This is the story of a poor boy, who, through his own energy and ability, rose to a position of power and usefulness. There are many such stories to be told in the history of our country.
Henry Clay was born in Virginia. His father died when he was a child, leaving a large family and a small farm. The brave mother had to struggle hard to provide for her children, and could give them but a limited education. All the schooling Henry had, he gained in a little log-cabin in the country.
He had to work on the farm, and to help around the house. This meant getting up at daybreak, and going to bed early. As soon as he was big enough to guide a plow, he was intrusted with the plowing and cultivating. All this gave him vigor of body and independence of mind.
One of his duties was to ride an old horse to the mill, with a bag of corn or wheat for a saddle, and to bring back the meal or flour for the use of the family. In after years, he was called "the millboy of the Slashes," because the Slashes was the name of the district in which he lived.
When Clay was about fifteen, he moved to Richmond, and became a copying clerk in one of the Courts. It was his duty to keep a copy of the records. When he first entered the office, he was tall and awkward, and was dressed in a badly fitting suit of homespun clothes which his mother had made for him. But Clay had a genial, sunny nature, which did not mind what others said of him, and he soon made many friends.
Moreover, he was a careful clerk who wrote a good hand. Whenever the Judge wished a record particularly well done, he selected Clay for the job. When the day's work was over, Clay would go home to read, while the other clerks went out for amusement.
He now began to study law, and was admitted to the bar. He felt that he could become a great orator, and made special effort to train his voice and memory. He would read some good book, such as a history, and then attempt to recite the words or repeat the sense of what he had just read. In this way he learned history, and cultivated an excellent command of language.
It was also his custom to go into the woods, sometimes in his barn, and try out his speeches. He would select some subject, think carefully over all he wished to say upon it, and then rehearse by himself, or with only the cattle as audience. Thus he acquired the power of continuous speech.
He organized a debating club among the young men of Richmond, and they met regularly to discuss the burning questions which were then disturbing the public mind. In all these ways—by study, practice, and persistence,—he laid the foundation for his great career as a lawyer and statesman.
When Clay was twenty-one, he moved to Kentucky and began to practice law. He was successful from the start, and had many clients. It was said that no murderer, who was defended by Clay, ever suffered the extreme penalty of the law. His nature was sympathetic, especially toward the poor, and he was always glad to take their cases, and see that they secured justice.
Throughout his life, he was most polite and attentive in his manners. At one time, he was riding with his young son, when they met a negro who lifted his hat most respectfully. Clay replied to the greeting, but the son did not notice the old man. Clay turned to his son and said, "My boy, will you allow a negro slave to be more polite than you are? Courtesy towards others is always the mark of a true gentleman."
So pleasing was Clay in his manners that, upon one occasion, a political enemy refused to be introduced to him, saying, "I am afraid to meet Mr. Clay for fear his fine manners will change my opposition to him into admiration and support."
He held many public offices, and served the country most notably during a long life. He was greatly beloved by the people of Kentucky, so much so that it became a common jest to say, "When Henry Clay takes snuff, everybody in Kentucky sneezes." But he could not please all the time, and often had to explain to his people the reasons for his actions.
Upon one occasion an old hunter became dissatisfied with the way Clay had voted upon certain measures, and declared he would not support him again. Clay met him a few days before the election, and said to him,
"You have a fine rifle that has not often failed you. Sometimes, however, it flashes in the pan, and it does not go off. Do you throw it away, or do you try it again?"
The hunter looked at Clay, and replied,
"Well, I pick the flint, and wipe out the barrel, and try it again. Any rifle will flash sometimes."
"Well," responded Clay, "I am a pretty good rifle, and if I have flashed in the pan once or twice, why throw me away?"
The man agreed that this suggestion was just, and voted for Clay the rest of his life.
Henry Clay always used his powers of persuasion to keep peace and harmony among the quarreling sections of the country. He tried to avert strife and war, and to be a peace-maker. For this reason he is called "The Great Pacificator."
He was a statesman of rare courage, as well as of remarkable power. He never went against his conscience for the sake of retaining office or of winning high positions. Once, when told that certain measures of his on compromising the disputes about slavery would ruin his chances to become President, he replied,
"I would rather be right than be President."
He never was President, though he was a candidate for that high office. But it is to his greater fame that he would not sacrifice any principle to win popular favor, or high position, or private gain. He was really a great man, for his policy was to do without rather than do what he thought was wrong.