From the Colonel’s Desk: The Union, the Constitution and the Freedom of Mankind

The gift of the citizens of New York, a 30 ounce gold medal presented to Henry Clay on his deathbed. (Courtesy of John Riley). Move the mouse pointer to zoom.

This episode of “From the Colonel’s Desk” is penned by Col. John Riley, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (commissioned 1985), a veteran numismatist who hails from the bluegrass state.

“Kentucky, my own, my native land” – this is what the deposed President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis, said in 1886 from Christian County in southwestern Kentucky. “Wherever the name of Kentucky is mentioned, every hand shall be lifted and every head bowed, for all is great, all glorious, all virtuous, all honorable and manly.”

This 19th-century prose evokes all the sentimentalities and contradictions that still exist in contemporary Kentucky. And this yin and yang, positive/negative, often uncompromisingly not in line with the American mainstream, appeals to the collector in me: “Old money” and nods to the European royal family, which seems to have been peaceful with other areas in eternal hard times coexists.

Henry Clay, c.1847 or 1848. (Courtesy of John Riley).

Kentucky was little known or ideal to European Americans when future statesman Henry Clay was born in Virginia in 1777. Westward expansion was imminent and the fertile land, wildlife, and free-flowing waters of what Native Americans called the “Dark and Bloody Ground” was an irresistible draw for frontiersmen and colonists looking for land opportunities. Clay, a newly minted attorney, joined the family in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1797 and found instant success in the fast-growing legal field of property rights – particularly clarifying legal deeds and land allocations to Revolutionary War veterans.

His strengths as a speaker and negotiator were recognized early on and his political involvement was immediate. After an initial stint in the Kentucky state legislature, Clay was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democratic-Republican (later Whig) in 1810 and rose to the powerful role of Speaker of the House within a year. He would last more than 10 years on and off . Quick positioning propelled him into the limelight as a leading national figure as he waged war with Britain in 1812 and brilliantly negotiated the ensuing Peace Treaty of Ghent, Belgium. Clay served a single term as Secretary of State during the administration of John Quincy Adams from 1825 to 1829. Clay was elected to the US Senate in 1831 and spent the rest of his career in the service of the country. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. presidency in 1824, 1828, 1832, 1844, and 1848, and came closest to winning the award in the 1844 campaign against Democrat James K. Polk.

Clay’s defining contribution, and Kentucky’s pride, was his efforts to promote national peace on the leitmotif of the era: slavery in the United States. Brokered largely by Clay, the so-called “Missouri Compromise” of 1820 was intended to balance power in Congress between free and slave states, allowing slavery to exist in the newly created Missouri in exchange for allowing Maine to be a free state and allowing it from Massachusetts separated. Additionally, the Compromise agreed that new states arising from the territory of Louisiana would exclude slavery north of Missouri’s southern border. The compromise was later lifted and the issue returned in 1850 as a crisis over the issue of allowing slavery in territories acquired under the peace terms of the US-Mexican War. Five separate bills, including California’s recognition of statehood as “free,” once again defused the confrontation.

Although a slave owner, Henry Clay’s personal position was one of gradual emancipation. Clay died in 1852 at the age of 75, his headstone in beloved Lexington reading: “I know no north – no south – no east – no west.”

What’s tempting, looking through the prism of hindsight, is what could have been. Had Clay been elected to the US presidency, had he served a generation later, could the political malaise of the 1850s have been avoided and a peaceful solution to the American slavery paradox found? Could the American Civil War have been prevented?

Kentucky’s national prominence peaked during this period with Lexington and its Transylvania University, dubbed the “Athens of the West,” but expansion north and west kept much of the population moving, and the depressing aftermath of the Civil War was generational challenges to this day. Nonetheless, the state continues to produce a proportionate share of the country’s innovators and leaders in science, advanced thought, and entertainment.

The obverse of an enigmatic bronze sign, 20 millimeters, no face value, with the Clay grave in Lexington, Kentucky. (Courtesy of John Riley).

Henry Clay’s influence on a young Kentucky-born Abraham Lincoln is remarkable. Lincoln referred to Clay as his “beautiful ideal of a statesman,” and the reverence felt is indelible on much of Lincoln’s own legacy. Clay had a limited correspondence with the Illinois attorney and congressman and was certainly well acquainted with Mary Todd Lincoln’s own famous Lexington family. In November 1847, Lincoln attended an address given by Clay at Lexington’s Market House, but they are not believed to have actually met.

The back of the Clay Monument token. Its maker is unknown (possibly Scovill), and its purpose is open to speculation – it may have been a fundraising tool for the 120-foot Corinthian column erected in honor of Henry Clay in 1857. (Courtesy of John Riley).

Clay was frequently commemorated in contemporary medal images – primarily campaign advertisements, but also obituaries of his death, in recognition of his years of distinguished service to the country and contributions to peace. The citizens of New York City presented the statesman with a 30-ounce gold medal shortly before his death. At a heritage auction in 2016, this medal, handed down directly from a Clay progeny, sold for $346,000.

An 1844 field medal (brass, 21mm) naming Henry Clay ‘The Ashland Farmer’. (Courtesy of John Riley).

Many token and medal sightings document his beloved Lexington estate, Ashland, still a Lexington landmark. What was once a 672-acre farm and magnificent home was Clay’s enduring passion as a farmer and horseman. He professionally bred thoroughbred racehorses and oversaw the rearing of tobacco, hemp, and grain throughout his adult life.

A postcard, circa 1910, showing the monument and tomb of Henry Clay in Lexington, Kentucky – a landmark to this day. (Courtesy of John Riley).

Thank you for this forum’s opportunity to discuss a hobby passion – and we should note that there is a wealth of other areas to explore. I want to pay a little tribute to my friend Jerry “Beanie” Schaeper Jr. of Erlanger, Kentucky, who passed away in October 2021. Jerry collected and dealt in Kentucky numismatics, and his knowledge and collection should serve as the basis for a Kentucky-specific reference that I will consider in the near future, including scrip. Currently there is not a single travel guide. This will be a harder project now without the beanie, but hope lives on forever.

Dennis Tucker, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, is the publisher of Whitman Publishing, a leading manufacturer of storage and display supplies, reference books, and other resources for collectors and hobbyists. He was made a Kentucky Colonel in March 2021 for his career in book publishing and his promotion of the Bluegrass State’s status as an important topic in numismatics. His column, “From the Colonel’s Desk,” examines the Commonwealth’s diverse ties to American coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts.

John Riley, Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, is an active numismatist – a longtime member and board member of the Chicago Coin Club and one of the main coordinators of the Philippine Collectors Forum. He is working on a book-length study of Kentucky numismatics.

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