Photo courtesy of Ashland
Frontiersman Daniel Boone was so captivated by the exquisiteness of the Cumberland Gap region in Kentucky that he declared it “a second paradise.” Boone explored parts of Kentucky from 1769-1771 and eventually relocated his family here from North Carolina.
Boone might have made Kentucky his lifelong home had it not been for intense, and sometimes bloody, land quarrels—an ongoing problem until the end of the 18th century, when a determined lawyer named Henry Clay took it upon himself to settle many land disputes.
Although he remains one of Kentucky’s most influential and beloved politicians, Clay was not a native son. He was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia, to a long-established Colonial family. Politics were present in Clay’s life from the beginning—he was born amid the turmoil of the American Revolutionary War.
In 1791, Henry Clay’s mother, Elizabeth Hudson Clay Watkins, settled in Versailles, Kentucky, with her second husband, Henry Watkins. She had lost her first husband, the Rev. John Clay, to an unknown illness in 1781. Their seventh child, Henry, did not make the move to Kentucky with his mother and stepfather. The family opened Watkins Tavern on Main Street in Versailles. This hostelry attracted political leaders and businessmen who gathered for meals and libations, and to warm themselves by the hearth. The tavern remained a destination for locals and travelers until it burned in 1886.
Back in Virginia, young Henry was working as a secretary for George Wythe, the first law professor in America, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and, later, chancellor of Virginia. Clay then apprenticed with Robert Brooke, a well-known attorney and former Virginia governor. Clay passed the bar exam in the fall of 1797. He left shortly thereafter for Kentucky to visit his mother and create a future for himself.
Historians often speculate that Clay made his way from Virginia by horseback through the Cumberland Gap. He, like many early Kentucky pioneers, was charmed by the state’s physical beauty and enticed by its economic promise.
Within months of his arrival in Versailles, Clay moved to Lexington and set up his law practice. Known as the “Athens of the West,” with the intellectual presence of Transylvania University, thriving downtown commerce, distillery and textile industries, and burgeoning horse trade, Lexington was a choice spot for an aspiring lawyer like Clay.
Before he was known as “The Great Compromiser” in American politics, Clay was a determined young man who barely had enough money for room and board. But through his engaging personality and flair for commanding a courtroom, he soon established himself as a capable lawyer and collected payments from clients in the form of money, horses and land.
Clay focused his practice on resolving land disputes—a service Kentucky greatly needed since much of its land ownership and metes and bounds were not clarified in legal documentation. His clients sometimes paid him with part of the land he had won in boundary and ownership lawsuits, which helped Clay rapidly acquire property. He was well on his way to becoming a member of Kentucky’s landed gentry by the time he married Lucretia Hart in 1799.
As in his professional life, it was a mixture of pluck and luck that helped Clay secure a spouse from a prominent family. Clay’s father-in-law, Col. Thomas Hart, was land rich and well connected, and he was instrumental in helping Clay obtain clients in and out of the state.
Clay was fond of Kentucky from the start, and throughout his travels and writing, he bragged about the hospitality and good nature of the people, their twinned obsession with horses and politics, the vast beauty of the countryside, and the fine quality of spirits produced.
Just as his family was expanding and his legal practice was thriving, Clay embarked on a career in politics and teaching. In 1803, he was elected to the General Assembly from Fayette County, followed two years later by a law professorship at Transylvania University, which began his lifelong support of the school.
The following year, Clay purchased the first 125 acres of what later would be known as the Ashland Estate area of Lexington. We do not know whether he built a house there, but he did order brick for something in 1805. His son, James, had a new mansion built on the site by Christmas 1856. This is the historical home visitors can tour today.
In 1806, despite being too young to meet the U.S. Constitutional requirement that senators be at least 30 at the time they take office, 29-year-old Henry Clay took a seat in the U.S. Senate. His political success continued throughout the next decade. He was appointed Speaker of the House, won another U.S. Senate election, and was elected to return to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1812, Clay urged President James Madison to declare war on Great Britain, and in 1814, he served as one of five commissioners who negotiated a peace treaty with Great Britain. Clay traveled abroad and signed the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, in December 1814. He continued making national and international friends and political contacts and was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
These appointments became training ground for the one role in American politics that Clay wanted above all others—to serve as president of the United States. He attempted to secure the position three times but was never elected. He was disappointed each time he lost the presidency, yet he tried to keep up appearances and even famously quipped, “I would rather be right than be president.”
