An American History Museum …In Henry Clay’s House

YOU ARE HERE -> up to 1852

Ashland’s history is unique in the world of historic house museums in that there was a very early and unusual practice of displaying artifacts for a public audience …within Ashland, while it was still a private dwelling.  Henry Clay himself initiated a particular manner of presenting the past in his home.

Henry Clay. 1861 engraving of painting by Alonzo Chappel.

One of the primary features of Clay’s hospitality was his exhibition of historic artifacts.  Through several meaningful objects he invoked the memory of George Washington with the goal of inspiring national unity.  Clay had publicly appealed for remembering Washington as the nation’s original unifier—and brought his cause home to Ashland.  The collection he formed at Ashland was based on this foundation of the collective national memory.  For Clay, the objects he collected and displayed were not merely those involving personal and familial memories, but those reflecting American history and identity.

These historic objects on display at Ashland were intended for a national audience.  Because Ashland was a public destination, this collection was viewed by the thousands of Americans who visited Henry Clay over the years.  The flow of visitors gave him an opportunity to expound on his passionate purpose of unifying the country.  The evidence is fragmentary, but from the extant accounts of visits to Ashland it is clear that Clay had many awe-inspiring objects on display which he consistently shared with his guests.  These artifacts seem to have been concentrated in his receiving parlor and the adjoining second parlor.  Guests were treated to Clay’s interpretation –and evidence from his letters and public speeches indicate how movingly he would have spoken of these objects.

Historic artifacts were certainly important to Henry Clay and, increasingly, to nineteenth-century Americans.  Clay became an outspoken advocate for preserving national history in large part because it fit his passionate purpose: preserving the Union.  He recognized that history was an essential ingredient in defining national, group, and personal identity.  But reverencing America’s history was a relatively new concept in the United States.  François Furstenberg notes that “…once there was a time when the Declaration of Independence was not considered sacred and when the founding fathers were viewed simply as men, rather than as gods to be worshipped…” (“Spinning the Revolution.”  New York Times, 4 July 2006).

The United States of Clay’s lifetime was not as enthusiastically patriotic as might be expected.  Michael Kammen explains that while antebellum and Civil War America was seeking unity and increasingly appealing to the memory of the Founding Fathers, its orientation was predominantly one of present-mindedness and future orientation (e.g., Manifest Destiny) (Mystic Chords of Memory. The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).  Yet, he says, at this time “American history, sanctified as memory and moralized in the person of George Washington, appeared to some people to possess adhesive value.”

Henry Clay was foremost among this group.   In January of 1850 Henry Clay presented two petitions to the Senate that argued for the United States government’s purchase of both Mount Vernon and the manuscript copy of Washington’s Farewell Address in order to preserve both for the public and the future.  The original handwritten Address had been put up for sale by the newspaper that had published it and Mount Vernon was just beginning to be publicly recognized as worthy of preservation.  Clay was an early historic preservation advocate, recognizing the value of historic objects and places like Mount Vernon.

Yet most Americans believed that the government bore virtually no responsibility for the nation’s political memory or tradition. Clay’s petitions advocated that both Washington relics be in national, rather than private, possession so that they would be accessible to all Americans.  Clay asked:

Who is there that would not find refreshment and delight behind the Farewell Address of Washington?… Who is there that would not trace the paternal and patriotic advice which was written in his own hand—that hand which, after having grasped the sword that achieved the liberties of our country, traced with the instrument of peace the document which then gave us that advice, so necessary to preserve and transmit to posterity the treasure he had bestowed on us? (From Clay’s Comment to the Senate, 31 March 1848).

Henry Clay was convinced that anything related to Washington promised to unite Americans in a shared heritage, therefore mollifying the nation’s bitter divisions, as he himself had long endeavored to do.  Stephen Oates relates that, at one point in Clay’s pivotal Compromise of 1850 speech, he invoked Washington in his call for unity by mentioning a “‘precious relic’” he possessed, a fragment from Washington’s coffin.  Holding it up in the air, Clay tongue-in-cheek proclaimed that the “‘venerated’ father of the country was warning Congress from Mount Vernon not to destroy his handiwork.”

