Henry Clay: 10 Accomplishments of the “Great Compromiser”

Accomplishments of Henry Clay

From being a “War Hawk” in his earlier political career to becoming the greatest peace negotiator the nation has ever seen, these 10 very important accomplishments of Senator Henry Clay (1777- 1852) reveal how significant he was/is to the United States.

Expert peace negotiator and the Compromise of 1820

Henry Clay properly introduced himself to the American public as a politician with astute skills and abilities to negotiate. This prowess of his would earn him the tile, the Great Pacificator/Compromiser. Clay put in extensive effort in keeping the Union intact. This was first seen in 1820 when he was heavily involved in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Compromise of 1820 that Clay worked on kept the peace between the North and South by allowing Missouri to come into the Union as slave state while Maine got admitted as a free state.

Heavily involved in building the Whig Party

From the early 1830s to the late 1850s, the Whig Party was a colossal political party that could even boast of four American presidents – William H. Harrison, John Taylor, Zachary Taylor, and Millard Fillmore.

Their fortunes in the political arena had much to do with Henry Clay. Originally starting his political career in Democratic-Republican Party in 1797, Clay, along with a faction of politicians that opposed Andrew Jackson, went on to form the Whig Party.

Clay, as well as a number of Whigs, supported the American System. The system proposed strong federal government investments in infrastructure in the various states. Clay also supported the chartering of a national bank, i.e. the Bank of America.

Even though he was a leading member of the Whig Party, Henry Clay bid to win the White House seat failed on three separate occasions – 1824, 1832, and 1844.

Henry Clay

Henry Clay (1777 – 1852)

Set the standards for other U.S. Senators and politicians to follow

Henry Clay was unquestionably one of the most impactful and influential politician of his era. As a U.S. senator, he worked very hard to raise awareness for the need of dialog between the South and North.

He was a member of the Great Triumvirate – a trio that included politicians Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun. Together, these three men dazzled the American public with their oratory, intellect and refined language.

Clay goes down in the annals of history as the statesman that influenced several American statesmen and leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States from 1861-1865), Robert Todd (Lincoln’s father-in-law) and Justice John Marshall Harlan (Supreme Court Justice from 1877 to 1911).

In Abraham Lincoln’s case, the 16th President of the U.S. had so much admiration for Henry Clay that he quoted Henry Clay 41 times. Lincoln even appointed Henry Clay’s son, Thomas Clay, to the post of Minister to Nicaragua and later to Honduras in the 1860s. Abraham Lincoln once described Henry Clay as, “my beau ideal of a statesman”.

Defused the 1830s Tariff Acts Controversy

In the early 1830s, Americans turned to Clay again to defuse the crisis that stemmed from the Tariff Acts enacted by President Andrew Jackson. The Acts gave uneven protection to manufacturing industries in the northern and western states. As a result of this, the prices of those goods became far cheaper than the ones imported into the United States. In a tit for tat move, the exporting European countries imposed biting tariffs on American goods. The biggest sufferers of this trade war were the Southerners, especially those in the tobacco and cotton industries.

Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina berated Andrew Jackson’s Tariff Act as unconstitutional, and went on to ask the states to either nullify or ignore those federal laws. Andrew Jackson was livid with the statement made by Calhoun. The president warned that any state that nullified the act would face the full force of the U.S. federal government.

Amidst the back and forth, in came Senator Henry Clay- a calm mind of reasoning. Clay drafted the Compromise Tariff of 1833. The compromise proposed a gradual reduction of tariff rates. Clay’s proposal was quickly accepted by both the North and the South. This effectively nipped the conflict in the bud, at least for a while.

Accomplishments of Henry Clay

Drafted the Compromise of 1850

In his third and final compromise document, Henry Clay was at it again in 1850 trying to resolve the conflict between the North and South over the issue of slavery.

Southern politicians wanted California to be admitted into the Union as a slave state. However, the North was opposed to this. The balance of free states to slave state in the U.S. Congress was at stake. Neither side was willing to budge.

Henry Clay’s draft proposal helped avert the looming crisis. He proposed the admission of California as a free state. In order to pacify the South, Clay introduced the Fugitive Slave Act. The Compromise of 1850 also called for the settlement of Texas’s boundary fine. Finally, it abolished slave trade in the District of Columbia. In short, it allowed for the popular sovereignty principle to be applied in the areas annexed from Mexico during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The Compromise 1850 did just enough to keep the nation together for another decade or so.

