Biographies of the Secretaries of State: Henry Clay (1777–1852)


Henry Clay was appointed Secretary of State by President John Quincy Adams on March 7, 1825. Clay entered his duties on the same day and served until March 3, 1829. Famous as the “Great Pacificator” for his contributions to domestic policy, he emphasized economic development in his diplomacy.

Henry Clay, Ninth Secretary of State

Rise to Prominence

Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia. After a minimal formal education, Clay read law and gained admission to the bar in both Virginia and Kentucky in 1797. He became a leading real estate and business lawyer in Frankfort, Kentucky and soon embarked on a career in politics.

Clay was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1803 and served to 1806. Next, he served as Senator from Kentucky, from 1806 to 1807, and then returned to the State House of Representatives, from 1807 to 1809. In 1810 Clay returned to the Senate and served until 1811.

He became a leader of an anti-British group of Congressmen known as the War Hawks while a U.S. Representative and Speaker of the House from 1811 to 1814. Clay went on to serve as a U.S. Representative from 1815 to 1821 and from 1823 to 1825, and again as Speaker of the House from 1815 to 1820 and from 1823 to 1825.

After his tenure as Secretary of State, Clay returned to the U.S. Senate from 1831 to 1842 and from 1849 to 1852. Clay’s fame as a compromiser stemmed from his involvement with the Missouri Compromise, the Comprise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850.

Influence on American Diplomacy

Clay’s appointment as Secretary of State stirred controversy. His bid for the Presidency in the election of 1824 ended with no clear majority for any candidate. Clay lent his support to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson, thereby violating the instructions of the Kentucky legislature. Adams was then selected as President by the House of Representatives.

Due to the informal precedent that the Secretary of State would eventually assume the presidency, Jackson supporters portrayed Clay’s subsequent appointment as Secretary of State as a “corrupt bargain.” Nonetheless, Clay had diplomatic experience and an agenda to pursue as Secretary of State.

He had served on the Peace Commission following the War of 1812 that negotiated the Treaty of Ghent with Great Britain in 1814. As a Commissioner, Clay pressed to prevent the British from gaining free navigation on the Mississippi River. Clay based his foreign policy plan on the so-called “American System,” emphasizing federal support of national economic development. To this end, Clay achieved a number of important successes as Secretary of State.

Clay oversaw the settlement of twelve commercial treaties, more than all earlier administrations, and developed economic ties with the newly independent Latin American republics. The British Government agreed to pay an indemnity for slaves freed during the War of 1812.

Clay’s political negotiations, however, produced ample frustration. The Government of Mexico opted to expel Clay’s minister, Joel Poinsett, after Poinsett offered to purchase Texas. Furthermore, U.S. delegates arrived too late to attend an important diplomatic event in Latin America, the Inter-American Congress at Panama in 1826.

Another disappointment came when Clay failed to settle continuing boundary disputes with Great Britain. In 1827 the United States and Great Britain merely agreed to the joint occupation of Oregon. Despite such setbacks and the remaining bitterness over Clay’s appointment as Secretary of State, Clay's emphasis upon U.S. economic expansionism would prove to be a harbinger of modern U.S. diplomacy.