From Ohio History Central
Henry Clay was an important political leader and public servant in nineteenth century America.
Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia. By the age of twenty, Clay had established a law practice in Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington voters elected Clay to the state legislature in 1806, where he served for five years. Clay briefly served in the United States Senate twice during these five years, finishing the terms of two men who left office. In 1811, Kentucky voters elected him to the House of Representatives, where he soon became the Speaker of the House.
Clay began his political career as a devoted member of the Democratic-Republican Party. During the War of 1812, Clay was a War Hawk, a strong supporter of the conflict. Clay participated in the treaty negotiations that ended the war in Ghent, Belgium. Clay then returned to the House of Representatives as Speaker of the House. His most important work during this period was negotiating a compromise between the North and the South over slavery's extension.
In 1818, the Missouri Territory applied for statehood. Missourians wanted to permit slavery in the new state. Northerners opposed this idea for two main reasons. First, a growing abolitionist sentiment was rising in the North. Secondly, there were eleven free states and eleven slave states. For a bill to become a law, both houses of the United States Congress had to agree to it. With eleven slave and eleven free states, each side had the same number of senators. If Missouri became a slave state, the tie would be broken. The South would control the Senate and would be one step closer to legalizing slavery in other parts of the United States. Because of these concerns, Northern members of the United States Congress refused Missouri admittance to the United States as a slave state. When Maine applied for statehood in 1819 as a free state, Southern members of Congress threatened to prevent Maine's admittance.
Faced with a deadlock, Henry Clay proposed and the United States Congress enacted the Missouri Compromise in 1820. This agreement allowed Missouri to enter the United States as a slave state and Maine to enter as a free state. The Congress thus maintained the balance between slave and free states. To avoid additional conflicts in the future, the Congress also created the Missouri Compromise line. All future states north of Missouri's southern border would be free states. Future states to the south of Missouri's southern border would be slave states.
In Ohio, the Missouri Compromise was controversial. The Ohio legislature ordered its national representatives to vote against slavery's expansion. Many Ohioans came from slaveholding states. Other people moved to the area from New England and tended to oppose slavery for both moral and economic reasons. There also was a growing abolitionist movement in Ohio, led primarily by the Society of Friends. Just as the nation divided over slavery's expansion, so too did Ohioans.
While many Ohioans opposed Clay's compromise, Clay remained popular within the state. Most Ohioans supported Clay's "American System." Clay advocated federal government funds for internal improvements. He realized that the United States needed a better transportation network for the nation to truly grow and prosper. Isolated from the East Coast by the Appalachian Mountains, Ohioans welcomed Clay's calls for turnpikes, canals, and eventually railroads. Ohioans' support of Clay was most evident in the presidential election of 1824. Five men, including Clay, sought the presidency in this election. While Clay finished fourth in the popular vote nationally, he carried Ohio. This election eventually went to the United States House of Representatives because none of the candidates received more than fifty percent of the vote in the Electoral College. Clay threw his support behind John Quincy Adams and won the presidency for Adams. To reward Clay for his assistance, Adams appointed Clay Secretary of State, a position he held from 1825 to 1829.
In 1832, Clay again sought the White House. He ran against the incumbent, President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was very popular among farmers, factory workers, and Westerners, including Ohioans. Nevertheless, Clay nearly carried the state, receiving almost seventy-seven thousand votes to Jackson's eighty-one thousand. Clay again ran for president in 1844 against James Knox Polk. Polk won the election by fewer than forty thousand votes nationally. Clay, however, defeated Polk in Ohio.
In 1831, Clay became one of Kentucky's two senators in the United States Senate. He remained as a senator until 1842. He returned to the Senate in 1849, and he held this office until his death. During the 1830s and the 1840s, Clay was one of the most prominent members of the Whig Party. The Whig Party was formed during the mid 1830s in opposition to President Jackson. As a Whig senator, Clay championed internal improvements and the need for the continued existence of the Bank of the United States. An early advocate of expansion, during the 1830s and 1840s, Clay became more reserved on this issue. He became concerned about conflict with other nations as well as divisions within the United States over slavery's expansion.
