Henry Clay Compromise

Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

Understand the importance of Henry Clay in American politics during the nineteenth century, learn why Clay was known as the 'Great Compromiser,' and explore the compromises Clay crafted to keep northerners and southerners from drifting into war.


Americans often focus on the President when thinking about political issues because he is seen as the driving force behind any movement for change. While most Americans understand the important role Congress plays in the political process, the President is the one person that Americans can either direct their praise or frustrations toward. However, the President has not always had this starring role in American politics. During the nineteenth century (1800s) Congress was the focus of American political change and one particular individual, Henry Clay, often took center stage.

Historical Background

Henry Clay (1777 - 1852) was a major powerhouse in American politics during the nineteenth century. His long career began when he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1811 at the age of 34, and over the next 40 years he served in various positions including Speaker of the House, Senator, and Secretary of State.

Henry Clay Portrait
Civil War'Great Compromiser.'Compromise of 1820 (Missouri Compromise)Compromise of 1850.

Compromise of 1820 (Missouri Compromise)

The Compromise of 1820 began when Missouri sought to become a state and a fierce debate began over whether Missouri would enter the union as a state the allowed the institution of slavery (slave state) or one that would prohibit slavery's existence (free state). Missouri's application for statehood created an initial firestorm because early supporters of Missouri's statehood wanted Missouri to enter the union as a free state. Southern Senators fiercely objected because such an arrangement would upset the current balance between an equal number of slave states and an equal number of free states.

Henry Clay eased tensions between northerners and southerners by getting the House of Representatives to accept a compromise which would allow Maine to enter the union as a free state and Missouri to enter the union as a slave state. This arrangement kept a balance between slave states and free states. In addition, Clay used his skills as a negotiator to get the House to also accept a Senate resolution that stipulated that southern boundary of Missouri (latitude 36-30) would become the permanent boundary between future free states and slave states. Therefore, the Missouri Compromise, which was largely engineered by Clay, significantly eased tensions over the future extension of slavery across the expanding United States.

Missouri Compromise Line

Compromise of 1850

However, Clay's compromise measures over Missouri did not produce a final settlement over the nagging question of slavery's extension across the United States. Much of Clay's efforts were undone because of the territory the United States gained from the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). The United States' victory in the war added a significant amount of territory in the southwest, and many questioned if the Missouri Compromise applied to this land and whether or not slavery should be allowed into these new territories. This issue came to the forefront in 1850 when California applied for statehood as a free state with the support of President Taylor. A firestorm greater than the one in 1820 began as northerners and southerners were once again divided over the possible extension of slavery across the United States. Many prominent southern Senators were outraged over California's admission as a free state and threatened to have the South leave the union (secession).

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