American Lives: Reconsidering Henry Clay Henry Clay was a leading 19th century representative, senator, presidential candidate — and slaveholder who condemned slavery. In Henry Clay: The Essential American, David and Jeanne Heidler try to make sense of the statesman's great contradiction.

American Lives: Reconsidering Henry Clay

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You know, when I was growing up in Indiana, I never thought twice about the name of my local schools. I attended the Carmel Clay Schools in Clay Township. Later, I learned that many states have a Clay Township or Clay County. Many were named after Henry Clay, a senator and presidential candidate in the 1800s. He was a great nationalist, a supporter of American roads and American industries.

He comes to our attention for another side of his life, this morning. It's his lifelong struggle with questions of race. That theme runs through several conversations this week, in our occasional series American Lives.

Clay's story is told in the book, "The Essential American," by David and Jeanne Heidler.

Mr. DAVID HEIDLER (Co-Author, "The Essential American"): Clay was in public life from 1806 until his death in 1852, almost without interruption. Every matter great and small that affected American life Clay, was involved in -often as the prime mover and the person who was able to achieve significant results.

Ms. JEANNE HEIDLER (Co-Author, "The Essential American"): He was not associated with one section of the country, as so many of the other prominent politicians of that day. He was considered to be a Westerner, which Kentucky, of course, was the West back then; but his ties, to both the North and the South and the West, did have a way of bringing people together, more so than most other politicians or statesmen of that time period.

INSKEEP: But it's interesting that you mention that, because you're talking about a man in the years, the decades, before the Civil War, when he is trying to lead the country, trying to become the president - in election, after election, after election, as a matter of fact - at a time when the North and South were drifting farther and farther apart.

Mr. HEIDLER: Yes. Clay's difficulty was a mirror, a reflection of the country's, in that he condemned slavery yet he owned slaves.

INSKEEP: When did he first start thinking seriously about slavery as an issue?

Ms. HEIDLER: As a young man, he fell under the tutelage of George Wythe, a very prominent Virginian of the time, a signer of the Declaration. Wythe was Thomas Jefferson's mentor, as well, a generation before. And 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.

And so Wythe freed his slaves, and that very much influenced Clay. And when he traveled to Kentucky - when Clay traveled to Kentucky after he studied law - he was very active in the effort for gradual emancipation of slavery. He believed that if they could abolish slavery gradually in Kentucky, before it became too firmly entrenched, it would be an example to other parts of the country.

He failed in that, and then, as David said, he came to own slaves himself. He never stopped opposing slavery though, on principle.

INSKEEP: Why did he buy slaves?

Ms. HEIDLER: Primarily to become an important, prominent person. He inherited a couple of slaves from his father. He married a woman from a very wealthy family in Lexington, Kentucky - acquired slaves from that. Again, it is 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.

INSKEEP: There was an episode in the early 1840s, that you describe in your book, in which Clay goes to the state of Indiana and gives a speech. And the subject of slavery came up at this great public meeting. Would you describe what happened?

Mr. HEIDLER: Well, it's a political meeting, in which he has been invited by the town fathers in this hamlet in Indiana. Clay, however, is confronted at this meeting by a Quaker named Mendenhall, who gives him a petition calling for him to free his slaves. And Clay delivers a scathing address, attacks him, 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 Hiram Mendenhall with a petition that he give us his farm.

And now what he did in that, was to reduce slaves to property, which is their legal standing, of course, in the world that he lived in. But at the same time, it was jarring.

INSKEEP: You mention, that in the audience, as Henry Clay compared people to pieces of real estate, was one of Henry Clay's own slaves.

Mr. HEIDLER: Charles Dupuy, yes.

INSKEEP: Who was this man?

Mr. HEIDLER: Charles Dupuy was the son of Aaron and Lottie Dupuy, who had been with Clay for years. In fact, Aaron Dupuy was, for many years, been Clay's manservant. And Charles was with him at Richmond, Indiana, standing off, quietly, with is customary equanimity listening to Clay say this.

INSKEEP: Was Charles Dupuy a literate man?

Ms. HEIDLER: We don't know. There are no surviving records that he was.

INSKEEP: Like letters that he wrote or anything like that.

Ms. HEIDLER: No, no. So, we don't know what he thought while he was listening to this. We can only surmise.

INSKEEP: When you look through the record of Clay's letters, quotations attributed to him, speeches that he gave - is there ever any point at which he seems to say, gosh, I'm kind of being a hypocrite here?

Mr. HEIDLER: There's a sense that Clay is very much troubled by this, especially at the end of his life. He wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Richard Pendell, which is known as the Pendell letter. And this was an outright attack on slavery as an institution, a moral blight on the land. And it essentially sealed Clay's political future. He was never to be really a serious contender ever again, even though he continued to have aspirations for national office - the presidency.

The North did not believe him and the South distrusted him, but the letter is sincere. And he carries out the intention of that letter in his will - last will and testament, where he frees his slaves - under a provision which will allow them to be educated and trained in trades so as to make their way in freedom.

INSKEEP: When I hear you talk about Henry Clay and the way that he spoke against slavery but owned slaves, which he eventually freed, I suppose I think of other characters a little earlier, like Thomas Jefferson, who seems, according to his biographers, to have had an incredible ability to compartmentalize and to speak about freedom and write about freedom, and never confront the notion that he was a slave owner at the same time. Do you think that Henry Clay, although he did many of the same things, ended up being, at least, a little more of an honest thinker than Jefferson had been?

Ms. HEIDLER: I think very much so. I think he could not compartmentalize, and I think that is an excellent comparison. I think it troubled Clay throughout his life, and we have read virtually every letter that survives from him. So, even in his private correspondence you can tell that it still troubles him very much.

INSKEEP: David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler are co-authors of "Henry Clay: The Essential American." Thanks very much.

Mr. HEIDLER: Thank you, Steve.

Ms. HEIDLER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: You can read about Henry Clay's roots in an excerpt from their book at

This week we're exploring how questions of race are woven into many American lives, and tomorrow we hear the story of a man who claimed to be a black Pullman porter.

Unidentified Woman: James Todd was really not black, he was not a Pullman porter, and he was not even James Todd. He was, in fact, a very well educated white explorer who was truly a famous man in late 19th century America.

INSKEEP: That's coming tomorrow on NPR News.

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