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clerk of the High Court of Chancery. Here he found employment more congenial to his taste than any to which he had hitherto devoted himself, as well as more ample means for mental culture.
The venerable chancellor Wythe, a gentleman of great personal worth and profound erudition, attracted by his industrious habits and amiable appearance, took him into his especial favor, gave him the benefit of his instructions, and finally made him his amanuensis. By the opportunities for familiar intercourse with this great man, which were now afforded him, the most salutary impressions were received and rapid advances made in the acquisition of knowledge. He sought to become better acquainted with his vernacular language, and in this was aided by his friend, who recommended several works for his perusal, calculated to assist him. Much of his time was employed in copying the lengthy official docuinents of the chancellor, who, being passionately fond of Greek, interlarded them liberally with passages from his most admired authors. This rendered his task peculiarly onerous, for he was compelled to copy them in the original, and by imitation, as he was ignorant of the language. He acquitted himself, however, to the entire satisfaction of his employer, won his esteem, obtained much valuable, legal, and general information, and laid the foundation of those habits of regularity and methodical application which were subsequently of such great practical advantage to him.
During the year of 1796 he left the office of Mr. Tinsley and went to reside with the attorney general of Virginia, Robert Brooke, Esq. Here his advantages for studying law were better than they had previously been, of which he eagerly availed himself, and with much success. The year 1797 appears to be the only one in which he pursued the study of law uninterrupted, yet it must be certain that during his residence of several years in the capital of Virginia, daily cognizant of legal proceedings, and associating with the most eminent legal gentlemen of the period, he acquired an amount of legal information neither inconsiderable nor unimportant. Near the close of the year he was licensed to practice law, by the judges of the Virginia Court of Appeals. He entered on the duties of his profession at Lexington, Kentucky, under auspices not the most favorable, as appears from his speech of June, 1812, at the same place. In this he says he was without patrons, without friends, and destitute of the means of paying his weekly board. I remember how comfortable I thought I should be, if I could make £100, Virginia money, per annum, and with what delight I received the first fifteen shilling fee. My hopes were more than realized; I immediately rushed into a lucrative practice.
Though success most unexpected, crowned his first efforts, he did by no means relax his exertions to qualify himself more thor
oughly for the profession he had chosen. While other young men of his own age, and not more eligibly situated, with regard to means and employment, were spending their evenings in recreations suited to their juvenile dispositions, he was eagerly conning over his own self-directed and unaided lessons of learning. Most assiduously did he devote his every leisure hour in enriching his mind, and in polishing his mental armor. Modest, unassuming, apparently feeble in constitution, languid and listless in his movements, be exhibited little in his deportment indicative of those lofty powers of eloquence and commanding talents, which in latent energy were reposing in his mind. An incident, however, occurred a short time after, at a meeting of a debating society, by which they were brought to light. He had been a member of the society some time, but refrained from taking an active part in its exercises. This was attributed to those traits of character before mentioned. At the meeting referred to, a question had been discussed at considerable length and apparently with much ability, on which the customary vote was about to be taken, when he observed in an under tone to a person seated by him, the subject does not seem to be exhausted.' The individual addressed, exclaimed, do not put the question yet, Mr. Clay will speak. The chairman by a smile and nod of the head signified his willingness to allow the discussion to be continued by him, who thereupon arose under every appearance of trepidation and embarrassment. The first words that fell from his lips were, Gentlemen of the jury. His embarrassment now was extreme; blushing, hesitating, and stammering, he repeated the words, Gentlemen of the jury. The audience evinced genuine politeness and good breeding, by seeming not to notice his peculiarly unpleasant and trying condition. Suddenly regaining his self-possession, he made a speech of such force and eloquence, as to carry conviction and astonishment at once to the hearts of his hearers. Subsequently he took a prominent part in the debates of the society, and became one of its most efficient members.
Shortly after, he was admitted to the Court of Quarter Sessions of Fayette county, a court of general jurisdiction. Perhaps at no previous period was the Lexington bar more highly distinguished for the talents and learning of its members than at that time. Among them were George Nicholas, John Brekenridge, William Murray, and others, whose long established reputation and professional skill seemed to set competition at defiance. They found in Mr. Clay, however, a most formidable competitor : one who, though bland, courteous, and affable, in the ordinary intercourse of life, yet on the field of civic strife was as unyielding and invulnerable as the “gnarled oak. His talents secured respect, and soon placed him on a level with the highest. He possessed the unbounded confidence of the community where he resided, and the ease
with which he secured this was truly surprising. So perfectly insinuating and winning were his ways, and so captivating his appearance, that it was usually yielded at the first interview. Such attributes of mind and person could not and did not fail to surround him with influential and devoted friends, and secure for him a more than respectable patronage. A few short months previous he stood alone, a stranger, unaided, unfriended and destitute, amid the wilds of the then far-off west. Now, the obstacles which then seemed gigantic, had dwindled into insignificance. The rough and forbidding aspect of the road which he had marked out for himself to pursue, had entirely disappeared, and friends and favors poured in upon him from all quarters, and he found himself borne along by the breeze of popular approbation, unconscious that it had yet been awakened.
