Historical Marker #1 in Lexington notes the location of Ashland, the home and estate of Kentucky statesman Henry Clay.
Henry Clay, Sr. was born in 1777 in Virginia. The son of a Baptist minister, Henry was the seventh of nine children. Clay worked as a clerk for George Wythe, a professor at William & Mary, and was admitted to the bar in Virginia in 1797. Clay relocated to Kentucky, where he married Lucretia Hart in 1799. Lucretia’s family was well-connected within Lexington society and Henry soon had a thriving law practice. He entered politics in Kentucky and in 1810 he was appointed as U.S. Senator from Kentucky. From that point forward, Clay became a prominent political figure. Clay became the youngest Speaker of the House, served as Secretary of State, and ran for president unsuccessfully in 1824, 1832, and 1844.
In the 1830s, Clay became a noted opponent of President Andrew Jackson and his policies. The movement that coalesced around Clay became the Whig Party. Clay and most of his followers supported a national bank, higher tariffs, and believed that the sale of public lands should be used to fund internal improvements, like better transportation via canals and “national” roads.
Clay’s personal life proved to be more successful than his failed presidential campaigns. Clay began acquiring land in 1804 and his plantation soon covered over 600 acres. Clay purchased over 60 individuals, over the course of his life, who labored at the estate that would become known as Ashland. Enslaved individuals worked to grow hemp, oversaw Clay’s livestock, and managed the household. Over the course of his life, Clay continued to purchase enslaved individuals, although he became a proponent of the idea of colonization—sending emancipated people to Liberia.
Clay’s family also grew as his fortunes rose. Clay and his wife, Lucretia, had eleven children. One of these, Henry Clay, Jr., was killed in the U.S.-Mexican War.
Henry Clay, Jr. was the statesman’s third son. Born in 1811, he graduated from Transylvania University, where his father served on the board of trustees. He received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and, in 1831, graduated second in his class. Clay briefly served in the U.S. Army but soon resigned. He returned to Kentucky, studied law, and was admitted to the bar in 1833. Two years later, Henry, Jr. was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives and served a single two-year term. In 1832, Henry Clay, Jr. married Julia Prather. The couple had five children: Henry III, Matilda, Ann, Martha, and Thomas Julian.
Although Clay, Jr., was admitted to the bar, he soon became a speculator in lands and, like his father, relied upon enslaved labor to run his plantations in Louisville and Lexington. Clay’s wife, Julia, died in 1840, shortly after giving birth. Clay, Jr., never remarried.
Although his father opposed the annexation of Texas to the United States and the subsequent war it brought with Mexico, Henry the younger enlisted in 1846 and was elected lieutenant colonel of the 2nd Kentucky Volunteers. When Clay departed in June of 1846, he brought one of his enslaved persons with him, a man named John. Some scholars believe that this was John Henry Clay, a man who survived the war, gained his freedom, and raised his family in Kentucky. Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, is a descendant of John Henry Clay.
As part of Gen. Zachary Taylor’s invading force, Clay’s initial army experience was less than thrilling. Henry Jr. lost much of his early war enthusiasm when he was injured after a fall from his horse. Some claimed he was drunk. He was also disillusioned by what he believed were overbearing superior officers. But, when combat came at the Battle of Buena Vista, on February 23, 1847, Clay rose to the occasion.
During the dramatic battle, Clay was wounded in the left thigh and requested his men to fall back without him and reorganize. Before his men departed, Clay entrusted one with a set of pistols that his father had given him and requested that they be returned to Ashland. As the wounded Clay watched his men retreat, Mexican Lancers pierced his body multiple times. His body was recovered by two enslaved persons that served the 2nd Kentucky. His remains were eventually brought back to Kentucky and buried with honors in the Frankfort Cemetery. Owing to the status of his famous father, the younger Clay became one of the most famous casualties of the U.S.-Mexican War and his death was mourned across the United States.
The marker reads:
Historic home of Henry Clay. Orator-Statesman-Patriot. Kentucky's favorite son. Born-1777. Died-1852.
It was originally dedicated April 18, 1936, by an earlier version of the historical marker program.