Henry Clay (1777-1852) was not only one of the most prominent figures ever to grace the American political stage, he supported the causes of many Ohio Valley pioneers. Among those were Moses Shepherd's effort to bring the National Road from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, the quest of Ebenezer Zane to extend the Road through Ohio and Governor Arthur St. Clair's struggle against Congress's constant lack of funds for his development of Ohio . Each of these challenges was a reflection of both our young country's abundance of will, tempered by its lack of financial resources. Clay also was a moving force behind the building of the Ohio Canal and as a supporter of gradual emancipation, he greatly admired the founder of the abolitionist movement, Benjamin Lundy, who lived in the Quaker community of Mt. Pleasant and for a brief period in nearby St. Clairsville.
It's no coincidence that Clay became known in Congress as the "Great Orator." He was the seventh of nine children of Elizabeth and Reverend John Clay, a Baptist minister, who died unexpectedly, only four years after Henry's birth. With nine children, it wasn't too long before Elizabeth married Captain Harry Watkins, with whom she had another seven children. Being in the middle of 16 children, Clay not only learned to speak up for himself, he grew to idolize the great Virginia orator and patriot, Patrick Henry, for whom Wheeling 's Fort Henry was named.
Clay moved from Richmond to Lexington, Kentucky, which brought him just across the river from where the Ohio Valley and a western territory, the size of the original 13 colonies, had begun its development under Governor St. Clair. Clay and his wife Lucretia had seven children and he built her a fine estate called Ashland, where she was content to stay, having no desire for travel.
Clay's stepfather, Captain Watkins was a loving father. But recognizing that Clay's quick mind needed more education and training, he secured him employment in the Richmond Court of Chancery. There he became secretary to Chancellor George Wythe, a law professor at the College of William & Mary. As he had done for Thomas Jefferson five years before, Wythe eventually placed Clay with the attorney general, Robert Brooke and saw that he completed his formal legal education at William & Mary and passed the bar in 1797.
Like Washington, Adams and St. Clair, Henry Clay was a Federalist. Clay agreed that America's early ills came from too much democracy, too fast. In Washington's words, the country had, "thrown off the yoke of King George, only to be ruled by a hydra-headed mob." The Federalists believed that after years of uncertainty, the country needed a stable, orderly existence upon which its free people could build their lives. Of primary importance was the establishment of its economic infrastructure, beginning with a system of national roads and canals and a national bank. People were wary of giving too much power to a government national bank. Could they have foreseen what it has become today, they would have probably fought harder. These initial Federalist calls for control over chaos also created opportunity for populist figures like Thomas Jefferson to build their political careers.
Clay did become more of a Jeffersonian Democratic Republican during his 40 years in both the House and the Senate, but never gave up his Federalist leanings about the need for executive leadership on important national issues and introduced many bills on the subject. For it was no different then than now; American politics did not need gridlock, but a balance of opinion from both parties, from which synergistic progress could first be made for the country and its people.
In the early 1800's, government was all about slavery and Clay became known as "the Great Compromiser," because he spent most of his time trying to retain the southern slave states in the Union, while yet moving the country forward. This became even more difficult when a slave state advocate like Andrew Jackson was President. During the first half of the 19th century, Clay served 14 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, eight years of which he served as Speaker, plus 19 years as a U.S. Senator and four years as Secretary of State to President John Quincy Adams, an abolitionist. Clay also ran unsuccessfully for President three times.
When young Senator Clay was first in Washington at the turn of the century, he was immersed in raising the funds that his friends the Shepherds needed to build the National Road , Clay's first federally-funded, road project to Wheeling. He visited the Shepherd Mansion often, helping them invite influential senators, congressmen and other dignitaries to the lavish balls they hosted. Although Henry, Moses and Lydia became great friends, the vivacious Lydia was well-versed in the issues of the day and attracted politicians to the mansion likes bees to honey. For 200 years, rumors have circled about Lydia and Henry, and when the project was complete, the Shepherds built a 20-foot monument of thanks to Clay in their front yard.
Clay fought for many causes, one of which was keeping the country together, despite the slavery issue. For this Clay was greatly admired by Abraham Lincoln, who along with John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Lundy also shared Clay's pro-abolitionist sentiments, especially gradual emancipation, which Clay first learned from his mentor, Wythe. One of Clay's last oratories to Congress was that on behalf of an aged Arthur St. Clair to be granted reimbursement for his 14 years of expenses incurred while governor. Clay lost, but 50 years later Congress rescinded its decision. In 1957, a Congressional Committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy named Henry Clay one of America 's five greatest senators.
Phillips is a historical writer living in St. Clairsville, Ohio. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org