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THIs celebrated orator and statesman was the seventh child of the Reverend John Clay, a worthy divine of the Baptist persuasion, and Elizabeth, his wife. He was born on the twelfth of April, 1777, in a district commonly called the “Slashes,” in Hanover County, Virginia. The death of his father in 1781, consigned him entirely to the care of his mother, who was rendered incapable of giving her children more than a common education, by the embarrassed condition in which her husband's estate was left. This circumstance, which compelled her to rely on her children to assist in the support of the family, did not prevent their receiving the benefits of the parish school. Young Henry was placed under the tuition of one Peter Deacon, with whom he acquired the rudiments of the English branches, and progressed in his arithmetic “as far as Practice”—to use his own words. He remained at home until he reached his fourteenth year, devoting himself, with his brothers, principally to the labors of the farm. It was during this period of his life that he won the title of The Mill boy of the Slashes.”
In 1791, he entered as a clerk in the drug store of Mr. Richard Denny, at Richmond, in his native State, but remained there only a short time. During the next year his mother was married to Mr. Henry Watkins, and removed to Woodford County, Kentucky, taking with her all her children except Henry and his eldest brother. Previous to this change of residence, Henry, through the instrumentality of his step-father, was placed in the office of Mr. Peter Tinsley, the clerk of the high court of chancery in Virginia, which position he found more congenial to his tastes and inclinations. Here he became acquainted with the celebrated Chancellor Wythe; by his steady and industrious habits soon attracted his attention, and finally became his amanuensis. In the employment now given him, of recording the decisions of the chancellor, and performing the various duties of a private secretary, he obtained much legal and general information, and acquired those habits of regularity and methodical application, which were of so much value to him in his subsequent career. After spending five years in the double service of clerk to Mr. Tinsley and amanuensis to the venerable Chancellor Wythe, he entered as a student at law, in the office of Robert Brooke, at that time attorney-general. The advantages of perfecting himself in the profession he had chosen, now became much better than he had heretofore enjoyed, and the assiduity with which he embraced them, showed how highly he appreciated their benefits. In 1797, after one year of study, he was licensed to practise, by the judges of the Virginia Court of Appeals. During the fall of the same year he removed to Lexington, Kentucky, and there established himself; “without patrons,” said he, in reviewing this portion of his life, “without the favor or countenance of the great or opulent, without the means of paying my weekly board, and in the midst of a bar uncommonly distinguished by eminent members. I remember how comfortable I thought I should be,” he continued, “if I could make one hundred pounds, Virginia money, per year, and with what delight I received the first fifteen shilling fee. My hopes were more than realized. I immediately rushed into a successful and lucrative practice.” ” An incident of this period of his life, which is considered as the occasion of the earliest development of his powers of eloquence and reasoning has been recorded by his numerous biographers; and deserves notice here. At Lexington he had been a member of a debating society some time, but refrained from taking an active part in its exercises, from a modesty inherent in his disposition. At one of the meetings of the society, a question had been discussed at considerable length, and apparently with much ability, on which the customary vote was about to be taken, when he observed in an under tone to a person seated by him, “the subject does not seem to be exhausted.” The individual exclaimed, “do not put the question yet, Mr. Clay will speak.” The chairman, by a smile and a nod of the head, signified his willingness to allow the discussion to be continued by him, who thereupon arose under every appearance of trepidation and embarrassment. The first words that fell from his lips were “Gentlemen of the jury.” His embarrassment was now extreme; blushing, hesitating, and stammering, he repeated the words, “Gentlemen of the Jury.” The audience evinced genuine politeness and good breeding, by seeming not to notice his unpleasant and trying position. Suddenly regaining his self-possession, he made a speech of such force and eloquence, as to carry conviction and astonishment at once to the hearts of his hearers. Subsequently he took a prominent part in the debates of the society, and became one of its most efficient members. Mr. Clay continued the practice of law with increasing reputation. His success, especially in criminal causes, was almost unparalleled. In 1803 he was chosen a member of the Kentucky Legislature, in which body he served until his election to the Senate of the United States in 1806. Here he remained one year, at the expiration of which he returned to Kentucky and was immediately re-elected to the Legislature of that State. His career in that assembly is well described by one who was intimately acquainted with him. “He appears to have been the pervading spirit of the whole body. He never came to the debates without the knowledge necessary to the perfect elucidation of his subject, and he always had the power of making his knowledge so practical, and lighting it up so brightly with the fire of eloquence, and the living soul of intellect, that without resorting to the arts of insidiousness, he could generally control the movements of the Legislature at will. His was not an undue influence; it was the simple ascendency of mind over mind. The