About the Author: Christopher Averill has taught AP® US History for 27 years and been actively involved in APUSH® grading for 22 years. Christopher has served as an APUSH® exam reader, table leader, exam leader, and question leader. Christopher was integral in establishing the AP® Teacher Best Practices Workshops at the annual AP® US History reading. He has been endorsed by the College Board as an AP Consultant since 1999 and has conducted numerous AP single-day workshops as well as Teaching and Learning Seminars. Starting in 2010 he began a four year term on the AP® US History Test Development Committee. Additionally, he was a Faculty Consultant editor for the 15th edition of the Alan Brinkley American History textbook.
Henry Clay was the most distinguished statesman and politician of the Antebellum era. Serving as a congressman, Speaker of the House, a senator, Secretary of State, and a frequent presidential candidate, Clay dramatically influenced the political and economic climate in the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War. Clay authored the American System–a plan for the federal government to take an active role in guiding the national economy towards self-sufficiency and prosperity. He was “The Great Compromiser,” crafting numerous political arrangements that calmed the growing sectional divisions between the North and the South. In presidential politics, Clay created not one, but two political parties. Through his numerous attempts to attain the highest office in the land, he was at the center of the era’s most important issues: the Corrupt Bargain, the National Bank, and western expansion.
Serving as a congressman, Speaker of the House, a senator, Secretary of State, and a frequent presidential candidate, Clay dramatically influenced the political and economic climate in the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War.
The Great Compromiser is Molded
Henry Clay was born in Virginia and later moved to Kentucky. He was a lawyer, a tobacco planter, and enslaver. A fellow westerner and political rival Andrew Jackson shared much in common with Clay. Both men had southern roots, owned forced labor camps, enslaved people, and championed the cause of the “common man.” However, while Jackson enthusiastically supported states’ rights in the form of state-run banks and lower tariffs, Clay passionately disagreed. Clay firmly held that the federal government should play a central role in directing the economy. The federal government could fund state projects while building an increasingly necessary transportation infrastructure as well as encourage the growing American manufacturing industry. Clay may have begun his political career as a Democratic-Republican, but he soon championed the cause of many former Federalist ideas.
Clay firmly held that the federal government should play a central role in directing the economy.
In the Furnace. Speak of the House
In 1812, Henry Clay served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. As Speaker, Clay aggressively supported the United States’ entry into the War of 1812 against Great Britain. He saw the opportunity that the war afforded the U.S. to strengthen land claims against the Native Americans in the West and against Spanish-held Florida in the South. While Clay was a Democratic-Republican at the time, the war convinced him that a strong national government was necessary to protect the United States from foreign enemies and to create a self-sufficient economy that was not so dependent upon trade with European countries and their petty rivalries. After the conclusion of the war, Clay became the architect of numerous pieces of legislation that would eventually be known as the American System. Clay wrote the Tariff of 1816 which was America’s first protective tariff; it would not only raise revenue for the federal government but would also encourage Americans to purchase from and support domestic manufacturers. Clay then proposed the creation of the Second National Bank. Based on Hamilton’s ideas for the First National Bank, the Second Bank would create a sound national currency and would regulate public credit throughout the nation. Additionally, Clay oversaw the passage of an internal improvement bill that would use revenue raised from the protective tariff to support the building of roads and canals that would link regional economies to a national whole. Unfortunately for Clay, Madison vetoed this bill for internal improvements, but Clay continued to fight for such infrastructure spending throughout his long political career.
The War of 1812 convinced him that a strong national government was necessary to protect the United States from foreign enemies and to create a self-sufficient economy.
As Malleable as… well, Clay
As “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay crafted the most important political compromises in U.S. history.
In addition to his vision for a national and thriving economy, Clay also worked toward a thriving political environment where sectional differences could be overcome for the national good. As “The Great Compromiser,” Henry Clay crafted the most important political compromises in U.S. history. In 1820, Clay proposed Missouri’s entrance into the Union as a slave state to be accompanied by Maine’s entrance as a free state–maintaining the political balance between these competing state interests. In 1833, Clay created a Compromise Tariff to calm the anger of South Carolina over a high tariff they had nullified and the fear of Northern manufacturers from being unable to compete with a sudden loss of economic protection from international markets. This compromise would lower the tariff to a rate the southern states could tolerate but did so over the span of eight years to give the northern states time to adapt to the change. The agreed-upon arrangement ended, for the time being, the dangerous talk of secession and war by all parties.
In 1820, Clay proposed Missouri’s entrance into the Union as a slave state to be accompanied by Maine’s entrance as a free state–maintaining the political balance between these competing state interests.