Many historians have stated that had Clay being alive in the late 1850s, America might have not descended into utter chaos in the form of the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Made the Speaker of the House an influential position

As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Henry Clay converted the largely ministerial position to a very influential one. Prior to Clay’s speakership, the position was not very pronounced.

He first became House Speaker in 1811, winning by two-to-one margin. What was outstanding was that his election as Speaker came during his first term in the House. Clay would go on to inject a lot of prominence and responsibilities into the role. He also featured enormously in the appointment of committee chairs. As a result of the increased responsibilities, as well as the accompanying power of the position, Clay was able to rally his fellow representatives behind noble enterprises that he deemed necessary to keep the Union together.

House Speaker on six occasions

With the exclusion of Sam Rayburn, no other American has been elected House Speaker more times than Henry Clay. The Kentucky lawyer and statesman was elected to the position six times – 1811, 1813, 1815, 1817, 1819, and 1823.

The House Speaker position is a very important one in American politics. As a matter of fact, the Speaker is the second in line to succeed the U.S. president, behind the vice president of the United States.

Helped negotiate the Ghent Treaty of 1814

Accomplishments of Henry Clay | Ghent Treaty of 1814

While serving as the House Speaker of the 13th Congress, Henry Clay was appointed by President James Madison to be a member of the five-man delegation. The delegation was tasked to negotiate a peace agreement to end the War of 1812 with Great Britain. Therefore, Clay had to resign his position in the House.

In the summer of 1814, Clay and the four other diplomats- John Quincy Adams, James A. Bayard Sr., Jonathan Russell, and Albert Gallatin – set course for Ghent, Belgium. After close to four months of negotiations, Clay and his fellow peace commissioners were able to strike a peace agreement. Signing of the treaty occurred on December 24, 1814.

Did you know that future-president of the US Andrew Jackson made his name in the War of 1812?

The Ghent Treat of 1814, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate on February 17, 1815, restored relations between the U.S. and Great Britain. It also restored the pre-war borders (June 1812) that existed between the two countries. One thing was clear though: The United States came out of the war far stronger and more influential than it was prior to the war. The nation was finally able to completely break off the remaining hold that Britain had on her.

Henry Clay had enormous influence on the U.S. Supreme Court

Henry Clay studied law under the renowned learned law expert, George Wythe – the same man who mentored notable American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Spencer Roane (Virginia judge), and John Marshall (4th Chief Justice of the United States).

Clay also practiced law with Robert Brooke – a Virginia attorney general and 10th Governor of Virginia. By age 20, Clay had gained admission to the Virginia Bar. Clay then secured a a Kentucky license in order to practice in the state.

Clay’s legal knowledge and oratory skills became evident for all to see in Kentucky. In 1806, he even represented Aaron Burr and successfully convinced the judge to dismiss the case against Burr due to a lack of substantiate evidence.

In his decorated legal profession, Clay made about four appearances in the U.S. Supreme Court. While in Washington, he made countless High Court appearances as well.

Clay was the first person to appear as amicus curiae (“friend of the Court”) during the case: Green v. Biddle [21 U.S. 1 (1823)]. The term refers to a situation where someone that has no dealing with the case assists the court by supplying the court with information. This provision continues to have a huge impact on legal matters, especially the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision-making process.

Achievements of Henry Clay

Fought against the development of Latin American Monarchies

After the 1824 U.S. presidential election stalemated (i.e. no absolute majority in the Electoral College), the U.S. House of Representatives constitutionally carried out its duty by breaking the deadlock. The two leading candidates were John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

As an influential member of the House, Clay lent his support to Adams. As a reward for his support, Adams appointed Clay to the State Department.

During his time as 9th Secretary of State, Henry Clay vehemently opposed the development of Latin American monarchies. He drafter the instructions for the Pan-American Conference held in 1826 in Panama. In the draft, Clay called for equality of Commercial privileges between the countries in the Western Hemisphere. To aid better trade amongst those nations, he proposed the construction of a canal, i.e. the Panama Canal.

Honorable Mentions

Due to his longevity in the service of his nation (served for close to half a century), Henry can definitely be placed in the list of the 3 top influential political minds of his era. In the 1950s, a group of historians and U.S. Senators mentioned Henry Clay as one of the five greatest U.S. Senators of all time. Here are some honorable mentions of Henry Clay’s achievement:

  • He supported many Latin and South American countries to gain independence.
  • As an attorney, Clay won more court cases than he lost.
  • Henry Clay applied a lot science and technology to boost farm harvests at his Ashland plantation. He earned the respect of his fellow farmers across America. He was the first person to introduce Herford Cattle to the United State. His Ashland became a blueprint for scientific farming and animal husbandry.

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