His father, a Baptist minister nicknamed "Sir John," died in 1781, four years after Henry's birth. At the time of his death, John Clay owned more than 22 slaves, making him part of the planter class in Virginia (those men who owned 20 or more slaves). He father left two slaves to each of his sons, and his widow received 18 slaves and 464 acres of land.
Ten years later, Elizabeth Clay married Capt. Henry Watkins, who was an affectionate stepfather. Henry Watkins moved the family to Richmond, Virginia. Elizabeth had seven more children with Watkins, bearing a total of sixteen.
His stepfather secured employment for Henry in the office of the Virginia Court of Chancery, where he displayed an aptitude for law. There he became friends with George Wythe. Hampered by a crippled hand, Wythe chose Clay as his secretary.
Henry Clay was born six years before the Revolutionary War ended, and died nine years before the Civil War began.
|Clay's Law Office in Lexington, Kentucky|
After beginning his law career, Clay married Lucretia Hart on April 11, 1799, at the Hart home in Lexington, Kentucky. They were married for more than 50 years and had eleven children (six daughters and five sons). Seven of Clay's children died before him and his wife. By 1835 all six daughters had died of varying causes, two when very young, two as children, the other two as young women: from whooping cough, yellow fever, and complications of childbirth.
Clay was a second cousin of Cassius Clay, who became an abolitionist in Kentucky.
|Cassius Marcellus Clay|
In 1803, Clay was elected to serve as the 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.
In 1806 the Kentucky legislature elected him to the United States Senate. On December 29, 1806, Clay was sworn in as senator, serving for less than one year that first time. When elected by the legislature, Clay was below the constitutionally required age of thirty; his age did not appear to have been noticed. Three months and 17 days into his Senate service, he reached the age of eligibility.
In the summer of 1811, Clay was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was chosen Speaker of the House on the first day of his first session, something never done before or since. During the fourteen years following his first election, he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership.
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.
Henry Clay helped establish and became president in 1816 of the American Colonization Society (ACS), a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. It founded Monrovia, in what became Liberia, for that purpose. The group was made up of both abolitionists from the North, who wanted to end slavery, and slaveholders, who wanted to deport free blacks to reduce what they considered a threat to the stability of slave society. On the "amalgamation" of the black and white races, Clay said that "The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it." Clay presided at the founding meeting of the ACS on December 21, 1816, at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C.
|Abraham Lincoln as a young congressman|
|Decatur House, Washington, D.C.|
The jury ruled against Dupuy, deciding that any agreement with her previous master Condon did not bear on Clay. Because Dupuy refused to return voluntarily to Kentucky, Clay had his agent arrest her. She was imprisoned in Alexandria, Virginia before Clay arranged for her transport to New Orleans, where he placed her with his daughter and son-in-law Martin Duralde. Mary Ann Dupuy was sent to join her mother, and they worked as domestic slaves for the Duraldes for another decade.
In 1840 Henry Clay finally gave Charlotte and her daughter Mary Ann Dupuy their freedom. He kept her son Charles Dupuy as a personal servant, frequently citing him as an example of how well he treated his slaves. Clay granted Charles Dupuy his freedom in 1844.
After the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1829, Clay led the opposition to Jackson's policies. His supporters included the National Republicans, who were beginning to identify as "Whigs" in honor of ancestors during the Revolutionary War. They opposed the "tyranny" of Jackson, as their ancestors had opposed the tyranny of King George III.
|William Henry Harrison|
In 1844, Clay was nominated by the Whigs against James Polk, the Democratic candidate. Clay lost in part due to national sentiment in favor of Polk's campaign.to settle the northern boundary of the United States with Canada, then under the control of the British Empire. Clay opposed admitting Texas as a state because he believed it would reawaken the slavery issue and provoke Mexico to declare war. Polk took the opposite view, supported by most of the public, especially in the Southern United States. The election was close; New York's 36 electoral votes proved the difference, and went to Polk by a slim 5,000 vote margin.
|Clay Campaign Banner, 1844|
|Death of Lt. Henry Clay, Jr. in Mexican American War|
|Henry and Lucretia Clay|
on their 50th Wedding Anniversary, 1849
During his term, the controversy over the expansion of slavery in new lands had reemerged with the addition of the lands ceded to the United States by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. David Wilmot, a Northern congressman, had proposed preventing the extension of slavery into any of the new territory in a proposal referred to as the "Wilmot Proviso".
- Admission of California as a free state, ending the balance of free and slave states in the senate
- Organization of the Utah and New Mexico territories without any slavery provisions, giving the right to determine whether to allow slavery to the territorial populations
- Prohibition of the slave trade, but not the ownership of slaves, in the District of Columbia
- A more stringent Fugitive Slave Act
- Establishment of boundaries for the state of Texas in exchange for federal payment of Texas's ten million dollar debt.
- A declaration by Congress that it did not have the authority to interfere with the interstate slave trade.
Clay was given much of the credit for the Compromise's success. It quieted the controversy between Northerners and Southerners over the expansion of slavery, and delayed secession and civil war for another decade.
|"Death of Henry Clay", with his son, Thomas, sitting at his bedside|
|Telegraph from Thomas Clay to family: "Our Father is no more"|
Clay's funeral delegation departed New York City on the morning of July 5 to travel up the Hudson River aboard the steamer Santa Claus. At Albany, Clay's coffin was accompanied by fire companies bearing torches to the New York state capitol, where guards attended the body overnight. The next morning, Clay's body traveled west through Schenectady, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, and Rochester to Buffalo, where he was loaded directly on the Erie steamer Buckeye State, which carried him overnight to Ohio.
|Funeral Procession in Lexington|
By the time of his death, his only surviving sons were James Brown Clay and John Morrison Clay, who inherited the estate and took portions for their use.
|James Brown Clay|