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Everybody Liked Henry Clay

July 2024
12min read

He never did win election to the presidency, but his life as a farmer was happy and he had a great many firm friends

He was tall and he was homely, but in a way people generally find endearing. Amid all those high stocks and flowing locks, among all those grim statesmen and noble Romans who populated the first five decades of our Nineteenth-Century political life, his is one ol the lew genial figures. Over the gap of a century, he is still warm and likeable; a modern man might, one senses, sit down with him and not be lectured, orated at, or peppered with platitudes. A senator at 29 (a little illegally, since the Constitution requires a hoary 30), elected Speaker of the House the day he first took his seat in it, at 34, he seemed marked lor the highest America offers. That he fell short and never made the presidency, and took it with good humor, won him the nation’s heart. The people loved Henry Clay.

Leave aside the long career of over hall a century in almost every office but Number One, and examine Clay in the context of his private life, at home in Kentucky among his family and his friends. It the testimony of all the memorials to the Great Compromiser means anything, here is the explanation, or a good part of it anyway, of this enduring sample of popularity. America admires a home-lover, and this was a home-lover par excellence.

Observe the scene before the Phoenix Hotel in Lexington, Kentucky, on the evening of October 2, 1850. Rockets are going off, church bells are clanging all over town, and a huge bonfire is roaring as the high coach stops and the old Senator, still a lean six feet in height, steps down to face the crowd and receive three long cheers. His great Compromise ot 1850 is carrying in Washington; by stepping out of retirement he has found a way to bridge the gulf yawning between North and South; the border statesman has squelched secessionist and abolitionist alike when war seemed all too likely. No one in the crowd can know it, but he has postponed the Civil War lor a decade, a decade in which the North will grow stronger, enough to tip the balance.

Now the crowd wants a speech, and Clay slowly climbs to the hotel balcony to oblige them, to thank them lor the welcome and express his happiness that the Union now seems sale. Concluding his little speech, Clay smiles broadly at his audience and, pointing in (he direction ot his plantation. Ashland, says: “There lives an old lady about a mile and a hall lrom here with whom I have lived lor more than Rlty years, whom J would rather sec than any ol you.” Rowing gracefully, he withdraws, while the crowd laughs and cheers.

To Henry Clay, Ashland meant many things—a refuge from the frustrations of politics, a delightful and healing contact with nature, an ideal place in which to rear his children, and, not least, a symbol of a poor boy’s success. He had come nearly penniless from Virginia, with no assets except his brains, a winning personality, and àlicense to practice law. Ashland, with its 600 acres of rich limestone soil, showed what he had accomplished since. Clay had acquired it gradually, buying his first tract in 1805, when he was a member of the Kentucky legislature, and building an imposing brick mansion on it eight years later.

The glory of Ashland was its parklike grounds—the grove of ash and locust trees, the green lawn, the carefully transplanted dogwood, redbud, and other flowering trees and shrubs, and the flower garden, which Clay proudly showed to such distinguished visitors as the Marquis de Lafayette, William Henry Harrison, and former President Martin Van Buren, as well as to humbler people. The English traveler Mrs. Sarah Mytton Maury, describing a tour of Ashland conducted along the shaded tanbark walks by the master, recorded how Clay “carried in his hand a full-blown rose with a short stem and frequently addressed himself to its perfumed cup.” Clay’s sense of satisfaction and achievement in the plantation was expressed in a letter to a friend: “I am in one respect better off than Moses. He died in sight of and without reaching the Promised Land. I occupy as good a farm as any he would have found had he reached it, and ‘Ashland’ has been acquired not by hereditary descent but by my own labor.”

The furnishings of the mansion, combining solid comfort and simple elegance, indicated some of the tastes and achievements of Clay. There were the gold brocaded satin draperies brought from Lyons, France, alter he had signed the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, as well as a pair of French sofas. There was the huge canopied bed in which Clay slept, covered with a silk quilt made by the “Ladies of Philadelphia.” There were the portraits of Clay painted by the Kentucky artist Matthew Harris Jouett and by G. P. A. Healy, and the marble bust by Joel T. Hart, the Kentucky sculptor. There was china, brought from France, in which ice cream was served, Clay’s chess table, goldbronze candlesticks, marble mantels, and rosewood cases. Associated with this luxury was an article of American manufacture (the protection of American manufactures by a tariff was an essential part of Clay’s American System). In the Lexington Reporter of March 10, 1830, the great statesman wrote the following testimonial for a local bed manufacturer:

“I have used in my family the patent bedsteads of Mr. Bell of Lexington and have found them greatly superior to those in common use. Being constructed so that the posts are put together without screws, they are stronger and less able to get out of order. They will hardly ever require any precaution to destroy bugs, as they afford no place of retreat to them.

H. Clay”

Acquisition of Ashland gave Clay an opportunity to show that he was an excellent practical farmer and stockman. The money crop of the Blue Grass in Clay’s time was not hurley tobacco as it is today, but hemp, which, because it is a source of marijuana, is now an illegal crop. The slender hemp stalks, eight to ten feet high, were cut with a hemp knife in the middle of August and allowed to lie in the fields for a period to be rotted by the dew. Then in the winter the slaves broke the stalks with a crude hand-operated machine called a hemp brake, which separated the fiber from the stalk. Dew-rotted Kentucky hemp was inferior to Russian hemp rotted in vats and pools, and it was necessary to protect it from competition with foreign fibers—a fact that partly explains why Clay was such an ardent advocate of a high protective tariff.

After he retired from office as secretary of state in 1829, he returned to Ashland to give to the plantation his personal attention. He became expert in the art ol growing hemp and preparing it for market, and had been active in farming only a year when he wrote to his close friend Francis T. Brooke of Virginia: “My attachment to rural occupation every day acquires more strength, and if it continues to increase another year as it has the last, I shall be fully prepared to renounce forever the strifes of public life. My farm is in fine order, and my preparations for the crop of the present year are in advance of all my neighbors. I shall make a better farmer than Statesman.”

When asked how Mr. Clay ranked among farmers of the neighborhood, an old friend was quick to reply: “Oh none ranked higher—except his wife.” She made the garden and dairy alone meet the expenses of the establishment, and regularly returned to Mr. Clay the check that he would leave with her before starting out for Washington, with the laconic remark that she had found no use for it.

Lucretia Clay had never been a beautiful woman, but Henry was extremely lucky in marrying her. This Blue Grass heiress, the daughter of Colonel Thomas Hart, brought Clay into the privileged society of Lexington and greatly advanced his career. Caring little lor fashionable company or books, Lucretia devoted her energies to rearing a family of eleven children and to managing the plantation of Ashland during the frequent absences of the master. Clay could never resist the lure of public office and was a candidate for the presidency oftener than any other candidate of a major party. Between 1824 and 1848 he was a strong presidential candidate in nearly every election. He paid grateful tribute to Lucretia’s practical abilities and thrift during these long periods away from home, saying, “Again and again has she saved our home from bankruptcy.”

As time passed, Clay devoted more and more attention to stock-raising and less to growing hemp. In 1831 he wrote that he was much engrossed in his farms, Ashland and Mansfield, the latter consisting oE 300 acres adjoining Ashland. On these estates he employed fifteen hands, cultivated 200 acres of Indian corn and 100 acres of other grains, and he had approximately 100 head of cattle and 100 horses and mules.

Clay’s most important contribution to farm life in Kentucky was improving its livestock. In 1817 he introduced Hereford cattle into the state, importing some thoroughbred Herefords from England. At various times he and his sons imported pedigreed Durham bulls and cows from England. These blooded cattle traveled on the hoof from Philadelphia along the National Road to Ashland. In the summer of 1829 he purchased in Washington County, Pennsylvania, fifty full-blooded Merino sheep which were driven to Lexington. Later he purchased Saxon sheep to improve his flocks. Clay exhibited his cattle at the agricultural fairs held on the racing grounds at Lexington, winning in 1834 first premium on a bull calf; and at other times he served as one of the judges.

The common draft animal on southern plantations was the mule. In 1831 Clay wrote that a vast number of mules were raised in Kentucky for the southern market, and that so great was the demand for good jacks in his neighborhood he had refused $500 for one that he owned. He imported jacks and jennets from Malta, Spain, and France and raised many fine specimens which were sold as far south as the Black Belt of Alabama.

