Smith on Apple, 'The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch'

Lindsey Apple
Matthew D. Smith

Lindsey Apple. The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Illustrations. 364 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8131-3410-9.

Reviewed by Matthew D. Smith (Miami University, Hamilton) Published on H-Kentucky (August, 2012) Commissioned by Richard C. Smoot

In his 1852 eulogy to Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln remarked that “his biography has been written and re-written, and read, and re-read ... so that, with the exception of a few of the latest incidents of his life, all is as well known, as it can be.”[1]  Though political biography in the antebellum era was more the preserve of hagiography than professional scholarship, Lincoln’s assertion highlights the dangers of writing about a statesman whose mythology made historical memory.  As Daniel Walker Howe and others have argued, Clay was a true visionary, if a flawed leader.  Clay’s three runs for the White House confirmed him as the Old Pretender of Whig politics; his reputation as the Great Compromiser won him posthumous renown even as the United States slid toward Civil War; and the American System--his federal blueprint for a revolution in commerce, industry, and transportation--proved to be his enduring, practical legacy.  Since Clay never became president, though, he avoided the ultimate definition of his career.  Even as the myth of the Lost Cause transformed the South, contemporaries continued to imagine that a Clay administration might have forestalled or averted the Civil War.  Clay’s apologists found scapegoats for their hero’s thwarted political ambition.  His dysfunctional family life was soon implicated in his public life, but as Lindsey Apple argues, it has until now been “appended to his story almost as an afterthought” (p. 2).

Apple’s The Family of Henry Clay begins but does not end with its eponymous subject.  The book’s subtitle derives from a journal note by Clay’s son Henry Clay Jr.: “I attribute much in the world to accident and fortune, but perhaps an opportunity will never occur of using even the qualities I possess.  How difficult it is for a young tree to grow in the shade of an aged oak” (p. 3).  This difficult legacy, argues the author, persists in the consciousness of Clay’s descendants.  Apple, professor emeritus of history at Georgetown College, does not come into his subject cold.  He previously published Cautious Rebel: A Biography of Susan Clay Sawitzky (1997), a study of the distinguished poet who happened to be Clay’s great-granddaughter.  But as Apple realized, there was nothing incidental about such family connections.  “The descendants of Henry Clay,” he contends, “created a myth, a collective memory, that explained both the blessings and the responsibilities of membership in the family” (p. 4).  These blessings and responsibilities were indivisible, and led back to the patriarch himself.

Apple draws heavily on the work of Bertram Wyatt-Brown, whose Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982) maintains that seemingly traditional and easily romanticized notions of honor in fact comprised a dynamic, and at times creative, ethos in the Old South.  Above all, honor is an organizing principle in Apple’s family biography.  Honor underlay the filiopietism drilled into the earliest generations of the Clay dynasty, and shaped their struggle for redemption induced by the Civil War, which for them (as for many American families) was literally a family war.  Excluding the conclusion, the book’s last three chapters deal explicitly with aspects of honor.  Chapter 8, “A Legacy of Family,” explores the gendered values instilled into generations of Clays: the blunt speaking and manly self-discipline demanded (if not always successfully) of Clay sons; the “submissive, demure, and genteel” qualities demanded (and again, not always realized) from the daughters (p. 162).  Chapter 9, “A Legacy of Risk,” addresses the brash speculative enterprise of the post-Civil War dynasty, “a sort of Clay Corporation” (p. 5).  A willingness to stake all and gamble on the credit and good name of the family of course had its roots in southern notions of honor, and perhaps too in Henry Clay’s own well-documented penchant for the card table.  Chapter 10, “A Legacy of Service,” highlights the inescapable sense of duty imposed on Clay generations.  Though the Clays were never primarily a military clan, notes Apple, family members “have served in the armed forces of the United States from the Mexican War in 1848 through Vietnam” (p. 211).

If, as this book implies, historians have regarded Clay’s family as a burden, its author paints them as individuals, with strong regard for their dignity.  In many cases, Apple has lifted Clay family members from decades-old obscurity.  He treats Clay’s wife Lucretia with particular sympathy, without lapsing into sentimentality.  Twentieth-century historians have variously dismissed her as a “hard-featured woman” and “neither ‘beautiful nor intellectual,’” judgments perhaps inspired, suggests Apple, by the “fiftieth-anniversary daguerreotype of Henry and Lucretia, worthy as a model for Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic” (p. 13).  The photograph, though unflattering, is contextualized in view of the Clay family’s history up to that time--Lucretia had given birth to eleven children, had seen all six daughters to their graves, and lost a son to combat in the Mexican War.  Apple contrasts the careworn portrait of Lucretia to extant earlier portraits suggesting “a pleasant looking woman,” if not a natural beauty (p. 14).  More to the point, Apple cites documentary evidence to confute the rumor, still held to this day, that Lucretia Clay was illiterate or uneducated.

