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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard

Henry Clay

Title:     Henry Clay
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

If there be any description of rights, which, more than any other, should unite all parties in all quarters of the Union, it is unquestionably the rights of the person. No matter what his vocation, whether he seeks subsistence amid the dangers of the sea, or draws it from the bowels of the earth, or from the humblest occupations of mechanical life--wherever the sacred rights of an American freeman are assailed, all hearts ought to unite and every arm be braced to vindicate his cause.

---Henry Clay

There is a story told of an Irishman and an Englishman who were immigrants aboard a ship that was coming up New York Harbor. It chanced to be the fourth day of July, and as a consequence there was a needless waste of gunpowder going on, and many of the ships were decorated with bunting that in color was red, white and blue.

"What can all this fuss be about?" asked the Englishman.

"What's it about?" answered Pat. "Why, this is the day we run you out!"

And the moral of the story is that as soon as an Irishman reaches the Narrows he says "we Americans," while an Englishman will sometimes continue to say "you Americans" for five years and a day. More than this, an Irish-American citizen regards an English-American citizen with suspicion and refers to him as a foreigner, even unto the third and fourth generation.

No man ever hated England more cordially than did Henry Clay.

The genealogists have put forth heroic efforts to secure for Clay a noble English ancestry, but with a degree of success that only makes the unthinking laugh and the judicious grieve.

Had these zealous pedigree-hunters studied the parish registers of County Derry, Ireland, as lovingly as they have Burke's Peerage, they might have traced the Clays of America back to the Cleighs, honest farmers (indifferent honest), of Londonderry.

The character of Henry Clay had in it various traits that were peculiarly Irish. The Irishman knows because he knows, and that's all there is about it. He is dramatic, emotional, impulsive, humorous without suspecting it, and will fight friend or foe on small provocation. Then he is much given to dealing in that peculiar article known as palaver. The farewell address of Henry Clay to the Senate, and his return thereto a few years later, comprise one of the most Irishlike proceedings to be found in history.

There is no finer man on earth than your "thrue Irish gintleman," and Henry Clay had not only all the highest and most excellent traits of the "gintleman," but a few also of his worst. Clay made friends as no other American statesman ever did. "To come within reach of the snare of his speech was to love him," wrote one man. People loved him because he was affectionate, for love only goes out to love. And the Irish heart is a heart of love. Henry Clay called himself a Christian, and yet at times he was picturesquely profane. We have this on the authority of the "Diary" of John Quincy Adams, which of course we must believe, for even that other fighting Irishman, Andrew Jackson, said, "Adams' Diary is probably correct--damn it!"

Clay was convivial in all the word implies; his losses at cards often put him in severe financial straits; he stood ready to back his opinion concerning a Presidential election, a horse-race or a dog-fight, and with it all he held himself "personally responsible"--having fought two duels and engaged in various minor "misunderstandings."

And yet he was a great statesman--one of the greatest this country has produced, and as a patriot no man was ever more loyal. It was America with him first and always. His reputation, his fortune, his life, his all, belonged to America.

* * * * *

The city of Lexington contains about twenty-five thousand inhabitants. In Lexington two distinct forms of civilization meet.

One is the civilization of the F.F.V., converted into that peculiar form of noblesse known the round world over as the Blue-Grass Aristocracy. Blue-Grass Society represents leisure and luxury and the generous hospitality of friendships generations old; it means broad acres, noble mansions reached by roadways that stray under wide-spreading oaks and elms where squirrels chatter and mild-eyed cows look at you curiously; it means apple-orchards, gardens lined with boxwood, capacious stables and long lines of whitewashed cottages, around which swarm a dark cloud of dependents who dance and sing and laugh--and work when they have to.

Over against these there are to be seen trolley-cars, electric lights, smart rows of new brick houses on lots thirty by one hundred, negro policemen in uniforms patterned after those worn by the Broadway Squad, streets torn up by sewers and conduits, steam-rollers with an unsavory smell of tar and asphalt, push-buttons and a Hello-Exchange.

