Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Feats of Clay

In February 2014 I posted an article about Cassius Clay / Mohammad Ali, who accomplished many outstanding feats. The famous boxer was the namesake of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a noted Kentucky politician and abolitionist. This article is about Henry Clay, the latter’s second cousin.
Henry Clay was born in Virginia 240 years ago, in April 1777, the son of a Baptist minister. Soon after being admitted to the Virginia Bar to practice law in 1797, he moved to Kentucky, where he soon became politically active.
In 1803 at the age of 26 Clay was elected to the Kentucky legislature. Three years later he was chosen to serve briefly in the U.S. Senate even though he was not legally old enough for that position. He was then elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1811—and was chosen to be Speaker of the House when he was only 35.
Several years later, Clay proposed the “Missouri Compromise,” which allowed Maine to become a state in 1820 and Missouri in 1821. Partly because of Clay’s part in Missouri statehood, a new county formed in 1822 was named Clay County. (That is the county where I have lived since 2005).
Henry Clay long sought to be President of the United States. He first ran for that office in 1824, but he lost to John Quincy Adams. There were four candidates that year, and Clay came in fourth, carrying only three states (including Missouri).
Eight years later Clay ran against incumbent Andrew Jackson—and again lost (badly) in a four-way race. But that time he came in second.
Clay strongly opposed the Jackson administration—and Jackson himself, referring to him derisively as “King Andrew.” That opposition led to the formation of the Whig Party in 1834, and Clay was its primary leader until his death in 1852.
In 1840 the Whigs elected their first President, William Henry Harrison—who died just 31 days after his inauguration. The Whigs chose not to support Harrison’s successor, John Tyler, so Clay became a candidate for President a third time—and lost (to James Polk) for a third time. 
While he never became President—and in 1840 he famously said, “I’d rather be right than President”—Clay had considerable influence as a Representative and then as a Senator. In 2000 the Senate adopted a resolution naming the seven greatest senators of all time. Clay was one of those seven.
Clay also had considerable influence on Abraham Lincoln, a young member of the Whig Party. “Honest Abe” joined that Party in the year of its formation and was a Whig during his years in the Illinois legislature, 1834-41.
When Clay died in 1852, Lincoln delivered a eulogy at his funeral. After Lincoln became President, he continued to praise Clay and to quote from his speeches.
Sam Graves is the current U.S. Representative for much of north Missouri, including most of Clay County. In his March 20 “e-newsletter,” Rep. Graves wrote, “On March 20, 1854, a group of former Whig Party loyalists came together . . . to replace the failing Whig Party—plotting a new path forward during a perilous and uncertain time in American history.”
Then he went on to write, “What emerged from that meeting was the modern-day Republican Party.”
Rep. Graves’s first statement is historically accurate. His second assertion is very questionable. The primary political positions of Clay and Lincoln, the first Republican President, were certainly not the same as held by today’s Republican Party.
Rep. Graves needs to learn more about the feats, and political ideas/ideals, of Henry Clay.


  1. Very interesting . . . and quite correct. Thanks.

  2. In my mind Henry Clay's most important contribution was opposition to the Indian Removal Act. Jackson's policy led to Lincoln's other war - why the Indian nations joined the Confederacy.

    1. Pres. Jackson's Indian Removal Act (1830) was one of the worst aspects of his presidency, and, as the above comment correctly says, Clay was strongly opposed to it.

      Here are words from "Henry Clay: The Essential American" (2010) by Heidler and Heidler:

      "Clay followed the plight of displaced Indians and denounced from heartfelt conviction the [Jackson] administration's behavior as dishonest and inhumane. . . . Indian removal came to disgust him as it did other National Republicans, and their revulsion informed the stand of the new political party [the Whig Party] Clay founded in the 1830s" (p. 231).

  3. Here are pertinent comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for you comments about Henry Clay.

    "Judy and I visited Ashland, Clay's estate when we were in Lexington in 1994. It's definitely worth a visit.

    "Clay was a master at finding compromises; perhaps if he had lived (he died in 1852), he could have found a way to prevent the War Between the States. He certainly would have been challenged by today's political environment."

    1. Thanks, Eric. I agree with what you wrote in your last paragraph.

      In the 1960s when I was a graduate student in Louisville, I lived for over a year in eastern Kentucky (where I was pastor of a small church) and regularly drove through the the outskirts of Lexington in going back and forth to Louisville.

      At that time I had little interest in (or knowledge of) Clay and never visited Ashland then, or since. But if we ever drive across Kentucky on I-64 again, I do want to stop at Ashland.

  4. An interesting book that covers this period is "A Nation of Deadbeats" by Scott Reynolds Nelson (2012 Alfred A. Knopf). One point that especially caught my eye was his report that Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" was at least partially an allegory about Andrew Jackson and his battle with the Bank of the United States. (For the curious, see especially page 122.) Now this is not a common opinion, especially among literary reviews, a convenient example of which is at Wikipedia:

    A recent effort to get Andrew Jackson back in contact with his reputation is the musical "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" by Michael Friedman (workshop in 2006, Broadway in 2010). After seeing this show at the Unicorn in Kansas City, Jackson would, for me, never again be just a picture on a twenty (for now!), but a very red-blooded American. Here is the show's Wikipedia (clips are on the web, too):

    Moving right along, William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri is hosting "Roots of Injustice, Seeds of Change Toward Right Relations with Native Peoples" which is subtitled as "A dramatization of the historical interaction between European colonizers and America's indigenous people." Performance is April 26, 2017, 7-9 PM in Yates Fill Student Union - Room 221. A $20 donation is suggested for non-students with all proceeds going to support the Right Relations Project." A PDF flier can be downloaded here:

    So now you know not only what the financial panic of 1837 did to Herman Melville's once prosperous family (sent Melville out to sea), but to Andrew Jackson's legacy. Captain Ahab is Melville's picture of the very soul of the man behind the Indian Removal Act. So now thinking friends in the KC area have a choice next Wednesday night, be at Second Baptist at 7 PM to visit with Ed Chasteen and his Jewish friends, or at William Jewell College with Milton Horne and his Right Relations Project friends. Last Wednesday night I was with Ed and his Muslim friends, but now I have to choose!

    1. Thanks so much, Craig, for your meaty comments. I didn't know anything about what you wrote of in the first two paragraph, but was happy to learn from you.

      I did already have plans to attend the gathering at Jewell on Wednesday evening, and I am posting your third paragraph on Facebook.