Henry Clay’s Lexington was snippy, judgmental, rude, vengeful, fascinating

Henry Clay of Lexington, one of the most prominent American politicians of the first half of the 19th century, fought two duels.
Henry Clay of Lexington, one of the most prominent American politicians of the first half of the 19th century, fought two duels. Photo provided

Burton Milward Jr.’s new book is like reading a 19th-century gossip column, full of judgments that turned out to be dead wrong, shortsighted comments, nasty observations, and at least one vendetta — a lot like today. If these writers had had Twitter, there would have been blood.

In “Henry Clay’s Lexington,” (Create Space, Amazon $10, Kindle download $2.99), Milward compiles and excerpts letters, journals and articles written about Lexington during Clay’s time. No dry historical dust, this. Many of the writers are either weary with travel or engaged in the kind of bickering that makes history so much more than dry and inaccessible tomes. These writers are out in the cow patty-studded fields with Henry Clay, sweating through hot summers, archly evaluating how nice the Clay house was and whether Clay’s family lived up to the standard in more fashionable cities.

Throughout the book, not one letter writer or journal keeper can ever keep straight how far Clay’s house was from downtown. It’s reported to be anywhere from a mile to to two miles.

Milward, a former Louisville lawyer who now teaches Transcendental Meditation in Fairfield, Iowa, finds Lexington history intriguing. Among its great characters is Henry Clay, who came to Lexington at age 19 and represented Kentucky in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, garnering such nicknames as “The Greater Compromiser” and “The Western Star.”

Milward attended the University of Kentucky law school. His father was a local historian who worked for the Lexington Leader. Milward worked in Louisville before returning to Lexington to care for his aging parents. He ultimately moved to Iowa for Transcendental Meditation, which he had practiced since he was a student. Fairfield, Iowa, is considered the Transcendental Meditation capital of America.

Here are some highlights that show why history is written by people with sharply differing points of view. Also, note that 19th-century writers really loved their commas.

Lexington was seen as a big deal in the nation

“Lexington has taken the tone of a literary place, and may be fitly called the Athens of the West.” — Timothy Flint, “Recollections of the Last Ten Years”

“This town, which promises to be the great inland city of the western world, is situated in the centre of an extensive plain of the richest land.” — from Niles Weekly Register’s profile on Lexington, January 1815

“The scenery around Lexington, almost equals that of the Elysium of the ancients. Philadelphia, with all its surrounding beauties scarcely equals it.”— Samuel R. Brown, “The Western Gazetteer; or Emigrant’s Directory,” 1817

“The inhabitants are as polished, and I regret to add, as luxurious as those of Boston, New York or Baltimore.” — Samuel R. Brown.

“Nothing is more astonishing than the rapid rise and progress of the Western States in the scale of civilization. The spot on which Lexington stands was 40 years ago, a complete wilderness, inhabited only by the buffalo and elk, and made use of, by the wild Indians, as a hunting ground.” — William Newnham Blane, “An Excursion through the United States and Canada during the Years 1822-23.”

“Lexington, the Eden of America.” — “Sketches of Kentucky,” The Western Monthly Magazine, September 1834

Why didn’t Lexington become an even bigger deal?

Several of the writers observed that Lexington lacked a river or ocean, surely a factor in the prosperity of big cities.

Frederick Hall, a doctor impressed with Clay’s cattle, writes in a letter that Lexington is not the “the Athens of the West” and is “far less deserving of that honor than Cincinnati.”

Sure, Henry Clay was the Great Compromiser, but check out those cattle

Henry Clay was a great political force, almost all the correspondents agree. But some came away substantially more impressed by his animal husbandry skills.

“It is well known, that he has effected far more for the farmer, by the improvement of his domestic animals, than any other man in America.”— Dr. Frederick Hall, “Letters from the East and from the West.”

Henry Clay’s house? Not that great, really

“Mr. Clay’s house and property are in the neighborhood. There is nothing remarkable about his house, which is of brick, situated upon flat ground near the road, nowise better in appearance than a very ordinary English parsonage.” — James Stuart, “Three Years in North America,” 1833.

Note that the house comments referred to the old house, which was razed after Clay’s death, and not the current Ashland.

Henry Clay’s house: It’s beautiful, OK?

Calista Cralle Long begs to differ in her journal from 1836-37: “Mr. Henry Clay has a most beautiful residence near town.”

Not a Transy fan

Hall, the doctor who was so impressed with Clay’s cattle, is not a fan of Transylvania University.

He noted that many of its medical professors had decamped to Louisville. The school in Lexington, he writes, “accomplishes next to nothing, in the education of young men, except so far as relates to its medical department.”

You think traffic is bad now? Try it with horses instead of horsepower

“The next day I quitted Maysville, at nine a.m., for Lexington; and though the distance is but 64 miles, the stages did not reach the latter place till half-past ten at night.” — E.S. Abdy, “Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April 1833 to October 1834”

Henry Clay’s cattle owed it all to good grass

“Clay’s (cattle) do appear to be better than is common in Ohio. The only difference is the pastures here are better than in Ohio.”— Transylvania student Isaac Compton, 1836, in a letter to his father.

Why you did not mess with Constantine Rafinesque

Celebrated botanist Constantine Rafinesque reported frequent visits with Henry Clay, whom he apparently liked. However, Rafinesque had a no-holds-barred feud with Transylvania College President Horace Holley, for whom he worked. At one point, Rafinesque returned to Lexington to find that Holley had broken into his rooms, giving one room to a student, and had piled Rafinesque’s stuff in a heap in the other.

Not a man who thrived on social niceties, Rafinesque cursed Holley and the college.

Rafinesque was delighted to report that Holley “died next year at sea of the yellow fever, caught at New Orleans, having been driven from Lexington by public opinion: and the college has been burnt in 1828 with all its contents.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman