What was the greatest contribution by Henry Clay to United States history?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An important figure in early-19th Century U.S. history, Henry Clay’s greatest contributions could include his articulation of what became known as “the American System,” and his role in negotiating the Missouri Compromise.  Clay became a member of Kentucky’s Congressional delegation in 1806 when he was elected to fill the U.S. Senate seat of John Breckinridge, who had been appointed U.S. Attorney General.  In 1811, following a second temporary term in the Senate, Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he would eventually rise to the third highest position in the land, that of Speaker of the House. 

Henry Clay was an ardent nationalist who believed that the unity of the nascent United States was of paramount importance, and that the U.S. could only develop economically if its budding industries were secure from foreign, mainly British, competition.  Labeled the “American System,” Clay’s nationalist fervor and protectionist sentiments were instrumental in both providing political support for the policy of “Manifest Destiny” and in propelling the United States into another war with England, the War of 1812.  More significantly, however, was his life-long effort at maintaining the unity of the country in the face of the divisive issue of slavery.  A Southerner, Clay nevertheless placed the sanctity of the Union above other considerations.  So important was the unity of the nation, that in a speech only two years before his death in February 1850 he stated,

“I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the Union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”

Clay’s commitment to national unity was matched by his belief that only through compromise could that objective be met, a sentiment that coalesced in the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  The U.S. government was, of course, torn over the issue of slavery, and many of its leaders desperately wanted to maintain a balance between pro- and anti-slavery states.  As the territories of Maine and Missouri were approaching statehood, one as a “free” state, the other as a slave state.  The compromise that was reached, thanks to the efforts of Clay and other members of Congress, excluded slavery from the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory, with the boundary of this “free” territory ending at the Missouri border.  Clay’s efforts were considered instrumental in heading off a war between the northern and southern states, a development that would, of course, occur in 1860.

Henry Clay’s passionate belief in the need to compromise was articulated in his speech in support of the “Compromise of 1850,” another effort at reconciling national unity with the issue of slavery:

"All legislation, all government, all society is founded upon the principle of mutual concession, politness, comity, courtesy upon these everything is based. . . Let him who elevates himself above humanity, above its weaknesses, its infirmities, its wants, its necessities, say, if he pleases, I will never compromise but let no one who is not above the frailties of our common nature disdain compromises."

In the context of the current times, with political discourse having descended to its nadir and the notion of compromise having been severely degraded, it was, perhaps, this commitment to civility and reason that was Clay’s greatest contribution to American history.

Yojana_Thapa | Student

Henry Clay was a major Whig, a National Republican, a completely opposing individual when it came down to Jackson, his ideals and everything else. Clay had been somewhat responsible for the creation of the Whig Party and argued heavily for lower tariffs in the South and was often attempting to run for presidency but never actually winning, even with the three chances he was given. Socially speaking, he scrambled up the original game and attempted at going towards the people as other candidates had begun to do. From the election of 1824 towards the loss to fellow Whig William Henry Harrison in 1840, Henry Clay had been a strong candidate and ultimately attempted at helping the nation achieve its prime. 

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