Tag Archives: Henry Clay

The Captain’s Husband

"She says I must write": Josiah Dunham's letter

“She says I must write”: Josiah Dunham’s letter

Josiah Dunham (1769-1844) came to Kentucky from Vermont, where he had enjoyed a distinguished career as a Federalist newspaper publisher, Secretary of State, and colonel in the Vermont militia during the War of 1812.  In Lexington, he founded the Lexington Female Academy, soon renamed the Lafayette Female Academy in honor of the great Frenchman’s visit during his tour of the United States in 1825.

Left behind in Vermont were Dunham’s sister-in-law Eleutheria (“Thery”) and her husband Daniel Chipman, an equally prominent lawyer, teacher and Federalist member of Congress.  In a lengthy letter, written on Christmas Day 1842 and now part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, Dunham brought the Chipmans up to date on his domestic life and preoccupations.

Despite his accomplishments, Dunham recognized who ruled the roost at home.  His letter, in fact, was written at his wife Susan’s bidding: “she is still ‘the Captain’ at our house,” he observed with affection, and “I have nothing to do but obey orders.”  Now in their seventies, Dunham and his wife were “getting too rapidly on in the down hill of life,” but Susan’s energy far exceeded his as she ably commanded a household of 15 or 20, including servants and a loyal teacher (“adjutant”) from their academy days.  Servants, however, cost “a heap,” as the family made use of enslaved Africans hired out by their owners: a man and four women, Dunham reported, were priced at $340 a year plus food, clothing, medical bills, and city and state tax levies.

Noting his brother-in-law’s reentry into Vermont politics via the latest state constitutional convention, Dunham also commented on the great Kentucky statesman, Henry Clay.  On his way south, apparently to attend the wedding of his daughter Anne’s widower James Erwin, Clay had been greeted everywhere with bipartisan admiration for “his talents and his virtues.”  But would Clay, soon to make his third try for the presidency, be able to translate that enthusiasm into votes?  That, Dunham (rightly) concluded, “will probably be another affair.”

A finding aid for Josiah Dunham’s letter is available here.  For more of our political collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

Josiah Dunham's signature

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An Election Prediction

Henry Clay

Henry Clay

With its use of catchy slogans (“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”), rallies, songs, banners and ribbons, the 1840 presidential contest between incumbent Martin Van Buren and the Whig Party’s William Henry Harrison marked the beginning of the modern era of campaigning.  Then as now, predictions about the outcome also enlivened the process.

That fall, Henry Clay sat down at his Lexington, Kentucky home, Ashland, to forecast the election results in response to a request from the Tippecanoe Club of Rushville, New York.  At the time, there was no single Election Day:  states voted for their presidential electors between October 30 and December 2, and the electors then met to vote for the next chief executive.  The Whigs had done well in most down-ballot races held in the preceding months, and Clay–who had lost the Whig nomination to Harrison, one of five tries he would make for the presidency–was in a good position to assess the race.

He got things nearly, but not exactly right.  Of the 26 states in the Union, Clay believed that Van Buren “would not obtain the votes of more than six.”  (He got seven).  Although down-ballot elections in Illinois had been disappointing for the Whigs, Clay was confident that “her vote will be cast in Nov. for W. H. Harrison” (He was mistaken).  He also conceded Maine to Van Buren (Harrison, in fact, won the state).  Otherwise, despite his lack of computer models and sophisticated polling, Clay would not have been embarrassed to compare his predictions with the actual result:  Van Buren’s 7 states brought 60 electoral votes, but Harrison’s 19 states and 234 electoral votes gave him the victory.

Clay nevertheless knew that voter turnout (or lack thereof) could make a fool out of any prognosticator.  “Cheering and bright as the prospects of success are,” he wrote, “it might be fatal to the salvation of the Constitution and the Country, to relax in honorable exertions. . . .  The Whig, therefore, who. . . neglects to perform his duty, is guilty of a double treachery–a treachery to his Country and a treachery to his Whig brethren in other parts of the Union, who are exerting all their energies to ensure success to our glorious Cause.”

Henry Clay’s letter to the Tippecanoe Club is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections about Henry Clay and about other presidential elections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“We Are Saved” (Again)

Elijah Hise's celebratory letter

Elijah Hise’s celebratory letter

As the major party conventions kick election season into high gear, and we brace for dark predictions that the ascendancy of one or the other candidate to the presidency will mean the certain destruction of the republic, here is an expression of relief from Elijah Hise (1802-1867) after the 1844 election of Democrat James K. Polk to the Oval Office.  Sharing his elation in a letter to a fellow supporter, Hise, a Kentucky state legislator, diplomat and future U.S. Congressman, dramatically inventoried the disasters averted by Polk’s triumph over Whig opponent Henry Clay.  Among them:

1st We are saved from the Shylock dominion of the money changers.