As to which form of civilization is the more desirable is a question that is usually answered by taste and temperament. One thing sure, and that is, that a pride which swings to t'other side and becomes vanity is often an element in both. Each could learn something of the other. Lots that you can jump across, rented to families of ten, with land a mile away that can be bought for fifty dollars an acre, are not an ideal condition.

On the other hand, inside the city limits of Lexington are mansions surrounded by an even hundred acres. But at some of these, gates are off their hinges, pickets have been borrowed for kindling, creeping vines and long grass o'ertop the walls of empty stables, and a forest of weeds insolently invades the spot where once nestled milady's flower-garden.

Slowly but surely the Blue-Grass Aristocracy is giving way to purslane or asphalt, moving into flats, and allowing the boomer to plat its fair acres--running excursion-trains to attend auction-sales where all the lots are corner lots and are to be bought on the installment plan, which plan is said by a cynic to give the bicycle face.

Just across from Ashland is a beautiful estate, recently sold at a sacrifice to a man from Massachusetts, by the name of Douglas, who I am told is bald through lack of hair and makes three-dollar shoes. The stately old mansion mourns its former masters--all are gone--and a thrifty German is plowing up the lawn, that the cows of the Douglas (tender and true) may eat early clover.

But Ashland is there today in all the beauty and loveliness that Henry Clay knew when he wrote to Benton: "I love old Ashland, and all these acres with their trees and flowers and growing grain lure me in a way that ambition never can. No, I remain at Ashland."

The rambling old house is embowered in climbing vines and clambering rosebushes and is set thick about with cedars, so that you can scarcely see the chimney-tops above the mass of green. A lane running through locust-trees planted by Henry Clay's own hands leads you to the hospitable, wide-open door, where a colored man, whose black face is set in a frame of wool, smiles a welcome. He relieves you of your baggage and leads the way to your room.

The summer breeze blows lazily in through the open window, and the only sound of life and activity about seems to center in two noisy robins which are making a nest in the eaves, right within reach of your hand. The colored man apologizes for them, anathematizes them mildly, and proposes to drive them away, but you restrain him. After the man has gone you bethink you that the suggestion of driving the birds away was only the white lie of society (for even black folks tell white lies), and the old man probably had no more intent of driving the birds away than of going himself.

On the dresser is a pitcher of freshly clipped roses, the morning dew still upon them, and you only cease to admire as you espy your mail that lies there awaiting your hand. News from home and loved ones greets you before these new-found friends do! You have not seen the good folks who live here, only the old colored man who pretended that he was going to kill cock-robin, and didn't. The hospitality is not gushing or effusive--the place is yours, that's all, and you lean out of the window and look down at the flowerbeds, and wonder at the silence and the quiet and peace, and feel sorry for the folks who live in Cincinnati and Chicago. The soughing of the wind through the pines comes to you like the murmur of the sea, and breaking in on the stillness you hear the sharp sound of an ax--some Gladstone chopping, miles and miles away.

Your dreams are broken by a gentle tap at the door and your host has come to call on you. You know him at once, even though you have never before met, for men who think alike and feel alike do not have to "get acquainted." Heart speaks to heart.

He only wishes to say that your coming is a pleasure to all the family at Ashland, the library is yours as well as the whole place, lunch is at one o'clock, and George will get you anything you wish. And back in the shadow of the hallway you catch sight of the old colored man and see him bow low when his name is mentioned.

Ashland is probably in better condition today than when Henry Clay worked and planned, and superintended its fair acres. The place has seen vicissitudes since the body of the man who gave it immortality lay in state here in July, Eighteen Hundred Fifty-two. But Major McDowell's wife is the granddaughter of Henry Clay, and it seems meet that the descendants of the great man should possess Ashland. Major McDowell has means and taste and the fine pride that would preserve all the traditions of the former master. The six hundred acres are in a high state of cultivation, and the cattle and horses are of the kinds that would have gladdened the heart of Clay.

