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Henry Clay was a 19th century U.S. politician who served in Congress and as secretary of state under President John Quincy Adams.
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Born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia, Henry Clay worked as a frontier lawyer before becoming a Kentucky senator and then speaker of the House of Representatives. He was secretary of state under John Quincy Adams in the 1820s, later returning to Congress, and pushed for the Compromise of 1850, with overall conflicting stances on race and slavery. He died on June 29, 1852.
"Of all the properties which belong to honorable men, not one is so highly prized as that of character."
"I recognize [Clay's] voice, speaking as it ever spoke, for the Union, the Constitution and the freedom of Mankind,"
A distinguished political leader whose influence extended across both houses of Congress and to the White House, Henry Clay Sr. was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia.
Clay was raised with modest wealth, the seventh of nine children born to Reverend John and Elizabeth Hudson Clay. His link to American history came at an early age. He was 3 years old when he watched the British troops ransack his family home.
In 1797 he was admitted to the Virginia bar. Then, like a number of ambitious young lawyers, Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky, a hotbed of land-title lawsuits. Clay mingled well in his new home. He was sociable, didn't hide his tastes for drinking and gambling, and developed a deep love for horses.
Clay's standing in his adopted state was furthered by his marriage to Lucretia Hart, the daughter of a wealthy Lexington businessman, in 1799. The two remained married for more than 50 years, having 11 children together.
His political career kicked off in 1803 when he was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly. Voters gravitated toward Clay's Jeffersonian politics, which early on saw him push for a liberalization of the state's constitution. He also strongly opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.
In the private sector, his work as an attorney brought success and plenty of clients. One of those included Aaron Burr, whom Clay represented in 1806 in a wild case in which Burr was accused of planning an expedition into Spanish Territory and essentially trying to create a new empire. Clay had defended Burr out of a belief that he was innocent, but later, when it was revealed that Burr was guilty of the charges levied against him, Clay spurned his former client's attempts at making amends.
In 1806, the same year he took on the Burr case, Clay received his first taste of national politics when he was appointed to the U.S. Senate. He was just 29 years old.
Over the next few years, Clay served out the unexpired terms in the U.S. Senate. In 1811 Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he eventually served as Speaker of the House. In all, Clay would come to serve multiple terms in the U.S. House (1811–14, 1815–21, 1823–25) and Senate (1806–07, 1810–11, 1831–42, 1849–52).
Clay had come to the House as a War Hawk, a leader who vocally pushed his government to confront the British over its conscription of American seamen. In part due to Clay's political pressure, the U.S. went to war with Britain in the War of 1812. The conflict proved crucial in forging a lasting American independence from England.
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