Life of Henry Clay/01 Youth
Few public characters in American history have been the subjects of more heated controversy than Henry Clay. There was no measure of detraction and obloquy to which, during his lifetime, his opponents would not resort, and there seemed to be no limit to the admiration and attachment of his friends. While his enemies denounced him as a pretender and selfish intriguer in politics and an abandoned profligate in private life, his supporters unhesitatingly placed him first among the sages of the period, and, by way of defense, sometimes even among its saints. The animosities against him have, naturally, long ago disappeared; but even now, more than thirty years after his death, we may hear old men, who knew him in the days of his strength, speak of him with an enthusiasm and affection so warm and fresh as to convince us that the recollection of having followed his leadership is among the dearest treasures of their memory. The remarkable fascination he exercised seems to have reached even beyond his living existence. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at that his biographers, most of whom were his personal friends, should have given us an abundance of rhapsodic eulogy, instead of a clear account of what their hero thought on matters of public interest, of what he did and advised others to do, of his successes and his failures, and of the influence he exercised in shaping the development of this Republic. This, indeed, is not an easy task, for Henry Clay had, during the long period of his public life, covering nearly half a century, a larger share in national legislation than any other contemporary statesman, — not, indeed, as an originator of ideas and systems, but as an arranger of measures, and as a leader of political forces. His public life may therefore be said to be an important part of the national history.
Efforts have been made by enthusiastic admirers to find for him a noble ancestry in England, but with questionable success. We may content ourselves with saying that the greatness of his name rests entirely upon his own merit. The family from which he sprang emigrated from England not long after the establishment of the colony of Virginia, and settled on the southern side of the James River. His biographers, some of whom wrote under his own supervision, agree in the statement that Henry Clay was born on April 12, 1777, in Hanover County, Virginia, in a neighborhood called the "Slashes." His father, John Clay, was a Baptist clergyman, of sterling character, of great dignity of deportment, much esteemed by all who knew him, and "remarkable for his fine voice and delivery." The pastor's flock consisted of poor people. A rock in South Anna River has long been pointed out as a spot "from which he used at times to address his congregation." Henry Clay's mother was a daughter of George Hudson, of Hanover County. She is said to have been a woman of exemplary qualities as a wife and a mother, and of much patriotic spirit.
The Reverend John Clay died in 1781, when Henry was only four years old, and there is a tradition in the family that, while the dead body was still lying in the house, Colonel Tarleton, commanding a cavalry force under Lord Cornwallis, passed through Hanover County on a raid, and left a handful of gold and silver on Mrs. Clay's table as a compensation for some property taken or destroyed by his soldiers; but that the spirited woman, as soon as Tarleton was gone, swept the money into her apron and threw it into the fireplace. It would have been in no sense improper, and more prudent, had she kept it, notwithstanding her patriotic indignation; for she was left a widow with seven children, and there was only a very small estate to support the family.
Under such circumstances Henry, the fifth of the seven children of the widow, received no better schooling than other poor boys of the neighborhood. The schoolhouse of the "Slashes" was a small log-cabin with the hard earth for a floor, and the schoolmaster an Englishman who passed under the name of Peter Deacon, — a man of an uncertain past and somewhat given to hard drinking, but possessing ability enough to teach the children confided to him reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic. When not at school Henry had to work for the support of the family, and he was often seen walking barefooted behind the plough, or riding on a pony to Daricott's mill on the Pamunkey River, using a rope for a bridle and a bag filled with wheat or corn or flour as a saddle. Thus he earned the nickname of "the mill-boy of the Slashes," which subsequently, in his campaigns for the presidency, was thought to be worth a good many votes.
A few years after her first husband's death, the widow Clay married Captain Henry Watkins, a resident of Richmond, who seems to have been a worthy man and a good step-father to his wife's children. To start young Henry in life Captain Watkins placed him as a "boy behind the counter" in the retail store kept by Richard Denny in the city of Richmond. Henry, who was then fourteen years old, devoted himself for about a year with laudable diligence and fidelity to the duty of drawing molasses and measuring tape, giving his leisure hours to the reading of such books as happened to fall into his hands. But it occurred to Captain Watkins that his step-son, the brightness and activity of whose mind were noticed by him as well as others, might be found fit for a more promising career. He contrived through the influence of his friend Colonel Tinsley, a member of the House of Burgesses, to obtain for young Henry a place in the office of the Clerk of the High Court of Chancery, that clerk being Mr. Peter Tinsley, the Colonel's brother. There was really no vacancy, but the Colonel's patronizing zeal proved irresistible, and Henry was appointed as a supernumerary.
