Henry Clay of Kentucky had one of the most superlative political careers in American history. A lawyer by training, Clay served in almost every level of government possible in the 19th century: the Kentucky state house of representatives, the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the executive branch as Secretary of State. On top of that, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, and ran for President three times over three decades on three different party tickets (Democratic Republican Party, 1824; National Republican Party, 1832; and the Whig Party, 1844).
Despite being a political journeyman, Clay’s true home, he confessed, was in the House. He served as Speaker—and resigned from the Speakership—on three separate occasions, but the exact timeline of his House career isn’t as straightforward as we might expect from one of America’s foremost statesmen.
The Kentuckian had served in the Senate twice before capturing a seat in the House in 1810, promptly winning election as Speaker on the first day of his first term. Over the next few years he pushed the country to open conflict with England, and, in 1814, helped negotiate the end of the war he had helped start. On the eve of his departure that winter to begin peace negotiations in Belgium, he penned a revealing letter to a friend in Lexington: “You will have seen that I am going to Europe,” he wrote from Washington on January 27, 1814. “Having a decided preference for a seat in the House of Representatives over any other station under the government I vacated it with great reluctance.”
Exactly when Clay “vacated” the House in 1814 hasn’t always been entirely clear, however. On January 19, 1814, eight days before he wrote to his unnamed friend in Lexington, Clay stood up from the Speaker’s chair and addressed the chamber for what appears to have been the final time that Congress. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I have attended you to-day to announce my resignation of the distinguished station of this House, with which I have been honored by your kindness. In taking leave of you, gentlemen, I shall be excused for embracing this last occasion to express to you personally, my thanks for the frank and liberal support the Chair has experienced at your hands.”
Modern historians have interpreted this speech as Clay’s resignation from both the Speakership and the House, but that wasn’t always the case. In the early 1900s, the House Parliamentarian, Asher Hinds, compiled a staggering first run of the House Precedents. And Hinds used Clay’s address on January 19, 1814, to highlight what appeared to be a contingency when a sitting Speaker steps down. Traditionally, Members submit letters of resignation to the Clerk when quitting, but Hinds understood Clay’s remarks to pertain only to the Speakership. “He did not at the same time, in terms at least, resign his seat,” the Precedents argue. “Nor does an inspection of the Journal show that at any time a notice of his resignation was laid before the House until the presentation of the credentials of his successor, on March 26.”
It appears, however, that Clay expected his speech that day to serve double duty as both his resignation from the Office of the Speaker and from the House itself. Newspaper accounts in the days following his address seem to bear this out. Clay “yesterday resigned his station as Speaker of the House of Representatives of the U. States, and took leave of that body in an affecting manner,” the Daily National Intelligencer reported on January 20, 1814. And a letter from an unnamed North Carolina Member to the Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette dated January 19th, opened with “The Speaker, Mr. Henry Clay, to day took leave of the House of Representatives, being about to leave the U. States as a Minister of Peace.”
Despite his “resignation,” the Kentuckian didn’t leave Washington right away. He lingered in the capital city for a few weeks. But as the Precedents point out, after January 19th, the name “Henry Clay” doesn’t appear in the Journal again until the House swears in his successor on March 26th. By that point, Clay had already been out of the country for a month, sailing east across the Atlantic towards Europe.
This may have been the first curious event in Clay’s House career but it certainly wasn’t the last. Midway through the peace negotiations with England, Clay stood for reelection to the House and won despite being an ocean away. After negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, Clay accepted a gig as minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain to work out a commercial treaty. In doing so, however, the governor of Kentucky decided Clay had violated the Constitution’s clause forbidding House Members from holding additional civil appointments, and declared Clay’s House seat vacant. A short while after Clay returned from Europe in 1815 he won a special election to fill his own vacancy. Later, in the fall of 1820, Clay became the first person to resign the Speakership but to keep his seat in the House.
To help make sense of Clay’s somewhat chaotic House career, we’ve included a timeline below.
Clay addressed the House for the final time on March 3, 1825, reminding the chamber that he had shouldered “the arduous duties of the [Speaker’s] chair” for nearly 14 years, “with but two comparatively short intervals.” There had been peace and war during his time as Speaker, debates both “ardent and animated.” Not one of his parliamentary rulings had ever been reversed, he said. “In retiring, perhaps for ever [sic], from a situation with which so large a portion of my life has been associated, I shall continually revert, during the remainder of it, with unceasing respect and gratitude, to this great theatre of our public action, and with the firm belief that the public interests and the liberty of our beloved country will be safely guarded hereafter, as they have been heretofore, by enlightened patriotism.”
Clay never returned to the House and never again served as Speaker, but in his final remarks—“retiring, perhaps for ever [sic]”—he certainly hadn’t ruled out the possibility of a comeback.
Sources: House Journal, 13th Cong., 2nd sess., (18 January 1814); House Journal, 16th Cong., 1st sess. (15 May 1820); House Journal, 18th cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1825); Hinds’ Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States, vol. 2 (Washington: GPO, 907); Daily National Intelligencer, 20 January 1814, 17 November 1815, 17 May 1820, 17 June 1822; Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette, 21 January 1814; National Advocate, for the Country, 18 June 1822; The Supporter and Scioto Gazette, 19 June 1822; Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1874): 43; Executive Journal for Governor Isaac Shelby, 16 October 1815, Kentucky Department for Libraries & Archives; James F. Hopkins, ed., The Papers of Henry Clay: The Rising Statesman, 1797–1814, Vol. 1 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1959): 471, 484, 856, 990, 1008; James F. Hopkins, ed., The Papers of Henry Clay: The Rising Statesman, 1815–1820, Vol. 2 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961): 71–72, 82–83, 794–795, 821; James F. Hopkins, ed., The Papers of Henry Clay: Presidential Candidate, 1821–1824, Vol. 3 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1963): 14; Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: The Official Results (McFarland & Company, Inc., 1998); Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991); David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American (New York: Random House, 2010); James Sterling Young, The Washington Community, 1800–1828 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc., 1966).Follow @USHouseHistory