the United States. I don’t really know why Kentucky became the center of this to the present instead of, say, Tennessee, but the tradition started by 1800. For men such as Clay, horse racing was a place not only for leisure but also for political activity and social networking. Supposedly, Clay introduced Hereford cattle to the U.S., although I am always a bit skeptical of these sorts of claims.

For a rising elite, politics was a natural move and of course Clay was brilliant at it. He became a Jeffersonian and a moderate on the slavery question. Even though he owned slaves, he called for gradual emancipation by 1800 although for the rest of his long life, he would never actually do anything about it himself by freeing his own slaves. He would later be a founder of the American Colonization Society to create Liberia and ship freed slaves to Africa, an idea that never worked well, especially for the people in Liberia who found black Americans ruling them, often brutally. His slave Charlotte Dupuy sued Clay for freedom in 1829, arguing that her previous owner had promised her freedom and then sold her instead. She lost the suit and when Dupuy refused to leave DC to return to Kentucky, Clay had her arrested. He then gave her to his daughter living in New Orleans. He finally freed her in 1840, but not her son, who he kept as a sort of pet that he used to claim how well he treated his slaves. He did finally free one son in 1844 and the other at some unclear point. This sort of moral monstrosity is what passed for a moderate.

Clay rose rapidly in Kentucky politics and was named in 1806 to the Senate to replace John Breckinridge (grandfather of the traitor) when Jefferson named him Attorney General. Clay was just finishing the last few months of the term and would return Frankfort to be Kentucky’s Speaker of the House in 1807, but of course he would not be long in returning to DC. The one thing that nearly got in his way was an 1809 duel where he was shot in the leg while grazing his opponent. This was the early 19th century West in a violent nation that had placed a tremendous amount of capital on masculinity and defending that with murderous violence. Clay received a second brief Senate tenure in 1810, finishing the final 14 months of Bruckner Thurston’s term when the latter took an appointment as a circuit court judge. Here he played a role in denying the renewal of the Bank of the United States’ charter and advocated for expansionist policies to seize West Florida from the Spanish. He would remain an expansionist but would later strongly change his positions on banking and capitalism.

Clay didn’t much care for the Senate norms though so he ran for Congress and was elected as Speaker on the day of his first term in 1811. He came to specialize in parliamentary politics that made him powerful and his power over Congress robust. Clay also holds some responsibility for the War of 1812, as he and his fellow War Hawks were so eager for expansionist wars to the West and to get a shot in at Britain that they vastly overreacted to British impressment and pushed for a war that probably should have destroyed the nation. It’s really quite amazing the U.S. existed untouched by 1815. Clay then resigned from Congress to negotiate the end of the war that led to the Treaty of Ghent, but by the time he returned had already been reelected to both Congress and as Speaker. By most accounts, Clay did a very good job in Europe and came back one of the nation’s most respected foreign policy voices, not that the competition was all that high other than John Quincy Adams.

For us today, Clay’s fame revolves around two things: his compromises over slavery in western territories and the election of 1824. His role in the Missouri Compromise really was critical and while I am skeptical that the nation would have divided in 1820 over slavery in Missouri, the idea of extending the slave line to the Pacific and ending any discussion of the issue was pretty savvy at any rate. Generally, politicians in the 1820s and 1830s simply did not want to discuss slavery at all and this helped them avoid it for awhile.

