(1808–1809), was chosen speaker of its lower house, and achieved distinction by preventing an intense and widespread anti-British feeling from excluding the common law from the Kentucky code. A year later he was elected to another unexpired term in the United States Senate, serving in 1810–1811. At thirty-four (1811) he was elected to the United States House of Representatives and chosen speaker on the first day of the session. One of the chief sources of his popularity was his activity in Congress in promoting the war with Great Britain in 1812, while as one of the peace commissioners he reluctantly signed the treaty of Ghent on the 24th of December 1814. During the fourteen years following his first election, he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership; retiring for one term (1821–1823) to resume his law practice and retrieve his fortunes. He thus served as speaker in 1811–1814, in 1815–1820 and in 1823–1825. Once he was unanimously elected by his constituents, and once nearly defeated for having at the previous session voted to increase congressional salaries. He was a warm friend of the Spanish-American revolutionists (1818) and of the Greek insurgents (1824). From 1825 to 1829 he served as secretary of state in President John Quincy Adams’s cabinet, and in 1831 he was elected to the United States Senate, where he served until 1842, and again from 1849 until his death.
From the beginning of his career he was in favour of internal improvements as a means of opening up the fertile but inaccessible West, and was opposed to the abuse of official patronage known as “the spoils system.” The most important of the national questions with which Clay was associated, however, were the various phases of slavery politics and protection to home industries. The most prominent characteristics of his public life were his predisposition to “compromises” and “pacifications” which generally failed of their object, and his passionate patriotic devotion to the Union.
His earliest championship of protection was a resolution
introduced by him in the Kentucky legislature (1808) which
favoured the wearing by its members of home-made
clothes; and one in the United States Senate (April
His career as a Pro-
tectionist. 1810), on behalf of home-grown and home-made supplies for the United States navy, but only to the point of making the nation independent of foreign supply. In 1816 he advocated the Dallas tariff, in which the duties ranged up to 35% on articles of home production, the supply of which could satisfy the home demand; the avowed purpose being to build up certain industries for safety in time of war. In 1824 he advocated high duties to relieve the prevailing distress, which he pictured in a brilliant and effective speech. Although the distress was caused by the reactionary effect of a disordered currency and the inflated prices of the war of 1812, he ascribed it to the country’s dependence on foreign supply and foreign markets. Great Britain, he said, was a shining example of the wisdom of a high tariff. No nation ever flourished without one. He closed his principal speech on the subject in the House of Representatives with a glowing appeal in behalf of what he called “The American System.” In spite of the opposition of Webster and other prominent statesmen, Clay succeeded in enacting a tariff which the people of the Southern states denounced as a “tariff of abominations.” As it overswelled the revenue, in 1832 he vigorously favoured reducing the tariff rates on all articles not competing with American products. His speech in behalf of the measure was for years a protection text-book; but the measure itself reduced the revenue so little and provoked such serious threats of nullification and secession in South Carolina, that, to prevent bloodshed and to forestall a free trade measure from the next Congress, Clay brought forward in 1833 a compromise gradually reducing the tariff rates to an average of 20%. To the Protectionists this was “like a crash of thunder in winter”; but it was received with such favour by the country generally, that its author was hailed as “The Great Pacificator,” as he had been thirteen years before at the time of the Missouri Compromise (see below). As, however, the discontent with the tariff in the South was only a symptom of the real trouble there—the sensitiveness of the slave-power,—Clay subsequently confessed his serious doubts of the policy of his interference.
He was only twenty-two, when, as an opponent of slavery, he vainly urged an emancipation clause for the new constitution of Kentucky, and he never ceased regretting that its failure put his state, in improvements and progress, behind its free neighbours. In 1820 he congratulated the new South American republics on having abolished slavery, but the same year the threats of the Southern states to destroy the Union led him to advocate the “Missouri Compromise,” which, while keeping slavery out of all the rest of the territory acquired by the “Louisiana Purchase” north of Missouri’s southern boundary line, permitted it in that state. Then, greeted with the title of “The Great Pacificator” as a reward for his success, he retired temporarily to private life, with a larger stock of popularity than he had ever had before. Although at various times he had helped to strengthen the law for the recovery of fugitive slaves, declining as secretary of state to aid Great Britain in the further suppression of the slave trade, and demanding the return of fugitives from Canada, yet he heartily supported the colonizing of the slaves in Africa, because slavery was the “deepest stain upon the character of the country,” opposition to which could not be repressed except by “blowing out the moral lights around,” and “eradicating from the human soul the light of reason and the law of liberty.” When the slave power became more aggressive, in and after the year 1831, Clay defended the right of petition for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia, and opposed Calhoun’s bill forbidding the use of the mails to “abolition” newspapers and documents. He was luke-warm toward recognizing the independence of Texas, lest it should aid the increase of slave territory, and generally favoured the freedom of speech and press as regards the question of slavery; yet his various concessions and compromises resulted, as he himself declared, in the abolitionists denouncing him as a slaveholder, and the slaveholders as an abolitionist. In 1839, only twelve months after opposing the pro-slavery demands, he prepared an elaborate speech, in order “to set himself right with the South,” which, before its delivery, received pro-slavery approval. While affirming that he was “no friend of slavery” he held abolition and the abolitionists responsible for the hatred, strife, disruption and carnage that menaced the nation. In response, Calhoun extended to him a most hearty welcome, and assigned him to a place on the bench of the penitents. Being a candidate for the presidency Clay had to take the insult without wincing. It was in reference to this speech that he made the oft-quoted remark that he “would rather be right than be president.” While a candidate for president in 1844, he opposed in the “Raleigh letter” the annexation of Texas on many grounds except that of its increasing the slave power, thus displeasing both the men of anti-slavery and those of pro-slavery sentiments. In 1847, after the conquest of Mexico, he made a speech against the annexation of that country or the acquiring of any foreign territory for the spread of slavery. Although in 1849 he again vainly proposed emancipation in Kentucky, he was unanimously elected to the United States Senate, where in 1850 he temporarily pacified both sections of the country by successfully offering, for the sake of the “peace, concord and harmony of these states,” a measure or series of measures that became known as the “Compromise of 1850.” It admitted California as a free state, organized Utah and New Mexico as Territories without reference to slavery, and enacted a more efficient fugitive slave law. In spite of great physical weakness he made several earnest speeches in behalf of these measures to save the Union.
Another conspicuous feature of Clay’s public career was his absorbing and rightful, but constantly ungratified, ambition to be president of the United States. His name in connexion therewith was mentioned comparatively early, and in 1824, with W. H. Crawford, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams, he was a candidate for that office. There being no choice by the people, and the House of Representatives having elected Adams, Clay was accused by Jackson and his friends of making a corrupt bargain whereby, in payment of his vote and influence