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June 29, 1852
Henry Clay Dies

Image of Senator Henry Clay
Henry Clay (W-KY)

Henry Clay died of tuberculosis in Washington on June 29, 1852. The 75-year-old Kentucky statesman had spent his lengthy public career setting records. He was the first of three senators who began their service under the constitutionally required age of 30. He won election as Speaker of the House on his first day in that body. He engineered the only Senate censure of a president. He built the Whig Party and ran three times as its candidate for the presidency. For successfully forging compromise solutions to issues that threatened to shatter the Union, at his death he became the first person to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda.

By today's tenure standards, Clay's service in the Senate was relatively brief—a total of only 16 years between his first term in 1806 and his death in 1852. Yet he dominated American political life for much of that period and set a standard for what it means to be a successful United States senator. With Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, the other two members of the Senate's so-called Great Triumvirate, Clay excelled as an orator. Each of the three senators developed a unique speaking style. Webster's strength lay in his use of richly cultivated language. Calhoun succeeded on the power of his intellect, where substance took precedence over style. Clay's success grew not from language or substance, but from the personal style of his voice and mannerisms. One biographer reported that he "was more a debater than orator. Invariably dramatic, if not flamboyant, he regularly mesmerized his audience with his histrionics." Another has written that Clay changed his "rhetorical costumes" depending on the occasion and location of his speaking engagements.

Alternatively haughty and captivating, Clay charmed even those who differed with his policies and principles. When he resigned from the Senate in 1842 to prepare for the 1844 presidential election, he apologized for the "ardor of temperament" that had led him, on occasion, "to use language offensive and susceptible of ungracious interpretation towards my brother senators." Perhaps John C. Calhoun had some of that language in mind when, setting a memorable definition for the nature of friendship among senators, he observed, "I don't like Clay. He is a bad man, an imposter, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God, I love him!"

Reference Items:

Peterson, Merrill D.  The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.  

Remini, Robert V.  Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.  


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