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
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.