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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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But while he pushed for war, Clay also showed himself to be crucial in the peacemaking process. When the battles ceased, President James Madison appointed Clay as one of five delegates to negotiate a peace treaty with Britain at Ghent, Belgium.
On other fronts, Clay took head-on some of the biggest issues of the day. He pushed for independence for several Latin American republics, advocated for a national bank and, perhaps most significantly,
argued strongly and successfully for a negotiated settlement between slave-owning states and the rest of the country over its western policy. The resulting Missouri Compromise, which passed in 1820, found a necessary balance that allowed for America's continued western expansion while simultaneously holding off any bloodshed over the white-hot topic of slavery.
Two more times in his political career would Clay step in as lead negotiator and prevent a breakup of the still young United States. In 1833 he walked South Carolina back from the brink of secession. At issue was a series of international tariffs on U.S. exports that had been sparked by American tariffs on imported goods. The cotton and tobacco states of the South were hurt the most by the new tarriff agreement, much more so than the industrial north. Clay's Compromise Tariff of 1833 slowly reduced the tariff rate and eased the tensions between the Andrew Jackson White House and Southern legislators.
In 1850, with the question raised of whether California should become part of the U.S. as either a slave state or a free state, Clay stepped to the negotiating table once more to stave off bloodshed. In one fell swoop Clay introduced a bill that allowed California to enter the Union as a non-slave state, without an additional slave state as compensation. In addition, the bill covered the settlement of the Texas boundary line, the fugitive slave law and the abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia.
Over the course of his long career, Clay's skills became renowned in Washington, D.C., earning him the nicknames The Great Compromiser and The Great Pacificator. His influence was so strong that he came to be admired by a young Abraham Lincoln, who referred to Clay as "my beau ideal of a statesman."
Clay quotes often made their way into Lincoln's speeches. During the writing of his first inaugural address, Lincoln chose a published edition of a Clay speech to keep at his side while he crafted what he'd say to the nation.
"I recognize [Clay's] voice, speaking as it ever spoke, for the Union, the Constitution and the freedom of Mankind," Lincoln wrote to Henry Clay's son John in 1864.
When Adams won the presidency, he appointed Clay as his secretary of state. The appointment came, however, at some personal cost to Clay. With neither Jackson nor Adams able to secure enough electoral votes, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives.
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