Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth

Henry Clay


Have you ever heard of the "Mill Boy of the Slashes"? He was born in Virginia in 1777, in a part of the country that had many low, swampy lands, called "The Slashes." This "Mill Boy" was Henry Clay.

Henry Clay's father died when this boy of his was four years old, and the care of the large family of children fell to the mother. As soon as Henry was old enough, he did his share of work. The neighbors often saw him walking barefoot behind a plow, or riding to the mill seated on a bag of corn thrown across his horse's back. The people all along the way called him "The Mill Boy of the Slashes."

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


Although the Clays were poor, Henry was sent to school. Then, when he was fourteen, he went to Richmond where he found employment as clerk in a small store. Here he did the odd iobs which fell to him to do.

By this time Mrs. Clay had married again, and the stepfather was not satisfied to have Henry where he was. So he secured for the boy a clerkship in the office of the High Court of Chancery. The clerks in the office smiled when they saw the awkward country lad, and imagined they were going to have some fun with him. But he was ready with a telling answer to all their jokes, and soon they learned to respect him for his faithfulness in the office and for his habits outside. He was forever reading, when not at work. Much of his future character and success was due to the fact that by so much reading he made up for his lack of education.

Soon young Clay attracted the attention of Chancellor Wythe, who asked him to be his private secretary. For four years Clay worked for the Chancellor, and it was during these years that he was inspired with the desire to become a lawyer—a desire which he fulfilled when he was twenty. Not alone by being associated with Chancellor Wythe, had he had advantages. He had belonged to a debating club, many of whose members became famous lawyers in after days. Henry Clay himself was a chief spirit in the club, and the practice he had in speaking before its members told in his years of public life.

As there was little chance in Richmond, Clay, like Jackson, concluded to go west when he had become a full-fledged lawyer. So, when he was not quite twenty-one, he set out for the land of Daniel Boone.

He settled down in Lexington, Kentucky, where he hoped his profession as a lawyer would bring him fair returns. And he was not mistaken. Before long he had his hands full. He was unusually successful, whether his case was defending a criminal or settling some dispute in regard to land or money. Many a time did he give his services free of charge to some poor widow or orphan, to slaves struggling for their freedom, to free negroes, and to the poor and oppressed who came to him for help.

His success as a lawyer grew so fast that he soon had money enough to enable him to marry; and in a few years he bought an estate, which he called "Ashland."

Meanwhile, he was gaining popularity. The people of Lexington and of the whole state loved and admired him. He was not yet thirty years old when they sent him to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate.


In the Senate, Clay began at once to take part like an old hand at the business. He was all attention and ready to act whenever anyone made a resolution which had to do with "internal improvements."

At this time America was at peace with foreign nations, and the country was thriving. Thousands of people were pouring over the mountains into the fertile regions beyond.

But the roads were poor; there were snags, sand bars, and rapids in the rivers, and the hardships of a journey were great. So, as the West grew, there was constant cry for better roads and for canals and bridges between the East and the West.

Henry Clay knew how hard the journey was, because he, too, had been an emigrant. And from the days of his first term in the Senate he became a veritable champion of the cause of internal improvements. One of the most useful of these improvements was the famous Cumberland Road, which in due time was opened from the banks of the Potomac at Cumberland, Maryland, over the mountains and across the country, until it almost reached the Mississippi.

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - II by G. Southworth


Clay's first term in the Senate was soon over. But in 1809 he was sent again to fill the unexpired term of another senator. He served for two years, and when the two years were up he was elected a member of the House of Representatives.

Henry Clay

Late in 1811 Henry Clay arrived in Washington to take his place in the House. On his very first day of service he was chosen Speaker.

In this position Clay had great influence, and it was largely due to his leadership that the War of 1812 was brought on as soon as it was. He said that America must stand up for the rights of her sailors, and not allow England to seize them. He felt and preached that war must come, and war came. New England was against the war. But Clay insisted that a sailor who works or fights for his country has a right to be protected by that country. The flag under which he sails should be his protection. If a country cannot protect its sailors by peaceable means, then it ought to do so by force.

