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Even though Henry Clay spent much of the year away from Ashland—in Washington, DC and other travel—when he was at home, he received many of the most important figures of his time, including his fellow American statesmen, lawyers, judges, educators, clergymen, merchants, doctors, members of the English nobility, authors, artists, musicians, and philosophers.
Abraham Lincoln’s presence at Ashland, though, is more of a puzzle. Lincoln admired Henry Clay and studied his speeches, using Clay’s thoughts and words in forming his own political philosophy. We know that Lincoln visited Lexington (his wife’s town) on more than one occasion, and in 1847 did hear Clay give a speech downtown. We know that Clay and Lincoln knew of one another. Clay sent a gift to Lincoln: a book inscribed “To Abraham Lincoln: With constant regard to friendship—H. Clay Ashland—11 May 1847.” But the mystery remains in that there is no recorded evidence of Lincoln’s having visited Henry Clay at Ashland.
But the future president of the U.S. Confederacy during the Civil War, Kentucky-born Jefferson Davis, indeed visited Ashland. Davis was a close friend of Henry Clay, Jr. and, as Ashland curator Eric Brooks explains, Davis “would later rise to be Clay’s colleague in the U.S. Senate. Davis admired Clay and remembered his friendly tones from youth, but never idolized him the way Lincoln had. In fact, Davis would later stand in firm opposition to Henry Clay.” Yet, Davis’s bond with Henry Jr. forged an “unspoken, unbreakable bond between Davis and Henry Clay.”
In 1819, then current president of the United States (1817–1825) James Monroe (1758-1831) intended to visit Clay at Ashland while on a western tour of the country, but because of travel delays, Clay missed him.
Apparently Clay’s future nemesis, Andrew Jackson, was along on the trip with Monroe and ultimately never did visit Ashland. There is another story—perhaps apocryphal—that Jackson traveled through Lexington at another time, and while passing Ashland on the main road, paused to gaze at his enemy’s home, but instead of paying a call, proceeded on his way.
The great French hero who had been a general in the American Revolutionary War, Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), came to Washington on a “triumphal tour of the country” in December of 1824 where Speaker Clay greeted him with a tribute. Lafayette went on to visit Lexington on his farewell tour of America in May of 1825. Clay was in Washington, but Lucretia received the French General at Ashland on her husband’s behalf.
Well-known English social reformer and author Harriet Martineau (1802-1876) made an extended visit to the United States and enjoyed a languorous summer visit to Ashland in 1835 where the hospitality and environment delighted her: “The house was in the midst of grounds gay with verdure and flowers…and our favorite seats were the steps of the hall, and chairs under the trees. From there we could watch the play of the children…” She described Ashland’s bounteous fare: “Tender meats, fresh vegetables, good claret and champagne, with daily piles of strawberries and towers of ice cream…”
In November of 1840, ninth President-elect William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) visited Clay to discuss cabinet appointments for his new administration. A few months later, Harrison would be the first U.S. president to die in office.
According to Clay biographers David and Jeanne Heidler, “Clay’s generous hospitality included lavish dinners, continuously filled glasses, exciting outings to horse races, and sparkling repartee.” (Henry Clay: The Essential American, 2010).