Clay’s interest in breeding race horses was characteristic of gentlemen farmers in the Blue Grass country. His private race track at Ashland was one of the first private courses in Kentucky. From Governor James Barbour of Virginia he purchased Allegrante for $1,500 and later he bought a one-half interest in Stamboul, an Arabian stallion which the sultan of Turkey had given to the American minister at Constantinople. After Clay’s defeat as Whig candidate for President in 1844, admiring friends gave him three fine thoroughbreds. Dr. W. H. Mercer of New Orleans sent him the mare Magnolia, which, he wrote, had run in one race and had been defeated “but not dishonored.” This mare had thirteen foals, one of them Iroquois, winner of the English Derby, and established such a famous blood line that she has been described as the “Empress of the American Stud Book.”

Harriet Martineau, the English bluestocking, visited Ashland in 1835 and described the home as a very happy one. She enjoyed the flowers, trees, and birds, the sunny woods, the glades that reminded her of Ivanhoe , the delicious food, especially “daily piles of strawberries and mountains of ice-cream,” the fine horses in the stable, and “the drolleries of the little Negroes.” But there was another side to this jolly picture, as Clay himself realized.

In 1799, during a great debate in Kentucky over revising the state constitution, Clay, then a struggling young lawyer, wrote articles in the Kentucky Gazette and spoke in favor of a plan for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The operation of Ashland, however, led him to adopt the mores of his neighbors in regard to using slave labor. He does not seem to have been averse to buying small children, for in 1832 he wrote to Francis Brooke: “Could I purchase in your neighborhood a Negro boy ten or twelve years old at a reasonable price? I want such a one to ride out a Maltese Jack.” When one of his slaves, Lotty, sued for her freedom in a District of Columbia court, Clay contested the case and won it. Then he ordered that Lotty should be sent to Ashland, for it was high time for her to return to her duty, especially since “her conduct has created insubordination among her relatives here.” It is pleasant to note that in 1840 he emancipated Lotty, who had served for many years as the mammy in the Clay household.

There is every reason to believe that Clay was a kind and considerate master. The slave quarters at Ashland were built of brick and were much superior to the log cabins of the Negro quarters in the cotton region. On one occasion, before leaving Ashland for a long journey, he wrote elaborate instructions for the overseer, including an order to hire Abraham to a firm of hemp manufacturers for $120 a year, but only if “he is willing to go.” In 1842 a Quaker presented him with a petition before a political audience at Richmond, Indiana, asking him to free his slaves. In replying, Clay furnished some information about the Ashland slaves. He said that of his slaves some half dozen, because of age and infirmity, would not be able to earn a living, others were young and helpless, and still others would not accept freedom if offered them. He described his slaves as well fed and clad, sleek and hearty, civil and respectful in demeanor. By this time he owned fifty slaves, valued at !15,000.

His major-domo at Ashland, Charles, was Clay’s favorite slave and his valet whenever he went to Washington. A traveler described Charles as the perfect servant: “Charles, of whom so much has been said, is a kind of second master of household to Mr. Clay, and enjoys the greatest trust and confidence. To him can the keys of the wine-cellar be given without fear and on all occasions where help was needed, Mr. C. called for Charles. Charles brought us wine, Charles was at the door, at the carriage, at the gate, everywhere in fact, and as polite and civil as a man asking for office. … I do not believe he could be drawn from Mr. Clay except by absolute animal force, so great is his devotion to him.”

Clay’s children did not escape the effects of slavery during their childhood on the plantation. Mrs. Clay was a very indulgent mother who failed to discipline her boys with a steady hand. In 1814, while her husband was in Europe, she employed a young Dartmouth College graduate named Amos Kendall as a tutor for her children at a salary of $300 a year. In his journal, Kendall noted the evil effects of slavery on the rearing of Southern children: “May agth—Yesterday, Mrs. Clay being absent, Thomas got into a mighty rage with some of the Negroes, and threatened to and exerted all his little power to kill them.” “August 23rd—Hearing a great noise in the kitchen, I went in and found Theodore swearing in a great rage, with a knife drawn in attitude to stab one of the big Negroes.”

