American Lives: Reconsidering Henry Clay

Henry Clay i i

hide captionHenry Clay is perhaps best known as an architect of the Compromise of 1850, which upheld slavery, but also averted the splitting of the Union a decade before the Civil War.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Henry Clay

Henry Clay is perhaps best known as an architect of the Compromise of 1850, which upheld slavery, but also averted the splitting of the Union a decade before the Civil War.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Henry Clay was a leading 19th century representative, senator and presidential candidate.

He was a nationalist, a supporter of roads and industries, and had a hand in pretty much every matter that affected life and politics in America.

But there was another, more conflicted side to the Kentucky statesman.

Henry Clay condemned slavery — but owned slaves.

David and Jeanne Heidler, authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American, have tried to make sense of Clay's stance on slavery. They tell NPR's Steve Inskeep that it wasn't until he fell under the tutelage of George Wythe, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, that Clay began to think seriously about the issue.

"Wythe was one of many of the founding generation who saw the contradiction between slavery existing in the country — a country that was supposedly founded on principles of liberty and freedom," Jeanne Heidler says. "That very much influenced Clay and ... when Clay traveled to Kentucky after he studied law, he was very active in the effort for gradual emancipation of [slaves]."

Henry Clay
Henry Clay: The Essential American
By David S. Heidler
Hardcover, 624 pages
Random House
List price: $30
Read An Excerpt

Clay believed that the slow abolition of slavery in Kentucky could serve as an example to other states, but he failed and eventually became a slave owner himself — first through inheritance, then through marriage.

Jeanne Heidler says he kept his slaves because of the status it gave him but continued to oppose the practice on principle.

Not surprisingly, the situation made for some uncomfortable moments in Clay's public career. In one 1840s episode, Clay was confronted at a political meeting in Indiana by the Quaker Hiram Mendenall, who handed Clay a petition calling for him to free his slaves.

According to David Heidler, Clay's reaction was jarring:

"Clay delivers a scathing address, attacks [Mendenall] not for being an abolitionist but for being boorish — for being rude to greet a guest in Indiana with a petition that was clearly meant to embarrass him. And in this address, Clay tells Mendenhall that it would be no more appropriate for him, Henry Clay, to greet him, Hiram Mendenhall, with a petition that he give up his farm."

With that speech, Clay essentially reduced slaves to their then-legal standing as property — hardly abolitionist behavior. What's more is that one of Clay's own slaves was in the crowd that day, hearing Clay compare him to a piece of real estate.

"It's a very striking contradiction and it was probably the most troubling part of the book to write in the sense that we tried to come to understand how someone could spend his entire adult life speaking against slavery and yet continue to own slaves," Jeanne Heidler says.

But Henry Clay was no Thomas Jefferson — who was also a slaveholding abolitionist and former pupil of Wythe's. David Heidler says he believes that in the end, Clay was much more honest about his hypocrisy than the Founding Father.

"There's the sense that Clay is very much troubled by this," David Heidler says, "especially at the end of his life."

During this period, Clay wrote a letter to his brother-in-law Richard Pendell in which he staged an outright attack on slavery. The correspondence came to be known as The Pendell Letter, and it essentially sealed Clay's political future and destroyed any chance he may have had at winning the presidency.

"The North did not believe him and the South distrusted him," David Heidler says. "But the letter is sincere."

It wasn't until his last will and testament that Clay finally carried out the intention of The Pendell Letter. He freed his slaves; he provided for their education and training in trades; and, most important, he finally allowed his actions to fall in line with his principles.

Excerpt: 'Henry Clay: The Essential American'

Henry Clay
Henry Clay: The Essential American
By David S. Heidler
Hardcover, 624 pages
Random House
List price: $30

The Slashes

In the year 1777 the United States was less than a year old and at war. It was also deeply divided over the wisdom of that war and doubtful in the main about its conclusion. And yet for much of the country the war was a distant event. Britain chose to focus on what it regarded as the hotbeds of pro-war sentiment, which were in the Northeast. The strategic decision to isolate New England kept the war centered on New York and made it remote for the rest of the thirteen erstwhile colonies, at least for a time. Now styling themselves as sovereign states united for the purpose of fighting this war and not much else, the new United States confronted the complicated and divisive nature of their enemy. The rebellion that had become the Revolution also became a civil war. Little wonder that many did not hold out much hope for success.

This was the world that greeted Henry Clay on April 12, 1777, two years almost to the day after the shedding of first blood at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts that marked the beginning of the shooting war with Britain. In that respect, he and his country were intertwined in both origin and destiny.

Henry Clay was a member of the sixth generation of a family that had been in colonial Virginia for more than a hundred and fifty years. John Clay was the first of that line, emigrating from England around 1612. Descendants maintained that John was the son of a Welsh aristocrat, but there is no definitive proof of the claim. If John's pedigree was unremarkable, though, his industry once he arrived in the New World was admirable. Hard work and two good marriages brought him property and prominence. His marriage to Elizabeth — his second, her third — produced Charles in 1645. Ten years later, when John died, he left a considerable estate. Charles married Hannah Wilson and commenced something of a Clay tradition for producing large families. He and Hannah had seven children, three of them girls, though the female children had a distressing way of dying young, a peculiarity that tragically repeated itself in subsequent generations. Charles's boys, however, were not only hale, two of them were well-nigh immortal. Charles Jr., born in 1676, lived to see ninety, and his older brother, Henry, born in 1672, nearly matched that endurance, dying in 1760 at age eighty-eight. Such longevity was rare anywhere in the world, let alone in hardscrabble colonial Virginia.