In the library, halls and dining-room are various portraits of the great man, and at the turn of the stairs is a fine heroic bust, in bronze, of that lean face and form. Hundreds of his books are to be seen on the shelves, all marked and dog-eared and scribbled on, thus disproving much of that old cry that "Clay was not a student." Some men are students only in youth, but Clay's best reading was done when he was past fifty. The book habit grew upon him with the years.

Here are his pistols, spurs, saddle and memorandum-books. Here are letters, faded and yellow, dusted with black powder on ink that has been dry a hundred years, asking for office, or words of gracious thanks in token of benefits not forgot.

Off to the south stretches away a great forest of walnut, oak and chestnut trees--reminders of the vast forest that Daniel Boone knew. Many of these trees were here then, and here let them remain, said Henry Clay. And so today at Ashland, as at Hawarden, no tree is felled until it has been duly tried by the entire family and all has been said for and against the sentence of death. I heard Miss McDowell make an eloquent plea for an old oak that had been rather recklessly harboring mistletoe and many squirrels, until it was thought probable that, like our first parents, it might have a fall. It was a plea more eloquent than "O Woodman, spare that tree." A reprieve for a year was granted; and I thought, as I cast my vote on the side of mercy, that the jury that could not be won by such a young woman as that was hopelessly dead at the top and more hollow at the heart than the old oak under whose boughs we sat.

* * * * *

Ashland is just a mile south of the courthouse. When Henry Clay used to ride horseback between the town and his farm there were scarce a dozen houses to pass on the way, but now the street is all built up, and is smartly paved, and the trolley-line booms a noisy car to the sacred gates every ten minutes.

Lexington was laid out in the year Seventeen Hundred Seventy-four, and the intention was to name it in honor of Colonel Patterson, the founder, or of Daniel Boone. But while the surveyors were doing their work, word came of the battle of some British and certain embattled farmers, and the spirit of freedom promptly declared that the town should be called Lexington.

Three years after the laying-out of Lexington, Henry Clay was born. He was the son of a poor and obscure Baptist preacher who lived at "The Slashes," in Virginia. The boy never had any vivid recollection of his father, who passed away when Henry was a mere child.

The mother had a hard time of it with her family of seven children, and if kind neighbors had not aided, there would have been actual want. And surely one can not blame the widow for "marrying for a home" when opportunity offered. Only one out of that first family ever achieved eminence, and the second brood is actually lost to us in oblivion.

Henry Clay was a graduate of the University of Hard Knocks; he also took several post-graduate courses at the same institution. Very early in life we see that he possessed the fine, eager, receptive spirit that absorbs knowledge through the finger-tips; and the ability to think and to absorb is all that even college can ever do for a man. I doubt whether college would have helped Clay, and it might have dimmed the diamond luster of his mind, and diluted that fine audacity which carried him on his way. In this capacity to comprehend in the mass, Clay's character was essentially feminine. We have Thoreau for authority that the intuition and the sympathy found always in the saviors of the world are purely feminine attributes--the legacy bequeathed from a mother who thirsted for better things.

From a clerk in a country store to a bookkeeper, then a copyist for a lawyer, a writer of letters for the neighborhood, a reader of law, and next a lawyer, were easy and natural steps for this ambitious boy.

Virginia with its older settlements offered small opportunities, and so we find young Clay going West, and landing at Lexington when twenty years old. He requested a license to practise law, but the Bar Association, which consisted of about a dozen members, decided that no more lawyers were needed at Lexington. Clay demanded that he should be examined as to fitness, and the blackberry-bush Blackstones sat upon him, as a coroner would say, with intent to give him so stiff an examination that he would be glad to get work as a farmhand.

A dozen questions had been asked, and an attempt had been made to confuse and browbeat the youth, when the Nestor of the Lexington Bar expectorated at a fly ten feet away, and remarked, "Oh, the devil! there is no need of tryin' to keep a boy like this down--he's as fit as we, or fitter!"

And so he was admitted.

From the very first he was a success; he toned up the mental qualities of the Fayette County Bar, and made the older, easy-going members feel to see whether their laurel wreaths were in place.

