10/25/10 - henry clay

In today's excerpt - wars with Spain, divorce, veteran aid, wolf pelts, gerrymandering, roads, billiard tables, and the location of the state capital. New state representative Henry Clay and his colleagues wrestled with the issues of the day in the Kentucky state legislature during that state's earliest days. Clay, hero to Abraham Lincoln, later served as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was part of the "Great Triumvirate" or "Immortal Trio," along with his colleagues Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun:

"Speeches backed by pluck won (Democratic-Republican) Henry Clay election to the Kentucky House in his first bid for public office, and in November 1803, he took the seat he would hold for the next six years. In his first session, the legislature gathered on the second floor of the stone capitol in Frankfort abuzz with rumors of looming war with Spain.

"The purchase of Louisiana from Napoleonic France had set off celebrations only months before, but soon disturbing reports began circulating that the deal was hardly certain. Spain was insistent that it had ceded Louisiana to Napoleon only on the condition that France not sell it to the United States. Cash-strapped Napoleon, however, sold the province to Thomas Jefferson's administration so quickly that Spain was still in possession of it. Now Spain threatened to block its transfer to the United States. The entire West rose up in arms. Clay arrived in Frankfort that November as Kentucky militiamen were assembling with fight in their eyes, and he was quickly caught up in the war fever. He certainly knew that political laurels would likely result from participating in a campaign against the Spaniards, and he immediately signed on as an aide to the militia's command-in-general, Samuel Hopkins. The militia's preparations had hardly begun, however, before word reached Kentucky that Spain would turn over Louisiana after all. The excitement died down as quickly as it started, disappointing more than a few boys who were spoiling for a fight, especially against Spaniards. Nobody liked Spaniards.

"The distraction of a possible war removed, the legislature began its work in earnest. Most of the session's business was routine. Divorce petitions took up a fair amount of time, because a marriage could be dissolved in Kentucky only after an act of the legislature allowed the suit to be brought in the courts. Voting aid to veterans of the Revolution and Indian wars was a high priority, while placing bounties on wolf pelts answered farmers' complaints about losing livestock to predators. But there was also residual rancor over old disputes with Federalists. ... Clay's first important legislative initiative was a proposal to gerrymander Kentucky Federalists out of presidential politics. Four of Kentucky's six electoral districts would be eliminated to swallow up Federalist enclaves and prevent even a single Federalist elector from being chosen in the 1804 presidential election. ...

"Clay urged that Kentucky finance internal improvements to boost commerce in all parts of the state, foreshadowing his life's work on the national scene. He demonstrated an ability to bring together seemingly irreconcilable factions through compromise, and he became wedded to the idea that the key to political success was to promote the possible and avoid the unattainable ideal. Often that was accomplished through sleight of hand, sometimes with the simplest solutions. When he chaired a select committee on raising revenue, for example, a bill was proposed to tax billiard tables at $200 each. It was likely that such a measure would not generate much revenue but would instead make owning a billiard table beyond the means of taverns. Clay had the amount reduced to $50 but with an amendment naming the bill 'an act more effectually to suppress the practice of gaming.' Critics groused that he was more interested in saving billiards than promoting morality, but the tables survived, and the treasury profited.

"There were a few missteps. He offended Frankfort's citizens by repeatedly trying to have the state capital moved to Lexington. Frankfort was too small, he said; it lacked the radiating road system for which Lexington served as a hub. All of this was true, but it was impolitic to say so. Clay was never able to muster the two-thirds vote necessary to move the capital, but it was not for want of trying."


David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler


Henry Clay: The Essential American


Random House


Copyright 2010 by David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler


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