Friday, April 12, 2013

Henry Clay, born April 12, 1777

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, at the Clay homestead in Hanover County, Virginia.  Henry was the seventh of nine children of the Reverend John Clay and Elizabeth Hudson Clay.  The Revolutionary War had begun two years ealier, and he was three years old when he watched the British troops ransack his family home.

His father, a Baptist minister nicknamed "Sir John," died in 1781,  four years after Henry's birth.  At the time of his death, John Clay owned more than 22 slaves, making him part of the planter class in Virginia (those men who owned 20 or more slaves).  He father left two slaves to each of his sons, and his widow received 18 slaves and 464 acres of land.  

Ten years later, Elizabeth Clay married Capt. Henry Watkins, who was an affectionate stepfather.  Henry Watkins moved the family to Richmond, Virginia.  Elizabeth had seven more children with Watkins, bearing a total of sixteen.

His stepfather secured employment for Henry in the office of the Virginia Court of Chancery, where he displayed an aptitude for law. There he became friends with George Wythe.  Hampered by a crippled hand, Wythe chose Clay as his secretary. 
George Wythe
Clay received no formal legal education but, as was customary at the time, "read the law" by working and studying with Wythe and Robert Brooke, the Virginia Attorney General. Clay was admitted to practice law in 1797.

Henry Clay was born six years before the Revolutionary War ended, and died nine years before the Civil War began.

Clay's Law Office in Lexington, Kentucky
In November 1797, Clay relocated to Lexington, Kentucky, the growing town in Woodford County. At the time, it was a hotbed of land-title lawsuits.  He soon established a reputation for his legal skills and courtroom oratory. Some of his clients paid him with horses and others with land. Clay came to own town lots and the Kentucky Hotel.  One of Clay's clients was his father-in-law, Colonel Thomas Hart, an early settler of Kentucky, and a prominent and wealthy businessman.

After beginning his law career, Clay married Lucretia Hart on April 11, 1799, at the Hart home in Lexington, Kentucky. They were married for more than 50 years and had eleven children (six daughters and five sons).  Seven of Clay's children died before him and his wife. By 1835 all six daughters had died of varying causes, two when very young, two as children, the other two as young women: from whooping cough, yellow fever, and complications of childbirth

Clay was a second cousin of Cassius Clay, who became an abolitionist in Kentucky.

Cassius Marcellus Clay
Although he owned slaves, Clay anguished about slavery, which he called a "great evil." He believed slavery would become economically obsolete as a growing population reduced the cost of legitimate labor. 

In 1803, Clay was elected to serve as the representative of Fayette County in the Kentucky General Assembly. As a legislator, Clay advocated a liberal interpretation of the state's constitution and initially the gradual emancipation of slavery in Kentucky, although the political realities of the time forced him to abandon that position.

In 1806 the Kentucky legislature elected him to the United States Senate. On December 29, 1806, Clay was sworn in as senator, serving for less than one year that first time.  When elected by the legislature, Clay was below the constitutionally required age of thirty;  his age did not appear to have been noticed. Three months and 17 days into his Senate service, he reached the age of eligibility.

When Clay returned to Kentucky in 1807, he was elected the Speaker of the state House of Representatives.  

On January 3, 1809, Clay introduced a resolution to require members to wear homespun suits rather than those made of imported British cloth. Two members voted against the measure: one was Humphrey Marshall, an "aristocratic lawyer who possessed a sarcastic tongue." Clay and Marshall nearly came to blows on the Assembly floor, and Clay challenged Marshall to a duel. The duel took place on January 9. They each had three turns. Clay grazed Marshall once, just below the chest. Marshall hit Clay once in the thigh.

Humphrey Marshall
Eventually, Clay owned a productive 600-acre plantation which he called "Ashland," and numerous slaves to work the land. He held 60 slaves at the peak of operations, and likely produced tobacco and hemp, the two chief commodity crops of the Bluegrass Region. He also bred livestock.  As a farmer, Henry Clay became one of the most respected breeders and scientific farmers in the country. He introduced Hereford Cattle to the United States and became one of the most successful providers of mules to the South.

As a horseman and lover of racing, Henry Clay played a major role in Lexington, Kentucky becoming “The Horse Capital of the World.” His prominence as a political figure combined with his love of attending races, made it socially “in vogue” to attend. His success as a breeder drew the attention and admiration of the best horsemen in the country at that time.

