Henry Clay (1777-1852) – House Speaker, Whig Party Leader, Kentucky Senate Member – Guest Essayist: Sam Postell

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Henry Clay: The Man for a Crisis

Henry Clay led a political career that spanned almost fifty years and was Speaker of the House for almost ten. According to some, Clay was a hero, and to others, he was a villain. For example Abraham Lincoln described Clay as his “Beaux ideal of a statesman”, while Andrew Jackson described him as “the basest, meanest, scoundrel that ever disgraced the image of his god”, and “void of good morals… ambitious and regardless of truth when it comes in the way of his ambition”. Although opinions regarding his character are conflicted, all understood that he shaped Congress in fundamental ways. He was the first to understand that Congress was in need of leadership and order to be considered an important power rather than a mere servant of the president.

Before Clay became speaker he was nominated to fill a vacancy in the Senate. After his second term he decided to leave the Senate and run for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. As he announced his candidacy all other candidates withdrew their names from the ballot.

Before Clay had attended a single session as a Representative in the House, he was elected Speaker on the first ballot. Many representatives in the House were intimated by John Randolph, a Representative from Virginia who “ran roughshod” over the proceedings of the House. He would often bring his hunting dogs into the House, and he would filibuster in order to derail its proceedings. It was said that Randolph “disregards all rules” and Clay’s supporters decided that the Speaker “must be a man who can meet John Randolph on the floor or on the field, for he may have to do both” (Sargent, Public men and Events, I,130).

Henry Clay fulfilled the wishes of the members of the 12th Congress and was reelected Speaker for the next ten years. The clearest demonstration of his promise to enforce, and even manipulate, the rules of the House is his role in the passage of the Missouri Compromise. There were three separate bills to be considered: first, Missouri’s application for statehood as a slave state, second, Maine’s application for statehood as a free state, and third was an amendment prohibiting slavery north of the 36’30’ parallel with the exception of Missouri.

The House at first rejected the bill that tied the three together. Clay decided that he would separate the three bills and attempt to pass each individually. On February 8, 1820, Clay gave an unrecorded speech that lasted over four hours attempting to persuade the Northern abolitionists to pass the compromise in order to quell Southern threats of secession. Although deliberation upon the three bills lasted the entire month of February, on March 2nd each bill was passed individually.

However, Clay’s work was not yet done. John Randolph rose in the House and asked that the vote be reconsidered. Henry Clay announced that it was late and that the motion would be postponed until the following day. The next day Randolph again rose to have the vote reconsidered. Clay ruled him out of order until the routine business had concluded. Meanwhile, Clay signed the Missouri Bill and had the clerk deliver it to the Senate for a vote. When Randolph rose once more Clay announced that the bill could not be retrieved- the vote was final. On March 6th President Monroe signed the Missouri bill. Clay’s role in the passage of the Missouri bill demonstrates a principle that survives to this day: the principle of majority rule and the Speaker’s role in ensuring that the majority cannot be undermined by the actions of a single representative or a faction.

Later in the Senate, Clay endeavored to advance the same principle but with less success. Not only was Henry Clay an actor in the questions of the Missouri Compromise and the War of 1812, but he also played a role in the debate regarding the rechartering of the Bank of the United States. Early in his career he argued that the National Bank was unconstitutional, but after experiencing the difficulties of financing the War of 1812 he began to view it as a necessity. Andrew Jackson claimed that Clay was inconsistent, to which Clay responded in an impassioned speech claiming that “the constitution has not changed… I was at first wrong.”

When the Senate came to vote on the Bank Bill in June of 1841, Clay became upset to see many representatives dragging their heels. Rather than discuss and vote upon the bill, many members of the minority filibustered, speaking on issues not pertaining to the bill. This led Henry Clay to introduce a motion to amend the rules to prevent the minority from delaying the proceedings of the Senate. Many members of the minority party, included John Calhoun and president pro-tempore William King, argued that the minority had the Constitutional right to speak in session, and that any attempt to “gag” members of the minority was unconstitutional. Clay eventually buckled under the pressure of the other members and relented on his motion to change the Senate rules; however, the Bank Bill was finally voted upon and passed the Senate on July 28th.

Not only was Henry Clay the man for a crisis and a controversial figure in his day, but he left his mark on the way that Congress deliberates upon and passes legislation. Clay was the first to understand that Congress was in need of leadership if it were to be understood as an important power of the government rather than a mere servant of the president. Although he was a man of action, his speeches bequeath a rich knowledge of constitutional theory that allow us to appreciate the importance of the rules and orders of the legislature.

Sam Postell is a doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Dallas.

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