When he was thirty years of age he was chosen by the Legislature of Kentucky as United States Senator. When his term expired he chose to go to Congress, probably because it afforded better opportunity for oratory and leadership. As soon as he appeared upon the floor he was chosen Speaker by acclamation. So thoroughly American was he, that one of his very first suggestions was to the effect that every member should clothe himself wholly in fabrics made in the United States. Humphrey Marshall ridiculed the proposition and called Clay a demagogue, for which he got himself straightway challenged. Clay shot a bullet through his English-made broadcloth coat, and then they shook hands.

When his term as Congressman expired, he again went to the Senate, and served two years. Then he went back to the House, and through his influence, and his alone, did we challenge Great Britain, just as he had challenged Marshall.

England accepted the challenge, and we call it the War of Eighteen Hundred Twelve.

Very often, indeed, do we hear the rural statesmen at Fourth of July celebrations exclaim, "We have whipped England twice, and we can do it again!"

We whipped England once, and it is possible we could do it again, but she got the best of us in the War of Eighteen Hundred Twelve. Henry Clay plunged the country into war to redress certain grievances, and as a peace commissioner he backed out of that war without having a single one of those grievances indemnified or redressed.

After the treaty of peace had been declared and "the war was over," that fighting Irishman, Andrew Jackson, Irishlike, gave the British a black eye at New Orleans, just for luck, and this is the only thing in that whole misunderstanding of which we should not as a nation be ashamed.

If England had not had Napoleon on her hands at that particular time, Wellington would probably have made a visit to America, and might have brought along for us a Waterloo. And these things are fully explained in the textbooks on history used in the schools of Great Britain, on whose possessions the sun never sets.

But as Henry Clay had gotten us into war, his diplomacy helped to get us out, and as it was a peace without dishonor, Clay's reputation did not materially suffer. In fact, the terms of peace were so ambiguous that Congress gave out to the world that it was a victory, and the exact facts were quite lost in the smoke of Jackson's muskets that hovered over the cotton bales.

Later, when Clay ran against Jackson for the Presidency he found that a peace-hero has no such place in the hearts of men as a war-hero. Jackson had not a tithe of Clay's ability, and yet Clay's defeat was overwhelming. "Peace hath her victories"--yes, but the average voter does not know it. The only men who have received overwhelming majorities for President have been war-heroes. Obscure men have crept in several times, but popular diplomats--never. The fate of such popular men as Clay, Seward and Blaine is one. And when one considers how strong is this tendency to glorify the hero of action, and ignore the hero of thought, he wonders how it really happened that Paul Revere was not made the second President of the United States instead of John Adams.

Clay was a most eloquent pleader. The grace of his manner, the beauty of his speech, and the intense earnestness of his nature often convinced men against their wills.

There was sometimes, however, a suspicion in the air that his best quotations were inspirations, and that the statistics to which he appealed were evolved from his inner consciousness. But the man had power and personality plus. He was a natural leader, and unlike other statesmen we might name, he always carried his town and district by overwhelming majorities. And it is well to remember that the first breath of popular disfavor directed against Henry Clay was because he proposed the abolition of slavery.

Those who knew him best loved him most, and this was true from the time he began to practise law in Lexington, when scarcely twenty-one years old, to his seventy-fifth year, when his worn-out body was brought home to rest.

On that occasion all business in Lexington, and in most of Kentucky, ceased. Even the farmers quit work, and very many private residences were draped in mourning. Memorial services were held in hundreds of churches, the day was given over to mourning, and everywhere men said, "We shall never look upon his like again."

* * * * *

Before I visited Lexington, my cousin, Little Emily, duly wrote me that on no account, when I was in Kentucky, must I offer any criticisms on the character of Henry Clay; for if I grew reckless and compared him with another to his slightest disadvantage, I should have to fight.

That he was absolutely the greatest statesman America has produced is, to all Kentuckians, a fact so sure that they doubt the honesty or the sanity of any one who hints otherwise. He is their ideal, the perfect man, the model for all youths to imitate, and the standard by which all other statesmen are gauged. Clay to Kentucky scores one hundred. And as he was at the last defeated for the highest office, which they say was his God-given right, there is a flavor of martyrdom in his history that is the needed crown for every hero.

