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Known as the Great Compromiser, Kentuckian Henry Clay left a valuable legacy to his country by defining the role of Speaker of the House, envisioning a plan, the American System, that foretold the economic development of the nation, and fashioning compromises that postponed civil war until a southern victory was far less likely. He failed, however, to become president, and scholars have placed some blame on his family. This work investigates how his career affected his family and how the family impacted his career. While laboring to form a mature nation, Clay sought to establish a successful family. Accused of excessive ambition, he taught service to nation and loyalty to family. A man of high passions, he channeled a family intoxication with risk and spontaneity into business and service. Fearful of the military mind in politics, he created a family that served its nation at war from the Mexican War through Vietnam. After the Civil War, the patriarch's shadow became both blessing and burden. Inspiring confidence and civic spirit it led to service, but it also pressured each generation to attain his prominence, sometimes leading to reckless behavior and bad decision-making. Clay also bequeathed a susceptibility to illness; tuberculosis and mood disorders destroyed lives and caused fear in an age that did not understand the diseases. Tragedy challenged the family, but looking to the patriarch, they never quit. The Clay story reflects the strength and the struggle of the American family across the expanse of the nation's history.

Publication Date



The University Press of Kentucky

Place of Publication

Lexington, KY




978-0-8131-3411-6 (pdf version)


978-0-8131-4037-7 (epub version)



Great compromiser, Economic development, American system, Family loyalty, Business, Service, Patriarch, Tuberculosis, Mood disorders, American family


American Politics | United States History

The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch
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