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.”1 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.2
It was not an easy life, but it must have seemed a good one, with God not only in His heaven but also very much in the household and life of the Clays. Generally, religion was not as important for Virginians as for, say, New Englanders. The rural setting with scattered, sparse populations meant that churches tended to be isolated in both material and spiritual ways. People wed in their parlors, christened their children in their homes, and buried family in graves dug on their farms rather than among orderly headstones in church cemeteries. Noah Webster, visiting from New England, observed these practices with sniffing disdain when he noted that Virginians placed “their churches as far as possible from town and their play houses in the center.”3
John Clay expended considerable effort trying to correct that. Around the time of his marriage he received “the call.” Eventually he became the Baptists’ chief apostle in Hanover County, working to change attitudes that were not necessarily irreligious but did find the Church of England emotionally unsatisfy- ing and spiritually moribund. After the Great Awakening swept its revivalist fervor across the country, Virginians found the mandatory nature of Anglican worship—dissenters could be fined and even imprisoned—infuriating, and a simmering discontent over the lack of religious freedom helped stoke dissatisfaction with other aspects of British rule. Presbyterians became the dominant denomination in literate areas as converts in the Tidewater and Piedmont were matched by Scots-Irish migrations from Pennsylvania into the Shenandoah Valley. In the region between—Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover counties—the less literate gravitated to the Baptists, whose services were long on emotion and short on complicated liturgical teachings.4
Because of this, the number of Baptists markedly increased in the 1760s and 1770s, particularly among lower-class whites and slaves. Preachers could be unschooled and were always uncompensated, at least by any hierarchical authority. They came to their pulpits after an extraordinary religious experience referred to as “the call.” After John Clay received the call, he organized churches in Henrico and Hanover counties, including a large congregation at Winn’s Church in 1776. Most of his flock comprised a sect known as New Light Baptists, not exactly economic levelers but noted for simple attire and the practice of calling each other “sister” and “brother” regardless of social rank or economic status. They were clearly more democratic than class-conscious Anglicans, and congregations even allowed slaves to participate in worship services. That eccentric practice alone caused Anglican planter elites anxiety over the influence of Baptists, a troubling, troublesome lot who made even Presbyterians look respectable.5
Baptists took such contempt as a badge of honor. They and the Presbyterians grew increasingly angry about the power of establishment Anglicans, in particular evidenced by onerous taxes and reflexive persecution. At least once John Clay himself felt the weight of Anglican anger when he was jailed for his dissent. Such experiences, though, fueled rather than suppressed enthusiasm for religious liberty. As protests over British taxes became more strident, calls for spiritual freedom matched them. The drive for independence gained momentum, and the calls for disestablishing the Church of England became more vocal.6
Even though the fighting was far away, Virginia was in the middle of the American Revolution from the start, and no part of Virginia more than Hanover County. The county’s burgess in the Virginia Assembly, after all, was for years the famous firebrand Patrick Henry, who had been calling the king a tyrant for more than a decade when the shooting started. For his part, John Clay openly supported independence, tying it to Anglican disestablishment and helping to circulate a Baptist petition in 1776 pledging support to the new nation if it would stand for religious as well as political liberty. John and Elizabeth were notably fiery patriots in a region known for its radicalism.7
Then, in 1780, John became sick. It only took him a few months to deduce that his illness was fatal, though no one has ever been able to tell what exactly was wrong with him, only that it brought about an exceedingly untimely end to his life. He was only thirty-eight years old and had been hearty enough to make Elizabeth pregnant just before falling ill. Yet his decline was rapid and remorseless. We can only guess the pall it cast over the household. Aside from the emotional distress, there were sobering practical considerations: six children, the oldest only nine and the youngest an infant, would be dependent on a thirty-year-old expectant mother. Adding to these heartbreaking burdens, Elizabeth’s elderly mother was seriously ill as well. And there was more. Reports told of British raids in the area. As Clay’s Spring became the scene of two wrenching deathwatches, the Revolutionary War came to Virginia.