One to him important result of that confidence which a discerning and generous public reposed in him, was continual professional employment. His acute and refined sensibilities, his philanthropic heart
, and sympathizing disposition, joined to his profound knowledze of human nature and commanding powers of eloquence, pointed him out as one eminently well qualified to conduct criminal
With these, therefore, we find him much and successfully engaged, and it is a remarkable fact, taking into consideration the large number of these cases committed to his care, that never in a single instance was he defeated. One of the most important early criminal suits in which he was retained, was that of the wife of a very reputable farmer by the name of Phelps, a woman who stood high in the estimation of those who knew her, and deservedly, for she had led hitherto an irreproachable life. In a fit of passion, caused by some personal reflection of her husband's sister, she seized a gun and shot her through the heart. The poor girl had only time to exclaim, Sister, you have killed me, and expired. The great respectability of the parties caused the most intense excitement, and an immense crowd assembled to witness the trial. Of the fact of killing the proof was most abundant, and the only point to be considered was that which respected the nature of the crime. It was argued with great ability on the part of the prosecuting attorney, who labored hard to make it out a case of deliberate wilful murder; but in this he was foiled by the superior skill and adroitness of Mr. Clay, who not only succeeded in saving the life of his client, but obtained as light a verdict for imprisonment as the law would allow.
In another similar suit, which occurred shortly after, he evinced, if possible, greater ability. Two men, Germans, father and son, were indicted for murder, and were tried in Harrison county. The act of killing, in this instance also, was proven by evidence so clear and strong, that it was considered not only a case of murder, but an exceedingly aggravated one. The trial lasted five days, at
the close of which he addressed the jury in the most impassioned and eloquent manner, who were so moved by his pathetic appeals that they rendered a verdict of manslaughter only. After another hard day's struggle he succeeded in obtaining an arrest of judgment, by which his clients were set at liberty. They expressed their gratitude in the warmest terms to their deliverer, in which they were joined by an old ill-favored female, the wife of one and the mother of the other, who adopted a different mode, however, of tendering her thanks, which was by throwing her arms around Mr. Clay's neck and repeatedly kissing him, in the presence of the court and spectators. Respecting her feelings, he did not attempt to repulse her, but submitted with such grace and dignity to her caresses as to elicit outbursts of applause.
Mr. Clay manifested great sagacity in discerning and turning to his advantage a technical law-point, involving doubt. The following case illustrates this. A man by the name of Willis, indicted for murder, escaped conviction by the disagreement of the jury, and was put upon his trial ihe second time for the crime alleged. After hearing the arguments of the prosecuting attorney, he brought forward the well known rule of law, that the life of no one shall be put in jeopardy twice for the same offence, and insisted on its applicability to the case under consideration, contending that the trial, according to that rule, was manifestly illegal, and that therefore conviction would be impossible. At first the court was disposed to rule out his objections, which was met on the part of Mr. Clay with a prompt refusal to proceed with the case, unless allowed to view it in this aspect, and actually left the room for ihat purpose. He was soon recalled and permitted to proceed, and, without the remotest reference to the testimony previously given, he obtained an acquittal solely on the ground assumed. In only one instance do we find him engaged as public prosecutor, in which he procured the conviction of a slave for the murder of his over
With great reluctance he discharged the duties of his office in this case, and has often been heard to regret that he had any agency in procuring the execution of the friendless black.
In civil suits he also won great celebrity. In the settlement of important land claims, he rendered himself very conspicuous. It is related of him that being engaged in one that involved immense interests, he associated with him a prominent lawyer to whom he intrusted its management, as urgent business demanded his absence from court. Two days were occupied in discussing the legal points that were to govern the instructions of the court 10 the jury, on all of which his colleague was frustrated. Mr. Clay returned before a decision was rendered, and without acquainting himself with the nature of the testimony, or ascertaining the manner in which the discussion was conducted, after conferring a few minutes with his associate, he prepared and presented in a few words
the form in which he wished the instructions to be given, accompanying it with his reasons, which were so convincing that the suit was terminated in his favor, in less than an hour after he reëntered the court room.
His genius and talents now seen and acknowledged by all had gained for him high professional honors, and fitted him to act a prominent part on another and more extended field — that of the patriot politician. The date of his entrance on this field may be placed as far back as 1797, and it is worthy of particular remark, that the first subject he was led to investigate, on approaching it, was one peculiarly calculated to call into exercise those prominent features of his character, philanthropy and patriotism. Slavery, although existing in Kentucky in its mildest form, could not and did not appear to him otherwise than unsightly and revolting - an evil, and one of great magnitude; nor did he hesitate to pronounce, it such. To him, its practical tendencies, in public and civil no less than in private and social life, were obviously bad. He saw it diffusing its baneful influences through the halls of legislation, and twining its sable folds around the very pillars of government, contaminating and withering. His was not the position of an unmoved or speculating observer; the mightiest energies, the holiest impulses of his nature were kindled within him, to arrest its progress, to break up the unnatural, the unhallowed alliance. But in yielding, as he did, prompt obedience to those emotions, he did not rush madman-like, impelled by a blind zeal, into the work, regardless of results. The sanguinary consequences of such a course rose up and stared him full in the face, with most appalling power, nor could he shut his eyes to the palpable fact, that it would inevitably eventuate in the utter annihilation of those very interests he sought to protect. It appeared necessary, therefore, to advance cautiously, to sit down, and, divested of all prejudice, wisely count the cost. He found it requisite to act the part of a skilful and experienced operator, not that of a conceited empiric; to have the bandage and the liniment ready before resorting to the scalpel and caultering iron. After taking the most enlightened view of the subject, regarding it in all its aspects and bearings, he came to the conclusion, that the only feasible method which would both ensure the safety of the body politic, and preserve inviolate their domestic institutions, was a gradual disengagement. Hence he sought by every available means, through the press by his touching and eloquent descriptions, by night and by day, to secure the introduction of a provision to that effect
, in a new constitution, then under consideration for adoption. Happy would it have been for Kentucky had she listened to the entreaties of her son in this behalf, for slavery would have long since ceased to blacken her borders. His humane efforts were not, however, successful; a majority of the members of the convention being opposed to the provision. It