Henry Clay

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Henry Clay, American statesman and orator

Henry Clay (12 April 177729 June 1852) was a leading American statesman and orator who served in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Known as "The Great Compromiser" and "The Great Pacifier" for his ability to bring others to agreement, he was the founder and leader of the Whig Party and a leading advocate of programs for modernizing the economy, especially tariffs to protect industry, a national bank and internal improvements to promote canals, ports and railroads.


  • How often are we forced to charge fortune with partiality towards the unjust!
    • Letter (4 December 1801), printed in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (2002)
  • I have no commiseration for princes. My sympathies are reserved for the great mass of mankind ….
    • Speech on the Line of the Perdido, Senate (25 December 1810).
  • Whether we assert our rights by sea, or attempt their maintenance by land—whithersoever we turn ourselves, this phantom incessantly pursues us. Already has it had too much influence on the councils of the nation.
    • Speech on the Line of the Perdido, Senate (25 December 1810).
  • It consists in the genius of the nation, which is prone to peace; in that desire to arrange, by friendly negotiation, our disputes with all nations…. But a new state of things has arisen: negotiation has become hopeless. The power with whom it was to be conducted, if not annihilated, is in the situation that precludes it; and the subject-matter of it is in danger of being snatched forever from our power. Longer delay would be construed into a dereliction of our right, and would amount to a treachery to ourselves.
    • Speech on the Line of the Perdido, Satan (25 December 1810).
  • I am not, sir, in favor of cherishing the passion of conquest. I am permitted … to indulge the hope of seeing, ere long, the new United States, (if you will allow me the expression,) embracing not only the old ….
    • Speech on the Line of the Perdido, Senate (25 December 1810).
  • What is the nature of this government? It is emphatically federal, vested with an aggregate of special powers for general purposes, conceded by existing sovereignties, who have themselves retained what is not so conceded. It is said that there are cases in which it must act on implied powers. This is not controverted, but the implication must be necessary, and obviously flow from enumerated power with which it is allied.
    • Speech in the Senate on the National Bank Charter (February 11, 1811).
  • In all cases where incidental powers are acted upon, the principal and incidental ought to be congenial with each other, and partake of a common nature. The incidental power ought to be strictly subordinate and limited to the end proposed to be obtained by the specified power. In other words, under the name of accomplishing one object which is specified, the power implied ought not to be made to embrace other objects, which are not specified in the constitution.
    • Speech in the Senate on the National Bank Charter (February 11, 1811).
  • The great advantage of our system of government over all others, is, that we have a written constitution, defining its limits, and prescribing its authorities; and that, however, for a time, faction may convulse the nation, and passion and party prejudice sway its functionaries, the season of reflection will recur, when calmly retracing their deeds, all aberrations from fundamental principle will be corrected.
    • Speech in the Senate on the National Bank Charter (February 11, 1811).
  • If you wish to avoid foreign collision, you had better abandon the ocean.
    • Speech on the Increase of the Navy, House of Representatives (22 January 1812).
  • Sir, if you wish to avoid foreign commerce; give up all your prosperity. It is the thing protected, not the instrument of protection, that involves you in war. Commerce engenders collision, collision war, and war, the argument supposes, leads to despotism. Would the councils of that statesman be deemed who would recommend that the nation should be unarmed—that in the art of war, the material spirit, and martial exercises, should be prohibited—…—and that the great body of the people should be taught that the national happiness was to be found in perpetual peace alone? No, sir.
    • Speech on the Increase of the Navy, House of Representatives (22 January 1812).
  • Impart additional strength to our happy Union. Diversified as are the interests of its various parts, how admirably do they harmonize and blend together! We have only to make a proper use of the bounties spread before us, to render us prosperous and powerful.
    • Speech on the Increase of the Navy, House of Representatives (22 January 1812).
  • The gentleman cannot have forgotten his own sentiment, uttered even on the floor of this House, "Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must."
    • Speech on the New Army Bill, House of Representatives, (8 January 1813), paraphasing Josiah Quincy III's "amicably if they can, violently if they must"; The Life and Speeches of the Hon. Henry Clay, vol. I (1857), ed. Daniel Mallory
  • An oppressed people are authorized, whenever they can, to rise and break their fetters.
  • All religions united with government are more or less inimical to liberty. All, separated from government, are compatible with liberty.
    • Speech on the Emancipation of South America], House of Representatives (24 March 1818); The Life and Speeches of the Hon. Henry Clay, vol. I (1857), ed. Daniel Mallory
  • Government is a trust, and the officers of the government are trustees; and both the trust and the trustees are created for the benefit of the people.
    • Speech at the public dinner at Fowler's Garden, Lexington, Kentucky, May 16, 1829, printed in Niles' Weekly Register, Vol. 36 (1829), at p. 399.
  • The arts of power and its minions are the same in all countries and in all ages. It marks its victim; denounces it; and excites the public odium and the public hatred, to conceal its own abuses and encroachments.
    • Speech, Senate (14 March 1834).
  • Precedents deliberately established by wise men are entitled to great weight. They are evidence of truth, but only evidence...But a solitary precedent...which has never been reexamined, cannot be conclusive.
    • Speech, Senate (18 February 1835).
  • Of all the properties which belong to honorable men, not one is so highly prized as that of character.
    • Reported in The Clay Code, or Text-Book of Eloquence, a Collection of Axioms, Apothegms, Sentiments … Gathered from the Public Speeches of Henry Clay, ed. G. Vandenhoff (1844), p. 93.
  • We have had good and bad Presidents, and it is a consoling reflection that the American Nation possesses such elements of prosperity that the bad Presidents cannot destroy it, and have been able to do no more than slightly to retard the public's advancement.
    • Letter to David Mundell (12 October 1848) in which Clay reflects upon his failure to win the Presidency.
  • My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!... If there were two Henry Clays, one of them would make the other President of the United States!... It is a diabolical intrigue, I know now, which has betrayed me. I am the most unfortunate man in the history of parties: always run by my friends when sure to be defeated, and now betrayed for a nomination when I, or any one, would be sure of an election.
    • Upon hearing (in December 1839) that he had been rejected in favor of William Henry Harrison as the Whig Party nominee for President in the election of 1840.
    • Quoted by Henry A. Wise, who claimed to have heard it firsthand, in Seven Decades of the Union (1872), ch. VI.
  • It is totally unnecessary for the gentleman to remind me of my coming from a slaveholding state. I know whence I came, and I know my duty, and I am ready to submit to any responsibility which belongs to me as a senator from a slaveholding state. I have heard something said on this and a former occasion about allegiance to the South. I know no South, no North, no East, no West, to which I owe any allegiance. I owe allegiance to two sovereignty, and only two: one is the sovereignty of this Union, and the other is the sovereignty of the state of Kentucky. My allegiance is to this Union and to my state; but if gentlemen suppose they can exact from me an acknowledgement of allegiance to any ideal or future contemplated confederacy of the South, I here declare that I owe no allegiance to it; nor will I, for one, come under any such allegiance if I can avoid it.
    • Speech in the Senate, February 14, 1850, in response to a speech by Senator Henry S. Foote of Mississippi, who had "lectured" Clay on the allegiance which he owed to the South as a senator from a Southern state. From The Life, Correspondence, and Speeches of Henry Clay (Vol. 3); ed. Calvin Colton: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1857.
  • The Constitution of the United States was made not merely for the generation that then existed, but for posterity—unlimited, undefined, endless, perpetual posterity.
    • Speech, Senate (29 January 1850).
  • I would rather be right than be President.
    • Speech, Senate (1850), referring to the Compromise Measures.

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