As a result of the Mexican War, the United States acquired most of the present-day American Southwest. The acquisition of this land led to disagreements between the North and the South as the two regions debated whether or not to extend slavery into the area. The situation became even more complicated when California applied for statehood as a free state in 1849. Southerners realized that they would lose the tie in free and slave states in the United States Senate that had been maintained since the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The South generally refused to support California's admission to the Union.
To settle the differences arising over California's request for statehood, Clay proposed eight resolutions to the Senate. He grouped six of eight resolutions as pairs. He included in each pair one resolution that the South would support and one resolution that the North would support, hoping that the two sides would compromise and pass the resolutions.
The first pair of resolutions called for California to become a free state, while the people residing in the New Mexico Territory would decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery. The second set of resolutions settled a dispute between Texas and the New Mexico Territory over the location of the boundary between the two areas. New Mexico acquired significant territory as a result of this resolution. The second part of this resolution instructed the federal government to assume Texas' debts from the period before it had become a state. This action placed the young state on solid financial footing. The third pair of resolutions outlawed the slave trade in the nation's capital but permitted people to still own slaves in Washington, DC. The final two resolutions called for a stronger fugitive slave law and prohibited Congress from interfering in the interstate slave trade.
While Northerners and Southerners welcomed some of Clay's proposals, they found some of his other resolutions infuriating. Seven months of debate took place before Northerners and Southerners in the United States Senate finally agreed to a compromise. After some initial debate, the Senate formed a special committee with Henry Clay as chairman. The committee submitted to the remainder of the Senate a series of measures based upon Clay's original proposals. California would become a free state. The people residing in the New Mexico and Utah Territories would decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery. New Mexico would receive significant land for Texas, while Texas received ten million dollars from the federal government in compensation.
A group of Northern Democratic and Southern Whig Senators embraced the committee's recommendations, but these men only comprised one-third of the Senate, not nearly enough to implement the proposals. President Zachary Taylor also objected to the proposals, fearing that they were too pro-South. While the Senate continued to debate during the summer of 1850, President Taylor died from acute gastroenteritis. Vice President Millard Fillmore assumed the presidency. President Fillmore was much more supportive of the compromise measure. Despite his support, the United States Senate rejected the compromise in a vote on July 31.
Exasperated with the Senate's refusal to accept the compromise, Clay returned home to Kentucky. He also traveled to Havana, Cuba, and New Orleans, Louisiana, hoping that a change of climate would help his deteriorating health. Stephen Douglas, a Senator from Illinois, provided the needed solution to get the compromise enacted. Instead of proposing the various measures as a single bill, he chose to introduce them as individual bills. He labored to create a coalition of Southerners and Northerners for each bill. Northern Whigs, Northern Democrats, and some Upper-South Whigs supported California entering the United States as a free state, the ending of the slave trade in the nation's capital, and the ten million dollar payment to Texas. Northern Democrats and Southerners of all parties supported a stronger fugitive slave law and permitting the people of the New Mexico and Utah territories to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. Thanks to Douglas, each proposal passed and became the Compromise of 1850.
Many Ohioans vehemently opposed the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 required the federal government to assist Southern slaveholders in recapturing their runaway slaves. This law angered many Ohio abolitionists. Ohioans who assisted in the Underground Railroad redoubled their efforts to assist runaway slaves in their escape to freedom in Canada. They also tried to protect those runaways who remained in the North. Other Ohioans embraced the Compromise of 1850, especially the section admitting California as a free state. Thousands of Ohioans moved to California hoping to find gold. These people did not want to compete against slave owners.
The Compromise of 1850 was Clay's crowning achievement of a political career that had lasted half a century. While it did not end the conflicts between Northerners and Southerners, it eased the two sides' differences for the time being. Clay died from tuberculosis on June 29, 1852.