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Henry Clay the Lawyer

Henry Clay the Lawyer

Maurice G. Baxter
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 160
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  • Book Info
    Henry Clay the Lawyer
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5955-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. 1 The Legal Scene
    (pp. 1-16)

    In 1792, when Henry Clay was a youth of fifteen, he had begun an apprenticeship in Virginia with the respected chancellor and professor of law, George Wythe. Here in Richmond reports of legal reform in the nation were arriving. Debate over legal reform was particularly lively in Kentucky, because at that time it was being detached as a new state from the Old Dominion. Across the mountains delegates were framing a state constitution, a process that generated spirited argument about fundamental principles of government. Though information about Henry’s observations of what was occurring in this process has not survived, we...

  5. 2 Early Practice
    (pp. 17-36)

    Clay was a native Virginian, the son of a church minister in Hanover County a few miles north of Richmond. His father died when Henry was four, and his mother soon remarried. As a child, he received scanty instruction from a rural schoolmaster when not performing tasks required on a farm. Carrying bags of grain on horseback to market along paths cleared in a forest, he acquired the nickname of Millboy of the Slashes. In later years, his image was often that of a statesman’s ascent from humble origins to national fame. But that was not entirely accurate. His mother...

  6. 3 Economic Issues
    (pp. 37-54)

    For ten years during and after the War of 1812 while Clay directed his attention to political affairs, his law practice was inactive. Then in the early twenties he encountered worrisome financial trouble, partly involving his endorsements on defaulted notes of friends and relatives. Like many lawyer-politicians of the day, he went into court in search of a better income from fees. Until he became President John Quincy Adams’s secretary of state (1825–29), he carried on a brisk business in cases reflecting governmental economic policies, notably on land and banking.

    Although the postwar years were a time of optimism,...

  7. 4 Banking
    (pp. 55-78)

    While much involved in the contract-clause cases ofGreenandOgdenduring the early 1820s, Clay gave more attention to legal business for the Bank of the United States (BUS). His motive was still to recover from his worrisome financial situation, including a large indebtedness to that institution. He had mortgaged his residence and land at Ashland for $40,000, as well as the Kentucky Hotel in Lexington for $22,000—obligations not wholly retired until 1830.¹

    In June 1820 he put an announcement in theKentucky Reporter:“I intend to recommence the practice of the Law, and for this purpose I...

  8. 5 Nonconstitutional Business
    (pp. 79-92)

    Some of Clay’s legal practice involved constitutional questions, such as the boundaries of state power over banking and contracts, often in relation to national power. Notwithstanding the great significance of these subjects, Clay and fellow lawyers participated in many more nonconstitutional cases. The Supreme Court in John Marshall’s day (1801–35), for example, decided twelve times as many nonconstitutional as constitutional questions.¹

    A frequent subject in that litigation was land. It arose from disputes about titles administered by states and conveyances accomplished by sale or will, all in a bewildering, disorderly setting of public policy. Clay’s cases had these characteristics....

  9. 6 Slavery
    (pp. 93-102)

    Lsawyers in antebellum America often addressed the rising question of slavery. Whether they were also active politicians or mainly lawyers, they encountered problems caused by the so-called peculiar institution. This was true of Clay. As politician, he faced congressional controversies about slavery in western territories and displayed an uncommon ability to forge national compromises. As lawyer in local and federal courts, he had professional business relating to slavery, and he showed his characteristic caution in handling it. The more so, because he was himself a large slaveholder.

    During the final phase of his practice, the issue had reached a critical...

  10. 7 Overview
    (pp. 103-110)

    Clay’s experience in the world of lawyers and judges extended from his apprenticeship as a boy of fourteen with the learned Chancellor George Wythe, then with state Attorney General Robert Brooke in Richmond, Virginia, and through a very long practice until his death more than fifty years later. Contrary to a common misconception about Clay’s preparation as a lawyer, it was quite good in the circumstances. And after his admission to the Kentucky bar in 1798 until his death in 1852, he blended an active business in court with a long involvement in politics. He competed well with opposing counsel...

  11. Appendix: Table of Clay’s Cases
    (pp. 111-112)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 113-128)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 129-134)
  14. Index
    (pp. 135-142)