In the summer of 1811, Clay was elected to the United States House of Representatives.  He was chosen Speaker of the House on the first day of his first session, something never done before or since. During the fourteen years following his first election, he was re-elected five times to the House and to the speakership. 

Like other Southern Congressmen, Clay took slaves to Washington, D.C. to work in his household. They included Aaron and Charlotte Dupuy, their son Charles and daughter Mary Ann.

Before Clay's election as Speaker of the House, the position had been that of a rule enforcer and mediator. Clay made the position one of political power second only to the President of the United States. He immediately appointed members of the War Hawk faction (of which he was the "guiding spirit") to all the important committees, effectively giving him control of the House. This was a singular achievement for a 34-year-old House freshman. 

The War Hawks, mostly from the South and the West, resented British violations of United States maritime rights and its treatment of U.S. sailors; they feared British designs on U.S. territory in the Old Northwest. They advocated a declaration of war against the British.  As the Congressional leader of the Democratic-Republican Party, Clay took charge of the agenda, especially supporting the War of 1812 against the British Empire.  Later, as one of the peace commissioners, Clay helped negotiate the Treaty of Ghent and signed it on December 24, 1814. In 1815, while still in Europe, he helped negotiate a commerce treaty with Great Britain.

Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun helped to pass the Tariff of 1816 as part of the national economic plan Clay called "The American System". It was designed to allow the fledgling American manufacturing sector, largely centered on the eastern seaboard, to compete with British manufacturing through the creation of tariffs.  After the conclusion of the War of 1812, British factories were overwhelming American ports with inexpensive goods. To persuade voters in the western states to support the tariff, Clay advocated federal government support for improvement to infrastructure, principally roads and canals. These improvements would be financed by the tariff and by sale of the public lands, prices for which would be kept high to generate revenue. 

John Calhoun
John Calhoun once declared, "I don't like Clay. . . . I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God! I love him."

Henry Clay helped establish and became president in 1816 of the American Colonization Society (ACS), a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa.  It founded Monrovia, in what became Liberia, for that purpose. The group was made up of both abolitionists from the North, who wanted to end slavery, and slaveholders, who wanted to deport free blacks to reduce what they considered a threat to the stability of slave society. On the "amalgamation" of the black and white races, Clay said that "The God of Nature, by the differences of color and physical constitution, has decreed against it." Clay presided at the founding meeting of the ACS on December 21, 1816, at the Davis Hotel in Washington, D.C.  

Clay earned the sobriquet "Great Compromiser" by crafting three major legislative compromises over the course of 30 years. Each time, he pulled the United States from the brink of civil war.  

He was admired by a young Abraham Lincoln, who referred to Clay as "my beau ideal of a statesman." Although Lincoln is not known to have ever met Henry Clay, there can be little doubt of the profound impact Clay had on him.  Lincoln often quoted Clay in speeches in order to reinforce his own ideas or, at times, even in place of them. In the great debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln quoted Clay no fewer than 41 times.  In 1862, Lincoln appointed Henry Clay’s son Thomas to the posts of Minister to Nicaragua and ultimately to Honduras for little more reason than that he was Henry Clay’s son. In 1864, Henry Clay’s son John sent Lincoln a snuff box owned by his father.

Abraham Lincoln as a young congressman
In 1820, a dispute erupted over the extension of slavery in Missouri Territory. Clay helped settle this dispute by gaining Congressional approval for a plan called the "Missouri Compromise".  It brought in Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, maintaining the balance in the Senate, which had included 11 free and 11 slave states.  It forbade slavery north of 36° 30' (the northern boundary of Arkansas) except in Missouri.

Clay was appointed Secretary of State by President John Quincy Adams in 1825. 

After the passage of the Tariff of 1828, dubbed the "tariff of abominations" which raised tariffs considerably in an attempt to protect fledgling factories built under previous tariff legislation, South Carolina declared its right to nullify federal tariff legislation and stopped assessing the tariff on imports. It threatened to secede from the Union if the Federal government tried to enforce the tariff laws. Furious, President Jackson threatened to lead an army to South Carolina and hang any man who refused to obey the law.

