American Portraits

My Allegiance is to this Union: Henry Clay, Political Compromise, and Integrity

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and work of Henry Clay. They will explore how his actions were guided by his integrity and helped to advance freedom. Through his example, they will learn how they can act with integrity in their own lives.

Founding Principles

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Civil Discourse

Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.

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The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.

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Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

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Majority Rule / Minority Rights

Laws may be made with the consent of the majority but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.

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Representative / Republican Government

Form of government in which the people are sovereign (the ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.


On December 3, 1849, members of Congress and spectators honored seventy-two-year-old Senator Henry Clay from Kentucky, who had first been elected to the House of Representatives in 1810. Although he had to stop and catch his breath several times and was overcome by coughing fits, Clay’s arrival in the chamber was met with a thunderous ovation. Graciously, Clay rose and said, “Much deference and consideration are shown me by even political opponents. I shall by a cruise of calmness, moderation, and dignity endeavor to preserve these kindly feelings.” Clay received such a welcome because of his reputation for honesty, humility, patriotism, willingness to compromise, and integrity….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can Henry Clay’s example inspire you to practice integrity in your own life?

Virtue Defined

Integrity is personal consistency in moral goodness.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about the life and work of Henry Clay. They will explore how his actions were guided by his integrity and helped to advance freedom. Through his example, they will learn how they can act with integrity in their own lives.


  • Students will analyze Henry Clay’s actions in Congress
  • Students will understand how acting with integrity can shape their purpose
  • Students will apply this knowledge to better act with integrity in their own lives


Henry Clay practiced law on the frontier in Kentucky before the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1810, he was elected to the House of Representatives and was eventually made Speaker of the House. While serving in Congress, Clay earned a reputation for conciliating peace between the sections of the U.S., earning the nickname “The Great Compromiser.” He was known for his reason and integrity in brokering deals that respected different points of view in political debates.

In the early to mid-nineteenth century, America was sharply divided by sectionalism between northern and southern states. One of the key issues dividing these states centered on the contentious debates over slavery. As the nation expanded westward, new states entered the Union. A great debate ensued over whether they would be slaveholding states. In addition to this issue, Congress also had to deal with the constitutionality of protective tariffs and federally-funded internal improvements such as roads and canals. The North generally opposed the expansion of the slavery system to the West in part because it would increase Southern power in Congress. Many in the North also supported protective tariffs of its nascent industry and spending on the internal improvements in support of economic growth. The South, on the other hand, generally supported the expansion of slavery and opposed protective tariffs and internal improvements that increased the price of goods and taxes the South paid.

These differing views erupted into disputes that threatened the country with disunion. In 1819, the admittance of Missouri into the Union led to tensions between the sections that Clay helped resolve. Later, in 1832, a fierce quarrel broke out when South Carolina held a convention that “nullified” a protective tariff it labeled the “Tariff of Abominations.” Clay believed that the American republic was built on “that great principle of compromise and concession, which lies at the bottom of our institutions.” Regarding the crisis, Clay averred it was “true my friends do not get all they could wish for; and the gentlemen of the other side do not obtain all they might desire; but both will gain all that in my humble opinion is proper to be given in the present condition of the country.” Consequently, Congress passed the Force Bill as well as a compromise tariff lowering rates.

Clay retired from the Senate in 1842 (where he had served since 1831) and attempted a failed run for the Whig Party nomination for president in 1848. Soon after that, a new crisis threatened the Union when the U.S. acquired territory after the Mexican-American war and disputes broke out over whether the land should allow slavery or not. Despite his old age, Clay attempted to broker one final compromise.


  • Speaker of the House
  • Sectionalism
  • Tariff
  • Nullify
  • Aver
  • Whig Party
  • Mexican-American War
  • Ovation
  • Sunder
  • Discordant
  • Forbearance
  • Amicable
  • Abyss
  • Laudatory
  • Eulogy
  • Nascent

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Henry Clay’s nickname in Congress? How does this reflect his identity?
  • How did Henry Clay’s reputation in Congress affect his purpose?
  • How were Henry Clay’s actions consistent with the principle of integrity?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Remini, Robert V. At the Edge of the Precipice: Henry Clay and the Compromise that Saved the Union. New York: Basic, 2010.
  • Eaton, Clement. Henry Clay and the Art of American Politics. Boston: Little, Brown, 1957.
  • Heidler, David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler. Henry Clay: The Essential American. New York: Random House, 2010.
  • Bordewich, Fergus M. America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Saved the Union. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012.

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