Henry Clay at Ashland: Public and Private

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The extroverted and politically ambitious Henry Clay did not jealously guard his space or his privacy as other public figures did, but willingly shared them as one who fully understood his status.  Even at Ashland where he sought peace and refuge, he remained accessible to those who came to his door.  And there were many Americans who trekked to Ashland to meet their idol.

Idealized view of Henry Clay’s Ashland, 1852. Lithographed by Thomas Sinclair.

Clay’s estate in the western frontier city of Lexington began attracting the public early in the nineteenth century as his celebrity emerged.  The Ashland estate was probably as well-known as Clay and was soon fixed in the American imagination.  During Henry Clay’s lifetime and after, Ashland was a destination of devotion to the Great Compromiser who singularly stood for the antebellum struggle for ‘Union.’  It was said that “Ashland was from the earliest years of the nineteenth century a place of almost pious pilgrimage to visitors from other countries as well as to citizens of the United States.”[1]

Not only did Henry Clay receive some of the most influential figures of the time under his roof, he opened his house to multitudes of the less influential.  Merrill D. Peterson describes a typical Ashland scene: “On some days as many as four or five parties of visitors, often total strangers, often without prior notice, drove out from Lexington and wound their way up the resplendent tree-lined carriage road to Clay’s door.”[2]

Over the years the number of uninvited visitors to Ashland grew in direct proportion to Clay’s mounting political disappointments.  His many devotees could not understand why Americans “refused” to elect him President and they flocked to Ashland in support.[3]  Visitors came for many reasons, but most came with respect, admiration, and excited anticipation.

Political cartoon by H.R. Robinson, New York, 1848, depicting some of the profound disappointment and anger among Henry Clay's many supporters at the nomination of Zachary Taylor at the June 1848 Whig convention in Philadelphia. The convention's act was seen as a betrayal of the elder Whig statesman.

It became the habit of many patriotic Americans in the nineteenth century to travel to the homes of the living and departed statesmen they admired.  Pilgrimages to presidential homes were popular—Mount Vernon most of all—as were journeys to the homes of favorite statesmen such as Henry Clay.  These patriotic pilgrims hoped to meet and talk with the famous man or at least expected to gain a glimpse of his estate, his family, his house.  Kenneth Walsh explains that “Americans considered their former presidents and Founding Fathers to be public property and they thought nothing of dropping by and expecting to chat, and perhaps stay for a meal.”[4]  Writing in the 1850s, Mrs. C. M. Kirkland advocated pilgrimages as a patriotic duty for all Americans, but admitted that “to see great men at home is often more pleasant to the visitor than advantageous to the hero.”[5]

George Washington (1732-1799) was the hero par excellence and he appealed to every American; sites related to his life drew pilgrims of all political views.[6]  Alan Morinis says that secular places such as Mount Vernon, as well as Monticello, the Hermitage, and Ashland would rightfully be called ‘shrines’ in that leaders of nations were the “contemporary symbols for national ideals.”[7]  The drawing power of these homes came from the promised physical connection to the hero’s life or the proximity to his mortal remains.

The pilgrims to Ashland sought inspiration or transformative experience through contact with Henry Clay and his home.  Many believed that Clay’s greatness had sprung from the “ever-glowing altar-fire at Ashland” and they wanted to feel a bit of that.[8]

Henry Clay, 1843

Lucky Ashland callers would find themselves in the presence of Henry Clay.  The naturally sociable Clay was known as an unusually generous and welcoming host, taking particular pleasure in meeting and talking with all of his visitors.  He often invited them for more than the expected polite conversation: perhaps dinner with his family, maybe an evening concert, almost always a tour of his farm.  It was said that “it was easy for the humblest citizen to approach him.”[9]

Henry Clay, the consummate politician, was also undoubtedly motivated by his political aspirations, the ongoing need to win over the hearts of as many Americans as possible, shaking hands and signing autographs anytime and anywhere.  Yet he saw more than political maneuvering in his role as host.  American society was undergoing dramatic change in the early decades of the nineteenth century and a democratizing force swept through the country encouraging ordinary citizens to make their voice heard while rewarding such political figures as Andrew Jackson for being a “Great Commoner.”

