Henry Clay and Ashland

Peter W. Schramm

June 1, 1999

In 1822, just seven years after the town had been laid out, a storekeeper in Uniontown, Ohio, got up a petition for a post office. That petition was refused because there was at least one other Uniontown in Ohio. Congressman John Sloan recommended that the name of the town be changed to Ashland. It was agreed to because this was Whig country, and the Whig politician Henry Clay was very popular in this area, and Ashland was the name of his two-hundred acre estate in Lexington, Kentucky. The post office was established. By 1825 everyone had become used to calling the place Ashland

By this time, Henry Clay had already been Speaker of the House for five sessions and had been one of the prime movers behind the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (this settled the controversy over the expansion of slavery until 1854). He was famous and popular. He already held the nickname “Harry of the West” (as in Prince Hal of Shakespeare fame) as well as the “Great Compromiser.”

Clay’s political career is one of the most interesting in our history. In and out of the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State (under President John Quincy Adams), he preferred the excitement and tumult of the House of Representatives. He thought the Senators practiced a kind of artificial dignity that made them all boring. He was very smart, very congenial, one of the best rhetoricians going, and a serious political enemy of Andrew Jackson. Years ago, when I was a student, I discovered that Jackson had called Clay a “profligate demagogue.” My interest in, and
affection for, Henry Clay started then and there. I love old-fashioned partisanship.

I suppose that appeal had to do with his disposition and character, a character that can best be described as chivalrous. He was impassioned, direct, forceful, and always gracious. He liked to act, more than he liked to talk–yet he was one of the great orators of his day, with a melodious voice “whose every tone was music’s own.” He had a great mind and a great heart. His impulsiveness–many compared his politics to that of a western riverboat gambler, indeed, even a gamester could rarely resist the long shot.

He seemed to love a crisis. Abraham Lincoln later said of him that he was “the man for a crisis.” And there were plenty of crises during the first half of the nineteenth century; most ending in compromises that Clay helped craft (including the Compromise of 1850). It is no wonder that Lincoln, a Whig until 1856, considered Henry Clay a great man: “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.” Henry Clay died on June 29, 1852. On July 6, in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln delivered a eulogy. In this lengthy, and thoughtful talk, Lincoln said of Clay:

He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.

The estate of Ashland, now only twenty acres, is in a fashionable part of Lexington. It is a lovely two story brick house, originally built in 1806. Clay enlarged it with two symmetrical wings in 1811, and lived there until his death in 1852. It has occurred to me that if we ever get around to building an edifice that would house the Ashbrook Center, it should—loosely—be patterned after Clay’s estate. There are many solid historical connections. As John Ashbrook was a Lincoln man, so was he a Clay man.

We left this congenial spot, in a pleasant city, surrounded by striking horse farms, for Hodgenville–Lincoln’s birthplace. The famed log cabin is now inside a marble memorial—a shrine, really—that was paid for and erected by over 100,000 private donations. Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone in 1909, and two years later President William Howard Taft dedicated the granite temple. If the Lincoln Memorial in Washington is the omega, this place is the alpha. Impressive.

And then it was on to Tennessee and Fort Donelson, Shiloh (where Grant made his reputation), and Stones River. The striking thing about the battles in Tennessee is that one cannot help seeing the grand strategy that the Union was compelled to follow: seize the rivers (Tennessee, Cumberland, and especially the Mississippi) and the rail lines that ran southeast through Tennessee and Georgia thereby driving a wedge into the heart of the Confederacy.

Grant later summed up his understanding of generalship: “Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike at him as soon as you can and as often as you can, and keep moving on.”

We wanted to see the culmination of that strategy: Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River. We rode down on the Natchez Trace Parkway (the length of it is from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee; over 400 miles). This is a lovely, non-commercial road–run by the National Park Service–and you are limited to a speed of 50 miles per hour, which was perfect for us. It was originally a trading route, used by Indians, and then farmers in the Ohio River Valley who would take their crops and products down the rivers to Natchez or New Orleans, sell their flatboats for lumber, and walk back home on the Natchez Trace. By the 1820’s, with the use of steamboats forth and back, the Trace had become a peaceful byroad, which it remains today.

We got within seventy miles of Vicksburg before a series of thunderstorms and hail the size of Confederate musket balls forced us to retreat back North. That’s all right, it took Grant two tries to take the mightiest fortress on the Mississippi. We’ll try again next year.