Decatur House, Washington, D.C.
As Secretary of State, Clay lived with his family and slaves in Decatur House on Lafayette Square. As he was preparing to return to Lexington in 1829, on of his slaves, Charlotte Dupuy, sued Clay for her freedom and that of her two children, based on a promise by an earlier owner. Her legal challenge to slavery preceded the more famous Dred Scott case by 17 years. The suit received a fair amount of attention in the press at the time. Dupuy's attorney gained an order from the court for her to remain in Washington, D.C. until the case was settled, and she worked for wages for 18 months for Martin Van Buren, the successor to Secretary of State and the Decatur House. Clay returned to his plantation, Ashland, with Charlotte's husband, Aaron, and her children, Charles and Mary Ann Dupuy.

The jury ruled against Dupuy, deciding that any agreement with her previous master Condon did not bear on Clay. Because Dupuy refused to return voluntarily to Kentucky, Clay had his agent arrest her. She was imprisoned in Alexandria, Virginia before Clay arranged for her transport to New Orleans, where he placed her with his daughter and son-in-law Martin Duralde. Mary Ann Dupuy was sent to join her mother, and they worked as domestic slaves for the Duraldes for another decade.

In 1840 Henry Clay finally gave Charlotte and her daughter Mary Ann Dupuy their freedom. He kept her son Charles Dupuy as a personal servant, frequently citing him as an example of how well he treated his slaves. Clay granted Charles Dupuy his freedom in 1844. 

Charles Dupuy
While no deed of emancipation has been found for Aron Dupuy, in 1860 he and Charlotte were living together as free black residents in Fayette County, Kentucky. He may have been freed or "given his time" by one of Clay's sons, as Dupuy continued to work at Ashland, for pay.
Aron Dupuy

After the election of Andrew Jackson as president in 1829, Clay led the opposition to Jackson's policies. His supporters included the National Republicans, who were beginning to identify as "Whigs" in honor of ancestors during the Revolutionary War. They opposed the "tyranny" of Jackson, as their ancestors had opposed the tyranny of King George III.  

Andrew Jackson
In 1832, the National Republicans unanimously nominated Clay for the presidency. Jackson was nominated by the Democrats. Clay lost by a wide margin to the highly popular Jackson (55% to 37%).

Henry Clay
The Nullification Crisis worsened until 1833, when Clay, again a U.S. Senator re-elected by Kentucky in 1831, helped to broker a deal in Congress to lower the tariff gradually. This measure helped to preserve the supremacy of the Federal government over the states, but the crisis was indicative of the developing conflict between the northern and southern United States over economics and slavery.

William Henry Harrison
In 1840, Clay was a candidate for the Whig nomination, but he was defeated at the party convention by supporters of war hero William Henry Harrison. Harrison was chosen because his war record was attractive, and he was seen as more likely to win than Clay.

James Polk

In 1844, Clay was nominated by the Whigs against James Polk, the Democratic candidate. Clay lost in part due to national sentiment in favor of Polk's settle the northern boundary of the United States with Canada, then under the control of the British Empire. Clay opposed admitting Texas as a state because he believed it would reawaken the slavery   issue and provoke Mexico to declare war. Polk took the opposite view, supported by most of the public, especially in the Southern United States. The election was close; New York's 36 electoral votes proved the difference, and went to Polk by a slim 5,000 vote margin.
Clay Campaign Banner, 1844
Clay's warnings about Texas proved prescient. The US annexation of Texas led to the Mexican-American War (1846–1848).  Henry Clay, Jr. was killed at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847, during the Mexican-American War.  

Death of Lt. Henry Clay, Jr. in Mexican American War
Jefferson Davis was a schoolmate of Henry Jr.’s at Transylvania University, was a fellow cadet at West Point, and, finally, was a brother in arms at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War.

Jefferson Davis
After losing the Whig Party nomination to Zachary Taylor in 1848, Clay decided to retire to his Ashland estate in Kentucky. 

Zachary Taylor
Retired for less than a year, he was in 1849 again elected to the U.S. Senate from Kentucky. 

Henry and Lucretia Clay
 on their 50th Wedding Anniversary, 1849

During his term, the controversy over the expansion of slavery in new lands had reemerged with the addition of the lands ceded to the United States by Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. David Wilmot, a Northern congressman, had proposed preventing the extension of slavery into any of the new territory in a proposal referred to as the "Wilmot Proviso".  