On November 4, 1780, John Clay summoned several neighbors to witness his last will and testament, a simple document that named Elizabeth custodian of both plantations until the children grew up or she remarried. He wanted the estate kept intact until the children came of age in any case, which was eighteen for the girls and twenty for the boys. The oldest, George, was to inherit Euphraim, and Clay’s Spring was to be sold and the proceeds divided among all the male children. Each child, including the girls, was to have an equal share in the livestock. John left two slaves, specified by name, to each child. Henry was to inherit James and Little Sam.8
It was as thorough a document as the modest patrimony of John Clay warranted. The settlement of the estate’s land on the oldest son sustained the habit of primogeniture. Clay anticipated Elizabeth’s remarriage as likely for a young widow and consequently made modest provisions for her maintenance, lending for her use the Henrico County property slated for George, obviously in the certainty that he would take care of his mother should she remain a widow.
His affairs in order, John Clay lingered through his last winter. He had started it “very sick & week [sic]” and never regained any lost ground.9 He and his mother-in-law sank together—she would survive him by only a few months—and when spring came, shortly after Elizabeth bore him another child, he died. The child, a girl, died too.
as clay’s spring mourned these losses, the war came not just to the Slashes but to Elizabeth’s doorstep. The British had been in Virginia for months, starting when former American general Benedict Arnold completed his transformation into turncoat by accepting a British general’s commission and setting out on a hunt for forces under the Marquis de Lafayette. Then Lord Cornwallis abandoned his indecisive southern campaign to head north out of the Carolinas. By the spring of 1781, the war’s focus had shifted to Virginia as these varied British contingents converged in the state. In the fall, the war would end there as well, when Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau at Yorktown.
That spring, however, Washington was encamped outside New York City, Rochambeau was at Newport, Rhode Island, and Lafayette was on the run from Cornwallis’s superior numbers. Virginia was extremely vulnerable, especially its isolated western settlements. The campaign mounted by Cornwallis had as its primary objective a storage depot at Point of Forks on the upper James River, and he dispatched a large force to that place. A smaller one under Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton was to harry the countryside by destroying its farms, a legitimate military objective because those farms could feed Patriot forces. Tarleton’s other goal was to disrupt Virginia’s government, which had repaired to the supposed safety of Charlottesville when the British entered the state.
Tarleton began by burning several buildings in Hanover Court House before fanning his men out across the county.10 They came to Clay’s Spring in late May, possibly the day after the family had buried John Clay. As Tarleton’s dragoons approached, Elizabeth hurried her overseer—a white man running the farm during John’s illness—out the back door, sending him scampering into the woods to avoid capture. It was a wise move. Tarleton’s men meant business.
That business was one of proficient if random destruction and simple theft. The British soldiers shouldered their way into the house, ransacked it for valuables, and packed away any food they could not eat on the spot. They smashed furniture and slashed open feather beds. It snowed feathers in the yard as they emptied the mattresses out the windows. Others chased chickens to kill and throw across their saddles. They rounded up some of the slaves to take away. Spying the new grave, they inspected it for hidden treasure by running their swords into the freshly turned earth.
Elizabeth Clay watched all this with Porter and Henry clinging to her skirts. The children were terrified. It is difficult to know how much of what happened next was embellished by family legend and postwar patriotic fervor. Possibly Clay’s campaign biographers later exaggerated events; it’s hard to resist a good story. Clay himself was quite young (only four), but the event remained understandably vivid for him for the rest of his life: the sight of those strangely costumed men on snorting horses with flashing swords that cut up the family’s beds and stabbed at his father’s grave, the smashing of furniture, the chaos of shouting men, squawking chickens, and the frightened slaves standing amid the prancing, crisscrossing horses, all under the soft snowfall of the mattress feathers; and his mother, her arm tight around his shoulder, pressing him to her side, Porter crying, her voice rising in anger, and the man they later learned was “Bloody Ban” himself—a name given him for having massacred Abraham Buford’s surrendering Patriots just a year earlier in the Carolina Waxhaws, an act that had made the phrase “Tarleton’s Quarter” a description for warfare without mercy. Possibly Elizabeth angrily denounced Tarleton, as family lore was to recall. But it is doubtful that he paused, as was later said, to pull from his pocket a small pouch from which he emptied a clutch of coins onto a table, explaining as he stalked out to mount his horse that it was to make up for the mess.
