Politics & Government

He was one of America’s finest statesmen. But at first, he wasn’t old enough to be one.

A portrait of Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate.
A portrait of Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate.

Henry Clay may be considered one of America’s finest statesmen, but at the time he was sworn in as a senator from Kentucky, he wasn’t constitutionally old enough to hold the office.

According to the Senate Historian, Clay took the oath on Dec. 29, 1806, four months shy of his 30th birthday. The Senate Historian’s office tweeted a reminder of the event to mark its 210th anniversary.

According to Article1, Section 3, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution, “No Person Shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years.”

Only two other senators under age 30 took the oath. But ever since 28-year-old John Henry Eaton of Tennessee was sworn in on Nov. 16, 1818, all senators have been at least 30 when they took office.

James Madison explained that Senate service required “greater extent of information and stability of character.”

The Constitution set 25 as the minimum age for service in the House of Representatives and 35 to serve as president.

The age differential helps explain why the average age of a senator was 61 at the beginning of the last Congress, versus 57 in the House.

Clay’s youth meant he spent decades in Washington in many different roles. He also was elected to the House and served as speaker. Clay was secretary of state under President John Quincy Adams and ran for president in 1824, 1832 and 1844. He died in 1852.

In more modern times, Vice President Joe Biden was barely 30 when he took the Senate oath in January 1973. He’d turned 30 in the weeks after his election to the Senate from Delaware at age 29.

Currently, the youngest senator is Republican Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He’s 39.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis