“The tolling bells announce the death of the Hon. Henry Clay.”
–From the Executive Order of President Millard Fillmore, June 29, 1852,
to the heads of the Executive Departments
Despite his fragile health, Henry Clay returned to the nation’s capital in late 1851 to serve a final term as senator. Over the next few months his condition rapidly deteriorated. Finally, consumed by tuberculosis, the seventy-five-year old statesman took his last breath on June 29, 1852.
Befitting Clay’s status as one of the most respected and influential political figures of his time, his body was placed in state in the Capitol rotunda making him the first person in American history accorded this honor.
Impressive ceremonies were held in Washington, New York, and other cities as Clay’s body traveled for the last time back to Ashland. Each stop along the return route included great displays of funeral pageantry.
Upon arriving home, Clay’s body remained overnight at Ashland while his widow Lucretia kept watch. The next morning, after a memorial service on the front lawn, the funeral cortege left Ashland and proceeded across town to the Lexington Cemetery. Storefronts along the way were elaborately draped in black. As a sign of respect on this solemn day, all businesses in Lexington closed, all traffic was halted, and silence was ordered as the procession passed. An estimated crowd of 100,000 gathered in Lexington (population in 1852 was approximately 9,000) to pay their last respects.
The day after Clay’s death a local committee was formed to oversee the construction of “a national monument of colossal proportions” in the Lexington Cemetery. Today, a life-size figure of Clay stands atop the monument, looking eastward across the city of Lexington toward his beloved Ashland.