The defining issue of Henry Clay’s time – and of his career – was slavery. While his personal and political views often seemed contradictory, his actions rarely were.
While Clay never believed in the equality of the races, he did say that slavery was wrong. He called it “a curse on the master” and a “grievous wrong on the slave.” He said that slaves were “rational beings.” In the 1830s, he wrote a friend: “That slavery is unjust and a great evil are undisputed axioms. The difficulty always has been how to get rid of it.” He wrote publicly of his support for gradual emancipation. These views remained somewhat unchanged throughout his life.
But ultimately these sentiments proved hollow. As Henry Clay became a landowner and ever wealthier, his views shifted. He seemed to decry slavery while continually buying, selling, and owning human beings. People called him a hypocrite.
While it is likely that Clay had an internal struggle with the institution of slavery, time after time Clay chose to maintain and uphold it. He had supported colonization – the transporting of freed Black Americans to Liberia. Clay believed that they should go the land of their father: Africa. He was actively engaged in the organization that enabled this process, the ACS, the American Colonization Society. Yet he only emancipated 7 of his enslaved people and he colonized none of them.
Henry Clay engineered three compromises to keep the Union together. He is famously known as the Great Compromiser. The compromises dealt with the expansion of the young nation and slavery’s place in it. The compromises spelled out where slavery could exist and under what terms. The compromises are generally credited with delaying civil war long enough that the Union could prevail and emerge intact.
Unfortunately the compromises did nothing for the enslaved and, in some ways, made their lives harder. Consider the Compromise of 1850: one of the pieces of that legislation was the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state.
Clay was wrong that the compromises would prevent civil war because he failed to grasp a fundamental reality: the enslaved could be viewed as people or as property, but not both. There was no middle ground. They were collateral damage. Henry Clay saved the Union (for a time) but not the enslaved.
As he lost one presidential campaign after another, three in total, Henry Clay always maintained that he “would rather be right than president.” His compromises and contradictory position on slavery ensured that he was neither.