Everybody Liked Henry Clay

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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.”