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.
CLAY’S EARLY FEATS
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).
CLAY’S POLITICAL DEFEATS
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.