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Henry Clay discussion panel

A Tribute to Henry Clay

Present and former House Speakers honor Henry Clay with discussion on history, role of Speaker of the House

Current Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner, R-Ohio, joined with former Speaker and current House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and former Speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert from Illinois, in a discussion on the history and nature of the Speaker position. The event, which drew a capacity audience to Transylvania University's Haggin Auditorium Friday, June 24, was moderated by CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood.

The forum, titled "The Role of the Speaker of the House: A Tribute to Henry Clay," was the culminating event in Lexington's first Henry Clay Week and was an observance of the 200th anniversary of Clay becoming Speaker of the House in 1811. Historians have said it was Clay, Kentucky's leading politician in the early 1800s, who made the Speakership the powerful position it is today.

In his introductory remarks to the evening, Robert Clay, co-chair of the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship, pointed out the close relationship that Transylvania enjoyed with Clay in its formative years. Clay joined the university's seminal law department as a professor in 1805 and was elected a trustee in 1807.

“Henry Clay was committed to education. Just think how proud he would be to see Transylvania University as it is today.”

—Nancy Pelosi

Although Clay left Kentucky to become nationally prominent as a statesman, he maintained a home in Lexington at beautiful Ashland and always kept Transylvania in his thoughts, remaining a trustee and friend of the university until his death in 1852. 

"Henry Clay was committed to education," Pelosi noted. "Just think how proud he would be to see Transylvania University as it is today."

"This evening's forum was a penetrating and enlightening look at the importance of the Speaker's role in the House of Representatives and how much we owe to Henry Clay for being the first to realize how influential this key position could become," said Transylvania President R. Owen Williams.

In a discussion that was moderated by CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood, each of the panelists paid tribute to the legacy of Clay and discussed his or her experiences as Speaker during sharply differing eras of the political life of the country and under different presidents.

Pointing to Clay's enormous influence on the national political scene from the 1820s to the late 1840s when forces were at work that eventually led to civil war, Boehner said, "No one person in the United States was more responsible for holding the Union together during that time than Henry Clay. He has been a role model for me."

Pelosi noted that Clay was a bridge from the nation's founders, such as James Madison, to Abraham Lincoln in his early political career. He also benefitted from the people's aversion to too much presidential power.

"Clay was able to build up not only the Speaker's role, but a strong legislative establishment overall because Americans at that time feared a strong executive," she said. "They did not want a king."

All of the panelists touched on the delicate balancing act that a House Speaker must create between the interests of his or her own party and the overall interests of the House.

"As Speaker, you represent and lead your party, but you are also Speaker for the entire House," Hastert said. "The issue of fairness is an overriding one. You have to keep this in mind."

At the conclusion of the presentations, Richard Decamp, chairman of the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation, awarded Boehner, Pelosi, and Hastert the Henry Clay Medallion in recognition of their life's work that reflects Henry Clay's ideals.

The event was sponsored by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation and the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship. Among the audience members were 51 college students from all 50 states and the District of Columbia who were in Lexington to attend the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship's fourth annual Student Congress at Transylvania and the University of Kentucky.

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