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A fragile and precious artifact periodically makes its appearance at Ashland today: Henry Clay’s ceremonial jacket that he wore at the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. Clay had been part of the American delegation sent to Belgium to negotiate a peace treaty with the British in 1814, which effectively ended the War of 1812. This success brought Clay much acclaim back home – with the jacket emblematic of that triumph.
After Clay died, we know that the Ghent jacket was displayed at Ashland (almost museum-style) by son James. An 1857 journalist who visited relayed that he saw Clay’s “diplomatic suit” and other memorabilia from Clay’s European mission.
After the Civil War and the family’s departure from Ashland, the Ghent jacket – intrigingly – returned to Ashland when it was donated to Kentucky University. The jacket had ended up in the possession of James and Susan’s son, Jimmy, and sometime during the 1872-73 school year he donated it to the University’s Museum of Natural History. (Kentucky University Catalogue, 1872-73. Transylvania University Special Collections.) There amidst the stuffed birds, shells, and bones in the Museum at Ashland, was Henry Clay’s splendid Ghent jacket.
It is unknown if the Ghent jacket was ever on public display in the University Museum at Ashland. But this Clay artifact would have fit well into John B. Bowman’s vision for his museum and its call to the public to donate historical items, “especially anything which will illustrate the lives of our early pioneers and distinguished men…” (Lexington Daily Press, 11 June 1872.)
When Kentucky University left Ashland in the late 1870s, so did the Ghent jacket. The Museum of Natural History’s collection ended up at Transylvania University (on display and in storage today).
The Ghent jacket did not reemerge at Ashland until 1950, when on the museum’s Opening Day, descendant William Clay Goodloe McDowell wore it, posing as Henry Clay for the event.
The jacket by this point was decidedly fragile – McDowell tore one of the sleeves – and it was likely not worn again. Concerns grew over how best to care for it. Lorraine Seay wrote letters to experts in the 1950s and 60s, seeking advice as to how best to store and restore the garment. Displaying it in a glass case was one approach used for many years. Multiple efforts culminated in the past decade when the Ghent jacket was finally properly conserved.
The Ghent jacket remains one of the most important artifacts that the Ashland museum owns and interprets.