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Named for the towering ash trees growing there, Henry Clay’s Ashland was no commonplace property. Because of Clay’s prominence and the fact that he cherished and spoke often of his estate in Kentucky, Ashland became nationally known and an inseparable part of Clay’s public identity. Clay had lent his celebrity to Ashland and the estate was as familiar to Americans of his time as Washington’s Mount Vernon or Jefferson’s Monticello. Music, hats, books, ash wood canes, and other presidential campaign memorabilia paid tribute to Clay’s beloved estate and were much in vogue in nineteenth-century America.
A popular engraving widely circulated during Clay’s lifetime depicted “The Sage of Ashland” seated in a chair on his front lawn, the mansion’s façade behind him. After his death in 1852 the picture was amended, showing only an empty chair in front of the house.
As towns, cities, and counties were formed all over the expanding United States, many took the name ‘Ashland,’ including Clay’s hometown in Hanover County, Virginia. At least thirty localities in the United States are named for Henry Clay’s estate. A Kentucky-born mayor named a major street in Chicago Ashland Avenue. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Ashland was indeed a household word.
And to this day, the remaining acreage at Ashland is known as “The Henry Clay Estate.” This tract of beautiful Kentucky land remains a vibrant reminder of the statesman’s great passion for his Bluegrass home. Not only did Ashland symbolize his status and aspirations, it was often observed that Clay’s love for his estate was one of the strongest affections of his life. He viewed Ashland as his personal paradise, exclaiming, “I love old Ashland, and all these acres with their trees and flowers and growing grain allure me in a way that ambition never can.”
Clay took great pride in the fact that he had worked for and purchased everything on his estate, having received none of it as a gift or inheritance. Historian Samuel M. Wilson said, “While Henry Clay loved Lexington and his adopted state of Kentucky, and was passionately devoted to his country, Ashland was…always and everywhere the haven of his heart, the central pivot of his personal interest and his professional activities. To him it meant home, happiness, and the inexpressible sweets of domestic peace.”
He fancied himself a country gentleman and the grounds were laid out much like a rural English estate. A prominent visitor from England, Lord Morpeth, Earl of Carlisle, concurred, claiming that Ashland was “the nearest approach to an English park of any in this country.” Charles W. Coleman Jr. wrote that after Clay’s 1815 trip to Europe, “[H]is model seems to have been an English country seat … A park of superb forest trees, sloping lawns sheeted with the luxuriant bluegrass… From the mountains were transplanted dogwoods, redbuds, pines, hollies, and other flowering and ornamental trees; and handsome shrubs, not indigenous to the country, were dotted about the lawns. Tan-bark walks were laid, heavily shaded by avenues of hemlocks, ashes, and walnuts.”
A contemporary described Ashland in 1845 as possessing “beautiful shade trees, shrubs, flowers, and fruit orchards. From the road which passes his place on the northwest side, a carriage course leads up to the house, lined with locust, cypress, cedar, and other rare trees, and the rose jasmine and ivy were clustered about them… Mr. Clay’s mansion is nearly hidden from the road by the trees surrounding it, and is as quiet and secluded, save to the throng of pilgrims continually pouring up there to greet its more than royal possessor…”
Read more about Ashland’s distinctive Ginkgo Trees.