Historical Marker #1 in Lexington notes the location of "Ashland," the home and estate of Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.
Ashland was Clay’s pride and joy. At this grand estate the "Great Compromiser" entertained guests, raised prize-winning livestock, and enjoyed some of the best times of his life. The luxuries and benefits that Ashland afforded, however, came in large part from slave labor.
Clay was a man of his time and region. He was born in the slave society of Virginia. By the time he moved to Kentucky, the Bluegrass State had modeled its system of labor after the Old Dominion. Clay’s social goals and political ambitions destined him to be a Kentucky slaveholder.
Clay’s attitude toward slavery is somewhat ambivalent and contradictory. On the one hand, Clay owned numerous slaves throughout his life. He occasionally freed some of his workforce, but he never made provisions for liberating all of his slaves. Despite this broad ownership of slaves and his unwillingness to emancipate them, Clay put a great deal of effort into finding a way to end slavery, which he claimed was a burden on the nation. At times his reputation suffered for his stance. Many historians claim that Clay’s effort to curtail the spread of slavery to the western United States led to his disapproval of the annexation of Texas and the resulting Mexican War. These decisions ultimately cost him the presidential election in 1844 and the Whig party’s nomination in 1848.
In 1816-1817, Clay helped establish the American Colonization Society, which aimed to relocate freed slaves to the west coast of Africa. He believed that free blacks "were not slaves, and yet they are not free. The laws, it is true, proclaim them free; but prejudices, more powerful than any laws, deny them the privileges of freemen." This paternal attitude, in part, helped Clay justify his ownership of African Americans.
Like Clay’s stance on slavery, reports about the institution at Ashland varied. One visitor claimed that the slave quarters there were "all white-washed, clean and well furnished," and that the enslaved people "possess more comforts of life, have better dwellings, are better clothed, and work less" than most northern wage earners. Another report, which was reputedly embellished by the abolitionist press, claimed that Clay and his overseer were brutal taskmasters.
Clay’s great political compromises emphasize his personal attitude that slavery and the Union could coexist, but as biographers David and Jeanne Heidler state, "That Henry Clay continued to own slaves while condemning slavery was nothing short of tragic, a fundamental flaw in an otherwise good and decent man."