With Civil War Looming, James and Susan Clay Open Ashland to the Public

YOU ARE HERE -> 1857-1865

Once the second Ashland mansion was complete in 1857, normal hospitality resumed.  Henry Clay’s son James and his wife Susan were, for at least the first years of their tenure, quite open to the public’s visitation, “extending cordial courtesies to almost unnumbered visitors.”

James, Susan, and some of their children on front porch at Ashland, c1860. From left to right: Susan, probably Tommy, family dog, James, probably Charles, probably Susan (Sukie), and probably Lucretia (TeeTee).

The public was especially curious about the new Ashland and flocked to see it.  Visitors to the new, richly furnished Ashland wrote of the powerful impact it had upon them.  Not only were the opulently appointed interiors stunning, but Ashland had now become a shrine to Henry Clay.  Ashland, Clay’s home, even in its new incarnation, remained firmly planted in the public consciousness.

James was eager to retain “the respect of the world and the love of his [father’s] friends,” so he and Susan continued life in the public eye.  They were both well-suited for it as neither of them was a stranger to public prominence: James had been appointed Charge’ d’Affaires to Portugal, serving there with Susan, and the highly-educated Susan had served as Henry Clay’s secretary.  James and Susan placed themselves in the role of public servants and witnesses to the memory of Henry Clay.

Their private needs and issues were often pressing and dire, but their relationship to the public—for the sake of Henry Clay—remained a priority for as long as they occupied Ashland.  They came into the stewardship of Ashland knowing well that their role as hosts would be much like Henry Clay’s with the public descending upon their home.  The spotlight had turned on James and Susan and now life at Ashland meant a very public existence.

1857 view of Lexington. Limestone Street, left; Rose Street, center; and High Street, top. (Ashland would be off this map, right)

A new national popular movement was afoot that coincided with Ashland’s reopening.  Patricia West in Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums, says that by the mid-nineteenth century, a substantial audience existed for house museums—especially Mount Vernon—and American tourism was thriving.  Tourists of the time visited everything from prisons to cemeteries in search of recreation and inspiration.  Places with historical associations, such as Ashland, became patriotic shrines which called for more meaningful travel, popularly known as pilgrimages.

Mount Vernon had been a popular pilgrimage destination for decades before its founding as a public house museum.  The large number of visitors had caused great alarm about damage to the property.  Mount Vernon Ladies Association spokesman Edward Everett wrote in 1860: “‘It is quite natural that the People should wish to visit Mount Vernon, but if they insist on doing it in numbers that put to flight all ideas of private property, they ought to be willing to acquire a right to do so.  They ought to possess themselves legally of the property and not insist upon using it illegally.’”

The concern about pilgrim behavior was a significant impetus to open Mount Vernon as a public museum.  Washington’s estate had been private property, which the public had claimed as its own, much as the public was beginning to do at Ashland.  Ashland, like Mount Vernon, experienced crowds that “put to flight all ideas of private property,” but Clay’s descendants tried to cope with the traffic because of the precedent Henry Clay had set for them.  Law-abiding patriotic pilgrims were always welcome, but James experienced problems with unruly trespassers while the mansion was being rebuilt and he was forced to set limits.

In April of 1855 James gave warning in a local paper:

Others come to Ashland, and without asking permission, carry off whatever happens to suit their fancy.  Against all such trespassers and depredators, the subscriber is determined to put the law in force, and takes this mode to give notice of his intentions.  JAMES B. CLAY.

But the warning wasn’t as effective as he had hoped.  In July he again posted warning in the Lexington Observer & Reporter:

NOTICE.  The subscriber regrets the necessity which compels him to give notice that he will no longer suffer trespassers upon his land.  His pastures are pleasure grounds in which his family are in the habit of riding daily; they are full too of valuable stock; regardless of either persons recklessly amuse themselves by firing guns where there is nothing to shoot at, unless it be singing birds, endangering the lives of people and stock…

James and Susan had responded to the public’s desire for access while they concurrently raised their large family and maintained Ashland.  As they viewed it, living in their new home provided them an opportunity to preserve and present the memory of Henry Clay in an impressive way to the public.  Yet eighteen-room Ashland remained a shelter for their growing family.  James and Susan brought seven children to Ashland and they managed to carve out private space much as Henry Clay had.  Susan gave birth to three children at Ashland, and three of them died in close succession.  Even as their sorrows mounted, there is no evidence that James and Susan’s personal needs or losses prevented them from opening Ashland’s doors to the public.

James and Susan made a point to invite journalists to report on the changes to the house presumably with the expectation that the writers would publicize and cast the new Ashland in a positive light.  These visits occurred when James was running for the U.S. Congress, thus the timing of the visits was presumably related to James’s campaign.

The two reporters’ visits occurred back-to-back in July of 1857.  Susan took one of the men on a tour, James the other.  The writers were shown the grounds and several rooms in the house.  Both published accounts were extremely positive, emphasizing the similarity between the old and the new Ashland, making many pointed references to Henry Clay, and praising the rebuilding by James.  The first visitor, from the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, described what he felt as “sensations of no ordinary emotion,” while the second writer described James and Susan’s hospitality as “elegant” and “generous.”

James’s bid for a United States congressional seat required campaign gatherings, such as the August 1857 political rally on the Ashland grounds which attracted some 5,000 people.  This event was one of the largest gatherings in Ashland’s history (next to Henry Clay’s funeral) and was likely held on the back “pleasure” lawn.  Vice-president John C. Breckinridge, James Clay, and other dignitaries spoke while an “excellent” barbeque dinner was served.

The outbreak of war, however, interrupted the hospitality at Ashland.  As a southern sympathizer in a border state fraught with tension, James could no longer make himself available to the public as his father had.  His visibility as a politician and as Henry Clay’s most prominent son meant that James’s embrace of the Secessionist cause would bring persecution.  He fled in 1861 to exile in Canada.

With James away, Susan and the children faced a frightening event at Ashland: a skirmish broke out on the grounds within view of the house.  Nearly 300 Union troops faced John Hunt Morgan’s 1,800 troops on the morning of October 18th, 1862, resulting in four Union deaths, dozens wounded and an unknown number of Confederate casualties.  Ashland opened its doors to the public in a way it never had or would again: after the skirmish, the house was used temporarily as a hospital for the wounded.

Skirmish at Ashland details – Kent Masterson Brown

Susan rented Ashland out to a sister-in-law when she and the children followed James to Montreal; they were at his bedside when he died of tuberculosis in 1864.

During the Civil War, the public no longer visited Ashland as freely as in the past due to the chaos of the war and general interruption of travel.  The number of visitors to Ashland greatly diminished, but those who managed to come continued to seek inspiration from the spirit of Henry Clay in his former surroundings.  As the war raged, the public’s interest in Ashland continued because Clay increasingly symbolized the antebellum era of hard-won peace and union.  Two men from a Wisconsin regiment made their way to Ashland late in 1862 and published their observations in The Baraboo Republic.   They were undoubtedly tapping into a national longing for union by visiting the Great Compromiser’s home and publishing their account for northern readers.  But the reality of war had intruded upon Ashland’s aura.  The skirmish at Ashland had occurred only weeks before their visit and, as they observed, it ironically took place on the very grounds where the Great Compromiser walked and planned his speeches to save the Union.

The public wanted reassurance that Henry Clay was still with them.  James and Susan responded by making Ashland an open and available memorial site to Clay, but the Civil War effectively removed the family and repelled visitors from Ashland.

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