measures which originated with him, instead of being characterized by the eccentricities and ambitious innovations which are too visible in the course of young men of genius suddenly elevated to power and influence, were remarkable only for their plain common sense, and their tendency to advance the substantial interests of the State. Though he carried his plans into effect by the aid of the magical incantations of the orator, he always conceived them with the coolness and discretion of a philosopher. No subject was so great as to baffle his powers, none so minute as to elude them. He could handle the telescope and the microscope with equal skill. In him the haughty demagogues of the Legislature found an antagonist who never failed to foil them in their bold projects, and the intriguers of lower degree were baffled with equal certainty whenever they attempted to get any petty measure through the House for their own personal gratification or that of their friends. The people, therefore, justly regarded him as emphatically their own.t In December, 1809, having been elected by the legislature, Mr. Clay again took his seat in the Senate. On the sixth of the following April, he avowed himself in favor of the policy of encouragement to domestic manufactures, in a powerful speech. Thus early did he become identified with those measures which were afterwards known as the American System. This seems to be the only speech he made during that session. His speeches on the Line of the Perdido, and the Augmentation of Military Force, which are regarded as among his most finished specimens of argumentative eloquence and logical reasoning, were delivered during the session of 1810–1811. *
* This sobriquet had its origin in the filial and fraternal duty of Mr. Clay, who, after he was large enough, was seen whenever the meal-barrel was low, going to and fro on the road between his mother's house and Mrs. Darricott's mill on the Pamunkey river, mounted on a bag that was thrown across a pony that was guided by a rope bridle; and thus he beeame familiarly known, by the people living on the line of his travel, as The millboy of the slashes.—Colton's Life and Times of Clay, vol. 1, page 19.
** - Mr. Clay's Speech at Lexington, June 6, 1842. and Speeches of Henry Clay, compiled and edited by Daniel Mallory, vol. 1, page 88.
The most celebrated of his efforts of that session, however, was the speech on the Bank Charter. He opposed the measure as unconstitutional; maintaining that no specific provision could be found in the Constitution of the United States, authorizing or permitting the charter of a bank, nor could it be so construed as to imply the power to that effect. Although opposed by many of the ablest men of both parties, his powerful reasoning was sustained and the charter was lost. In all the important subjects which came before the Senate, Mr. Clay evinced his usual zeal and activity. His eloquent powers and brilliant talents were now acknowledged, and his reputation as a debater firmly established throughout the country. At the close of his second senatorial term he was elected to the lower House of Congress, and on the meeting of that body in November, 1811, he was, on the first ballot, elected to the honorable position of Speaker. His eminent services here are too well known to require particular notice in this sketch. He was a firm supporter of Mr. Madison, and his war measures of 1812, and during the continuance of the hostilities with Great Britain, he displayed the most intense interest for the welfare and honor of the country. It is a remarkable fact, that while the speakership is regarded as a bar to the privilege of participation in the debates of the House, Mr. Clay was accustomed to mingle in its deliberations, while in Committee of the Whole, and to perform the double duty of speaker and member. On the twentieth of January, 1812, he delivered a speech in favor of an increase of the Navy, and succeeded in procuring an appropriation for that object. During the session of 1812–1813, he was the leader of the administration party in the House of Representatives. “Here" says his biographer, “amidst all discouragements, he moved in majesty, for he moved in strength. No difficulties could weary or withstand his energies. Like the Carthaginian chief in the passage of the Alps, he kept his place in front of his comrades, putting aside, with a giant effort, every obstacle that opposed his progress, applauding the foremost of his followers, and rousing those who lingered, by words of encouragement or reproach, till he succeeded in placing them upon a moral eminence, from which they could look down upon the region where their prowess was to meet with its long-expected reward.” In 1814 Mr. Clay was appointed with Mr. Bayard, Mr. Gallatin, and others, to negotiate a treaty of peace with Great Britain. On the termination of that mission, he visited Paris, where he met with a distinguished reception, and by the frankness, grace and ease of his deportment, won the esteem of all who came in contact with him. An anecdote of this visit, illustrative of Mr. Clay's power at repartee and charm of conversation has been preserved. Shortly after his arrival he attended a ball, given by Mr. Hottinguer, the American banker, in honor of the conclusion of the treaty. He was there introduced to the famous Madame de Stael, who cordially addressed him with—“Ah, Mr. Clay ! I have been in England, and have been battling your cause for you there.” “I know it, madame; we heard of your powerful interposition, and are grateful and thankful for it.” “They were much enraged against you,” said she; “so much so, that they at one time thought seriously of sending the Duke of Wellington to command their armies against you!” “I am very sorry, madame,” replied Mr. Clay, “that they did not send his Grace.” “Why?” asked she, surprised. “Because, madame, if he had beaten us, we should have been in the condition of Europe, without disgrace. But, if we had been so fortunate as to defeat him, we should have greatly added to the renown of our arms.” He afterwards met her at her own residence, where he was introduced to the Duke of Wellington, and other celebrities. She related the foregoing conversation to the Duke, who promptly and gracefully responded, that had he been so fortunate in the execution of such a commission as to triumph over a foe evincing so much bravery as the Americans had, he should regard it as a greater honor than the most brilliant victory he had ever achieved.