Sunday, May 10, 2015

Spring 2015 Dragon Run: Henry Clay's Ashland (Post 7 And Final)

Ashland.  The original house was the center part; the wings were added later.

Hotshoe and I rolled into Lexington KY with an afternoon to kill before the big push to get home the following day.  So I took him to Ashland, the home of Henry Clay.

Clay has long fascinated the history buff in me.  He burst upon the national scene in 1812 when he was elected Speaker of the House as a freshman Congressman.    He was center-stage in politics for 40 years, often dominating it.  Abraham Lincoln said Clay was his "beau ideal of a statesman."

I'm still trying to understand what Abe meant by that.  Clay was a bundle of contradictions (where Lincoln was crystal clear).  He was a War Hawk in 1812 who strenuously opposed the Mexican War in 1848.  (This may have cost him the presidency in one of his three bids for it.)  He was an anti-slavery slaveowner.  We learned on the tour that about 70 slaves worked Ashland's 600 acres, principally growing hemp.  He did not free his slaves, even in his Will.  Of his three sons, one fought for the Union, one for the Confederacy, and one stayed home.

Clay was an economic nationalist.  He advocated high tariffs to encourage manufacturing, strong centralized financial institutions, and spending Federal money on infrastructure.  He was not particularly interested in agriculture or the political agendas of rural people.  His opposition to the Mexican War was partly because it would increase slaveholding territory.  Yet, at Ashland, he lived like a patriarchal southern planter.

He was a brilliant tactical politician, known as "The Great Compromiser," who took on the other high-voltage figure of his age, Andrew Jackson, in a political blood feud.  Each tried to destroy the other, and both almost succeeded more than once.  If Clay's customary sense of proportion and the art of the possible had not deserted him, he would not have tried to destroy a sitting president.

Not much of this interested Hotshoe.  He knows and cares about automotive history more than most. His knowledge of American history is better than most.   So I just assumed he was as nutty about political history as I am.  Not so.  He was interested in Ashland's design and construction.  For instance, pocket doors, which he thought were clever and which escaped my notice until he pointed them out.  He was interested in household artifacts, which also make my eyes glaze over.  (Why tourists are fascinated with the dumbwaiter Thomas Jefferson designed for Monticello passeth my understanding.  And, speaking of Jefferson, Monticello does provide some clues to his personality.  Ashland provides fewer clues to the inner Clay.  It was simply a McMansion of its day.)

We were lucky to have a very good docent, who kept our tour group of about ten people engaged--no matter what our particular interests were.  As a tourist, I've learned that a good docent makes all the difference.  I'd toured Ashland once before, guided by a docent who stressed the gentility and refinement of Kentucky's rich-Victorian-people-who-race-horses culture.  (A Clay descendant bred and raced thoroughbreds.)  She didn't spend much time on Clay himself.  And she didn't interact with the tour group--just lectured.  She was a bore.

Architectural detail of a wing at Ashland.  This proto-Italianate style was cutting-edge modernism in the
1810's.  Hotshoe was intrigued by Ashland's space-saving pocket doors and the fact that the window
frames are Oak while the shutters are... Ash.  I was skeptical of the floor plan, which routes the
hallways around the outside of several rooms.  This eliminates walking through a room to get
to another, but it also cuts off sunlight.  Ashland can be rather gloomy inside.

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