To Roland Thomas, the senior clerk of the office, who lived to see and admire Henry Clay in his greatness, we are indebted for an account of the impression produced by the lad as he appeared in his new surroundings. He was a rawboned, lank, awkward youth, with a countenance by no means handsome, yet not unpleasing. His garments, of gray "figinny" cloth, were home-made and ill-fitting, and his linen, which the good mother had starched for the occasion to unusual stiffness, made him look peculiarly strange and uncomfortable. With great uneasiness of manner he took his place at the desk where he was to begin copying papers, while his new companions could not refrain from tittering at his uncouth appearance and his blushing confusion. But they soon learned to respect and also to like him. It turned out that he could talk uncommonly well when he ventured to talk freely, and presently he proved himself the brightest and also the most studious young man among them. He continued to "read books" when the hours of work were over, while most of his companions gave themselves up to the pleasures of the town.
Then the fortunate accident arrived which is so frequently found in the lives of young men of uncommon quality and promise. He began to attract the attention of persons of superior merit. George Wythe, the Chancellor of the High Court of Chancery, who often had occasion to visit Peter Tinsley's office, noticed the new-comer, and selected him from among the employees there to act as an amanuensis in writing out and recording the decisions of the court. This became young Clay's principal occupation for four years, during which his intercourse with the learned and venerable judge grew constantly more intimate and elevating. As he had to write much from the Chancellor's dictation, the subject-matter of his writing, which at first was a profound mystery to him, gradually became a matter of intelligent interest. The Chancellor, whose friendly feeling for the bright youth grew warmer as their relations became more confidential, began to direct his reading, at first turning him to grammatical studies, and then gradually opening to him a wider range of legal and historical literature. But what was equally, if not more important in the pauses of their work and in hours of leisure, the Chancellor conversed with his young secretary upon grave subjects, and thus did much to direct his thoughts and to form his principles.
Henry Clay could not have found a wiser and nobler mentor. George Wythe was one of the most honorably distinguished men of a period abounding in great names. Born in 1726, he received his education at William and Mary College. At the age of thirty he devoted himself to the study and practice of the law, and rose quickly to eminence in the profession. In 1758 he represented the college in the House of Burgesses. In 1764 he drew up a remonstrance against the Stamp Act, addressed to the British Parliament. As a member of the Congress of 1776 he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. For ten years he taught jurisprudence at William and Mary. He aided Jefferson in revising the laws of Virginia. In 1777 he was appointed a Judge of the High Court of Chancery, and in 1786 became Chancellor. He was a member of the convention which framed the federal Constitution, and one of its warmest advocates in the Virginia Convention which ratified it. But he achieved a more peculiar distinction by practically demonstrating the sincerity of his faith in the humane philosophy of the age. In his lifetime he emancipated all his slaves and made a liberal provision for their subsistence. There were few men in his day of larger information and experience, and scarcely any of higher principle. Nor was Henry Clay the only one of his pupils who afterward won a great name, for Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall had been students of law in George Wythe's office.
When young Clay had served four years as the Chancellor's amanuensis, his mind was made up that he would become a lawyer. He entered the office of Robert Brooke, the Attorney-General of Virginia, as a regular law student, spent about a year with him, and then obtained from the judges of the Court of Appeals a license to practice the profession. This was quick studying, or the license must have been cheap, unless we assume that the foundations of his legal knowledge were amply laid in his intercourse with Chancellor Wythe.