For all of his political success, Clay was not without personal hardships and eccentricities that often highlighted his rowdy nature. Four of the 11 children he and Lucretia had died in early childhood, and two of his sons, John and Theodore, suffered from mental illness. Theodore eventually was committed to the Lunatic Asylum of Kentucky in Lexington, which later became Eastern State Hospital.
Clay enjoyed bourbon, with Old Crow being his drink of choice. He fought in several duels and loved to gamble, but he was devoted to his family. Although he was away from home a great deal, his children often traveled to Washington with him. Clay was fully engaged in everything happening at Ashland, and though he enjoyed travel, he was always happy to get home to his beloved Ashland and his family.
In the political arena, Clay could be hot-headed, extremely self-assured and oppositional but also skilled at finding middle ground, creating a sense of fairness, and mollifying conflicting parties. He put these skills to use throughout his career, most notably in drafting a series of bills known as the Compromise of 1850, which ended political discord, at least temporarily, between free and slave states.
Two years later, Clay died. Even in his last days, he played a part in the nation’s politics. Battling tuberculosis, he succumbed on June 29, 1852, at a hotel in Washington, D.C., with son Thomas at his bedside. After he died, Clay was given the distinction of being the first person laid in state at the Capitol rotunda.
In the days that followed, cities and towns across the nation held ceremonies honoring Clay and celebrating his life. He was buried in the Lexington Cemetery, and it is estimated that his final Kentucky homecoming brought more than 100,000 visitors to Lexington, which was then a small city with a population of around 9,000.
Clay bequeathed many of his belongings to his son, John, but he stipulated that his wife remain at Ashland until she died, or that if she desired a new residence, it would be bought, rented or built for her. Clay also made provisions for the remaining slaves he owned and decreed: “Members of families shall not be separated without their consent.”
Although the nation lost a great political leader, Clay left behind a multifaceted legacy. His Ashland Estate in Lexington draws tourists from around the world. It was once surrounded by 600 areas of farmland but now comprises 17 acres containing a main house, wooded gardens and a collection of more than 3,000 pieces of Clay memorabilia preserved and displayed by an on-site team of historians and caretakers. Even his small law office, built in 1803 at 176 North Mill Street in Lexington, is a widely visited landmark. Clay’s first residence in the city was located across the street from this office and next door to his in-laws.
Clay built a structure in 1805 at 110-112 North Upper Street, which is thought to have been used as rental property. It sat in ruins for many years until another Lexington-based lawyer, James T. Harris, purchased the building in 1993 with the intent of restoring it. After nearly two centuries of proprietorship and varying degrees of neglect, the property had gone largely unnoticed until Harris, a self-described Henry Clay admirer, rescued it, along with a significant portion of Clay history.
Harris spent years transforming it into living quarters and a law office. In the summer of 2012, after a few delays and entanglements with the city, he and his partners opened Henry Clay’s Public House – Olde Kentucky Pub on the first floor of the property. A splendid photo of Clay hangs inside the pub, which offers classic and contemporary potations. The spirits menu features Clay’s favorite, Old Crow, along with dozens of other good Kentucky bourbons. But the real thirst-quencher is Henry Clay’s Mint Julep. Ever proud of his old Kentucky home, Clay introduced his associates in Washington to the mint julep, which later would become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
Since it opened, Henry Clay’s Public House has been a popular place for people to gather and share ideas over drinks, much as the Watkins Tavern was in Versailles. The pub also is a magnet for Henry Clay enthusiasts, historians, tourists, intellectuals and locals alike, and the atmosphere exudes the same openness, charisma and refinement that won Clay so many admirers.
“I wanted to restore the property ... and I wanted to contribute something to his legacy,” Harris says. “He was a true gentleman lawyer and a remarkable politician. In so many ways, a state and national hero.”