As for the 1824 presidential election, when Andrew Jackson claimed that Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams had engaged in a “corrupt bargain” to keep him out of the White House, it’s complicated. First, Clay was something of a victim to the rapid changes transforming American politics. The one-party of the Era of Good Feelings was in no way sustainable and thus some sort of divide was inevitable. Clay really wanted to be president but so did a lot of other legitimate contenders. With William Crawford, the favorite of the Virginia elites, unwilling to drop out after his stroke and also under siege as a newly democratic populace saw the touch from the Virginians as elitist, Clay realized no one would win the electoral college. He felt his stronghold of Congress would put him over the top if he finished in the top 3. He Clay did poorer than he expected, only winning three states and not winning New York, which he thought he would take. He was a fourth place finisher, unable to even best Crawford. But Clay had a lot of votes and he gave them to John Quincy Adams, who had only finished second to Andrew Jackson. It’s highly unlikely there was any sort of quid-pro-quo for those votes. Clay and Adams held very similar views on many issues and Clay disliked Jackson, while Crawford was a non-starter. So this made sense. On Adams’ front, he named Clay Secretary of State because he felt Henry Clay was the best man for the job. Clay was certainly happy to accept as Adams was the 4th straight president to go to the Oval Office after serving at State and Clay definitely wanted to be the 5th. But Adams was terrible at politics and neither man realized the weapon they were giving to Jackson and his supporters. The corrupt bargain charge destroyed the Adams presidency and plagued Clay forever.

When Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, Clay left Washington but in 1831, returned to the Senate and prepared to run for the presidency himself against Jackson in 1832. It was by this time he had fully articulated his American System of internal improvements to build a strong infrastructure for the growing nation and a functional banking system, both of which Jackson opposed. By this time, the Second Party System was more developed, with Clay heading the National Republicans, which became the Whigs soon after. But Jackson blew him out that fall. Clay only won 37% of the vote as the anti-Jackson vote split with the Anti-Masons under William Wirt. Meanwhile, Jackson won a majority of the popular vote in any case.

Clay remained in the Senate, working behind the scenes to come to a compromise on the tariff and nullification issue, working with Calhoun even though the former preferred a high tariff because he felt Jackson was a violent madman. His 1834 speech comparing opposition to Jackson with the British Whigs led to the naming of the Whig Party. Clay wanted to be president very bad. In 1836, he did not run because his daughter had recently died. The party could unite around no one and tried to have a bunch of native sons run to prevent an electoral majority for Martin Van Buren and throw it into the House. Didn’t work. In 1840, Clay’s own pro-slavery views made him too unpopular in the North and William Henry Harrison won the nomination and election. When Clay’s friend John Tyler took over after the old man’s death in 1841, they broke quickly when the new president vetoed Clay’s banking bills.

By 1844, there was no question that Clay would be the Whig nominee to take on the expected Democrat Martin Van Buren. But the latter was upset over not being pro-slavery enough and not supporting the annexation of Texas and James Polk won the Democratic nomination. The nation was beginning to fall apart over slavery and Clay’s relative moderation satisfied no one. The anti-slavery parties were beginning to run presidential candidates. In 1844, this mattered a lot. In a very close election, the Liberty Party’s James Birney managed to swing enough votes from Clay to give Polk New York and therefore the election. This is one case where a third party run on the left mattered a lot. Clay was no friend of abolitionism but Polk would steal half of Mexico to expand slavery and the nation would never recover from that until it fell apart in 1861. Birney or Bust indeed.

Clay of course wanted to run in 1848 too, but he was so polarizing by this time that he didn’t get that close. Zachary Taylor would win instead. Now old and a bitter critic of the Mexican War, in which he lost a son, Clay would attempt to fix the nation once again, this time with the Compromise of 1850. Unlike in 1820, it’s entirely possible the nation could have collapsed in 1850. He was dying of tuberculosis by this time, but with Stephen Douglas, he managed to stitch together those compromises. No one looks at the Compromise of 1850 with any fondness. The Fugitive Slave Act was an atrocity. On the other hand, the growth of the North’s population in the subsequent 10 years as well as the growth of the North’s industrial capacity at the same time perhaps gave it the resources necessary to win a civil war that it would not have had in 1850. This is speculation of course, including whether a civil war would have even happened that year or what it would have looked like. We can counterfactual this one to death.

Clay died in 1852 in Washington. There’s actually a lot more to say about the man and the reason the grave series was on brief hiatus is that I didn’t have time to write this up, which is a mere 1900 words. Clay was kind of an important figure.

Henry Clay is buried in Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky.

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