He was called the "Idol of the West" in an era when Ohio was considered "west."
Henry Clay personified the new people and the new country that was emerging in the years after the American Revolution. Born in 1777 in Virginia during the hardest years of the Revolution, he came of age along with the new United States of America. More than most men of his time, he helped make the new nation into what it would soon become.
He also was a frequent visitor to Columbus.
Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia, the son of a Baptist minister who died young and left two slaves to each of his three children. His widow married local planter Capt. Henry Watkins, who assured young Clay a basic education in reading and writing.
The Watkins family moved to Kentucky in 1791, but Clay stayed behind, first working in a local store and then in the Virginia Court of Chancery. There, he became the amanuensis, or secretary, to George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. With the help of Wythe and others, Clay was admitted to the Virginia Bar in 1797.
Clay moved to Kentucky and married Lucretia Hart in 1799. They would have 11 children and eventually settle on their estate called Ashland near Lexington, Kentucky, where Clay would own about 50 slaves.
He embarked first on a career as an attorney, defending people as prominent as Aaron Burr and as forgotten as the small farmers of Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. He also became involved in local politics, and by 1811 he had reached the speakership of the U.S. House of Representatives. He would hold that job for more than 10 years.
In 1812, Columbus, something of a created city, became the new state capital of Ohio. By 1820, a new federal district courthouse had been erected on Statehouse Square, and Clay became a frequent visitor to the building on one side or another of a case in progress.
Betsy Green Deshler, a resident of a house at the northwest corner of Broad and High streets, mentioned Clay in her letters home as a man of common appearance, whose plain dress coat, she noted, had "large buttons, the size of a dollar," similar to those of a family member. He often was an overnight guest in local homes, as the inns of that period often were less comfortable. Local houses of political acquaintances were much more amenable to the speaker of the House of Representatives.
Clay began his political career as a Democratic-Republican in the tradition of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and other Virginians. Over time, he would find his way to membership and leadership in the emerging Whig Party.
Along the way, he developed what he came to call his American System, which advocated large expenditures by government to develop roads, rivers and canals to open the west to transportation and trade. Some of his efforts were successful with the creation of the National Road and the development of canals in many parts of the eastern United States.
Over the course of a long career in the House and later in the Senate, Clay became known as "the Great Compromiser."
By the end of the War of 1812 in 1815, the country was beginning to split over the issue of slavery. Time after time, year after year, between the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Great Compromise of 1850, Clay successfully worked to hold the country together.
Along the way, he made a number of enemies and a large number of friends. He sought the presidency three times and failed in all three efforts. He remarked, when asked, "I would rather be right than be president."
In February 1852, Clay, suffering from tuberculosis, announced he would not seek re-election in November. On June 29, 1852, he died in Washington, D.C. His funeral procession passed through Columbus on its way to burial in Kentucky.
It was a major event for the small capital city of fewer than 18,000 people.
Upon hearing by telegraph of Clay's death, a committee of distinguished residents was appointed to receive the funeral procession. It moved from the train station -- where the convention center is today -- south on High Street and ended in front of the Neil House Hotel across from Statehouse Square.
Clay's remains were placed in the Neil House lobby overnight. Addresses were made there and at City Hall that night as church bells tolled and guns were fired.
Clay was not placed in the Statehouse because there was no statehouse. The old Statehouse burned in February 1852 and the current Statehouse still was under construction.
It was a fond farewell to a frequent and famous visitor to Columbus.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.