His father died when he was four years old, and Clay's formal schooling was limited to three years. His stepfather secured (1792) for him a clerk's position in the Virginia high court of chancery. There he gained the regard of George Wythe, who directed his reading. Clay also read law under Robert Brooke, attorney general of Virginia, and in 1797 he was licensed to practice.
Moving in the same year to Lexington, Ky., he quickly gained wide reputation as a lawyer and orator. He served (1803–6) in the Kentucky legislature and was (1805–7) professor of law at Transylvania Univ. Having spent the short session of 1806–7 in the U.S. Senate, he returned (1807) to the state legislature, became (1808) speaker, and remained there until he was chosen to fill an unexpired term (1810–11) in the U.S. Senate.
In 1810 Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served (1811–14) as speaker. As spokesman of Western expansionist interests and leader of the “war hawks,” Clay stirred up enthusiasm for war with Great Britain and helped bring on the War of 1812. He resigned (1814) from Congress to aid in the peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Ghent.
He again served (1815–21) in the House, again was speaker (1815–20), and began to formulate his “American system,” a national program that ultimately included federal aid for internal improvements and tariff protection of American industries. In 1821, Clay, to pacify sectional interests, pushed the Missouri Compromise through the House. In the House for the last time (1823–25), he once more became (1823) speaker, and he did much to augment the powers of that office. In this session he secured the western extension of the National Road and, against much opposition, eloquently carried through the Tariff of 1824.
Secretary of State
As a candidate for the presidency in 1824, Clay had the fourth largest number of electoral votes, and, with no candidate having a majority, the election went to the House, where the three highest were to be voted upon. It became Clay's duty to vote for one of his rivals. Despite the Western interests of Andrew Jackson and despite the instructions of the Kentucky legislature to vote for him, Clay's dislike for the military hero was so intense that he voted for John Quincy Adams. When President Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State, Jackson's friends cried “corrupt bargain” and charged Clay with political collusion. Evidence has not been found to prove this, but the accusation impeded Clay's future political fortunes. As Secretary of State (1825– 29), he secured congressional approval—which came too late for the American delegates to attend—of U.S. participation in the Pan American Congress of 1826.
In 1828, Clay again supported Adams for President, and Jackson's success bitterly disappointed him. Although he intended to retire from politics, Clay was elected (1831) to the U.S. Senate and now led the National Republicans, who were beginning to call themselves Whigs (because they opposed Jackson's “tyranny”; see Whig party). Hoping to embarrass Jackson, Clay led the opposition in the Senate to the President's policies, but when the election came Jackson was overwhelmingly reelected.
Clay's chagrin was buried in the crisis developing over the tariff. South Carolina's nullification of the tariffs of 1828 and 1832 as well as Jackson's threats of armed invasion of that state allowed Clay to gain politically—working, even at the cost of his own protectionist views, toward a compromise with the John C. Calhoun faction, he helped to promote the Compromise Tariff of 1833.
Clay opposed the Jackson regime at every turn, particularly on the bank issue. When Jackson had the deposits removed (1833) from the Bank of the United States to his “pet banks,” Clay secured in the Senate passage of a resolution—later expunged (Jan., 1837) from the record—censuring the President for his act.
Refusing to run for President in 1836, Clay continued his opposition tactics against Van Buren's administration and fought the subtreasury system in vain. In 1840, Clay lost the Whig nomination to William H. Harrison, mainly because of Thurlow Weed's adroit politics. Clay supported Harrison and, when Harrison was elected, was offered the post of Secretary of State, but he chose to stay in the Senate. He now planned to reestablish the Bank of the United States, but the unexpected accession of John Tyler to the presidency and his vetoes of Clay's bills caused Clay to resign his Senate seat.
In 1844 he ran against James K. Polk, an avowed expansionist. Earlier Clay had publicly opposed the annexation of Texas, and he restated his position in the “Alabama letters,” agreeing to annexation if it could be accomplished with the common consent of the Union and without war. This maneuver probably lost him New York state, with which he could have won the election. His failure was crushing for him and for the Whig party. In 1848 his party refused him its nomination, feeling that he had no chance, and his presidential aspirations were never fulfilled.
He reentered (1849) the Senate when the country faced the slavery question in the territory newly acquired following the Mexican War. Clay denounced the extremists in both North and South, asserted the superior claims of the Union, and was chiefly instrumental in shaping the Compromise of 1850. It was the third time that he saved the Union in a crisis, and thus he has been called the Great Pacificator and the Great Compromiser.
Publication of Clay's papers (ed. by James Hopkins) was begun in 1959. See also his works (7 vol., 1896); Clement Eaton, Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics (1957); biographies by Carl Schurz (1887, repr. 1968), Glyndon Van Deusen (1937), and Bernard Mayo (1937, repr. 1966).