- Historic Sites
Everybody Liked Henry Clay
He never did win election to the presidency, but his life as a farmer was happy and he had a great many firm friends
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
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.