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Henry Clay Was Okay.
It's a Reader's Request Friday. We take a look at the guy with as many nicknames as presidential election losses.
Happy Friday and thank you for your continued support of Okay History.
We mentioned that we recently took two trips to Kentucky – one was for work and play, and the latter focused on fun, which ironically made the trip home seem like work. Why did we drive?
The last trip featured a few of our college buddies gathering in Lexington for the beginning of the horse racing season. We went to a bourbon distillery to kick things off on Friday, which is precisely what you do in Kentucky before you head to the track the next day. Or go to work. Or do anything when you are in Kentucky, we guess.
Although we missed the tour itself, we did arrive on time to taste Kentucky’s finest. Our buddies immediately filled us in that the gentlemen giving the tour was a history teacher and had repeated the idea that Kentucky’s own, Henry Clay, was the greatest Senator in our country’s history.
Our trip and this Clay declaration leads to our Reader’s Request for this week.
Our buddy Carl, who we saw on both trips, asks:
Did Henry Clay stop the Civil War from happening three times, like this guy claims?
That seems like an easy question to answer, Carl. Thanks for asking. Also, thanks for taking all the pictures from racetrack weekend, especially the ones where we were sleeping.
We have had a unique relationship with Henry Clay over the years, primarily because we haven’t read much about him. See, we grew up Jackson men, which meant that we only read pro-Jackson material; therefore, we disliked what Jackson disliked and felt perfectly fine in our own comfortable, warm Jackson bubble.
We did come across Henry Clay when reading about Jackson, and most of that revolved around the presidential election of 1820, where Jackson won the popular vote but lost the election to John Quincy Adams, whom Clay supported. If you remember the election of 1820, Adams won the White House due to a vote by the House of Representatives, and lookie there; Henry Clay was Speaker of the House at the time. Us being Jackson men, well, we didn’t take too kindly to Henry Clay.
We read Fred Kaplan’s book on John Quincy Adams while sitting on the beach in August 2021. We were nervous about reading it because we figured it would change our minds on Adams. Which it did, and we are now fans of Adams. For the record, Quincy Adams was a fan of Old Hickory himself. After Jackson’s triumphant return from fighting in Florida, Adams hosted a dinner for him. Louisa Adams referred to Jackson as “our hero.” See, everyone is a Jackson supporter at some point.
Anyway, Clay, Jackson, and Adams we all allies around the idea of a strong national government. But the 1820 election shattered that alliance. Things got weird four years later when all three men, plus William Crawford, ran for president. Clay won three states, Ohio, Kentucky, and Missouri, solidifying himself as The Western Star. He would try for the presidency again in 1832 and 1844, and he tried to gain the party’s nomination in 1840 and 1848. Obviously, since we never ranked Henry Clay in our presidential power rankings, he never won.
Clay was born in Virginia, and his family moved at some point, and he began his political career in the Kentucky state assembly. He was a likable guy, so he made connections easily, allowing him to gain a Senate seat, which is the silliest way to elect government officials. He served as Speaker of House, then as Secretary of State after gifting Adams the presidency, then returned to the Senate.
Back to Carl’s question regarding our history teacher tour guide: Did Clay stop the Civil War from happening three times?
Well, he certainly didn’t stop the War of 1812. Henry was a giant hawk who pushed for war and got what he wanted. Perhaps this lousy idea led him to do whatever he could to prevent another domestic war, this time to keep the union together.
In 1819, Missouri statehood admission was on the table, and a random Jeffersonian-Republican representative from New York slapped amendments to the bill restricting Missouri on slavery. As usual, white southern males flipped out, yelling about state rights and the Constitution and freedom, ending the mask mandate, etc.
At the same time, Maine decided it didn’t want to be a part of Massachusetts, so it too petitioned Congress for statehood, and the situation now screamed, let’s figure something out.
Speaker Clay comes to the rescue pushing these Southern white guys to accept the idea that all states above an imaginary line from the Louisiana Purchase would be free. Clay does the same by convincing Northern anti-slavery white dudes to allow Missouri to enter as a slave state. Meanwhile, Maine, free of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and drunk guys screaming NOOOOMAW, would be admitted as a free state.
That, our friends, is the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Since armed conflict didn’t immediately break out, you could score this as one time where Clay prevented Civil War.
RUN IT BACK, HENRY!
Fast forward past the lost elections and nominations of 1824,’32, ’40, ’44, and ’48, The Great Compromiser found himself in the Senate in 1850 when tensions over slavery continued to ratchet up. We had just whipped Mexico in the war like a World Cup qualifying match, but we got all their territory this time. It would be the biggest let’s figure something out moment in our nation’s history.
The Southern white dudes were back pushing for the expansion of slavery and demanding that Disney stop receiving tax breaks because they are groomers or whatever. At the same time, Northern white dudes wanted to be sure that Tex-Mex food was authentic and no new territories would own people.
Along comes Clay, with help from Stephen Douglas, to push for measures that would outline Texas’s border under that imaginary line agreed to back in 1820. New Mexico and Utah territories came on board, and California would enter as a free state. Washington, DC, would no longer allow the sale of enslaved people within its boundaries, but the real kicker was the Fugitive Slave Act.
Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency in 1850, following the death of Zachary Taylor, and immediately backed the Clay and Stephens compromise plan, which included stricter provisions on authorities to return runaway enslaved people caught in the north to southern owners. It was a fun time to be alive.
That, our friends, is the Compromise of 1850.
Since armed conflict didn’t immediately break out, you could score this as the second time where Clay prevented Civil War.
We are struggling to find a third reference unless you count the time between 1820 to 1850. Maybe you count the years between the last compromise and Clay’s death in 1852. Guess you could argue that it was another nine years before war eventually broke out.
We need to devote some time to read more about Clay. First, we will dive into some Edgar Allen Poe and finish the Alan Taylor book we also started. Maybe we can rank all the guys who ran for president at least three times and lost. Who would you rank higher, Clay, Bryan, or McCarthy?
Rand Paul currently occupies the seat of Clay, and his maiden speech on the Senate floor in 2011 spoke on idea of compromising. Making his best Karl Rove impression, Paul questioned if Clay’s compromising on slavery was a good thing since, overall, slavery is not a good thing. It’s a fair point. However, as we would soon learn, Paul hysterically equates Clay’s decisions and his desire to never compromise on the debt as basically the same thing. One thing Henry and Rand have in common, Paul also lost his bid to become president.
Anyway, thanks, Carl.
What does anyone know about Clay? Like him? Is he the greatest Senator of all time?