“I would rather be right than president,” answered Henry Clay, when told his abolitionist position would cost him the election.
Henry Clay was three times a candidate for president, once only 5,000 votes short. The son of a Baptist minister, Henry Clay studied law under George Wythe, served in Congress over 40 years and was speaker of the House six times.
Henry Clay stated in 1841: “Patriotism, which, catching its inspiration from the immortal God … prompts to deeds of self-sacrifice, of valor, of devotion, and of death itself – that is public virtue, that is the noblest, the sublimest of all public virtues.”
Henry Clay was part of the “Great Triumvirate,” with Daniel Webster and John Calhoun which led Congress during the early 1800s. He helped negotiate the treaty ending the War of 1812 and was key to John Quincy Adams being the sixth president instead of Andrew Jackson.
In 1824, Henry Clay supported Greeks who wanted freedom from the Muslim Ottoman Empire. He supported South Americans wanting freedom from Spain.
Abraham Lincoln described Henry Clay in a eulogy, July 6, 1852: “When Greece rose against the Turks and struck for liberty, his name was mingled with the battle-cry of freedom. When South America threw off the thraldom of Spain, his speeches were read at the head of her armies by Bolivar. His name … will continue to be hallowed in two hemisphere. … Clay was without an equal. … He exorcised the demon which possessed the body politic. … Clay’s efforts in behalf of the South Americans, and … in behalf of the Greeks, in the times of their respective struggles for civil liberty are among the finest on record.”
In 1832, when an Asiatic cholera epidemic ravaged New York, Henry Clay recommended a day of: “Public humiliation, prayer and fasting to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity.”
Henry Clay was a second cousin of abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. In 1816, Henry Clay helped establish the American Colonization Society to aid free American blacks in founding Monrovia, Liberia, West Africa.
Clay addressed the Kentucky Colonization Society in Frankfort, 1829: “Eighteen hundred years have rolled away since the Son of God, our blessed Redeemer, offered Himself on Mount Calvary for the salvation of our species. … When we shall, as soon we must, be translated from this into another form of existence, is the hope presumptuous that we shall behold the common Father of the whites and blacks, the great Ruler of the Universe, cast his all-seeing eye upon civilized and regenerated Africa, its cultivated fields, its coasts studded with numerous cities, adorned with towering temples dedicated to the pure religion of His Redeeming Son?”
Known as “The Great Compromiser,” Clay, as did Lincoln, opposed the Mexican-American War, and struggled to maintain the Union between the North and the South by proposing “The Compromise of 1850.”
Henry Clay told the Senate, Feb. 5, 1850: “I hope it will not be out of place to do here, what again and again I have done in my private chamber, to implore of Him who holds the destinies of nations and individuals in His hands, to bestow upon our country His blessing, to calm the violence and rage of party, to still passion. … May I not ask of Him too, sir, to bestow on his humble servant … the blessing of his smiles, and of strength and ability to perform the work which now lies before him? … I implore … Heaven … that if … the dissolution of this Union is to happen, I shall not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”
Nine years before the Civil War began, Henry Clay died from tuberculosis, June 29, 1852. The first to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, a statue of Henry Clay was placed in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall by the state of Kentucky.
Fifteen counties across America were named for him. In 1957, a Senate committee headed by John F. Kennedy named Clay one of the five best senators ever.
Rep. John C. Breckinridge recalled Henry Clay as having said: “The vanity of the world, and its insufficiency to satisfy the soul of man, has been long a settled conviction of my mind. Man’s inability to secure by his own merits the approbation of God, I feel to be true. … I trust in the atonement of the Saviour of mercy, as the ground of my acceptance and of my hope of salvation.”
Henry Clay warned the Senate, July 22, 1850: “If there be a war … I will not assert what party would prevail … for you know, sir, what all history teaches … that few wars … have ever terminated in the accomplishment of the objects for which they were commenced. … Think alone of our God, our country, our consciences, and our glorious Union … without which we shall be torn into hostile fragments, and sooner or later become the victims of military despotism, or foreign domination. …”
Clay continued: “What will be the judgment of mankind … who are looking upon the progress of this scheme of self-government as being that which holds out the highest hopes … of ameliorating the condition of mankind. … Will not all the monarchs of the old world pronounce our glorious republic a disgraceful failure? … It is possible that, for the chastisement of our sins and transgressions, the rod of Providence may be still applied to us, may be still suspended over us. … I pray to Almighty God that it may not lead to the most unhappy and disastrous consequences to our beloved country.”
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