Henry Clay’s mother, having married Captain Henry Watkins, moved from Hanover, Virginia, to Woodford County, Kentucky, in 1792. As soon as the future statesman was admitted to practice in the Virginia Court of Appeals, he decided to follow her. Accordingly, in November, 1797, he became a resident of Lexington. Three years later the Kentucke Gazette, the first paper published west of the mountains, told of ” an eloquent oration ” that was ” delivered by Henry Clay, Esquire.”
The year before the young lawyer received this flattering notice he married Lavinia Hart, of Lexington. Seven years were spent in rented quarters, but in 1806 he purchased an estate about a mile and a half from town.
Clay took the keenest pleasure in the estate. Once he wrote to a friend :
” I am in one respect better off than Moses. He died in sight of and without reaching the Promised Land. I occupy as good a farm as any he would have found had he reached it, and Ashland’has been acquired not by hereditary descent but by my own labor.”
However, it was only at intervals that the proud owner was able to enjoy Ashland. After 1803 the longest period of residence was six years, and this was toward the close of his life.
The management of the property was largely in the hands of Mrs. Clay, and the prosperity of the plantation was proof of her capability. From Washington he wrote frequently of things he would like to see done. He was especially interested in blooded stock which he secured in the East and abroad. Once he wrote proudly of the fact that there were on the estate specimens of ” the Maltese ass, the Arabian horse, the Merino and Saxe Merino sheep, the English Hereford and Durham cattle, the goat, the mule and the hog.” His race horses were famous, and he delighted to handle them himself. He also liked to feed the pigs, even when he was an old man.
There were many slaves at Ashland, and they were all attached to their master. His will provided for their emancipation, under wise conditions. Once, when a friend bequeathed him twenty-five slaves, he sent them to Liberia, by way of New Orleans.
Harriet Martineau, who visited Ashland in 1835, told of her pleasant impression of the place and its owner :
” I stayed some weeks in the house of a wealthy land-owner in Kentucky. Our days were passed in great luxury, and the hottest of them very idly. The house was in the midst of grounds gay with verdure and flowers, in the opening month of June, and our favorite seats were the steps of the hall, and chairs under the trees. From there we could watch the play of the children on the grass plot, and some of the drolleries of the little negroes. . . . There were thirty-three horses in the stables, and we roved about the neighboring country accordingly. . . .”
As the years passed visitors flocked to Ashland in ever-increasing numbers. Many of them were politicans, but more were plain people who were devoted to Clay and could not understand why the country refused to elect him President. In 1844, during his longest period of continuous residence at Ashland, he received word of the disappointing result of the election. After a few days, when he was walking on the turnpike near the house, he was startled by a woman who, on passing him, burst into tears. When he asked her why she wept, she said :
” I have lost my father, my husband, and my children, and passed through other painful trials; but all of them together have not given me so much sorrow as the late disappointment of your friends.”
A story is also told of a bride and groom who visited Ashland on the day the news of defeat was received. The journey was continued down the Mississippi River. On the boat the groom was taken seriously ill. The physician who was called to attend him was puzzled to define the ailment until the bride said that the cause was the defeat of Henry Clay. The old doctor threw his arms about the patient’s neck and cried, ” There is no cure for a complaint like that.”
The sting of defeat was forgotten one day in 1845. Mr. Clay was in his bank in Lexington, prepared to pay a part of the indebtedness that had all but swamped him, so that he felt he might have to sacrifice Ashland. The bank told him that about $50,000 had been deposited in the bank by his friends from all parts of the country, enough to pay all his debts. He never knew the names of the generous friends who had made possible the retention of the property.
He thought he was to spend the remainder of his days at home, and that he would die there in peace. One day he said, in an address in Lexington, ” I felt like an old stag which has been long coursed by the hunters and the hounds, through brakes and briars, and over distant plains, and has at last returned to his ancient lair to lay himself down and die.”
Again in 1848 he tasted defeat, though on this occasion it was in the nominating convention, not in the election. In the trying days that followed he was sustained by his Christian faith. He had been baptized in the parlor at Ashland on June 22, 1847. The reality of his religious convictions was seen one day by what he said to a company of friends who had been talking in a despairing manner of the future of the country. Pointing to the Bible on the table, he said, ” Gentlemen, I do not know anything but that Book which can reconcile us to such events.”
In 1849 Clay was sent to the United States Senate because the legislature of Kentucky felt that he was needed to help in the solution of questions raised by the Mexican War. He spent three years in Washington, then died in the midst of his work. After a journey that showed what a place he had won in the hearts of the people, his body was taken to Lexington. The catafalque lay in state in Ashland over one night. Next day the body was buried near Lexington.
His son, James B. Clay, who purchased the estate at auction, tore down the house because of its weakened foundations, but rebuilt it of the same materials, on the old site, and on almost the identical plans. Both out-side and inside the mansion has practically the appearance of the original.
Before the Civil War Ashland was purchased by the State College, but in 1882 it became the property of Major Henry Clay McDowell, whose widow lived there for many years. She was the daughter of Henry Clay, Jr., whose death at the Battle of Buena Vista was a sore blow to one who was always a fond father.