David Wilmot
On January 29, 1850, Clay proposed a series of resolutions, which he considered to reconcile Northern and Southern interests, in what would widely be called the Compromise of 1850.  Clay originally intended the resolutions to be voted on separately, but at the urging of southerners he agreed to the creation of a Committee of Thirteen to consider the measures. As chair of the committee, Clay presented an omnibus bill linking all of the resolutions. The resolutions included:

  • Admission of California as a free state, ending the balance of free and slave states in the senate
  • Organization of the  Utah and New Mexico territories without any slavery provisions, giving the right to determine whether to allow slavery to the territorial populations
  • Prohibition of the slave trade, but not the ownership of slaves, in the District of Columbia
  • A more stringent Fugitive Slave Act
  • Establishment of boundaries for the state of Texas in exchange for federal payment of Texas's ten million dollar debt.
  • A declaration by Congress that it did not have the authority to interfere with the interstate slave trade.
The Omnibus bill, despite Clay's efforts, failed in a crucial vote on July 31 with the majority of his Whig Party opposed. He announced on the Senate floor the next day that he intended to persevere and pass each individual part of the bill. 

Stephen Douglas
Clay was physically exhausted; the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him began to take its toll. Clay left the Senate to recuperate in Newport, Rhode Island. Stephen Douglas separated the bills and guided them through the Senate.

Clay was given much of the credit for the Compromise's success. It quieted the controversy between Northerners and Southerners over the expansion of slavery, and delayed secession and civil war for another decade. 

Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi, later said, "Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860–'61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war."

The Civil War would reveal the limits of Clay's compromises. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision both effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise, and the Fugitive Slave provisions of the Compromise of 1850 proved to be more divisive than conciliatory. His solutions were not prefect, as he would have been the first to admit, and they eventually broke down under the tremendous twin stresses of slavery and states-rights. But they were  patriotic attempts to bring fractious elements together for the benefit of the whole.

Clay never attained his greatest ambition–-the presidency.

Henry Clay

He died of tuberculosis at the age of 75. 

"Death of Henry Clay", with his son, Thomas, sitting at his bedside
On June 29, 1852, Henry Clay asked his son Thomas to come and sit by his bedside in Room 116 of the National Hotel, where he had lived for years while serving in the Senate. Before noon, he drew his last breath.

Telegraph from Thomas Clay to family: "Our Father is no more" 
When Clay died, President Fillmore closed all executive offices, Congress adjourned, and the U.S. Senate immediately took action to prepare an elaborate Washington funeral and to send six senators to accompany Clay's remains to Lexington.  On June 30, the Senate held a solemn funeral for Clay in its chambers. Afterwards, Clay became the first person ever to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol rotunda, as a "vast multitude assembled" to view "all that remains of Henry Clay." 

Following the Senate funeral on June 30, citizens from Washington, D.C., and all the surrounding towns gathered in the streets to watch as a gilded hearse transported Clay's remains to the railroad depot. The elaborately decorated coffin, along with six designated Congressional representatives, Clay family members, and other dignitaries, departed at 4:00 p.m. on a special train to Baltimore. Baltimore officials met Clay's body early on the morning of July 1, and a procession through the city followed at noon. The Baltimore Weekly Sun declared that all businesses closed, and "The city presented a gloomy and mournful aspect … The bells of all the churches, engine houses and other places were tolled … the sidewalks completely jammed up with men, women and children, all eager to take a last look at the remains of the great American statesman." Clay lay in repose on a specially constructed catafalque in the rotunda of the Exchange Building until the next day, as thousands of people filed by to see his face, which was exposed through a glass window in his metal coffin.

On July 2, the delegation left Baltimore with Clay's body on another train, and passed through Wilmington, Delaware, where his coffin was again unloaded and placed in repose at City Hall. The Congressional committee, augmented by town committees from both Baltimore and Wilmington, then accompanied the body back on the train to Philadelphia, where they arrived at 9:00 p.m. Clay's remains were paraded for two hours through Philadelphia in a torch-lit procession to Independence Hall, which "was brilliantly lit up with bonfires, and [where] thousands of ladies had congregated inside its walls to witness the passage of the procession." Clay's coffin was placed on a cenotaph in the center of Independence Hall, and crowds of people flocked to see it through the night.