But in the mean time he had also been introduced in society. Richmond at that time possessed less than 5,000 inhabitants, but it was the most important city in the state, — the political capital as well as the social centre of Virginia. The character of Virginian society had become greatly changed during the Revolutionary War. The glories of Williamsburg, the colonial capital, with its "palace," its Raleigh Tavern, its Apollo Hall, its gay and magnificent gatherings of the planter magnates, were gone never to return. Many of the "first families" had become much reduced in their circumstances. Moreover, the system of primogeniture and entail had been abolished by legal enactments moved by Jefferson, and thus the legal foundation upon which alone a permanent landed aristocracy can maintain itself had disappeared. Although much of the old spirit still remained alive, yet the general current was decidedly democratic, and the distance between the blooded gentry and less "well-born" people was materially lessened. Thus the "mill-boy of the Slashes," having become known as a young man of uncommon intellectual brightness, high spirits, and good character, and being, besides, well introduced through his friendship with Chancellor Wythe, found it possible to come into friendly contact with persons of social pretensions far above his own. He succeeded even in organizing a "rhetorical society," or debating club, among whose members there were not a few young men who subsequently became distinguished. It was on this field that he first achieved something like leadership, while his quick intelligence and his sympathetic qualities made him a favorite in a much larger circle. According to all accounts Henry Clay, at that period of his life, was untouched by vice or bad habit, and could in every respect be esteemed as an irreproachable and very promising young man.
But he soon discovered that all these things would not give him a paying practice as an attorney in Richmond so quickly as he desired; and as his mother and step-father had removed to Kentucky in 1792, he resolved to follow them to the western wilds, and there to "grow up with the country." He was in his twenty-first year when he left Richmond, with his license to practice as an attorney, but with little else, in his pocket.
This was the end of Henry Clay's regular schooling. Thenceforth he did not again in his life find a period of leisure to be quietly and exclusively devoted to study. What he had learned was little enough. In Peter Deacon's schoolhouse he had received nothing but the first elementary instruction. The year he spent behind the counter of Denny's store could not have added much to his stock of knowledge. In Peter Tinsley's office he had cultivated a neat and regular handwriting, of which a folio volume of Chancellor Wythe's decisions, once in the possession of Jefferson, now in the library of the Supreme Court of the United States, gives ample testimony. Under Chancellor Wythe's guidance he had read Harris's Homer, Tooke's Diversions of Purley, Bishop Lowth's Grammar, Plutarch's Lives, some elementary law-books, and a few works on history. Further, the Chancellor's conversation had undoubtedly been in a high degree instructive and morally elevating. But all these things did not constitute a well-ordered education. His only more or less systematic training he received during the short year he spent as a law student in the office of Attorney-General Brooke, and that can scarcely have gone far beyond the elementary principles of law and the ordinary routine of practice in court. On the whole, he had depended upon the occasional gathering of miscellaneous information. He could thus, at best, have acquired only a slender equipment for the tasks before him. This, however, would have been of comparatively slight importance had he, in learning what little he knew, cultivated thorough methods of inquiry, and the habit of reasoning out questions, and of not being satisfied until the subject in hand was well understood in all its aspects. The habit he really had cultivated was that of rapidly skimming over the surface of the subjects of his study, in order to gather what knowledge was needed for immediate employment; and as his oratorical genius was developed early and well, he possessed the faculty of turning every bit of information to such advantage as to produce upon his hearers the impression that he possessed rich accumulations behind the actual display. Sometimes he may have thus satisfied and deceived even himself. This superficiality remained one of his weak points through life. No doubt he went on learning, but he learned rather from experience than from study; and though experience is a good school, yet it is apt to be irregular and fragmentary in its teachings.
Some of Henry Clay's biographers have expressed the opinion that the scantiness and irregularity of instruction he received, without the aid of academy or college, were calculated to quicken his self-reliance and thereby to become an element of strength in his character especially qualifying him for political leadership. It is quite possible that, had he in his youth acquired the inclination and faculty for methodical inquiry and thus the habit of examining both sides of every question with equal interest, he would have been less quick in forming final conclusions from first impressions, less easily persuaded of the absolute correctness of his own opinions, less positive and commanding in the promulgation of them, and less successful in inspiring his followers with a ready belief in his infallibility. But that he might have avoided grave errors as a statesman had his early training been such as to form his mind for more thorough thinking, and thus to lay a larger basis for his later development, he himself seemed now and then to feel. It was with melancholy regret that he sometimes spoke of his "neglected education, improved by his own irregular efforts, without the benefit of systematic instruction."
When he settled down in Kentucky his new surroundings were by no means such as to remedy this defect. Active life in a new country stimulates many energies, but it is not favorable to the development of studious habits. In this respect Kentucky was far from forming an exception.