Despite a storied career as a lawmaker and diplomat, Henry Clay is probably best-remembered for a speech in which he said, “I’d rather be right than be president.”
Clay’s complex stance on slavery probably lost him the chance at winning the presidency.
Origin of “I’d Rather Be Right”
In 1839, Clay was running for the presidency for the third time. After his two filed presidential runs, Clay believed that he might finally have a shot in the 1840 presidential cycle.
However, he was having trouble positioning himself on the divisive issue of slavery.
Clay considered himself to be a moderate – he claimed to dislike the institution of slavery, but he also disagreed with the abolitionist movement.
As a result, Clay had enemies on both sides of the political divide, and he was often painted as an “extremist” in one direction or another.
In February of 1839, in an effort to prove that he was not a wild-eyed abolitionist, Clay gave a speech on the Senate floor expressing his opposition to the abolitionist movement.
Ironically, the speech cost Clay the support of anyone opposed to slavery.
Clay must have realized that the speech was costing him any chance he might have had at winning the presidency, which is why he said, “I’d rather be right than be president.”
Clay was known as the Great Pacificator, or, sometimes, the Great Compromiser.
A slave owner himself, Clay described slavery as a great evil and a dark stain on the United States.
He called for a gradual end to slavery and advocated relocating freed slaves to Africa.
Clay was a member of the American Colonization Society, or the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States. The organization held that freed slaves could never be successfully integrated into American society and that former slaves should be relocated to western Africa.
Clay also brokered the series of compromises — the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Tariff Compromise of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850 — which put off, for a while, the national crisis over slavery.
However, Clay was also fiercely opposed to the abolitionist movement, which he saw as extremist and dangerous.
And when it came to his own slaves, Clay was unwilling to compromise. In 1829, a woman named Charlotte Dupuy, a slave in Clay’s household, sued for her freedom. Dupuy claimed that her former master had promised her freedom, and she filed a suit with the U.S. Circuit Court. Clay described himself as “shocked and angered” and fought against Dupuy’s claim with all his might.
Decades later, “I’d Rather Be Right” was the title of a Broadway musical. The 1937 musical told the story of a young New York couple who wanted to get married, but couldn’t quite afford it.
Luckily, president Franklin Roosevelt appears in the play, along with his entire cabinet and a host of his New Deal programs, ready to save the young couple and, by implication, the entire nation.
Taegan Goddard is the creator of the Political Dictionary.
Goddard spent more than a decade on Wall Street as managing director and chief operating officer of a prominent investment firm in New York City. Previously, he also served as a policy adviser to a U.S. Senator and Governor.
Goddard is also co-author of You Won – Now What?: How Americans Can Make Democracy Work from City Hall to the White House, a political management book hailed by prominent journalists and politicians from both parties.
His essays on politics and public policy have appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country.
Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University.
He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.