Henry Clay: The Illegitimate Senator?

Henry Clay is one of the most revered figures in American political history. The storied “Great Compromiser,” who, in addition to being a vaunted attorney, served as a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Speaker of the House, Secretary of State, a lead negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, and in many other roles. Clay had a head-spinning political resume. Famously, the only political position he couldn’t successfully snag was the presidency, which he pursued on five separate occasions.

Henry Clay was known as a stalwart supporter of the U.S. Constitution. His opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts was, in fact, an important stepping stone in his political career. Clay appears, however, to have put the Constitution on the backburner during his first stint in the U.S. Senate. Henry Clay first served in the body to finish the term of John Adair, who had been accused of collaboration with former Vice President Aaron Burr in a treasonous conspiracy against the United States. When Clay was appointed, however, he had not yet met the Senate’s age requirements set forth in Article One, Section Three:

No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen ofthe United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.

Clay was twenty-nine years old upon taking his oath of office. Surely, given his stature as a successful Kentucky attorney, he realized this and hoped that no one would make a fuss about it. Fortunately for him, no one did.

In more recent years, the Senate’s Constitutional age requirement has been enforced much more strictly, but it is worth noting that it acts as a bar on serving in office, not as a bar on being elected to office. The current President of the United States, Joe Biden, was first elected to as a U.S. Senator at age 29. Because he turned 30 prior to entering office, however, the constitutional provision was not violated.

The same cannot be said for Henry Clay.