Henry Clay, by Charles Bird King, 1821
Oil on canvas, 36 1/8 x 28 1/8 inches
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, 81.9
1811 Henry Clay: The Speaker as Leader
The Constitution says that the House of Representatives "shall chuse their Speaker." But it doesn’t say what a Speaker does. The office evolved along with the House. At first, Speakers were largely neutral, presiding over debates and maintaining order. Then came Henry Clay of Kentucky.
Clay became Speaker in 1811, on his first day in the House. Not content simply to oversee the proceedings, he was determined to lead. Clay headed the "War Hawks" faction, which championed American interests against British activity on the seas and Western frontier. He assigned his supporters to committees involved in matters of war and peace with Britain and backed the War of 1812. Clay's forceful personality stamped the House with a partisan spirit and transformed the Speaker into its political leader.
"Come up, and you shall see how I will throw the reins over their necks."
— Speaker Henry Clay