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YOU ARE HERE -> 1857

After Henry Clay’s death, his national historic-themed display at Ashland evolved into son James’s Henry Clay tribute display.  James and Susan continued the practice of displaying artifacts within the mansion for public viewing, but now the collection centered on those related to Clay’s life.  They honored Henry Clay’s collection by repeating and embellishing it with more of his own possessions.

Henry Clay artifacts

When Clay died, his possessions had been distributed among family and friends, the majority among his sons, and much of his historical collection was dispersed.  While most of his belongings would be kept in the private homes of his descendants, James and Susan followed Clay’s lead and encouraged public viewing of the artifacts they had inherited.  Virtually every Henry Clay artifact that they owned was carefully and proudly exhibited in the public rooms at Ashland.

Like Clay, they provided a view of the past—which was now Henry Clay in the context of America’s history—to the public.  This exhibition, then, separated their collection from other Clay family members’ domestic displays, and caused Ashland to function as something of a public museum once again.

Yet the Ashland house itself—newly rebuilt—was the most precious Henry Clay artifact James and Susan possessed.  Even in its new incarnation, it more than anything else symbolized Henry Clay and it served to envelop all the other artifacts.  Susan defended the rebuilding of the mansion specifically because of its function as a worthy container of Clay artifacts, claiming that the association of Ashland and Henry Clay would be better made for pilgrims to this “shrine” through the creation of a fitting edifice to “enclose the interesting memorials of the Patriot.”  The new Ashland mansion now represented and paid tribute to the old Ashland and was itself a display item.  James and Susan’s house not only enclosed a museum, it was a crucial element of that museum.

Italian marble mantel in new Ashland

As Clay had believed in the power of objects to inspire patriotism, so James and Susan did when they reopened Ashland, filled with artifacts “with which the rooms…abound…”  James’s inherited artifacts included the large painting of The Washington Family, re-installed in its original parlor location.

But not only did they exhibit many of the items that Clay himself had displayed, now the objects that he had personally used came before the public and became just as highly revered.  James and Susan obviously agreed with Henry Clay’s sentiment that tangible objects—those actually touched by the person—were especially powerful.  Clay’s personal possessions, especially those related to the great accomplishment that was the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, were now well represented; his ceremonial Ghent jacket and other items from his European trip symbolized his work as a peace commissioner and the larger idea of world peace.

On display in James and Susan’s Ashland: Clay’s Treaty of Ghent jacket.

Guided by Susan through the public rooms of the house, an impressed 1857 visitor described these and other items:

I entered the study—HENRY CLAY’S library, studded with memorials of him—with feelings almost of awe.  I sat on the old, well preserved, old-fashioned chair, sat in oft by him…examined his writing and dressing case, inscribed ‘H. Clay, American Minister, Ghent,’ lifted his ink-stand, so long the fountain into which his pen was dipped when conducting his correspondence and compositions…Here are old tables and sofas as they were used by the Ashland sage…A tortoise case containing his gold spectacles…A circular gold snuff box containing a lock of Henry Clay’s hair and a lock of Mrs. Clay’s…A diamond ring of great brilliance, on his finger when he died… (Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 4 Jul 1857)

In the new Ashland, Henry Clay’s biography was put in the context of the larger American story.  His relics placed alongside George Washington’s sent a clear message about Clay’s importance and place in the national drama.  In the anxiety-fraught final years before the war, James and Susan in essence, through Clay’s legacy, continued his efforts to save the Union.  Antebellum Americans considered Henry Clay the Great Compromiser, the one who for so long preserved the Union, thus it was probably with urgent and passionate purpose that James and Susan created a tribute to Henry Clay that served to make his name and cause immortal.

The elegant rebuilt house and luxurious interiors as backdrop for Clay relics underscored Clay’s eminence with particular dignity.  James and Susan’s home would not simply be a family home with personal memorabilia; this was a public museum, patriotic shrine, and site of apotheosis and inspiration.

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