Henry Clay Sr. (April 12, 1777 – June 29, 1852) was an American attorney and statesman who represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives, served as seventh speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and served as the ninth U.S. secretary of state. He received electoral votes for president in the 1824, 1832, and 1844 presidential elections and helped found both the National Republican Party and the Whig Party. For his role in defusing sectional crises, he earned the appellation of the “Great Compromiser.”
Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1777 and launched a legal career in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1797. As a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Clay won election to the Kentucky state legislature in 1803 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. He was chosen as speaker of the House in early 1811 and, along with President James Madison, led the United States into the War of 1812 against Britain. In 1814, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent, which brought an end to the War of 1812. After the war, Clay returned to his position as speaker of the House and developed the American System, which called for federal infrastructure investments, support for the national bank, and protective tariff rates. In 1820, he helped bring an end to a sectional crisis over slavery by leading the passage of the Missouri Compromise.
Clay finished with the fourth-most electoral votes in the multi-candidate 1824 presidential election, and he helped John Quincy Adams win the contingent election held to select the president. President Adams appointed Clay to the prestigious position of secretary of state; critics alleged that the two had agreed to a “corrupt bargain.” Despite receiving support from Clay and other National Republicans, Adams was defeated by Democrat Andrew Jackson in the 1828 presidential election. Clay won election to the Senate in 1831 and ran as the National Republican nominee in the 1832 presidential election, but he was defeated by President Jackson. After the 1832 election, Clay helped bring an end to the Nullification Crisis by leading passage of the Tariff of 1833. During Jackson’s second term, opponents of the president coalesced into the Whig Party, and Clay became a leading congressional Whig.
Clay sought the presidency in the 1840 election but was defeated at the Whig National Convention by William Henry Harrison. He clashed with Harrison’s running mate and successor, John Tyler, who broke with Clay and other congressional Whigs after taking office in 1841. Clay resigned from the Senate in 1842 and won the 1844 Whig presidential nomination, but he was defeated in the general election by Democrat James K. Polk, who made the annexation of the Republic of Texas his key issue. Clay strongly criticized the subsequent Mexican–American War and sought the Whig presidential nomination in 1848, but was defeated by General Zachary Taylor. After returning to the Senate in 1849, Clay played a key role in passing the Compromise of 1850, which resolved a crisis over the status of slavery in the territories. Clay is generally regarded as one of the most important and influential political figures of his era.