As with other well-known American dynasties, real tragedy punctuated Clay family fortunes.  Chapter 4, “A Deep Acquaintance with Grief,” addresses this theme directly.  Apple takes issue with Robert Remini’s assertion that the volatile Clay was “a wretched father,” while noting that many of the descendants inherited his demons (p. 83).  The toll of bereavement and misfortune was harrowing, although Apple argues that tragedy “humbled” the once wayward Clay, contributing to the “control of his passions” characteristic of his later years (p. 64).  Of Clay’s six daughters, four died in childhood, and the remaining two died in childbirth.  The one son who flourished in mind, body, and ambition, Henry Clay Jr., died at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847--a sacrifice that tormented Clay Sr., who had opposed the Mexican War in Congress.  Clay’s other sons, perhaps inevitably, failed to fulfill their intended potential.  The eldest son, Theodore, was committed to the Lexington Lunatic Asylum after stalking a young woman, pistol in hand.  There, notes Apple, the cure was worse than the disease, the asylum being primarily “a custodial facility” rather than a proper mental hospital (p. 69).  Another son, John Morrison Clay, was committed to the same asylum at a later date, having struggled with alcohol (like his father) and succumbing to violent mood disorder.  Unlike Theodore, who ended up “as a ‘chattering lunatic,’” in the words of one contemporary, John eventually got better, and went on to earn some success as a horse breeder (p. 71).  His rehabilitation was due in part to long overdue therapeutic reforms at the hospital, but owed more, argues Apple, to the influence of his eventual wife, Josephine Russell Clay.  As Apple argues throughout the book, women anchored this patriarchal clan. “Clay’s sons ... married strong stable partners, women who accomplished what Henry had been unable to do: give the second generation a sense of direction” (p. 46).

The Clay family’s reputation as strange fish persisted long into the twentieth century, revealing as much about the social mores of the Bluegrass as it did about the family itself.  The unfair charge of incest (the Clays were no more exclusive than most upper-class clans of their milieu) persisted at least until the 1980s, whence Apple quotes a Lexingtonian: “They marry their cousins, you know” (p. 173).  This would have made a titillating alternative title for the book, but Apple thankfully avoids gratuitous sensationalism.  The skeletons in the Clay family closet are too familiar to jump out of the blue, and the family’s tribulations are treated throughout with sympathy.  Most moving is the story of Susan Clay Sawitzky,, who sought to escape the patriarchal confines of Lexington and eloped with a Russian émigré in 1927.  A brilliant but troubled poet, “she wondered aloud” if her subsequent miscarriage “was God’s punishment for her defiance of her parents” (p. 169).  Though seeking refuge in Bohemian revolt, she kept a print of Ashland on her wall wherever she went.  She eventually died in 1981 as a frightened recluse, in a boarded-up apartment in New Haven, Connecticut.  “She had,” writes Apple, “created her own prison” (p. 170).

No history of the Clays can ignore the question of slavery, and Apple presents an evenhanded and occasionally incisive look at its effect on the family.  While cousin Cassius Clay was an outspoken abolitionist, Henry and his descendants were no prophets in their racial politics.  For those familiar with the history of slavery in Kentucky, there are few surprises, but some jarring reminders of lived reality.  The Great Compromiser was undoubtedly “uncomfortable with the concept of slavery,” but as Apple admits, Clay wrote to his son James “that he should not consider farming as a career if he remained opposed to owning slaves” (pp. 87, 6).  Like most Kentucky slaveowners, the Clays were adept at compartmentalization.  Long after emancipation, family members continued to espouse hopes for the African colonization plan once championed by Clay, but already an anachronism by the outbreak of the Civil War.  A combination of noblesse oblige and the Lost Cause mentality shaped the Clay family’s collective memory of its slaveholding past.  Among many fascinating pictures in this handsomely illustrated volume is a late nineteenth-century family photograph showing the McDowell branch of the Clay family “posed by race” with their black retainers in the background (p. 143).

For all the Clay dynasty’s checkered past, Apple’s book finally “speaks to the resiliency of an American family” (p. 252).  Perhaps its most revealing insight is its most obvious one: “Henry Clay’s descendants generally avoided politics” (p. 227).  Such descendants as Henry Clay McDowell, who struggled with tuberculosis but had a long career as a federal judge, or philanthropist Madeline McDowell Breckenridge point to the Clay family legacy of service over the years.  This book shines new light on an American family miscast as a narrowly political dynasty.  In so doing, it recovers the scions from the shadows of the great oak, while never entirely resolving the elusive question: “What personal faults had kept Henry Clay from becoming president of the United States?” (p. 175).  In fairness, that would be the subject for another study, but Apple instead offers a long overdue (and wonderfully readable) family biography. 


[1]. Abraham Lincoln, “Eulogy on Henry Clay,” July 6, 1852, in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, 8 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55), 2:124.

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Citation: Matthew D. Smith. Review of Apple, Lindsey, The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch. H-Kentucky, H-Net Reviews. August, 2012. URL:

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