The War of 1812 was not much of a success from a military point of view. It was our plucky little navy which taught England that she must keep her hands off American sailors.

In 1814 Henry Clay was one of the men who went to Europe to arrange the treaty of peace that put an end to the war.


In the early days black slaves were brought by shiploads from Africa and were sold to the colonists. No matter how long or how hard the slave worked, he could never earn his freedom; and he might, at any time, be sold away from his family. Occasionally a master gave a slave his freedom, but this happened rarely. Many of the slaves were kindly treated and had comfortable homes; but others had little to eat and wear, and many hardships to endure.

Before the Revolution all the states had slaves. But in the years that followed the war, the North gradually gave up slavery. The northern states were turning their attention to manufacturing; for their swift flowing streams gave excellent water power for mills and factories. The negroes of those days were not educated enough to work in the factories, so slave labor was no longer practicable in the North. This fact doubtless made it easier for the North to recognize the evils of slave-holding, and one by one the northern states declared themselves free states—that is, states opposed to slavery.

The South still held firmly to its slave system and intended to do so. With their warm climate and broad stretches of fertile land, the southern states went on raising cotton, rice, and tobacco. And it is in no way surprising that they saw much good and little evil in the slave labor which was so cheap and which served their purposes so well.

Thus, little by little, the difference in business interests between the North and the South led to an ever-growing difference of opinion in regard to slavery.

The laws that governed the interests of the North and the South were made in Congress by the representatives of the different states. So it was only natural that North and South should each want on its side as many states as possible, in order to increase the number of its votes in Congress.

When Missouri asked to be taken into the Union as a slave state, there were eleven free states and eleven slave states—an arrangement of which neither side could complain. Now, if Missouri came in as a slave state, it would give the controlling votes in Congress to the South. Of course the South was in favor of admitting Missouri. And of course the North was set against such a step. For nearly two years the matter was debated. Neither side would give in to the other.

Then Henry Clay persuaded Congress to make a compromise which promised satisfaction to both North and South. By this compromise, Missouri was to be taken into the Union as a slave state, on the express understanding that any other states that might be formed from the Louisiana Purchase land north of Missouri's southern boundary should be free forever.

The Missouri compromise was adopted in 1820. But even before Missouri succeeded in becoming the twelfth slave state, Maine had been admitted as the twelfth free state. And so neither North nor South could yet claim the balance of power in Congress.

In 1848 a short war between the United States and Mexico came to an end. And at its close Mexico ceded California and New Mexico to the United States. Here was the old struggle back again. Should slavery be allowed in this new land or not?

Western Territories

California wanted to enter the Union as a free state. Again there was the same number of free and slave states, and again the state asking to come in would give one side the advantage over the other. So again there were hot disputes. These grew so bitter that the Union was in danger of being broken up. Once more, as in the case of Missouri, Henry Clay urged a compromise. This compromise contained so many points that it was called the "Omnibus Bill."

According to Clay's plan, California was to be admitted as a free state; the people in the rest of the new land were to suit themselves as to how their territory should come into the Union; and the North was to arrest, and send back to their owners, all runaway slaves found in the free states. For two days Clay spoke in the Senate. People had come from far and near to hear him, and all his old charm of voice and manner were used to convince his audience of the advantages of the compromise. He asked the North to yield, and appealed to the South for peace. Then followed a debate which lasted for months, but finally Clay's compromise was adopted. This was in 1850.

A fellow Kentuckian told Mr. Clay that this compromise would injure his chances of ever becoming president. "Sir, I would rather be right than be president," answered Mr. Clay.

In two short years after his struggle to keep the states together by his compromise of 1850, Henry Clay died. He has been called the great Pacificator. Though his compromises failed to secure to the country the lasting good he hoped for, they attest his patriotism—his pure love for his country, and his desire to see the Union great and glorious. The name of Henry Clay will always fill a place in the list of America's honored statesmen.