Glazing a Compromise… 1850-Style
But perhaps Clay’s most impressive efforts at compromise came in 1850. Following the Mexican-American War, the U.S. had expanded to the Pacific Ocean leaving the northern and southern states to argue over the extension of slavery into this new territory. California’s application for statehood also threatened to upset the balance of slave states and free states in the nation. Additionally, the southern states felt threatened by the growing number of runaways that the North refused to return. Endless quarreling seized control of the Senate until Henry Clay, ill with tuberculosis but committed to resolving these difficult problems, proposed what would become the Compromise of 1850. California would be admitted as a free state. The New Mexico and Utah territories would be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. Texas’ borders would be redrawn. The slave trade, though not slavery, would be outlawed in Washington, D.C., and a strong Fugitive Slaw Law would return the South’s property to them. While the Compromise of 1850 may not have perfectly resolved the growing sectional divide in the country, Henry Clay was a powerful force in supporting a united national government and seeking out common ground between different regional interests.
While the Compromise of 1850 may not have perfectly resolved the growing sectional divide in the country, Henry Clay was a powerful force in supporting a united national government and seeking out common ground between different regional interests.
Clay’s Shaping of the Corrupt Bargain… And More!
Henry Clay sought the office of president in three national elections (1824, 1832, and 1844), and he attempted to gain his party’s nomination on two other occasions (1840 and 1848). While Clay never won any of these contests, in all of these races Clay was a powerful voice in shaping national policy on a wide variety of topics. In the 1824 election, four men sought the presidency and all were from the Democratic-Republican Party. The Era of Good Feelings may have temporarily erased the two-party system, but the underlying sectional differences in the country and the debate about the role of the federal government waged on. Henry Clay finished fourth behind Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and William Crawford. However, as Speaker of the House, Clay’s role in this race was far from over. Because no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives would decide the victor. Clay felt that Adams would be most likely to support the economic policies of the American System and therefore gave his support to him. The House chose Adams to be president and Adams soon chose Clay to be his Secretary of State–a position that usually led to the presidency. Jackson felt betrayed by “the Judas of the West” and referred to this supposed deal between Adams and Clay as a “corrupt bargain.” Jackson and his supporters began forming their own party, the Democrats, and were successfully swept into office by 1828.
After the Corrupt Bargain, Jackson and his supporters began forming their own party, the Democrats, and were successfully swept into office by 1828.
Republicans… for a Strong Republic
By 1832, Clay had helped to form the party of the National Republicans who were committed to the ideas of the American System: a protective tariff, government funding for internal improvements, and a national bank. Under Clay’s leadership in the Senate, Congress voted to recharter the National Bank, knowing this would create difficulties for Jackson in an election year. But Jackson was undeterred. He supported hard-money policies and disliked the national bank. Jackson’s veto of the bank’s recharter seemed like political suicide to the National Republicans. The Bank supported a strong national economy and had been upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court. Regardless, Jackson’s supporters agreed with the president that the Bank gave privileges to the financial elites of the country at the expense of the southern, farming economy. Jackson won the reelection of 1832 against Henry Clay and the National Bank.
By 1832, Clay had helped to form the party of the National Republicans who were committed to the ideas of the American System: a protective tariff, government funding for internal improvements, and a national bank. But Jackson won in 1832.
Shortly after this electoral defeat, Henry Clay began organizing Jackson’s opposition into a unified political party, the Whigs.
Shortly after this electoral defeat, Henry Clay began organizing Jackson’s opposition into a unified political party, the Whigs. Just as the pre-Revolutionary War American and British parties of the same name opposed the arbitrary power of the British monarchs, the Whigs despised the haphazard actions of “King Andrew I.” The Whigs first achieved presidential electoral success in 1840 with William Henry Harrison; in 1844, Henry Clay was the Whig party nominee for president. In this contest against the Democratic nominee James K. Polk, the main debate concerned expansion and Manifest Destiny. Polk blustered through the campaign with slogans such as “54°40’ or Fight” and “The Reannexation of Texas.” Clay favored a more measured approach. Knowing that annexing Texas would lead to war with Mexico, Clay instead supported negotiations, diplomacy, and patience. While Clay’s approach may have been more reasonable and restrained, the country was in no mood for such careful policies and Clay, once again, lost his bid for the presidency.
Throughout his life, Henry Clay fought for a functioning and powerful national government that could support the states and promote economic self-sufficiency. His American System provided the financial stability necessary for a thriving Market Revolution to take place. Internal improvements would create the roads and canals western farmers so desperately needed, protective tariffs would support the growing textile manufacturers in the North, and a powerful National Bank would create the financial credit needed by the North, South, and the West. The political compromises Henry Clay created held the union together through crises concerning slavery, tariffs, nullification, secession, western expansion, and national political power. Additionally, Clay was influential in creating the Whig party and shaping national policies in his roles as a congressman, a senator, and a presidential candidate for decades. Senator Foote clearly summarized Clay’s significance to the nation and to political compromise when he said, “Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-61, there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.”
Throughout his life, Henry Clay fought for a functioning and powerful national government that could support the states and promote economic self-sufficiency.