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Though he was best known as a politician, Henry Clay (1777-1852) maintained an active legal practice for more than fifty years. He was a leading contributor both to the early development of the U.S. legal system and to the interaction between law and politics in pre-Civil War America.

During the years of Clay's practice, modern American law was taking shape, building on the English experience but working out the new rules and precedents that a changing and growing society required. Clay specialized in property law, a natural choice at a time of entangled land claims, ill-defined boundaries, and inadequate state and federal procedures. He argued many precedent-setting cases, some of them before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Maurice Baxter contends that Clay's extensive legal work in this area greatly influenced his political stances on various land policy issues. During Clay's lifetime, property law also included questions pertaining to slavery. With Daniel Webster, he handled a very significant constitutional case concerning the interstate slave trade. Baxter provides an overview of the federal and state court systems of Clay's time. After addressing Clay's early legal career, he focuses on Clay's interest in banking issues, land-related economic matters, and the slave trade.

The portrait of Clay that emerges from this inquiry shows a skilled lawyer who was deeply involved with the central legal and economic issues of his day.

"Identifies many significant and interesting questions related to the intersections of law and politics in the career of Henry Clay."—American Historical Review

"Fills an often neglected niche in Henry Clay’s career. And it tells a great deal about the practice of law in Kentucky and the nation in the pre-Civil War era."—Bowling Green Daily News

"A worthwhile study of a high-profile lawyer arguing often seminal land, slavery, debt, contract, and banking cases during a period when the young nation’s law, legal profession, and court system were undergoing dramatic changes."—Choice

"A readable and informative account of Clay’s law practice."—Indiana Magazine of History

"A useful, short volume that describes Clay’s underappreciated professional life as a lawyer."—Journal of American History

"Examines the development of a distinguished legal career that had a major impact on the development of modern American jurisprudence."—Journal of Southern History

"A reminder that however prominent Clay the politician and planter might have been, Clay’s livelihood came not from politics or agriculture but from his legal practice."—Journal of the Early Republic

"Shows how Clay’s political views were often shaped by the situations he encountered in his role as attorney."—Kentucky Libraries

"Provides insight into the sometimes-painful development of the American legal system and into a neglected aspect of Henry Clay’s service to his country."—Kentucky Monthly

"A welcome addition to the history of the development of the legal profession and the rise of law in nineteenth-century America. Henry Clay the Lawyer demonstrates a unique command of American politics and law during a crucially formative period of the nation’s history. We are all in Baxter’s debt for lifting Henry Clay the lawyer from under the bushel of Clay the politician."—Kermit L. Hall

"Baxter traces the legal training and career of Clay, who was without question one of the most prominent citizens of nineteenth century America. . . . Shows how Henry Clay and other contemporaries literally wrote many of the rules implemented by various American courts."—Law and Politics Book Review

"Makes new observations on a man who has been studied primarily from the perspective of politics."—McCormick (SC) Messenger

"By focusing exclusively on Clay’s legal education ,career, practice and reputation as a lawyer, Baxter has highlighted a facet of Henry Clay’s full life; the historical literature richer and more interesting for Baxter’s impressive efforts."—Mississippi Review

"For the first time, we have an authoritative account of Clay’s long and distinguished career as a lawyer. The volume is full of insights about law and the legal profession and of course about Clay himself."—R. Kent Newmyer

"Thoughtfully stimulating and provides fresh insight on Clay’s public career."—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Readers will find many insights into the interplay of law, politics, and economic development in a formative period of American history."—Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"A useful little book, demonstrating Clay’s legal prowess, often ignored, and the political and monetary success it brought him."—Virginia Quarterly Review

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY






Henry Clay



Henry Clay the Lawyer
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