The raid was brief because the British had more important quarry. Tarleton and his men were soon heading for Charlottesville, where they put the Virginia Assembly to flight and nearly captured Thomas Jefferson at his home, Monticello. They had indeed left Clay’s Spring a mess. Grandchildren later told how Elizabeth scorned Tarleton’s gesture as much as she had him. She swept up the coins, they would say, and angrily hurled them into the fire.11 This scene of this quaint family legend almost certainly did not happen. Yet, given what Elizabeth Clay faced that spring and how she managed it all, there is no reason to doubt her capacity for defiance. The destruction of her house was quite real, a grim accompaniment to the destruction of her life with the loss of her husband and baby on top of the burden of tending to her dying mother while taking care of six children. There is not a single recollection, however, of Elizabeth Clay’s ever uttering a word of complaint, let alone showing any self-pity, as she put her family’s life back together. Instead, she immediately commenced rebuilding the farm and her children’s future. She must have wept as she faced the insurmountable odds, braced for her mother’s death, and buried her husband and baby, but Henry did not see it. This remarkable woman probably did not throw Tarleton’s money into the fire, because he probably did not leave any, but in the months that followed she performed quiet deeds of even greater courage. At least the war did not come back. In only a few months, in fact, word filtered back from the east of the British surrender at Yorktown. Yet the good luck of peace or even her personal fortitude would not better Elizabeth’s situation. For one thing, when John died he had not finished paying John and Mary Watkins for their share of Clay’s Spring. This did not pose a problem—the Watkinses were moving to Kentucky and did not want the property—but it did become a complication when Elizabeth remarried less than a year after John’s death.
The brevity of her widowhood was not unusual in a world framed by essential material want. She could not long have provided for her family otherwise. And Elizabeth herself presented an attractive prospect to suitors, a still youthful woman in possession of some measure of an estate that included salable property. As it happened, her suitor did not have to go far to find her, and she did not have to wait long to be found. He was Henry Watkins, the younger brother of her sister’s husband, John. In fact, he was even more family than that: John Clay’s mother and Henry Watkins’s father were sister and brother, making him John Clay’s first cousin. The family connections were not coincidences, nor should they be ridiculed as resulting from the ignorant practices of the inbred. Rather, they were a demonstration of the clannish nature of colonial Virginia, where the most elite families often included married cousins because of the scarcity of marriageable upper-class prospects. For the Clays and Watkinses, it was evidence of the interwoven nature of communities in rural settings.
For reasons not clear, Elizabeth delayed probating John’s will. When she remarried, however, the will stipulated the termination of her role as custodian of the plantations, the sale of Clay’s Spring, and the distribution of the assets to the children. In February 1782, everyone agreed to let the court sort the matter out. The judge ordered the property sold to retire the debt on it, with the remainder going to the heirs. Everyone apparently anticipated this sensible solution, and Elizabeth’s new husband quickly resolved the matter of debt and distribution by purchasing Clay’s Spring from the estate, a belated wedding present for his bride.12
Henry Watkins was a captain in the Virginia militia, a pleasant young man, Hal to his friends. He was also a man of good prospects as well as current substance, as his purchase of Clay’s Spring indicated. He brought to the marriage seventeen slaves (the family now owned a total of twenty-five) as well as livestock and two carriages. An affront to modern sensibilities, the presence of slaves was in that time simply another aspect of daily life. The aspiration to live as English country gentlemen was only just that for colonists in the decades before Henry Clay’s birth, but the wealth of the great tobacco barons and their reliance on slave labor to build grand fortunes created a southern oligarchy that lived in material grandeur and moral ambiguity. The middling farms with the modest clapboard houses—the place in the social pyramid of the Clays and the Watkinses—also relied on slavery for more than a source of labor. Social status came with owning slaves, determining everything from the circles one moved in to the girls one could court and marry.13
