We Were Soon Perfectly At Home, As Everyone Must Be With Mr. Clay

YOU ARE HERE -> c1820s-1852

Henry Clay rose in an era when appearing to be a “commoner” was advantageous for one’s political image.  Andrew Jackson, the “common man,” benefited from this perception.  Henry Clay himself was known as the “Great Commoner,” but for Clay this was no act; in his words and behaviors, he personified the unpretentious man.  Especially when home at Ashland he was markedly informal and accessible.  Clay’s grandson-in-law Major McDowell later said that Clay was a “believer in the utmost freedom, was thoroughly democratic in his tastes, and that while alive it was easy for the humblest citizen to approach him.” [1]

Like Jackson, Clay was aware that the common touch would win votes.  Clay even designed his (large) home in a consciously modest way to project that image.  Yet Clay’s affable conviviality was part of his true personality.  For most of his public life, he delighted in meeting and conversing with others.  While his stature as a statesman and his renowned voice awed and intimidated, Clay took every opportunity to dispel any barriers.  This was particularly true when he was home at Ashland.  With the exception of his later years when he was ill, Clay seemed always at the ready to welcome visitors.  After unsettling them a bit, he regularly surprised and delighted them.

Henry Clay, engraving of painting by Chappel

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello had a formal waiting room designated for public visitors who were made to wait to see the famous man, if allowed to see him at all.  Ashland had no such arrangement; one of the servants would usually answer the door, but oftentimes it was Clay himself who did so.  The entrance hall was directly off Clay’s parlor where he received guests.  Once a visitor entered Ashland’s front door, he or she was already quite in the middle of things.

Jefferson, Jackson, and George Washington received droves of visitors to their estates.  In accounts of those visits, timetables and schedules and the need to adhere to them were part of the experience.  No such mention of schedule is made in the extant accounts of visitors to Henry Clay’s Ashland, except when remarking upon the slow, leisurely nature of it all.   It is clear from visitors’ recollections that Clay devoted considerable amounts of time to his guests, inviting them in for conversation and dining, taking them around his estate, cutting flowers for them, showing off his horses.  He never gave the impression that they were an intrusion upon his space or his time. When visitors in 1845 called upon Clay late in the day, he felt the visit had been too short and invited them back the following day. [2]

Henry Clay’s relaxed style set people at ease.  He brought his guests into his world and treated them as equals.  Nervous visitors, like a writer for the Niles National Register, quickly relaxed in his presence:

I have at last realized one of my dearest wishes, that of seeing Henry Clay at Ashland…Mr. Clay…meeting us at the door, took hold of our hands before I could even present a letter of introduction, and made us welcome in his house.  His manners completely overcame all the ceremonies of speech I had prepared, and I was so nervous as to give my left hand instead of my right for his grasp.  But we were soon perfectly at home, as every one must be with Mr. Clay…and I felt as though I had known him personally for years. [3]

At Ashland’s dining table, there was no seating by rank, a normal custom of the time.  In fact, Henry Clay unconventionally often chose to sit next to child guests.

One child’s experience vividly illustrates Clay’s unusual hospitality.  A father and young son came to Ashland but discovered other gentlemen already present for dinner.  The father told the boy to go out on the lawn to play while he joined the other men.

After dinner, Henry Clay spotted the boy and called to him, “My young friend, I owe you an apology.”  He told his guests, “Go into the library, gentlemen, and light your cigars – I will join you presently.”  Henry Clay then led the young boy to the dining table, ordered his servants to provide him dinner, and sat down and conversed with him “delightfully” as the boy ate. [4]

Another young visitor had a similarly memorable experience at Ashland: when seven-year-old Josephine Russell [5] came to Ashland with her parents and a group of other adults, she recalled being welcomed by Henry and Lucretia in the dining room.  Her father and Henry Clay engaged in an animated discussion.  When it was time for dinner, Clay asked Josephine to sit beside him at the dinner table:

…she appreciated the honor, but was hardly prepared for it, and felt rather abashed; but [Clay], while entertaining his other guests with that brilliant playfulness which was so remarkable, would drop an occasional word into her ear and attend personally to her plate.  She was beginning to feel bland and self-possessed until helped to an artichoke – something she detested – and she could not eat, although politeness seemed to require the sacrifice.  In her excited state, the artichoke increased in bulk and she thought it would attract eyes to her discredit.  But presto!  The great man who had brought the trouble upon her removed it.  ‘So you don’t like artichokes,’ he said, ‘Why, I adore them,’ and straightaway the conical, oval-scaled vegetable was appropriated to his use. [6]

Popular image of Clay at Ashland

[1] “Links With History.  Grounds of a Kentucky Gold Club Once Henry Clay’s.  Ashland’s Great Farm…Interesting Personality of the Great Commoner’s Nephew.  Major McDowell’s Generosity.” The Chicago Tribune, 28 January 28, 188?.

[2] “Visit to Mr. Clay at Ashland.” C.D.S. Niles National Register, 21 June 1845 (In New York Tribune, 25 May 1845).

[3] “Visit to Mr. Clay at Ashland.” C.D.S. Niles National Register, 21 June 1845 (In New York Tribune, 25 May 1845).

[4] Rogers, Amelia Clay Van Meter.  “Ashland, The Home of Henry Clay.”  (MA Thesis, University of Kentucky, 1934), 14.

[5] Josephine would in fact spend most of her adult life living and working at Ashland, marrying Henry Clay’s grandson and after his death in the Civil War, marrying Henry Clay’s son, John.  Simpson, Henry Clay Jr.  Josephine Clay: Pioneer Horsewoman of the Bluegrass.  (Prospect, KY:  Harmony House, 2005).

[6] Simpson, Henry Clay Jr.  Josephine Clay: Pioneer Horsewoman of the Bluegrass.  (Prospect, KY:  Harmony House, 2005), 6.

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