Clay, Henry (1777–1852)

AuthorMerrill D. Peterson

Page 423

Henry Clay, distinguished politician and legislator, was a product of the Jeffersonian Republicanism that took possession of the Trans-Appalachian West, fought a second war against Great Britain, and was nationalized in the process. Born in Hanover County, Virginia, young Clay clerked for Chancellor GEORGE WYTHE and read law in Richmond before emigrating to Kentucky in his twentieth year. Settling in the rising metropolis of Lexington, Clay was promptly admitted to the bar, and by virtue of extraordinary natural talent, aided by the fortune of marriage into a prominent mercantile family, he soon became a leading member of the Bluegrass lawyer-aristocracy.

The chaos of land titles in Kentucky?a legacy of the state's Virginia origins?made it a paradise for lawyers. Clay mastered this abstruse branch of jurisprudence but earned his reputation as a trial lawyer in capital cases, in which he was said never to have lost a client. He rode the circuit of the county courts, acquiring a character for high spirits and camaraderie; he practiced before the court of appeals and also before the United States district court at Frankfort. When he first went to Congress in 1806, Clay was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court. Occasionally in years to come he argued important constitutional cases before the court. He was chief counsel for the defendant in OSBORN V. BANK OF THE UNITED STATES (1824), for instance, in which the Court struck down a prohibitive state tax on branches of the bank. At about the same time he conducted Kentucky's defense of its Occupying Claimants Law, enacted years earlier in order to settle thousands of disputed land titles. Here Clay was unsuccessful, as the Court, in GREEN V. BIDDLE (1823), found the Kentucky law in violation of the CONTRACT CLAUSE. Justice JOSEPH STORY remarked after hearing Clay in this case that, if he chose, Clay might achieve "great eminence" at the bar. This interesting judgment would never be tested, however, for Clay sought eminence in politics rather than law.

Clay entered politics in 1798 as a Jeffersonian Republican protesting the ALIEN AND SEDITION ACTS and seeking liberal reform of the state constitution. Elected to the legislature in 1803, he became chief spokesman and protector of the Lexington-centered "court party." He was also very popular, rising rapidly to the speakership of the lower house. In 1806 he was sent to the United States Senate to

Page 424

complete three months of an unexpired term; this experience was repeated, upon the resignation of another incumbent, in 1810. Clay distinguished himself as a bold patriot and orator, as an advocate of federal INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS and encouragement of domestic manufactures, both of great interest to Kentucky, and as the leading opponent of recharter of the national bank on strict Jeffersonian grounds. He then sought and won...

To continue reading

Request your trial