Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise

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Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, at the Clay homestead in Hanover County, Virginia, in a story-and-a-half frame house.

It was an above-average home for a “common” Virginia planter of that time.

At the time of his death, Clay’s father owned more than 22 slaves, making him part of the planter class in Virginia (those men who owned 20 or more slaves).

Clay was a very dominant figure in both the First and Second Party systems.

As a leading war hawk in 1812, he favored war with Britain and played a significant role in leading the nation to war in the War of 1812.

In 1824 he ran for president and lost, but maneuvered House voting in favor of John Quincy Adams, who made him secretary of state as the Jacksonians denounced what they considered a “corrupt bargain.”

He ran and lost again in 1832 and 1844 as the candidate of the Whig Party, which he founded and usually dominated.

Clay was the foremost proponent of the American System, fighting for an increase in tariffs to foster industry in the United States, the use of federal funding to build and maintain infrastructure, and a strong national bank.

He opposed the annexation of Texas, fearing it would inject the slavery issue into politics.

Clay also opposed the Mexican-American War and the “Manifest Destiny” policy of Democrats, which cost him votes in the close 1844 election.

Dubbed the “Great Pacificator,” Clay brokered important compromises during the Nullification Crisis and on the slavery issue.

Clay and his wife had eleven children (six daughters and five sons): Henrietta (1800–1801), Theodore (1802–1870), Thomas (1803–1871), Susan (1805–1825), Anne (1807–1835), Lucretia (1809–1823), Henry, Jr. (1811–1847), Eliza (1813–1825), Laura (1815–1817), James Brown (1817–1864), and John (1821–1887).

In 1803, although not old enough to be elected, Clay was appointed a representative of Fayette County in the Kentucky General Assembly.

As a legislator, Clay advocated a liberal interpretation of the state’s constitution and initially the gradual emancipation of slavery in Kentucky, although the political realities of the time forced him to abandon that position.

Before Clay’s election as Speaker of the House, the position had been that of a rule enforcer and mediator.

Clay made the position one of political power second only to the President of the United States.

He immediately appointed members of the War Hawk faction (of which he was the “guiding spirit”) to all the important committees, effectively giving him control of the House.

This was a singular achievement for a 34-year-old House freshman.

During his early House service, Clay strongly opposed the creation of a National Bank, in part because of his personal ownership in several small banks in his hometown of Lexington.

Later he changed his position and, when he was seeking the presidency, gave strong support for the Second Bank of the United States.

The Missouri Compromise was criticized by many southerners because it established the principle that Congress could make laws regarding slavery; northerners, on the other hand, condemned it for acquiescing in the expansion of slavery (though only south of the compromise line).

Nevertheless, the act helped hold the Union together for more than thirty years.

It was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which established popular sovereignty (local choice) regarding slavery in Kansas and Nebraska, though both were north of the compromise line.