About Henry Clay
by Kent Masterson Brown and Bill Giles
We live in an age marked by political polarization. Our nation and the world have become increasingly turbulent. We watch that turbulence turn into violence on the evening news. Now, more than ever, we need to cultivate the ideals of statesmanship at all levels; we need to train individuals to resolve conflict, to learn the art of compromise.
From the birth of the American Republic in 1789, deep differences between two of its regions, North and South, coupled with westward expansion, nearly plunged the nation into civil war on three separate occasions before guns actually opened up upon Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Each time, one man — one statesman — forged a compromise. That man — that statesman — was Henry Clay of Kentucky.
Early in his life, Henry Clay came to Kentucky and was elected to Congress. A “War Hawk,” Clay evolved into a diplomat, negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812. Clay was soon thereafter elected to the United States Senate. With the petitioned statehood of Missouri in 1820, the nation faced its first crisis over whether to admit a state from the Louisiana Purchase as a free state or slave state. Senator Henry Clay defused the crisis, deemed by former president Thomas Jefferson as a “firebell in the night,” by crafting the Missouri Compromise. A second time, sectional strife flared up as the post-War of 1812 Tariff brought cries of “nullification” and even “secession” from South Carolina in the early 1830’s. After months of rising threats of civil war, Senator Henry Clay introduced the Compromise of 1833, averting disunion and bloodshed. Then, nearly twenty years later, the admission of California as a slave or free state was at stake. At no time in its history had the American Republic been brought so close to civil war, facing a situation seemingly beyond compromise. For a third time, Senator Henry Clay skillfully fashioned a compromise — the Compromise of 1850 — staving off a bloody civil war for more than a decade.
Henry Clay was, indeed, the “Great Compromiser,” the “Great Pacificator.” Abraham Lincoln regarded Henry Clay as the greatest statesman the nation had ever produced, calling him “my beau ideal of a statesman.” Without question, Henry Clay’s ideals of statesmanship and compromise continue to be relevant and necessary in today’s increasingly turbulent and divided world.