Above all, Henry Clay wanted to be president of the United States. Despite never quite making it—he ran and lost three times between 1824 and 1844—Clay played a large role in the history of his country, which he served as a senator, speaker of the house, and secretary of state.
Born and educated in Virginia, Clay moved to Kentucky and set up a law practice in Lexington in 1797. Elected to the state legislature in 1803, he took a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1810. For more than 40 years he was a major player on the national political scene, renowned for his oratory and devotion to the Union. Slavery posed a great political and personal quandary for Clay. A slaveholder himself, he advocated gradual emancipation and colonization in Africa. He opposed extension of slavery into the new western states, but argued Congress had no right to interfere with slavery where it already existed. Attacking abolitionists in 1839, he said he would "rather be right than president." The speech cost him the 1840 Whig presidential nomination.
Presenter: George J. McGee
Funded project of the Kentucky Humanities Council. The Kentucky Humanities Council is a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.