In his will, Clay did not directly free any of his slaves, but provided that in the event of their sale, members of a family should not be separated without their consent. Of the children of his female slaves born after January 1, 1850, females were to be freed at the age of 25, and the males at 28 years of age. They should be hired for three years before the date of their freedom, in order to provide money to send them to Liberia.

At Ashland, as in the House of Representatives, Henry Clay reached a compromise with regard to slavery. His last great public act had been to rally moderate men to a middle course that offered something to both extremes. And when he died on June 29, 1852, in Washington, far away from his beloved home, all the nation mourned his loss, knowing perhaps that the cause he fought for went with him. Even though he owned slaves, he opposed the institution “on principle and in feeling,” as Lincoln said, but “he did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself.”

Life at Ashland had its moments of unhappiness. In the summer of 1833 cholera struck the Blue Grass for the first time. Nearly 500 citizens of Lexington died, including many of Clay’s friends, although all those at Ashland escaped. Clay himself apparently prescribed the remedy when some of his slaves had violent abdominal pains—twenty grains of calomel, twenty grains of rhubarb, and a mixture of salt and mustard. In letters to his friend Peter B. Porter of New York he described vividly the appearance of Lexington during the plague—stores and shops closed, and “no one moving in the streets except those concerned with the dead or sick.”

Tragedies in his own family were a source of terrible grief to Clay. He lost all six of his daughters by early deaths. When Anne, the last and his favorite, died in 1835 he wrote: “I feel … as if nothing remained for me in this world but the performance of duties.” One of Clay’s sons, Theodore, became insane and remained for many years in the Lexington asylum, while another, John, spent several weeks as a patient in the same institution. The death of Henry, the most idealistic and promising of his sons, in the battle of Buena Vista, greatly saddened him and probably was influential in his decision to be baptized in the Episcopal Church when he was seventy years of age. Clay’s last years were troubled by the desire of one of his granddaughters to become a Roman Catholic nun and by his disappointment over the numerous demerits of his grandson, Henry Clay III, at West Point. To him he wrote on November 22, 1850: “I pray you to redouble your efforts and act a part worthy of your poor father’s name and mine. Imagine him to be looking down on you! How would his spirit be mortified if you dishonored him and me!”

Off and on through his long life, the Great Compromiser was beset by financial difficulties. Farming and stock-raising at Ashland were often unprofitable, especially for a man who had an important political career to support. In 1821 he resigned from Congress to recoup the considerable losses he suffered by endorsing the note of a friend who failed (a kindness Clay was much too apt to offer). For two years he worked hard in the now distasteful harness of lawyer. He was a gambler in his early days, although he seems to have renounced the card table later on. In his wife’s view, this was never a financial hazard anyway, for she once told a New England lady she didn’t mind Mr. Clay’s games of chance at all, saying, “He usually wins.”

Clay inspired great affection among his friends and followers, and even among his opponents. They were saddened when he was defeated during the many times that he ran for election to the presidency, and in 1844 they wrote so many letters of condolence to him that he trembled, he confessed, to open his mail. They demonstrated their affection by giving him numerous gifts—the coach of which he was exceedingly proud, casks of sherry, snuff and snuffboxes, buffalo tongues, socks knitted by a female admirer, a gold medal. His will listed some of the more valuable articles that were presented to him or acquired during his long political career: a gold watch, a gold snuffbox, a ring containing a piece of the coffin of George Washington, numerous walking canes, a snuffbox said to have belonged to Tsar Peter the Great, a breast pin containing the hair of his son Henry, killed in the Mexican War, and a diamond ring.

In his own lifetime, Clay had the opportunity to find out how strong his gift of inspiring friendship was. On November 15, 1842, during an agricultural depression, he gave a mortgage on Ashland for $20,000 due on May 21, 1845. At least part of the mortgage was incurred in aiding his son, Thomas Hart Clay, who had failed in the hemp business. The old statesman could not meet his obligation on the date that it was due, but anonymous friends raised $25,750 and paid off the mortgage, thus saving the plantation. When Clay asked with tears in his eyes, “Who did this?” the president of the Lexington bank replied: “I do not know; it is sufficient to say it was not done by your enemies.”

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