The elder Charles was a prosperous planter whose lands lay on the Virginia frontier, vulnerable to hostile Indians and persistently ignored by the colonial government in Jamestown. For those beyond the sight line of the eastern elite, prosperity did not necessarily mean security, and success did not breed prudence when it came to their relations with the Crown's neglectful representatives. Sir William Berkeley's administration proved indifferent to mounting protests, and Charles Clay joined Nathaniel Bacon's rebellion in 1676 that chased Governor Berkeley to the Eastern Shore of Virginia and briefly set up a rival government for the colony. Bacon's Rebellion did not last long, but its occurrence made an impression on the royal administration. Charles Clay emerged from the event unpunished.

Clay lands were originally in Henrico County, a large district that spanned both sides of the James River. In 1749, the Virginia Assembly had established Chesterfield County out of Henrico, making it the new district within which sat "?The Raels," the Clay plantation that belonged to Charles's son, the long-lived Henry. While in his late thirties, Henry married teenaged Mary Mitchell sometime before 1709 and began a family that would also number seven children. The youngest, John, survived Henry by only two years, dying young at forty-one in 1762. Around 1740, though, he married affluent Sarah Watkins and had two sons with her before her untimely death at age twenty-five; the elder of them, also named John, was Henry Clay's father.

John Clay was born in 1742 and at age twenty inherited his father's plantation, "Euphraim," in Henrico County with about twelve slaves. Three years later, he married fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Hudson, the daughter of a substantial Hanover County family. The Hudsons owned roughly five hundred acres of cultivated fields and pasturage three miles from Hanover Court House and sixteen miles north of Richmond. Elizabeth and her older sister, Mary, were to inherit this property in equal portions, a legacy sure to enhance John's already impressive holdings.

John and Elizabeth lived at Euphraim and in characteristic Clay fashion began working on a large family. Sadly, they had limited success, for their children died with a frequency remarkable even for a time when it was frightfully easy for children to die. They lost their first girl, Molly, so quickly that she does not even appear in many genealogical charts or biographical accounts. Their second child, Betty, lived only a little more than ten years, and the third, a boy named Henry after his paternal great-grandfather, only about eight years. Even the subsequent children were for the most part frail or just unlucky: George, born in 1771 and named after Elizabeth's father, did not reach twenty, and Sarah, born some three years later, died at twenty-one.

George Hudson's estate technically belonged to Mary and Elizabeth after his death in 1773, but his will also stipulated that their mother could remain on the farm in Hanover County for the rest of her life. She herself was elderly and feeble, and her need for care and companionship probably prompted the Clays to move from Euphraim to the Hudson farm in early 1777. Elizabeth was heavy with her seventh child, who turned out to be her fourth son. Thus it happened that Henry Clay was born at the Hudson home in Hanover County on April 12. They named him in remembrance of both his ancestor and his dead brother.

John made arrangements to establish sole ownership of the Hudson farm by buying out the interest Mary and her husband, John Watkins, had in the property. It was there, his birthplace, that Henry would spend his first years. He responded to a question many years later about its exact location by casually observing that his memory was sketchy about the matter because "I was very young at my birth." But he could approximately place it as having been "between Black Tom's Slash, and Hanover Court-house." The farm sat in that part of Hanover County called "the Slashes" because of the swampy terrain covered with thick undergrowth. The house was probably much like the one at Euphraim in Henrico County, though possibly more accommodating for a growing family. The Hudson home was a clapboard structure of one and a half stories, three prominent dormer windows resembling doghouses jutting from the sloping roof and offering a pleasant view through old growth trees of nearby Machump's Creek. Two large masonry chimneys of either stone or brick rose prominently on each end of the house, a mark of affluence when poor farmers had only one chimney, often made of logs.

The old Hudson place, which John and Elizabeth named Clay's Spring, was modest in comparison with the grand mansions of the Virginia Tidewater. Clay's forebears had at one time owned thousands of acres, but successive generations had divided the lands among numerous heirs. Earlier, until Virginia abolished entail in 1776, eldest sons inherited the lion's share of estates, relegating their siblings to the ranks of lesser planters. Except for his father, most of Henry Clay's paternal ancestors had not been eldest sons.

Clay's Spring was a handsome establishment, though. In addition to the main house, an extra room had been added around one of the chimneys, and the yard was fenced. Various outbuildings helped in the workaday business of growing corn, tobacco, and wheat as well as livestock, all with the labor of about twenty slaves. The income from the farm and Euphraim, left in the hands of an overseer, supported a growing family. In addition to John Clay (born around 1775) and young Henry, Elizabeth bore another son, in 1779, whom they named Porter.

Little remains to draw a clear picture of Henry Clay's father, John Clay. No physical description survives, nor is there any detailed recollection of memorable events in his life. He might have been an imposing man with an air of authority, characteristics suggested by references to him in legal records of Hanover and Chesterfield counties as "Sir John Clay." Neither he nor any of his American ancestors had been knighted, and even the supposition that the title was an honorific out of respect for the family's aristocratic British ancestry makes little sense. Years later Henry explained away the title as merely "a sobriquet" his father had somehow acquired. It was a credible explanation suggesting that like the honorary Kentucky colonel, John Clay was respected enough by both neighbors and the courts to merit the mark of natural nobility. It was, in any case, destined to be something of a family trait.

Excerpted from Henry Clay by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler Copyright © 2010 by David S. Heidler. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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The Essential American

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