Day 32, Thursday, August 16, 2018
Lexington was home to another prominent historical figure of the early to mid-1800s; a contemporary of Mary Todd Lincoln’s father, and definitely where she picked up some of her interest in politics.
Henry Clay, Sr. was born in 1777, and was influential in a long career in U.S. politics, from 1803 to his death in June 1852. Henry Clay served in the Kentucky House of Representatives, the United States House of Representatives, the U.S. Speaker of the House, a United States Senator, and Secretary of State during John Quincy Adams’ Presidency. He became known as the Great Compromiser, for his role in diffusing a number of charged political disagreements during his career.
Despite his impressive political career, Clay’s ultimate goal eluded him. He was a candidate for the Presidency three times: in 1824, 1832, and 1844. In addition, he also sought the nomination in 1840 and 1848, but did not gain the support to be selected as the nominee.
Clay held a moderate view on slavery that was popular at the time; he believed slaves should be gradually emancipated, and he also promoted the idea of colonization, that is, returning freed slaves to Africa. Clay inherited slaves as a young child and owned them his entire life, but historical documents of the time period show that he treated his slaves relatively well. He was known to rarely split up families, and no evidence of him raping any of his female slaves or fathering children with them exists. He freed his slaves upon his death in 1852. Clay also consistently supported the recognition of Haiti as an independent nation; it was founded through a slave revolt.
At Clay’s estate in Lexington, Ashland, he was a farmer and innovator. He imported the first Hereford cattle to the United States in 1817, and was an early enthusiast of horse racing. He bred and refined race horses, and raced his own under buff and blue colors (the colors of the Whig party). Eleven descendants of Clay’s horses have won the Kentucky Derby, which was first run in 1875. He grew hemp, and manufactured hemp rope for the cotton industry.
Henry Clay also had a huge influence on an idol of mine – Abraham Lincoln. The first time Lincoln voted for a President, he voted for Henry Clay in 1832. He campaigned for Clay in later elections, and heard Clay give a speech in 1847. Abraham and Mary stopped in Lexington for three weeks in 1847 to visit her family on their way to Washington after Lincoln had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Although the historical record does not say if Lincoln and Clay met during his time in Lexington or had corresponded before or after, I would like to think that they did. A book of Clay’s speeches was recently discovered, showing that Clay had given it to Lincoln with this inscription, ”To Abraham Lincoln with constant regard to friendship H. Clay 11 May 1847.”
Lincoln delivered a eulogy of Clay in Springfield after his death in 1852, and frequently quoted Henry Clay in his later speeches. Clay’s son John sent Lincoln a snuff box owned by his father in 1864; Lincoln’s letter to John indicates that he treasured the gift.
The home at Ashland was built in stages, with the center section of the home originally completed in 1809. By 1811, Clay planned extensions, and the side wings were completed in the next year or two. The home was designed in the Federal style, with the wings designed by Benjamin Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, after Clay’s death in 1852, his widow Lucretia moved in with their son John, and the home was purchased by another son James. The home was in such a state of disrepair that James felt that his only option was to raze and rebuild it.
James saved all of the pieces that he could from the original home, then had it rebuilt on the original foundation using the original architectural drawings. After his death it was sold out of the family but returned when Clay’s granddaughter purchased it 16 years later. They owned it until it was opened as a museum in 1950. The home now contains features as originally designed, as well as Italianate, Victorian and Eastlake styles.
The tour is interesting, focusing on Henry Clay’s life and the features of the home. You can visit the grounds, including an original ice house and the reconstructed formal garden, on your own. And let me just say, you have no idea how many photos I took of that bumblebee trying to get one in focus! I give myself a B-, but an A for effort (ha!)…
Unfortunately, no photos are permitted inside, but it is still well worth the visit!