Clay lost the 1832 election to Jackson by a margin of 55% to 37% in the popular vote and 219 to 49 in the electoral vote. Clay came closest to winning the big prize in the election of 1844, losing the popular vote by only 0.4% (49.5% to 49.1%) to James K. Polk. While the electoral vote margin was larger (170 to 105), Clay lost the state of New York by only 5000 votes, and if the Liberty Party hadn't done so well in that state, it may have gone to Clay. If that had happened, Henry Clay would have become president (and perhaps They Might Be Giants would have written a song about him instead of Polk.)
In his book America 1844: Religious Fervor, Western Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation, (reviewed here), author John Bicknell offers some interesting speculation about what a Henry Clay presidency might have meant for the nation. At page 251 of his book, Bicknell calls Clay "the great 'what if' of American political history", and makes the observation that Clay was better as a policy maker than as a politician. Bicknell makes the case that American history would have been "drastically altered" if Clay had won the election of 1844. The differences that a Clay administration would have meant for the nation probably would have included the following:
1. There would have been no immediate annexation of Texas.
2. Though Texas would have joined the union eventually, it was more likely that Clay would have negotiated with Mexico instead of going to war.
3. Negotiation with Mexico would have meant that the land acquired in the Mexican War would have remained part of Mexico. In turn however, the question of whether the territories acquired in the war should be free or slave territory would not have arisen.
4. Without California joining the union, the Compromise of 1850 would not likely not have been necessary (and therefore the Fugitive Slave Act would also not have been passed).
5. No Mexican War would have meant no "Wilmot Proposal" (the controversial which proposed that slavery would be banned in the land acquired in the war.) In turn, the Kansas-Nebraska Act might not have been passed and the tragedy of "Bleeding Kansas" might have been averted.
6. Texas and California would likely have transitioned to independence from Mexico and then ultimately joined the United States because of their mutual interests.
7. While western expansionism would have proceeded, it would have occurred at a slower pace. This may have effected how native Americans were ultimately treated by the US government. (On this point, the author is more cautious in proposing that things would have unfolded much differently, noting that the coming of the railroad played a huge part in how this history played out.)
Bicknell notes, at page 252:
"Clay believed the country as it existed in 1844 was big enough, and his policies in 1844 supported that belief. People remember the American System mostly for the idea of 'internal improvements'-canals, roads, ports-what today would be called public works. But it was Clay's plans for financing such projects that is often forgotten. Instead of giving away public lands to settlers, Clay wanted to sell land to raise money for his program. Eliminating the possibility of free land for the taking would have slowed western expansionism considerably-not the main purpose of Clay's vision, but certainly a happy byproduct as far as he was concerned."
I find this speculation fascinating. Would Henry Clay have been a one-term president? Would he have been followed by a string of expansionists or would his vision have taken hold? Would the civil war have been postponed or averted? Was the expansionist impulse a force that would have taken its course regardless of who was in the oval office? While the answers to these questions can never be known, it makes for interesting alternate history for potus_geeks.