Kentucky, the Civil War, and the Spirit of Henry Clay
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Kentucky, the Civil War, and the Spirit of Henry Clay

Henry Clay was dying. The Great Compromiser could not compromise that situation. In November 1851, after a twelve-day trip, he had arrived in Washington, D.C., the site of his last great effort at keeping the Union intact, just the year before. Many accolades had come his way following the resulting Compromise of 1850. Now he had returned to Congress to do his duty as senator and also to argue a potentially lucrative case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But almost immediately on his return, Clay began to experience increasingly bad health. He made a brief appearance in the Senate but returned no more; he turned over his oral arguments before the court to an ally, and they split the resulting sizable fee that followed a favorable decision. All the while, Clay's health worsened. He began to spit up blood and could not sleep because of the constant coughing. The man who once exuded energy and vitality now complained of a lack of strength, no appetite, and a constant cold. Clay took opiates to help him get some rest and, displaying his famous wit amid the adv [End Page 243] noted that he had "nearly emptied an apothecary shop" with the various medicines he took. Seldom venturing from his room in the National Hotel, he resigned his Senate seat in December, effective the next September. Ever the politician, Clay had chosen that date to ensure that a Whig administration would choose his successor early, rather than the Democrats who would soon take the reins of state office.1

By January 1852, Clay told a fellow member of Congress that his situation remained "very critical." Two months after that, Clay reported to his wife Lucretia, back in Kentucky, that "I may linger for months, but I cannot get well." He told her that while he had expected he would return to the folds of family and home, he had not the strength to make the taxing trip. As the last days approached, Clay stressed he was ready to go, though, he said with a smile perhaps, "I welcome death but do not desire an exciting one." Finally, in the late morning of June 29, 1852, at the age of seventy-five, Henry Clay died, in the arms of his country, in the nation's capital, hoping that his last compromise would bind the bleeding sections together and keep his beloved Union intact but fearful that it would not.2

For almost a half-century, Henry Clay had served the United States well, as representative, Speaker of the House, senator, diplomat, secretary of state, spokesman for the American System, twice-rejected Whig presidential hopeful, three-time presidential nominee, respected party chief, Great Pacificator, and honored leader—but never as president. But even his many enemies respected the record he had forged, and Clay became the first person to lie in state in the [End Page 244] capitol. Then his casket made its roundabout way back to Kentucky, covering twelve hundred miles and passing through five state capitals, so that the crowds of Americans could honor their hero one more time and offer one last farewell. The body was interred in the Lexington Cemetery on July 10, 1852, before a crowd of as many as thirty thousand people. Henry Clay had finally returned home, one last time. But his service to his country had not ended with his death. The United States would need his spirit again and again.3

For as the nation mourned Clay, it also worried. He had dominated his political world as perhaps no one else of his generation, usually building up rather than tearing down, creating rather than destroying, producing optimism rather than pessimism. Clay had helped frame the Missouri Compromises of 1820-21, had forged the 1833 Compromise after South Carolina and Andrew Jackson had taken the nation to the edge of conflict, and had crafted the peace plan that eventually became the Compromise of 1850. With his presence in Washington, D.C., no more, with his ability to craft workable plans now absent, with his eloquent voice calling for...