henry clay's children -- 4/22/19

Today's selection -- from Heirs of the Founders by H.W. Brands. Henry Clay, speaker of the house, senator, presidential candidate, was a man considered one of the giants of the American legislature in the early 19th century. He and his wife had eleven children. Seven of them died:

"[Once retired, Henry Clay] didn't mind the visitors [to his Kentucky home] much. They flattered his ego. They lis­tened to his stories and laughed at his jokes. They filled the house with human voices. When they left, the house was very quiet. The footfalls of the children had long since ceased. Their memory brought deep sadness. Lucretia had given him eleven children; death had taken seven of them. Their six daughters all were gone, claimed as infants, girls or young women. The sons had fared better, with four of the five growing into young men. But the eldest son, Theodore, had demons that wouldn't let him go; at a loss for his sake and theirs, Clay and Lucretia had placed him in a mental hospital, where he remained. One heartbreak was still fresh. Henry junior, the son to whom the father was closest, had been a brilliant student at West Point and, after fulfilling his obligation to the army, had launched a promising career in law and politics. When the war with Mexico began, he raised a regiment of Kentucky volunteers and joined the force of Zachary Taylor. He had served gallantly in the invasion of northern Mexico, but he had been killed at Buena Vista.

Henry Clay and his wife, Lucretia (née Hart)

"Henry Clay had opposed the war. He distrusted James Polk and the purposes for which the war was fought. He knew that disposing of any territory taken from Mexico would require reopening the debate over slavery. He wasn't sure the country could survive it. But he had not known that the costs of the war would be so personal and painful. He had hoped that the sons left to him and Lucretia would outlive their parents; he had hoped to be spared yet another reprise of that most excruciating task of a parent, the burying of a child. Fate had decreed otherwise.

"He had meant to leave public affairs to the younger generation. He had done his part; let them take up the task. But the death of his son made him reconsider. In his old work he might find solace. And he might give meaning to Henry's death. Henry had died beneath the flag of the Union. His father sensed that the Union was in greater danger than ever. He could make a final effort to save it. He wasn't sure his health could stand it. But what his son had given, he could give too, if it came to that.

"He let his friends in Kentucky know he was willing to serve once more. The legislature made him senator again, and he followed the familiar route to Washington. New faces occupied the old seats; of his generation of lawmakers only John Calhoun, Daniel Webster and a few others remained. Yet the newcomers deferred to him; in the crisis that faced the country, well-wishers to the Union hoped Henry Clay could summon his magic one last time and prevent the states from flying apart."

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H.W. Brands


Heirs of the Founders




Copyright 2018 by H.W. Brands


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