Clay fit easily into this egalitarian picture.  In his domestic environment, Clay was able to successfully put forth his image as one of America’s “Great Commoners” – just another farmer opening his door to neighbors.   Invited guests in 1843 were impressed by the lack of pretension at Clay’s home: “His manners are as plain and republican as they are gentlemanly and unaffected…”[10]  Clay in his parlor was described as sitting in his easy chair, taking some snuff, and offering tea and conversation.[11]

A generation before, hospitality to the public had been similarly practiced by George and Martha Washington at Mount Vernon.  Washington was visited by “a galaxy of people from all walks of life.”[12]   In all the “noise and bustle” and endless influx of visitors, Washington marveled at an unusual occurrence in June of 1785: on that day he “dined with only Mrs. Washington” which he believed was the first time that had occurred since his retirement from public life years before.[13]  Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), too, offered hospitality to scores of visitors at Monticello.

Clay’s peers, in particular, embodied the new spirit of egalitarianism in their homes.  Clay’s rival and great foe, Andrew Jackson, practiced genteel hospitality with a common touch toward his many visitors.[14]  The Hermitage received dozens of guests daily, “…all made welcome, and all well attended to…”[15]  Daniel Webster was considered “‘the very perfection of a host.’”  Despite his reputation as “the Great Man,” he shed any pretensions at Marshfield, and was jovial and down-to-earth with his company.[16]

Ashland’s hospitality during Henry Clay’s lifetime was directed toward many privately invited guests, but more and more became a public audience of uninvited admirers, supporters, and enthusiastic pilgrims.   Ashland as a celebrity’s home evolved from a place of mostly intimate gatherings with family and friends to an open house for a copious flow of complete strangers.  Even at home, Henry Clay increasingly lived his life in the public eye.

While Henry Clay’s family and domestic life were not emphasized or even mentioned in the many contemporary biographies written of him, Clay in public often and affectionately referred to Ashland and his family.  Public image, for Clay at least, was wrapped up inextricably with home life.  His domestic identity as farmer and “Sage of Ashland” worked well for his public image as a ‘Great Commoner.’ His down-to-earth concerns struck a chord with many Americans.  Clay publicly identified himself as a man with great love for home.  The public man shared his private life and the private man welcomed the public.

Henry and Lucretia Clay on their 50th wedding anniversary, 1849.

Yet Ashland was above every other place Henry Clay’s private retreat and sanctuary. Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett explains that the “desire for private time, the longing for private space” were conspicuous goals of nineteenth-century Americans, but there were many “impediments that might foil circumvention, making privacy something that was often unattainable.”[17]  This was perhaps doubly true at Clay’s Ashland.  Clay and his wife, children, extended family, employees, and slaves went about their lives at Ashland—while innumerable strangers came to the door.

Late in his life, Clay privately admitted of growing weary of the many visitors to Ashland, as Peterson describes:

He had sought adulation, and perhaps he should have been gratified by this display of it, but it was sometimes, as he told a friend, ‘excessively oppressive.’  If the hour was right, tea was served to guests in the drawing room.  ‘I am obliged to supply, when these strangers come, all the capital of conversation…’ he said. ‘They come to look and to listen…that I could find some obscure and inaccessible hole, in which I could put myself, and enjoy quiet and solitude during the remnant of my days.’[18]

That the extroverted Clay in his later years sought an “inaccessible hole” to put himself proves how desperately he sought peace at Ashland.  For all of his ambition and conviviality, he was also a man who longed to retire permanently from the political limelight.  Clay was well aware of other statesmen’s successful retirements to private life; Washington, Jefferson, and Jackson had all successfully retired as private citizens to their estates at the end of their lives.   Henry Clay had planned to retire permanently in 1842, determined to become a private citizen once more, but as a biographer put it, “his devoted people, inconsiderate in their enthusiasm, would not resign him to the tranquility of private life…”[19]

Clay had long accepted the public’s possessiveness, yet the cost to him and his family was not small, as a writer later said of him:  “It is one of the penalties of greatness and worldly fame that the possessor of them passes in a great measure out of his own control and comes to belong to the public to such an extent that private life and domestic joys are almost entirely denied him.”[20]   The private needs of Clay and his family were often subordinated to those of the public.