* Mr. Clay remained at Paris until after the ratification of the treaty, when he went to England. The like civilities and attention with which he had been honored while in the French capital, were extended to him here. While he was in London, the news of the battle of Waterloo arrived, and he was a witness of the joy and exultation with which the British people received it. A few days after, he was dining in company with many of the nobility, at the house of Lord Castlereagh, when the conversation turned on the recent victory and the flight of Napoleon. Some one suggested that he had gone to America. “If he reaches your shores, Mr. Clay,” inquired Lord Liverpool, one of the ministers, “will he not give you much trouble?” “None whatever,” responded Mr. Clay; “we shall be glad to receive such a distinguished, though unfortunate exile, and we shall soon make a good democrat of him.” On his return to America in the fall of 1815, Mr. Clay was re-elected to the House of Representatives, and at the commencement of the session was again called to the Speaker's chair. This position he retained until his appointment as Secretary of State, in 1825, with the exception of a short temporary retirement, rendered necessary by heavy pecuniary losses. To enumerate his long and able services in this important station, would be to write a history of the government during ten years of its existence; and the details of his public life are so permanent in the minds of every one, that such a course would be a work of supererogation. On the inauguration of President Jackson in 1829, Mr. Clay retired to his home in Kentucky. During the winter of that year and the year following, he visited the Southern States, besides passing through the various parts of his own State. The reception he met at the different stages of his route was most cordial and flattering. Men of all parties, distinguished for their abilities and position, went out to welcome him. “The dark elements of faction sank down into quietude” wherever he went, and a “hundred hands were extended to clasp his own.” About this time he delivered an address before the Colonization Society of Kentucky, at Frankfort, in which he supported, with his characteristic eloquence and power, the objects and principles of that institution. During his remarks he alluded to the subject of slavery, and expressed a great desire to co-operate in any work which should have for its end the mitigation of that evil. He dwelt with peculiar pleasure upon the success of the Colonizing efforts throughout the Union, and declared his convictions that it gave the most abundant encouragement for perseverance and renewed exertions in the cause. “We may boldly challenge the annals of human nature,” he said, “for the record of any human plan for the melioration of the condition or the advancement of our race, which promises more unmixed good in comprehensive benevolence, than that of the Colonization Society, if carried into full operation. Its benevolent purposes are not confined to the limits of one continent—not to the prosperity of a solitary race. They embrace the largest two portions of the earth, with the peace and happiness of both descriptions of their present inhabitants, and the countless millions of their posterity. The colonists, reared in the bosom of this republic, with a knowledge of the blessings which liberty imparts, although now unable to share them, will carry a recollection of them to benighted Africa, and light up in time her immense territory. And may we not indulge the hppe, that in a period of time not surpassing in duration that of our own colonial and national existence, we shall behold a confederation of republican States on the western shores of Africa, with their congress and their annual legislatures, thundering forth in behalf of the rights of man, and causing tyrants to tremble on their thrones.” Another portion of this address evinces how deeply he deplored the existence of slavery. “If I could be instrumental,” said he, “in eradicating this deepest stain upon the character of our country, and removing all cause of reproach on account of it by foreign nations; if I could only be instrumental in ridding of this foul blot that revered State that gave me birth, or that not less beloved State which has kindly adopted me as her son, I would not exchange the proud satisfaction which I should enjoy, for the honor of all the triumphs ever decreed to the most successful conqueror.” In the fall of 1831, Mr. Clay was again elected to the United States Senate, and about the same time nominated for the presidency, in opposition to General Jackson. He remained in the Senate until 1842, when he made his farewell speech, which is considered one of his finest oratorical efforts, and retired, as he supposed, for ever, from that body. His services during this term of office are familiar to all. In 1844 he was again nominated for the presidency, but was defeated by the election of James K. Polk. In 1849, he was again returned to the Senate, by an unanimous vote of the legislature of his adopted State, and continued a senator until the time of his death. The limits of this sketch will not allow a particular recital of the many and important measures which he originated or perfected in this last term of his senatorial career. It is
* Homes of American Statesmen, article Clay: also, Mallory's Life of Clay, vol. 1, page 85.