After receiving a law license in his native Virginia, Clay moved to Lexington, Kentucky to establish a practice. Before long, he was a renowned criminal defense attorney and a prosperous estate owner.
Clay did not hesitate to voice his social and political views, and he soon gained a reputation as a skilled orator. In 1803, he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives and, five years later, he was chosen as speaker.
In the early 19th century, American exports fell victim to economic sparring between Britain and France. American vessels were seized by the warring European nations and the British navy regularly impressed (abducted) American sailors. Clay and a group of strident young men known as the War Hawks were outraged by these repeated violations of American neutrality. The War Hawks were fed up with the plodding diplomatic tactics of Jefferson and Madison and they were convinced that a declaration of war against Britain was the only honourable response.
In 1810, Clay was elected to the House of Representatives along with several other War Hawks. Clay was a master of persuasion. Once he had worked his magic in the House, many congressmen who were undecided about aggression suddenly converted to Clay's bellicose attitudes.
Shortly after his arrival in the House, Clay was chosen to be speaker. He played this supervisory role well, although he frequently left the Speaker's chair to participate in debates. Clay, a consummate politician, also spent considerable time developing new coalitions and ensuring that fellow War Hawks chaired the key naval and foreign relations committees. A Federalist politician once commented that "Henry Clay was the man whose influence and power more than that of any other produced the War of 1812."
Even after war was declared, Clay kept his nose to the grindstone to ensure victory. For instance, he helped obtain William Henry Harrison's appointment as commander of the Army of the Northwest. But by 1814, even the radical War Hawk was ready for the war to end. Clay accepted a position on the five-member American delegation sent to Europe to negotiate peace. Although he did not always see eye-to-eye with the other U.S. diplomats, Clay was a shrewd and stubborn spokesman for the American position.
After the Ghent peace treaty was signed, Clay returned to political life. He served for different political parties in a variety of roles, including representative, senator and secretary of state.