When politicians want to settle scores these days, they often pick up their phones and tweet insults at each other. Things were more dangerous in Henry Clay’s time.
The Lexington resident, who was one of America’s most prominent statesmen in the early 19th century, fought two duels with pistols against political opponents, and he suffered a wound that left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life.
Henry Clay List, of Lexington, Clay’s fourth-great grandson, donated the statesman’s dueling pistols last month to Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate, where they have been on loan for nearly a decade.
“They are a remarkable artifact,” Ashland Curator Eric Brooks said. “They go to a number of stories.”
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Brooks said he thinks this was the only set of pistols Clay ever owned. But he doubts Clay fought either of his duels with them. That’s because Clay challenged both opponents, so by custom they got to choose the weapons.
But Brooks said he thinks these pistols did play an important role in perhaps the biggest personal tragedy of Clay’s life.
The pistols were made in the 1790s by Henry William Mortimer, a prominent London gunsmith, and they were owned by William “Lord” Morton, a British immigrant who became a prominent Lexington merchant. In 1810, Morton built the mansion in Duncan Park. Morton Middle School is named for him.
Clay was a state legislator when he proposed a bill that would have required lawmakers to wear “made in America” clothing. That didn’t go over well with Humphrey Marshall, a political enemy, who hired a tailor to make him a suit from British cloth to spite Clay. The two started insulting each other on the floor of the House of Representatives on Jan. 4, 1809. The argument became so heated that a fellow legislator had to separate them.
Clay challenged Marshall to a duel, and he accepted. That day, Clay wrote to his brother-in-law, Thomas Hart, asking that he fetch Morton’s pistols, because he knew he could trust them, Brooks said.
Dueling was illegal in Kentucky, so 15 days later, the two men and their seconds met in Indiana, across the Ohio River from Louisville. Using pistols provided by Joseph Hamilton Daveiss (for whom Daviess County was named — and misspelled), they each fired three shots. Clay grazed Marshall’s stomach and took a bullet to the thigh.
Clay fought his second duel with another political enemy, Sen. John Randolph of Virginia. Randolph’s insults of Clay became the stuff of legend. But he went over the line when, on the Senate floor, he started lambasting Clay over the so-called “corrupt bargain.” That was an alleged political deal by which Clay became secretary of state as a reward for throwing the presidency to John Quincy Adams instead of Andrew Jackson in the House of Representatives in February 1825.
Clay and Randolph met near the Potomac River in Virginia on April 8, 1825, and each fired two shots. The only damage done was to Randolph’s coat.
“It’s a weird thing to think about,” Brooks said. “Here we have people at this level of the nation’s government shooting at one another. It’s kind of a scary thought, really. It could have been a major turning point in our nation’s history had it turned out differently.”
Kentucky’s 1891 Constitution requires state officeholders to swear that they have not fought a fuel with deadly weapons, and it often elicits snickers from those witnessing the ceremony. But the prohibition was put in there for good reason.
Brooks doubts Clay ever fired his pistols in anger, but he thinks Clay gave them to his eldest son, Henry Clay Jr., to use in the Mexican War. Sometime after 1820, they were updated from flintlocks to percussion caps for a reason. “I don’t know of any other guns that he would have owned that he could have given Henry Jr.,” Brooks said.
Henry Clay Jr., a graduate of Transylvania University and West Point, was a lieutenant colonel with the 2nd Kentucky Volunteers. He was wounded at the Battle of Buena Vista on Feb. 23, 1847, and he ordered his men to fall back without him.
Brooks said Clay handed his two pistols to Capt. G.W. Cutter of Covington with these instructions: “Take them back to my father and tell him I’ve done all I can with them.”
Within minutes of handing off his pistols, Henry Clay Jr. was killed by Mexican lancers. His body was retrieved by a slave and returned to Kentucky, and he is buried in Frankfort Cemetery.
Cutter later returned the pistols to a heartbroken Henry Clay.