Complete success alienates man from his fellows, but suffering makes kinsmen of us all. So the South loves Henry Clay.

He is so well loved that he is apotheosized, and thus the real man to many is lost in the clouds. With his name, song and legend have worked their miracles, and to very many Southern people he is a being separate and apart, like Hector or Achilles.

With my cousin, Little Emily, I am always very frank--and you can be honest and frank with so few in this world of expediency, you know! We are so frank in expression that we usually quarrel very shortly. And so I explained to Emily just what I have written here, as to the real Henry Clay being lost.

She contradicted me flatly and said, "To love a person is not to lose him--you never lose except through indifference or hate!" I started to explain and had gotten as far as, "It is just like this," when the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of General Bellicose, who had come to take us riding behind a spanking pair of geldings, that I was assured were standard bred.

In Lexington you never use the general term "horse." You speak of a mare, a gelding, a horse, a four-year-old, a weanling or a sucker. To refer to a trotter as a thoroughbred is to suffer social ostracism, and to obfuscate a side-wheeler with a single-footer is proof of degeneracy. This applies equally to the ethics of the ballroom or the livery-stable. In Kentucky they read Richard's famous lines thus: "A saddler! a saddler! my kingdom for a saddler!" So when I complimented General Bellicose on his geldings and noted that they went square without boots or weights, and that he used no blinders, it thawed the social ice, and we were as brothers. Then I led the way cautiously to Henry Clay, and the General assured me that in his opinion the Henry Clays were even better than the George Wilkes. To be sure, Wilkes had more in the 'thirty list, but the Clays had brains, and were cheerful; they neither lugged nor hung back, whereas you always had to lay whip to a Wilkes in order to get along a bit, or else use a gag and overcheck.

I pressed Little Emily's hand under the lap-robe and asked her if all Kentuckians were believers in metempsychosis. "Colonel Littlejourneys is making fun of you, General," said Little Emily; "the Colonel is talking about the man, and you are discussing trotters!"

And then I apologized, but the General said it was he who should make the apology, and raising the carriage-seat brought out a box of genuine Henry Clay Havanas, in proof of amity.

It's a very foolish thing to smile at a man who rides a hobby. Once there was a man who rode a hobby all his life, to the great amusement of his enemies and the mortification of his wife; and when the man was dead they found it was a real live horse and had carried the man many long miles.

General Bellicose loves a horse; so does Little Emily and so do I. But Little Emily and the General know history and have sounded politics in a way that puts me in the kindergarten; and I found before the day was over that what one did not know about the political history of America the other did. And mixed up in it all we discussed the merits of the fox-trot versus the single-foot.

We saw the famous Clay monument, built by the State at a cost of nearly a hundred thousand dollars, and with uncovered heads gazed through the gratings into the crypt where lies the dust of the great man. Then we saw the statue of John C. Breckinridge in the public square, and visited various old ebb-tide mansions where the "quarters" had fallen into decay, and the erstwhile inhabitants had moved to the long row of tenements down by the cotton-mill. My train whistled and we were half a mile from the station, but the General said we would get there in time--and we did. I bade my friends good-by and quite forgot to thank them for all their kindness, although down in my heart I felt that it had been a time rare as a day in June. I believe they felt my gratitude, too, for where there is such a feast of wit and flow of soul, such kindness, such generosity, the spirit understands.

When I arrived home I found a box awaiting me, bearing the express mark of Lexington, Kentucky. On opening the case I found six quart-bottles of "Henry Clay--1881"; and a card with the compliments of Little Emily and General Bellicose. On the outside of the case was neatly stenciled the legend, "Thackeray, Full sett, 14 vol., half Levant." I do not know why the box was so marked, but I suppose it was in honor of my literary proclivities. I went out and blew four merry blasts on a ram's horn, and the Philistines assembled.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Henry Clay