Consumption and Compromise

Illness and Its Impact on the Political Career of Henry Clay


  • David Petriello Caldwell University


United States, Henry Clay, Public Health


Henry Clay’s nearly fifty years of public service coincided with the social, economic, and territorial growth of the Early Republic. Though much has been made of the influences of geography and political philosophy on his accomplishments, little has been done in addressing the role played by his own health and various illnesses of the era. Disease and personal health issues were perhaps the greatest natural allies, catalysts, and limiting agents of Henry Clay’s accomplishments. Ill health helped to start his career under the tutelage of George Wythe, the deaths of his daughters while undertaking the seasonal journey from Kentucky to Congress pushed his ideas on internal improvements, and disease collided with several of his campaigns for the presidency. This article focuses on the personal letters of Henry Clay and those around him to discern their views on the various illnesses of his day and gauge their impact on his career.