Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Visit to Henry Clay's Ashland

Today a colleague at work who occasionally reads my blog claimed that I was obsessed with John Brown. Of course, he's right. Since my earliest memories I have seemed to get focused on a topic and explore it to death. Back in the day it used to be snakes and dinosaurs, and for the time being its John Brown. But, I thought I take a break from the "bad old man" for a day or so and share a visit that Michele and I made last Friday to Henry Clay's Ashland (pictured above) in Lexington, Kentucky. I had visited Ashland back last August to do a teacher professional development session, but I didn't get the opportunity to go on a tour of the house at that time.

We arrived just before 2:00 pm and paid our admission price (they give a discount with AAA) and waited a few minutes before we were met at the front door by our guide (and site curator Eric Brooks). On the tour Mr. Brooks explained that he doesn't give many tours except for that time slot on Fridays, so we felt particularly honored to have such a virtual fountain of knowledge on all things Henry Clay.

It is difficult not to be impressed with the house's entrance hall. Beautiful woodwork surrounds you. Mr. Brooks quickly explained something of which I was not aware. He said that the original Ashland fell into terrible disrepair after Clay's death and that it was sold to son James Clay. James made the difficult decision to raze the house and then built anew on the old foundation; albeit with a slightly different architectural style. James resided at Ashland until 1862 when he fled the country for his strong Confederate sympathies.

But, wait, I'm getting ahead of the story. Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia in 1777. He received an excellent education, as one of his teachers was George Wythe; former teacher of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Clay moved to Kentucky in 1797 and married two years later. By 1809 the main structure of Ashland was constructed, and a couple of years later he added symmetrical wings designed by famed architect Benjamin Latrobe (who designed the Capitol building in Washington DC). Clay and his wife Lucretia lived at Ashland until his death in 1852. After the Civil War Ashland was bought by John Bryan Bowman. In 1882 it was bought by one of Clay's granddaughters and her husband. In 1950 Ashland became a historic house museum, as it remains today; a memorial to one of America's premier statesmen, and probably the grandest U.S. Senator in history.

We were afforded a close look at the old house as each room was explained. We saw rare Clay relics including a book that was given to Abraham Lincoln by Clay in the 1840s. Probably what I enjoyed the most were the Clay family stories. Henry Clay Jr. had a difficult time living up to his namesake and it seems he tried to make a name for himself by fighting in the Mexican-American War. The senior Clay as a vehement opponent of the war and Mr. Brooks explained that this was one few issues on which Clay the younger did not follow his father's advice. Clay Jr. met his end by being bayoneted to death at the Battle of Buena Vista. I guess he should have listened to Pops.

I was pleased to find that Ashland doesn't dodge Clay's slave owning. But, really it would be pretty difficult since compromising national slavery-related political issues is what Clay was known for. The "Great Compromiser" didn't get his name by deciding what color of drapes to buy. Mr. Brooks explained that Clay owned a large number of slaves himself. His ownership varied usually between 40-70 slaves, which made him one of the largest owners in Kentucky. Clay granted a small number of his slaves their freedom during his lifetime, and at least one apparently refused freedom when it was offered. Learning more about Clay's stance on slavery was quite interesting. He strongly felt that both slavery and Union could exist in the United States, but he also was a primary founder of the American Colonization Society, which attempted to return African Americans to the land of their ancestors.

Clay died in Washington DC in 1852 and was returned to Kentucky for burial in the Lexington Cemetery. Mr. Brooks explained that Clay's funeral drew what is probably still the largest crowd for a funeral in Kentucky history.

Other than a couple of the other visitor's inconsiderate cell phone ringing, our tour was fantastic. I highly recommend seeing Ashland for yourself. Not only is the house a wonder to see, the grounds are also interesting to explore (the ice houses are cool-no pun intended). I think you will come away with a greater appreciation and understanding of this important Kentuckian and American. I know I did.

Here is a neat video about Ashland I found on Youtube:

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