Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Henry Clay

A few miles from old Hanover court-house in Virginia, where the splendors of Patrick Henry’s genius first beamed forth, is a humble dwelling by the road-side, in the midst of a miserably poor region known as the slashes. There, on the 12th of April, 1777, Henry Clay, the great American statesman, was born, and from the district-schools of his neighborhood he derived his education. He was the son of a Baptist clergyman of very limited means, hence his early advantages were of necessity meager. He was very bashful and diffident, scarcely dare recite before his class at school, but he determined to become an orator, he accordingly began the plan of committing speeches and then reciting them in the corn-fields; at other times they were delivered in the barn, before the cows and horse.

Henry became a copyist in the office of the clerk of the Court of Chancery, at Richmond. Here he was enabled to begin the study of law, an opportunity which he at once embraced. While other boys were improving their time ‘having fun,’ he was studying, and so closely did he occupy his odd time that he was enabled to pass the necessary examination and be admitted to the bar at the early age of twenty. Two years later he moved “West,” (he was enterprising), settling at Lexington, Kentucky, where he entered upon the practice of law.

Here he became an active politician as well as a popular lawyer. He was an intelligent young man, and early cultivated a genial disposition which was a leading feature of his splendid success in life. In 1799 Kentucky called a convention for the purpose of revising the constitution of the State. During this campaign young Clay labored earnestly to elect delegates to that convention favorable to the extinction of slavery. Thus early he manifested an interest in a question many years in advance of his countrymen. This is the man who, when afterward told that his action on a certain measure would certainly injure his political prospect replied, “I would rather be right than be president.”

It was even so in this case, his action in behalf of the freedom of slaves offended many but his opposition to the obnoxious alien and sedition laws later restored him to popular favor. After serving in the State legislature with some distinction he was elected to fill the unexpired term of General Adair in the United States Senate. Here he made excellent use of his time, advocating bills on internal improvements, accomplishing much toward that end, although his time expired at the end of the year. He left an impression on that body which foretold his future greatness. He was now returned to his State legislature where he was elected speaker, a position which he held for the next two terms.

Another vacancy occurred and Mr. Clay was again elected to fill the unexpired time in the United States Senate. This time he remained a member of that body two years, and it was during this term that he placed himself on record as one of the first and most powerful of early protectionists; he also favored the admission of Louisiana as a State. His term expired, he returned to his constituents, who promptly elected him to a seat in the House of Representatives, and immediately upon his appearance in that body he was chosen speaker of the House!

This is an honor without parallel in the whole history of our legislative affairs. It was at this session that John C. Calhoun and William H. Crawford first made their appearance in the National Congress. The duties of this high office he discharged with marked ability and great satisfaction through that and the succeeding Congress until 1814, when he was appointed one of the commissioners to negotiate at Ghent, a treaty of peace with Great Britain. Abroad Mr. Clay proved to be a diplomate of no mean ability, and during his absence he was re-elected to the National Congress, and upon his re-appearance in that august assembly was immediately chosen speaker.

Mr. Clay was one of the unsuccessful candidates for the presidency in 1824, receiving thirty-seven electoral votes, but became Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams, who was chosen president by Congress. In 1831, after a temporary retirement, he was elected to the National Senate, this time for a full term of six years. His services during this period were very important. His compromise measure was probably, under the circumstances, one of the most important bills that ever passed the senate. As is well-known, it secured the gradual reduction of the tariff for ten years, thus satisfying the South, but allowing the manufacturers time to accommodate themselves to the change. Mr. Clay was a strong protectionist but this was a compromise on both sides which Clay was willing to make, even though it might be to satisfy a political opponent—Calhoun—to whom he was bitterly opposed.

Certain it is when he saw his country in danger Henry Clay was not the one to allow partisan hate to stand in opposition to any bill which might tend to peace, and while this measure had little merit in it of itself, still it averted a civil war at that time. In 1834 President Jackson proposed to Congress that they should give him authority to secure indemnity from France through reprisals. Mr. Clay, as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, reported that Congress would not be justified in so doing, as the neglect on the part of France was clearly unintentional, thus war was once more averted through the influence of the ‘great pacifier.’

