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Ashland is the historic plantation of Henry Clay, one of the most influential political leaders of the early 19th century. Clay earned a reputation as both a skillful orator and a diplomatic negotiator in Congress and served as Secretary of State under John Quincy Adams. Clay is best known for his willingness to confront the most controversial issue of the early 19th century-the extension of slavery in the West. Clay was the architect of the Compromise of 1850 and several other laws that facilitated Western expansion and allowed for the creation of free states while appeasing the slaveowners of the South.

  • Henry Clay's mansion at Ashland in Lexington, Kentucky
  • Henry Clay: The Essential American-click the link below to learn more about this book

Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, the seventh son of nine to Reverend John and Elizabeth Hudson Clay. When he was only three years old, Clay witnessed a British raid of his family home. As a boy, he lived in Hanover County, Virginia, a prominent slave-holding community.

Henry Clay entered the political scene when his widowed mother's second husband, Henry Watkins, was able to secure a clerkship in Peter Tinsley's chancery office. Clay obtained a license to practice law in the state of Virginia in his early twenties. In November 1797, Henry Clay set forth to establish his practice in Kentucky. After producing his Virginia law license in Lexington, Clay was awarded a license to practice law in the state of Kentucky.

Within the first decade that he was in Kentucky, Clay established himself as a notable trial lawyer. As an attorney Henry Clay was one of the most successful of his era, winning a majority of his cases and defending people like Aaron Burr. (1)

In 1803, Henry Clay was elected to the Kentucky General Assembly, thus beginning this political career. He brought to the assembly his Jeffersonian views which were pitted against the more conservative views of Federalist leaders such as Humphrey Marshall. Clay's acumen as an attorney led to a moment in the national spotlight three years later when he was employed to defend former Vice President Aaron Burr after his duel with Alexander Hamilton. A year later, Clay was appointed to the United States Senate at the young age of twenty-nine.

Clay served as Speaker of the House of Representatives six times and became an important figure who helped improve American-British relations at a critical time. Clay would later serve as commissioner to the peace negotiations in Ghent, Belgium in 1814. While he served as a Speaker of the House, Clay changed the role into the influential position that it is today. 

After returning to the United States Henry Clay thrust himself into every national issue--even those such as tariffs and banking that were incredibly complex and controversial issues such as the extension of slavery into the West. He helped to engineer the Missouri Compromise and stood up to Andrew Jackson's attack on banking and support for infrastructure. Although he supported slavery, the basis of the plantation economy that was responsible for his wealth, he also supported the gradual emancipation of slavery through the American Colonization Society.

Clay nearly became President of the United States. He ran three different campaigns, the final campaign of 1844 proved to be the most disappointing loss. Despite never becoming the head of the Executive Branch, he was the leading figure in the Legislative Branch in the decades leading up to the Civil War. He is best known for his compromises related to the extension of slavery--agreements he believed balanced states' rights and the interests of the national government. After his death historians have credited Henry Clay with being one of the greatest senators in United States history.(1)

The Clay home, Ashland, is situated in the heart of Fayette County, Kentucky, "The Horse Capital of the World." Clay was a lover of horse racing and a successful planter. He also demonstrated a keen scientific mind, keeping up with the latest advances in agriculture and animal husbandry. Visitors to Ashland not only learn about Clay's political career, but develop a sense of his passion for agriculture.

Remini, Robert V.Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union. New York: W. W. Norton Co., 1991.

Baxter, Maurice G. Henry Clay and the American System. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.