The next morning, July 3, Clay's remains departed Philadelphia on a steamer to New Jersey, where the coffin was placed on another train. The coffin was removed from the train at Jersey City and marched slowly through the streets. At the Jersey City ferry landing, where the delegation departed for New York, "a large concourse of people assembled" under a sign expressing "our love for the remains." 

When Clay's boat arrived at Castle Garden in New York City on the afternoon of July 3, thousands of people were on hand to greet it, and "an immense military and civic procession was then formed, which escorted the remains to the City Hall" in an open hearse. New York City, long a hotbed of support for Clay and home of the Whig Clay Festival Association, which had organized public birthday celebrations for Clay, tried to outdo all the previous cities in the lavish honors it paid to Clay. The procession accompanying Clay's remains through New York streets lasted more than three hours as hotels, theaters, "The City Hall, Broadway, Chatham Street, and Park Row were literally shrouded in mourning." New Yorkers paid respects to Clay as he lay in state at City Hall overnight, although visitors were unable to gaze upon his face. The face plate was not removed from his coffin because of the hot weather that threatened to damage his remains before they reached Kentucky. 

All day on July 4, "great numbers of citizens" continued to file past his coffin, which was displayed with huge floral tributes and a sign reading "A Nation Mourns Its Loss." Since Independence Day fell on a Sunday, clergy all over town preached sermons that wove together a commemoration of the national holiday and a eulogy for Clay.

Clay's funeral delegation departed New York City on the morning of July 5 to travel up the Hudson River aboard the steamer Santa Claus. At Albany, Clay's coffin was accompanied by fire companies bearing torches to the New York state capitol, where guards attended the body overnight. The next morning, Clay's body traveled west through Schenectady, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, and Rochester to Buffalo, where he was loaded directly on the Erie steamer Buckeye State, which carried him overnight to Ohio.

On the morning of July 7, Clay's remains arrived in Cleveland and then moved via rail through Columbus to Cincinnati, arriving on July 8. In Cincinnati, "a large procession of military, Free Masons, Odd Fellows, Firemen and citizens, conducted the remains through a portion of the city" for more than an hour as over 10,000 people gathered outside heavily draped public buildings. After the procession through Cincinnati, Clay's remains were placed aboard the U.S. mail boat Ben Franklin bound for Louisville. Onlookers gathered on the river's banks to catch a glimpse of Clay's coffin, and several papers emphasized the touching scene as the boat passed Rising Sun, Indiana, where "grouped together were some 200 ladies, one of whom was dressed in the deepest mourning, attended by the rest dressed in white with armlets of black ribbon." 

On July 9, Clay's body made its final journey via rail from Louisville through Frankfort to Lexington.

Funeral Procession in Lexington
Henry Clay's funeral on July 10, 1852, was the largest ceremonial occasion ever witnessed in Lexington, Kentucky, up until that time. When the correspondent from the Frankfort Commonwealth arrived in town at 6 a.m., he "found the streets already thronged with strangers and citizens, while every road leading to the city poured in a continual stream of carriages, horseman [sic] and pedestrians." "The number of people assembled at Lexington, was greater than ever was seen in her streets before," he wrote. Estimates from other observers ranged between 30,000 and 100,000 in attendance(population in 1852 was approximately 9,000). Lexington's businesses closed, and black crepe, banners, and portraits of the dead senator adorned streets and houses all over town.

After an Episcopal service at Clay's estate, Ashland, a grand and solemn funeral procession of local, state, and national government officials and dignitaries accompanied Clay's remains to the Lexington Cemetery at the western edge of town.

Clay's headstone reads: "I know no North — no South — no East — no West." 

After Clay’s death, a local committee was formed to oversee the construction of “a national monument of colossal proportions” in the Lexington Cemetery.

Henry Clay Mausoleum and Monument in Lexington Cemetery
Clay's Will freed all the slaves he held.

By the time of his death, his only surviving sons were James Brown Clay and John Morrison Clay, who inherited the estate and took portions for their use. 

James Brown Clay
Six of Henry Clay’s grandsons would fight in the war, and five of them would choose to follow Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy –along with Henry Clay’s son, James.

Lucretia Hart Clay died in 1864 at the age of 83. She was interred with her husband in the vault of the monument at the Lexington Cemetery. 

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