Clay had long endeavored to reconcile both at Ashland.  After all, American statesmen of that time understood that their duty to fellow citizens extended to their homes.  But when it grew overwhelming for Washington and Jefferson, they drew the boundary between the public and the private at their homes.  But Clay, even when aged, defeated, fatigued, and in need of respite, continued hospitality as the magnanimous celebrity.  There is no evidence that he checked the flow of visitors.  Clay had privately balked, but he continued to respond generously to the public to the end of his life.

[1] S. P. Breckinridge,  “Southern Pioneers in Social Interpretation: I. Madeline McDowell Breckinridge.”  Journal of Social Forces, November 1923, 105-106.

[2] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 372.

[3] John T. Faris,  “Henry Clay Took the Keenest Pleasure in His Estate Near Lexington.” c. 1918, Kentucky Explorer, (November 1993), 14.

[4] Walsh, Kenneth T.  From Mount Vernon to Crawford.  A History of the Presidents and Their Retreats.  New York: Hyperion (2005), 47-48.

[5] Mrs. C. M. Kirkland.  “Washington.”  Homes of American Statesmen: With Anecdotal, Personal, and Descriptive Sketches by Various Writers.  Hartford, CT: O.D. Case and Co., 1855.  Also: (New York: Alfred W. Upham, 1862), 3.

[6] Smith, 48.

[7] Alan Morinis.  Introduction to Sacred Journeys.  The Anthropology of Pilgrimage.  Alan Morinis, ed.  Westport, CT: Greenwood (1992), 3-5.

[8] “Letters of Henry Clay Reveal His Intense Interest in Ashland.”  Lexington (Ky.) Herald, 14 April c. 1920s, 20.

[9] “Links With History: Grounds of a Kentucky Gold Club Once Henry Clay’s.  Ashland’s Great Farm…Interesting Personality of the Great Commoner’s Nephew.  Major McDowell’s Generosity.” The Chicago Tribune, 28 January 28, 188?.

[10] “Mr. Clay at Home.” Green Mountain Gem; a Monthly Journal of Literature, Science and the Art, 15 July 1843, 1.  The article relays the account of a visit to Ashland by the editor of a Cincinnati Methodist Episcopal paper, Western Christian Advocate.

[11] “Visit to Mr. Clay at Ashland.” C.D.S. Niles National Register, 21 June 1845 (In New York Tribune, 25 May 1845).  Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 373.

[12] “Introduction to the Diaries of George Washington.”  George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.  Library of Congress web site:  http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/3gwintro.html.

[13] George Washington,  17 June 1785, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress.  Library of Congress web site.  http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/3gwintro.html

[14] Andrew Jackson was a populist hero, the first “commoner” to hold presidential office, elected in part because he personified the young country’s brash, bold spirit, and sense of destiny.

[15] Mary French Caldwell.  Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage.  Nashville, TN: Ladies’ Hermitage Association (1933), 67.

[16] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate, 387-388.

[17] Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett. At Home: The American Family 1750 – 1870.  New York: Harry N. Abrams (1990), 238-239.

[18] Peterson, The Great Triumvirate…, 373.

[19] Chas W. Coleman, Jr., “Ashland, The Home of Henry Clay,” Century Magazine (December 1886), 167.  Yet the brief period of retirement that Clay did achieve in 1842 was not in fact a retreat from “the busy scenes of public life,” as Washington had described it.  Instead, as biographer Joseph Rogers explained, “The interim was not one of repose…He was constantly called upon to make tours, or to write letters, or deliver speeches…he was, perhaps, as active as at any other period of his life.”  Joseph M. Rogers. The True Henry Clay. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott (1904), 330-331.

[20] “A Visit To Ashland…”, Henry Clay’s Famous Home, 100 Years Ago.” c. 1898.  The Kentucky Explorer, (October 1998), 31.

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