At the presidential election of 1839 Mr. Clay, General Harrison, and General Scott were submitted to the Whig Convention as candidates. Mr. Clay was clearly the choice of the convention, but by one of those strange movements which so often occur at such times General Harrison was nominated. Many of Clay’s friends were disposed to bolt, but Mr. Clay promptly acknowledged the ticket, and it was elected. Then followed the death of the President in office, the obnoxious vetoes of the newly installed President—Tyler—the division of the Whig party, the nomination of Mr. Clay at this late inopportune time and the election of Mr. Polk.

At the next convention Mr. Clay was a very prominent candidate for the nomination, but Mr. Taylor’s military career seemed to carry everything with it and he was nominated and elected. Had Mr. Clay been nominated at either this convention or in 1839 he would have been elected, but like Webster, the presidential honors were not essential to perpetuate his name. During the year 1849, as the people of Kentucky were about to remodel their constitution, Mr. Clay urged them to embody the principles of gradual emancipation, but they refused to do so.

He was again returned to the senate, and during this term brought out the compromise act of 1850. This measure, while recognizing no legal authority for the existence of slavery in the newly acquired territory of New Mexico, yet declared that in the establishment of territorial governments in such territory no restriction should be made relative to slavery. It also provided for the admission of California without restrictions on the subject of slavery, and opposed the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The bill carried with slight changes. Mr. Clay being very feeble was in his seat but few days of the session.

In 1852 he gradually sank until on June 29th, 1852, he died. In him intellect, reason, eloquence, and courage united to form a character fit to command. It was the remark of a distinguished senator that Mr. Clay’s eloquence was absolutely intangible to delineation; that the most labored description could not embrace it, and that to be understood it must be seen and felt. He was an orator by nature, and by his indomitable assiduity he at once rose to prominence. His eagle eye burned with patriotic ardor or flashed indignation and defiance upon his foes or was suffused with commiseration or of pity; and it was because he felt that made others feel.

A gentleman, after hearing one of his magnificent efforts in the Senate, thus described him: “Every muscle of the orator’s face was at work. His whole body seemed agitated, as if each part was instinct with a separate life; and his small white hand with its blue veins apparently distended almost to bursting, moved gracefully, but with all the energy of rapid and vehement gesture. The appearance of the speaker seemed that of a pure intellect wrought up to its mightiest energies and brightly shining through the thin and transparent will of flesh that invested it.”

The particulars of the duel between Mr. Clay and Mr. Randolph maybe interesting to our readers. The eccentric descendant of Pocahontas appeared on the ground in a huge morning gown. This garment had such a vast circumference that the precise whereabouts of the lean senator was a matter of very vague conjecture. The parties exchanged shots and the ball of Mr. Clay hit the centre of the visible object, but the body of Mr. Randolph was untouched. Immediately after the exchange of shots Mr. Clay instantly approached Mr. Randolph, and with a gush of the deepest emotion said, “I trust in God, my dear sir, you are untouched; after what has occurred I would not have harmed you for a thousand worlds.” The incident referred to above as ‘occurring’ was the fact of Mr. Randolph’s firing in the air, thus publicly proclaiming his intention not to harm Mr. Clay at all events.

In person, Clay was tall and commanding, being six feet and one inch in stature, and was noted for the erect appearance he presented, while standing, walking, or talking. The most striking features of his countenance were a high forehead, a prominent nose, an uncommonly large mouth, and blue eyes which, though not particularly expressive when in repose, had an electrical appearance when kindled. His voice was one of extraordinary compass, melody and power. From the ‘deep and dreadful sub-bass of the organ’ to the most ærial warblings of its highest key, hardly a pipe or stop was wanting. Like all the magical voices, it had the faculty of imparting to the most familiar and commonplace expressions an inexpressible fascination. Probably no orator ever lived who, when speaking on a great occasion, was more completely absorbed with his theme. “I do not know how it is with others,” he once said, “but, on such occasions, I seem to be unconscious of the external world. Wholly engrossed by the subject before me, I lose all sense of personal identity, of time, or of surrounding objects.”