Henry Clay emphasized the importance of artifacts to the young nation because, he argued, while historic accounts are undeniably important, tangible objects that may be seen and touched speak directly to people’s hearts.  To prove this point, he cited an especially treasured artifact in his collection at Ashland:

…although we may derive great pleasure from tracing the narratives of the glory of our ancestors…yet some physical memorial of them, some tangible, palpable object, always addresses itself to our hearts and to our feelings…Sir, in my own humble parlor at Ashland, I have at this moment a broken goblet which was used by General Washington, during almost the whole of the revolutionary war…there is nothing in that parlor so much revered, or which is an object of greater admiration to the stranger who comes to see me.  This feeling of attachment to these objects, associated with the memory of those we venerate…is not merely a private feeling of attachment; it is a broader, more comprehensive, and national feeling…these are feelings which are worthy of being countenanced and cherished by public authority. (Comment to the Senate, 31 March 1848.)

Clay derived personal delight from his historic artifacts, but he stressed that such objects were intended to reach the nation, to touch the public.  Ashland’s display of artifacts became a means to document and preserve American history.

The Washington goblet. Once owned by George Washington and used by him during the Revolution; later owned by Henry Clay and displayed in the parlor at Ashland.

Memorializing George Washington was the special focus for Clay and his visitors at Ashland. While Clay proudly exhibited such objects as a miniature ‘Liberty Bell’ made from shavings of the original and presented to Clay by the city of Philadelphia, his most treasured artifacts honored and recalled George Washington who perfectly symbolized national union.

The Washington goblet was undoubtedly the most awe-inspiring artifact at Ashland.  This artifact, which Washington’s hand had touched, was a precious memorial of the Founding Father’s achievements.  Henry Clay was described as bringing out this “‘greatest treasure’” for an 1847 visitor.   From the above-mentioned speech it is known that he also owned a fragment of Washington’s coffin.

And another Washington-related highlight for visitors was the frequently mentioned painting of The Washington Family which dominated the parlor.  Nearly every visitor recalled the huge picture and gazed upon it “with renewed respect and well nigh reverence.” [The original painting, now hanging in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Edward Savage’s Washington’s Family, was painted between 1789 and 1796 and became a national icon. It depicts Martha’s grandson George Washington Parke Custis, George Washington, Martha’s granddaughter Eleanor Parke Custis, Martha, and an enslaved servant, probably William Lee. (84 x 111”)  The Washington Family, Henry Inman’s copy of the original, was commissioned by James C. Johnston in 1844 and presented to Henry Clay for Mrs. Clay.  The portrait remained in the Clay family—but not at Ashland after the Civil War—until 1958 when it was donated to Ashland.]

Henry Inman’s The Washington Family (after Edward Savage, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) which was featured in Henry Clay’s parlor at Ashland.

Over the years Henry Clay had amassed an impressive assortment of patriotic artifacts, portraits, and gifts of all kinds.  The varied visitors’ accounts taken together provide a fuller glimpse of what was on display.  Upon one thing all agreed: there was an extraordinary number of objects.  The day before Henry Clay’s funeral, visitors to the mansion marveled at the many gifts Clay had received: “countless tokens of affection and regard showered upon him by his loving countrymen.  There were…the antiques, the costly, the curious and the grotesque, enough for an entire community…”  This large collection on display caused some visitors to claim that Ashland seemed like “a veritable museum of gifts.”  And according to one visitor, all of these items were very carefully arranged:  “the thousand other presents that are daily poured into Ashland—each filling its appropriate place as indicated by Mr. Clay.  Nothing was out of place.”

Without detailed descriptions of where and how these items were displayed, it is still possible to conclude two things: many objects were exhibited in the public rooms of the house, and they appear to have been presented in an orderly way.  By Clay’s intentional ordering and exhibition of these objects for the visiting public, he had essentially created a museum-like display at Ashland.  Although many of these items were gifts that Clay had not personally selected, Clay used them to full advantage by assembling them meaningfully in his home.

By the creation of his national history collection, Clay created something of a museum at Ashland.  Henry Clay put the past on display for the public and provided a witness to American history.  Clay gave the public a view of the past, which was key to his work in the present.  His relics and his legacy would form the basis of the museological collection that would be displayed at Ashland to the present day.

One thought on “An American History Museum …In Henry Clay’s House

  1. I have long admired Clay as one of our country’s greatest statesman, but his appreciation of tangible objects that “speak directly to people’s hearts” adds yet another dimension to the extraordinary man. Thank you!!

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