Happy Birthday, Henry Clay

“The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity—unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.”

— Henry Clay

Henry Clay, lawyer, career politician, and Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams, was born on this day in 1777. Clay passed away in 1852, and remained politically active until the end of his life. Although he was a committed hawk early in his life – in fact, he was strongly in favor of going to war with Great Britain in 1812 – by 1847 he said this in a speech opposing the Mexican-American War:

“War unhinges society, disturbs its peaceful and regular industry, and scatters poisonous seeds of disease and immorality, which continue to germinate and diffuse their baneful influence long after it has ceased. Dazzling by its glitter, pomp and pageantry, it begets a spirit of wild adventure and romantic enterprise, and often disqualifies those who embark in it, after their return from the bloody fields of battle, from engaging in the industrious and peaceful vocations of life.”

An astute politician – quite capable of, and occasionally reviled for, back room bartering to secure his own position – he was instrumental in pulling together several critical deals (often in partnership with Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun), including the Compromise Tariff of 1833, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and other agreements intended to head off confrontations about slavery. He has been nicknamed the “Great Compromiser”.

During the course of his long career in politics, he served Kentucky in its state house, as well as in the US House of Representatives – where he served as Speaker of the House prior to his appointment as Secretary of State – as well as its Senator from 1849 until his death in 1852. In 1957, the US Sentate namely him as one of the 5 greatest senators. That esteemed list included his contemporaries, Webster and Calhoun, as well as Robert LaFollett and Robert Taft.

There is a disturbing sense of dejavu in in this quote of Clay’s from an 1829 speech – it’s disturbing how little people, and politics, ever change through the centuries:

“The arts of power and its minions are the same in all countries and in all ages. It marks its victim; denounces it; and excites the public odium and the public hatred, to conceal its own abuses and encroachments.”

And how clearly true in our current political climate.


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