2nd The Constitution is saved from mutilation . . . .

4th The agricultural and planting classes saved from legal plunder . . . .

7th National debt funding system, British influence and finally a dissolution of the Union all, all prevented by the gallant brave & virtuous democracy of the Union . . .

9th Our prospect is brightened to rescue our beloved state from the extravagant and corrupt rule of modern Whiggery.

Recalling a taunt in the Senate that “the Democrats were like condemned felons upon a cart going to execution,” Hise rejoiced that “this universal proscription has been prevented” and that the speaker’s “insatiate maw . . . will never be filled with the food it so much craves.”

Elijah Hise’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more of our political collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A December Election

Elizabeth Martin's take on the 1844 election

Elizabeth Martin’s take on the 1844 election

When last we left the Whigs, they were fighting the presidential race of 1844, pitting their candidate, Kentucky’s Henry Clay, against Tennessee Democrat James K. Polk.  Both parties had dumped their presumptive heirs to the nomination, Vice President John Tyler and former President Martin Van Buren, respectively.

With their nation poised to become a continental power, the Whigs and Dems sparred bitterly over the annexation of Texas and Oregon, Manifest Destiny, and the westward expansion of slavery (Polk was for, Clay against).  But economic issues such as the tariff (Polk wanted to lower it) also hovered in the background.  Voting began on November 1–this was the last presidential election to be held on different days in different states–and when it concluded on December 4, 1844, Polk was declared the winner by a narrow margin.

In Elkton, Kentucky, 53-year-old Elizabeth Martin found herself on the wrong side of the vote (had she been able to vote, that is).  Writing to her nephew Benjamin Hinch, she mourned the outcome as “a grate calamity indeed” that left the defeated Whigs “all down in the mouth.”  Elizabeth’s daughter Avaline was also disappointed.  “The times are very hard with us,” and were likely to continue “since they have elected old Polk.”  But this joint mother-daughter letter included another, more personal debate, as the women earnestly proposed suitable names for Hinch’s newborn son.

Elizabeth and Avaline Martin’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections about politics, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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The Whig Ticket

Whig Almanac, 1845 (Emanie Arling Philips Collection)

Whig Almanac, 1845 (Emanie Arling Philips Collection)

Before its demise in the mid-19th century, the Whig Party sent four men to the White House.  In 1844, the Whigs and their candidate, Kentuckian Henry Clay, were the choice of 16 prominent Warren County citizens, who made their case in an open letter to fellow voters.  Most of their rhetoric still infuses political debate today, and could be republished with only the date revised:

The time has come when the American people should feel and know that this great great country of theirs, belongs not to office holders and office seekers, but to them.

A most momentous crisis is at hand in the history of our beloved country…Great principles are in issue.

The Whigs are the advocates of an AMERICAN tariff…discriminating in the amount of duty imposed, between those articles which the American citizen can manufacture or produce and those which they can not…  Providence…has filled our mountains and our plains with minerals…and given us a climate and soil for the growing of hemp and wool.  These being the great materials of our national defence, they ought to have extended to them adequate and fair protection.

The Whigs are in favor of a well regulated Bank of the United States; of a reduction and reform of the expenditures of Government, and a modification of the executive powers of the President.

Remembering that we are one people, in town and country all the same, elevated by the same prosperity, depressed by the same misfortunes, subject to the same laws and warmed by the same patriotism, let us unite together as one man [sic] around our principles and sustain our men [sic] and our measures by our suffrages at the polls.

A typescript of this Whiggish appeal is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For other collections about elections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCatAnd don’t forget to vote!

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Henry Clay: The Essential American

The Warren County Public Library’s American History speaker series concludes October 13 with David and Jeanne Heidler, bestselling authors of Henry Clay: The Essential American.

David and Jeanne Heidler have written numerous books and articles dealing with the history of the early American republic, the Antebellum period, and the Civil War
Their most recent work is Henry Clay: The Essential American. The Heidlers present Clay in his early years as a precocious, witty, and optimistic Virginia farm boy who at the age of twenty transformed himself into an attorney. They reveal Clay’s tumultuous career in Washington, including his participation in the deadlocked election of 1824 that haunted him for the rest of his career, and shine new light on Clay’s marriage to plain, wealthy Lucretia Hart, a union that lasted fifty-three years and produced eleven children.
The Heidlers will speak at Christ Episcopal Church (next door to the Main Library) on Thursday, October 13 at 6:00 p.m.

Free tickets are available at any library location or by email: jaynep@warrenpl.org
WKU Students will be able to swipe their student ID for these events. For more information about these events, call 270-781-4882.

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