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Henry Clay had never been a practicing religious man, but, as the Heidlers put it in Henry Clay, The Essential American, he “had never been irreligious.” Even though his father had been a preacher and his wife Lucretia a devout lifelong Episcopalian, Clay had never joined a church. But with all the political disappointments and so many personal tragedies (especially the deaths of many of his children) Clay, at the age of 70, decided to embrace his wife’s faith as his own.
Entrance into the church required baptism and, normally, Lexington’s Christ Church downtown—that Clay had helped establish years before—would have been the site of the sacrament. But the church was undergoing renovation, so it was decided to celebrate the solemnity in Ashland’s parlor. Clay was to be baptized on June 22, 1847, along with his daughter-in-law Marie Mentelle Clay and her children, his grandchildren.
Intriguingly, Clay just happened to possess the perfect substitute for the church’s baptismal font: a huge cut glass bowl, or vase. According to American glass expert Ian Simmonds, this was a gift to Henry Clay in 1844 from M. & R. H. Sweeney, glass manufacturers of Wheeling, Virginia, and great Whig party supporters. It was a highly public presentation, intended to benefit both the Sweeneys’ business and Clay’s political standing. Letters were exchanged between the parties that were reprinted in newspapers around the country.
The Sweeneys made three of these showy creations, called “float bowls,” for exhibition purposes in the 1840s. The one given to Clay was intended to garner attention, but its placement at Ashland led Clay to lament to the Sweeneys his “regret that the Vase has not some more conspicuous place than in my humble dwelling, where it might be expected and would command the admiration of a greater number than can view it here. But we shall exhibit it to our visitors as a precious testimony of your friendly regard…” (December 14, 1844).
Clay was likely exaggerating because Ashland was no modest house and he received a heavy flow of guests whenever he was home. The amazing piece of glass would have been seen and admired by many. [The vase left Ashland at some point and was said to have been destroyed by fire in the early 20th century.]
But on that blessed June day in 1847, the glass float bowl was employed to perform the sacrament, the Reverend Berkeley’s application of the holy water onto Henry Clay’s forehead, welcoming him into the church.
For more about Henry Clay’s life, see the definitive biography by David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler: Henry Clay: The Essential American (Random House, 2010).
For more about the gifts of glass Clay received, including the float bowl and the decanters on display at Ashland, see Ian Simmonds’ “Henry Clay’s Sherry Decanters” http://www.iansimmonds.com/DownloadsHenryClayDecanters