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Who was Henry Clay?
This portrait of Henry Clay has hung for many years in the historic Hanover Courthouse. It was recently loaned to a museum in Georgia for an exhibition.
He’s ‘the other name’ on the County seal. And he earned it. While not as famous today as Patrick Henry, Henry Clay was one of the most important Americans in the first half of the 19th century.
Clay, who was born off what is now Mount Hermon Road in 1777, served in the U.S. Congress for nearly 50 years. He is considered the first great Speaker of the House of Representatives, served as Secretary of State and ran for president five times. He was unsuccessful each time, but no less than Abraham Lincoln called Clay “my beau ideal of a statesman” and his political mentor.
Lincoln said he cast his first presidential vote for Clay in 1832. Lincoln campaigned vigorously for Clay during his 1844 presidential campaign and served as an elector for him that year.
Today, Clay is known in history by a description: “the Great Compromiser”. Even though he was a Southerner, he was an ardent Unionist and desperately sought to hold the nation together when the winds of secession began to blow. “The Missouri Compromise” of 1820 and “The Compromise of 1850” helped forestall the Civil War for a generation. “If any president could have averted the Civil War, it probably would have been Henry Clay,” historian Arthur B. Schlesinger Jr. wrote.
Clay’s life started in a modest frame house that has been long gone. The family farm sat in an area of Hanover that was then called “the slashes” because of its swampy terrain. His father John was a Baptist minister who had a large congregation at Winns Baptist Church.
The 7th of nine children, Henry lost his father when he was four years old and the family suffered further blows several hours later. On his way to Charlottesville to attempt to capture Gov. Thomas Jefferson, British raider Banastre Tarleton ransacked the Clay family’s home.
Since the family lived so close to Hanover Courthouse, young Henry took to attending speeches by local politicians, foremost among them Patrick Henry, on the courthouse green and in neighboring establishments. As Henry had, young Clay became interested in politics and the law. When Henry’s mother, now remarried, moved to Kentucky in 1791 Clay remained behind at first to study under Jefferson’s mentor, George Wythe.
In 1797, Clay was admitted to the Virginia Bar. Shortly thereafter he moved also to Kentucky, where he began his political career. He seldom returned to Hanover again – in 1840 he wrote of a visit to his old home place, and wrote “if I had been put there without information I should not have been able to recognize it.”
When Clay died in 1852, he was the first American to lie in state in the Capitol building. A hundred years later, a Senate committee chaired by John F. Kennedy named Clay as one of the five greatest senators in American history.