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American Lives: Reconsidering Henry Clay

Henry Clay was a leading 19th century representative, senator and presidential candidate.

He was a nationalist, a supporter of roads and industries, and had a hand in pretty much every matter that affected life and politics in America.

But there was another, more conflicted side to the Kentucky statesman.

Henry Clay condemned slavery -- but owned slaves.

David and Jeanne Heidler, authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American, have tried to make sense of Clay's stance on slavery. They tell NPR's Steve Inskeep that it wasn't until he fell under the tutelage of George Wythe, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, that Clay began to think seriously about the issue.

"Wythe was one of many of the founding generation who saw the contradiction between slavery existing in the country -- a country that was supposedly founded on principles of liberty and freedom," Jeanne Heidler says. "That very much influenced Clay and ... when Clay traveled to Kentucky after he studied law, he was very active in the effort for gradual emancipation of [slaves]."

Clay believed that the slow abolition of slavery in Kentucky could serve as an example to other states, but he failed and eventually became a slave owner himself -- first through inheritance, then through marriage.

Jeanne Heidler says he kept his slaves because of the status it gave him but continued to oppose the practice on principle.

Not surprisingly, the situation made for some uncomfortable moments in Clay's public career. In one 1840s episode, Clay was confronted at a political meeting in Indiana by the Quaker Hiram Mendenall, who handed Clay a petition calling for him to free his slaves.

According to David Heidler, Clay's reaction was jarring:

"Clay delivers a scathing address, attacks [Mendenall] not for being an abolitionist but for being boorish -- for being rude to greet a guest in Indiana with a petition that was clearly meant to embarrass him. And in this address, Clay tells Mendenhall that it would be no more appropriate for him, Henry Clay, to greet him, Hiram Mendenhall, with a petition that he give up his farm."

With that speech, Clay essentially reduced slaves to their then-legal standing as property -- hardly abolitionist behavior. What's more is that one of Clay's own slaves was in the crowd that day, hearing Clay compare him to a piece of real estate.

"It's a very striking contradiction and it was probably the most troubling part of the book to write in the sense that we tried to come to understand how someone could spend his entire adult life speaking against slavery and yet continue to own slaves," Jeanne Heidler says.

But Henry Clay was no Thomas Jefferson -- who was also a slaveholding abolitionist and former pupil of Wythe's. David Heidler says he believes that in the end, Clay was much more honest about his hypocrisy than the Founding Father.

"There's the sense that Clay is very much troubled by this," David Heidler says, "especially at the end of his life."

During this period, Clay wrote a letter to his brother-in-law Richard Pendell in which he staged an outright attack on slavery. The correspondence came to be known as The Pendell Letter, and it essentially sealed Clay's political future and destroyed any chance he may have had at winning the presidency.

"The North did not believe him and the South distrusted him," David Heidler says. "But the letter is sincere."

It wasn't until his last will and testament that Clay finally carried out the intention of The Pendell Letter. He freed his slaves; he provided for their education and training in trades; and, most important, he finally allowed his actions to fall in line with his principles.

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