Henry Clay: The Lawyer

Henry Clay: The Lawyer

Mackey, Thomas C

Henry Glory: The Lawyer, by Maurice G. Baxter. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000. x, 152 pp. Index. $24.95.

MAURICE G. BAXTER, PROFESSOREMERITUSof history at Indiana University, has produced a short but useful monograph assessing the legal career of one of the giants of the antebellum era in United States political history, Henry Clay of Kentucky. After Robert V. Remini’s 1991 full and impressive biography of Clay, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union, one might wonder what else there may be to say or understand about Clay. But Baxter’s book reminds readers that new interpretations of supposedly well-understood persons, issues or events form an important part of the historian’s task. By focusing exclusively on Clay’s legal education, career, practice and reputation as a lawyer, Baxter has highlighted a facet of Henry Day’s full life; the historical literature richer and more interesting for Baxter’s impressive efforts.

In this short book-109 pages of text with a two-page table listing Clay’s major cases-Baxter uses a topical approach to understand Clay’s legal career. After setting “The Legal Scene” in Virginia and Kentucky and describing Clay’s “Early Practice” in the first two chapters, Baxter uses the next four chapters to analyze the four major areas of Clay’s practice: “Economic Issues,” “Banking,” “Nonconstitutional Business,” and “Slavery.” After serving an apprenticeship with George Wythe, the famous chancellor of Virginia with whom other notables such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had apprenticed, Clay returned to the Commonwealth of Kentucky and established himself in the central bluegrass region, settling in Lexington. From that location, Clay immersed himself in the rough and tumble politics of his era from the 1790s through the 1850s while he also established and carried on a law business. It is sometimes forgotten that Clay suspended his political career and concentrated solely on his law business and the fees he needed to pay his bills. But once back in Lexington on his “Ashland” estate, he would always hear the siren’s song of public service and return to the national political stage. Nevertheless, Clay’s law business and the income from his practice provided him a safety net as well as raised his status in the community.

As a young lawyer in Kentucky and continuing through his life, the bulk of the litigation handled by Clay was not his constitutional work before the United States Supreme Court but the routine work of lawyers in the new country. debt collection and property dispute resolutions. In 1792, Virginia agreed to allow its Western Kentucky counties to separate from Virginia and become their own self-governing commonwealth. This action, combined with limited and often nonexistent record-keeping of property transactions, created a lawyer’s dream world of litigation over disputed titles, squatters, and boundary disputes. Add into this economic mix the fluctuating economy and the over-extension of loans that created large debt and it is no wonder that the state and federal dockets filled with disputes. Talented lawyers.found an opportunity to succeed, and Clay succeeded in law and parlayed his rising stature at the bar into a political career as well. As he became more and more involved with national politics, his legal business tapered off, but Clay never abandoned the practice of law. Just days before he died he wrote his wife about the fee he received for appearing at the Supreme Court for a client. Politics formed Henry Clay’s life, but his life’s blood was the law.

In addition to the routine business of an early nineteenth-century law practice, Clay appeared before appellate courts and most notably the United States Supreme Court. Known for his oratorical skills and his careful preparation, clients sought out Clay, and his famous cases before the Supreme Court are some of the Court’s most important In economic issues Clay worked long and hard on Green v. Biddle, 8 Wheat. (21 U.S.) I (1823), a major land case arising from the separation of Kentucky from Virginia, and Ogden v. Sanders, 12 Wheat. (25 U.S.) 213 (1827), a leading early bankruptcy case. Clay became deeply involved with the Bank of the United States (BUS) and his defense of the Bank against state interference revolved around his work on Osborn v. Bank of the United States, 9 Wheat. (22 U.S.) 738 (1824). He also contributed significant work on the state banking case of Briscoe v. Bank of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, 11 Peters (36 U.S.) 257 (1841). On the issue of slavery, Clay is best known for his work on the interstate slave trade case of Groves v. Slaughter, 15 Peters (40 U.S.) 449 (1841). Day only occasionally handled a criminal law conflict and handled a small variety of nonconstitutional cases. What this diversity of legal work suggests is the high level of legal talent Henry Clay brought to clients and the bar.

Regardless of topic, Baxter keeps his narrative moving, provides an analytical assessment of the case law and Clay’s approach to these cases and fleshes out this fundamental aspect of Clay’s professional and public life. Baxter’s work is a welcome addition to legal biography and is highly recommended for every library and reader interested in the early republic.

University of Louisville


Copyright Mississippi Quarterly Winter 2001/2002

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