Years later, when it became politically prudent to claim impoverished origins framed by hardship, Henry Clay would say that he grew up an orphan in straitened circumstances. Campaign biographies took the cue and succeeded in creating the myth that he came of age with callused hands and in chronic want, his good character the result of his efforts to claw his way out of it. Central to that story was the depiction of him as riding a horse laden with sacks of dried corn to a gristmill on the Pamunkey River and dutifully bringing back the meal to his mother. Hanover County neighbors were said to have taken to calling Henry “the Millboy of the Slashes,” and it became a staple of credulous biographers to hang his youth on the hook of that nickname. But it was all an invention of later years, and the poverty it implies was simply never the case. Henry would have done chores, as expected of any boy on a farm, but hard toil on a plantation with twenty-five slaves, as well as long trips to a local gristmill, were not likely. Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a mill on the Clay-Watkins property in any case. Henry Clay was not an orphan, was not impoverished, and was not the Millboy of the Slashes.14
Rather, he lived in relative comfort with enough leisure time to learn the fiddle, spend languid afternoons fishing in nearby streams, and become an excellent horseman. He lived in an area with few towns, and what appeared to be villages were actually parts of plantations, their buildings in small clusters bordering cultivated fields. These self-sufficient establishments made towns unnecessary. Place names referred to trail crossings or churches or small county seats denoted as such by having Court House attached to their names, as in Hanover Court House. Roads were often only trails that crossed the region to speed travel and commerce between plantations that lay along rivers, the easiest avenues for trade, the real roads of empire. The county seat had a small store that doubled as a tavern. In Hanover Court House it was Tilghman’s Ordinary, owned by Patrick Henry’s father-in-law. There was also a courthouse with a little jail attached. The monthly court session or periodic militia muster transformed these somnolent places into centers of festivity and retail. At Tilghman’s, men gathered to play cards, discuss politics and horseflesh, and drink. During elections, the courthouse green became the setting for political speeches, some of them memorably delivered by the county’s renowned orators, Patrick Henry foremost among them. Novice speechmakers honed their skills by watching such masters and trying out material and techniques before the squinting faces of discerning crowds. Young Henry grew up observing these performances and how they played before audiences, marking what persuaded listeners and, more important, what did not. He was a quick study.15
Often the most learned man in the community was the local preacher, and a youngster’s first semblance of formal education would be under his guidance. John Marshall took lessons from the Reverend Archibald Campbell in the generation before Clay’s, and Nathaniel Hawthorne a generation afterward first learned from a country preacher as well.16 Clay probably received a few years of schooling at the Vestry House of St. Paul’s Church near his home, but details are lacking. As he grew older, he was allowed to go in to Hanover Court House, where a transplanted Englishman named Peter Deacon ran a field school in a one-room log cabin. Clay spent three years at Deacon’s school, where the basic elements of the fabled Three Rs (readin’, ritin’, and ’rithmetic) formed the essentials of a bare-bones curriculum designed to teach children under nearly impossible conditions. The product was a serviceable amount of learning, but nothing more. It was the only formal schooling of Clay’s youth, and he always lamented the deficiencies that resulted and admonished children, both his own and those of friends, to mind their books.
In Deacon’s school, students widely ranging in age and background were assembled at the same time in that one room, making for a disciplinary challenge even more daunting than the pedagogical one. Deacon had a past clouded by strong drink, and he often took the edge off the day with liberal doses of peach brandy. Mild inebriation made him an easy mark for mischievous boys, but it could also make him irascible. Deacon once struck Henry with “a magisterial blow” that left a mark for “a long time.”17
Much of Clay’s learning took place outside the classroom. In addition to studying the budding and established politicians of Hanover County, he soaked up the culture of the planter class that included a near obsession with horse racing and gambling of all kinds. He saw how men drank—Deacon was a cautionary example—how they joked, and how they argued. Boys sneaked out to drink and smoke; they tried to compromise girls, some willing but most disappointingly chaste. Mischief was usually harmless, if exasperating. And most boys were expected to go out on their own early, to become self-sufficient and ready to shoulder responsibility at an earlier age than in our time. The Revolution taught a generation that lesson with a vengeance, as youngsters had taken up arms to grow up fast with war a harsh tutor. The concept lauded by Thomas Paine in Common Sense of America separating from the parentage of Britain had practical application in the changing relations of parents and children in this new, boundless country.18