The Filson Historical Society Digital Projects

Henry Clay: Kentuckian and 3-Time Presidential Candidate

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Silk campaign ribbon for Henry Clay, "Pride of America," c. 1884

Two United States presidents have had some claim to Kentucky - Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor - but the politician most closely tied to the state is a man who never made it to the White House despite repeated efforts: Henry Clay.

Clay (1777-1852) was born in Virginia and moved to Kentucky in 1797. His "American System" advocated a strong federal central government, a national system of internal improvements, including turnpikes and canals, and a high protective tariff.

The "Corrupt Bargain"

As a U. S. Senator, Clay was instructed by the General Assembly to cast Kentucky's electoral votes for Andrew Jackson of Tennessee in the 1824 election, in which Clay had also been a candidate. Clay ignored these instructions and voted instead for John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. Adams won the election and then appointed Clay U. S. Secretary of State. Jackson's supporters accused Clay of entering into a "corrupt bargain" that made him president in exchange for Clay becoming Secretary of State.

Presidential Races

Clay ran for President in 1824, 1832, and in 1844, losing all three contests. He famously is said to have stated: "I'd rather be right than President," words he no doubt regretted.

Though Clay lost all his presidential contests, he remained the favorite in his home state. In 1824, Clay received only 13% of the vote nationally but 73% of the vote in Kentucky. In 1832 he received 37% of national vote, 55% of Kentucky. And in 1844 he received 48% nationally and 54% in Kentucky.

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Broadside with campaign songs in support of Henry Clay for president, 1884