A Brief Tour of the Mansion

Entrance Hall

The entrance hall is where the outside world connects to the Clay and McDowell families.  As guests enter, they are immediately met with an 1818 portrait of a young Henry Clay, and this is intentional.  It was placed there by Anne Clay McDowell to remind guests that this mansion is a symbol of Henry Clay’s legacy.  To the right of the front door, there is an 1842 drawing of Charles Dupuy.  If you had visited Ashland in the 1830s, Charles Dupuy would have most likely been the first person you would have met as you entered the mansion.  He was enslaved here until 1844.  All other spaces in the house branch off from this point.

This room was used as a space to show off the wealth and status of the family.  The Drawing Room has the most ornate mantel in the mansion, the most ornate plasterwork, and the most prized item in Henry Clay’s original parlor, his Washington Goblet.  Clay was always trying to draw a connection from his political career back to the founding of the United States and the leadership of George Washington.  In honor of Clay’s 1844 campaign, Lucretia Clay was given the massive painting of the Washington family for use in the original Ashland’s parlor.  The gift was meant to symbolize an admirer’s belief that Henry and Lucretia would be as striking a first family as the Washington’s were.  Beyond the political symbolism in the room, the space was also used for entertainment in a period where all entertainment had to be produced in the moment.  Lucretia played the piano and Anne Clay McDowell played the guitar.

Drawing Room

Dining Room

This room was originally used as a private parlor and is described by Susan Jacob Clay in the 1850s as her “Crimson Room.”  During the McDowell period this space was converted into a large dining room where their massive dining table could be expanded to seat dozens of guests.  To the right of the mantel there is a portrait of Henry Clay Jr., who was expected by his father to carry on the Clay family’s political legacy.  This responsibility burdened Henry Jr., he graduated second in his class at West Point Military Academy and became a successful lawyer in Louisville, but he always felt like he was living in his father’s shadow.  When his wife Julia Prather Clay died in childbirth he fell into a deep depression.  When the Mexican American War broke out, he signed up and was eventually killed in 1847 at the Battle of Buena Vista.  He was later buried in Frankfort, KY.

Henry Clay’s legal career was immensely successful, influencing legal precedent on both the local and national levels.  Beyond being a successful politician and lawyer, Clay was a self-proclaimed “Scientific Farmer”, and he took great pride in the success of Ashland’s crops and livestock.  The main cash crop at Ashland, and in the bluegrass region, was hemp.  According to Clay, Kentucky was the prime location for hemp cultivation because of its abundance of enslaved labor.  That valuable hemp was turned into fabric and rope for use in bags on cotton plantations, along with sails and rigging for sailing ships.  All of Ashland’s agricultural success was due to the labor of people enslaved on the property.



Many visitors describe this as their favorite room.  The walnut paneling and ribbed dome with a skylight are James Clay’s version of the original library designed for Henry Clay by Benjamin Latrobe.  Above the mantel there is a large lithograph titled “Henry Clay’s Farewell Address to the Senate”.  Clay retired from the Senate in 1842 with hopes of becoming the President in 1844 and then retiring again to Ashland.  In previous years he had been the Speaker of the House and Secretary of State.  He crafted both the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the Tariff Compromise of 1833, both narrowly averting Civil War.  However, his retirement did not last long.  With tensions rising, he returned to the Senate in 1849 where he planned to create a new compromise that would calm the division over the expansion of slavery after the Mexican American War.  He succeeded in creating the Compromise of 1850, which was able to avert Civil War until 1861, but this action left millions enslaved while also strengthening the Fugitive Slave Law. Clay died in 1852, but his political legacy was directly influential to Abraham Lincoln who described Clay as his, “Beau Ideal of a Statemen.”  Near the entry to the library visitors will see a book that was a gift from Clay to Lincoln and an 1844 poll sheet from Illinois where Lincoln can be seen casting his vote for Clay.

The connection between Horse Racing and Kentucky goes back over 200 years.  During Henry Clay’s time he had a track built at Ashland and syndicated a horse named “Buzzard” for breeding, the first in Kentucky to do so.  His son John Clay carried on the legacy of the Ashland Stud horse farm.  John married Josephine Erwin Russell in 1866.  Josephine would lead Ashland Stud into the modern era and pave the way for other women to be leaders in the industry.  In 1901 and 1902 Jimmy Winkfield rode a horse from Ashland Stud named Alan A Dale to victory in the Kentucky Derby.  He was the last African American Jockey to do so before the Jim Crow era forced most African Americans from the industry.

Billiard Room


Henry and Lucretia Clay had 11 children during their marriage.  All 6 daughters and Henry Jr. would die before Henry Clay died in 1852.  James Clay would die in January of 1864, and by the time Lucretia died that April, she would have buried 8 of her children.  All the children raised in the Clay and McDowell families were brought up with the knowledge and burden of being an heir to Henry Clay’s legacy.  They were expected to become civic minded adults who would benefit their community through service and sacrifice.

This room was used as James Clay’s personal bedroom.  The bed and two wardrobes were custom made when the mansion was rebuilt in 1856.  They are made from Ash wood cut from the estate.  The Clay family’s story embodies the situation many Kentuckians experienced during the Civil War.  Much of Kentucky’s wealth, and the Clay’s personal wealth, was based on slavery.  James was a Confederate sympathizer and because of this he had to flee to Montreal in 1862.  His brother John Clay later wrote, “The Yankees took my slaves, and the Rebels took my horses and I do not give a damn for either.”

Ash Bedroom

Upstairs Hall

Henry Clay was the first politician in the United States to develop a true political platform.  In the upstairs hall, visitors encounter a massive painting of Henry Clay surrounded by symbolism of the early United States.  “The Father of the American System” was painted by John Neagle for Henry Clay’s 1844 presidential campaign with the purpose of conveying to voters how Clay was the only candidate able to unite the agricultural south and the industrial north in a way that would promote unity and economic growth in an increasingly divisive and unstable era in United States history.

Henry Clay was a politician, but he was also a celebrity.  His travels and political success meant he was always in the public eye which yielded both positive and negative opinions of him.  He was known to have three very public vices; he was a gambler, a drinker, and a duelist.  These attributes would be used against him in political writings and cartoons.  Beside the entrance to the room, there is a political cartoon that depicts people throwing insults at Clay while Clay uses his 1844 running mate Theodore Frelinghuysen as a shield to deflect the attacks.  While the public could be critical of Clay, there also was a respect for his long tenure in various public offices.  When Clay died in Washington in 1852, he was the first person lie in state in the Capitol.  After this he would be put on a funerary train that would go on one final tour through the Northeast, down through Ohio, and finally back to Ashland before he was buried at the Lexington Cemetery.  From Washington to Lexington hundreds of thousands of people came to pay their respects, and Lincoln eulogized Clay saying, “He knew no North, no South, no East, no West, but only the Union.”

Henry Clay Bedroom

Dressing Room

Henry Clay was known as “The Great Compromiser,” and he tried to extend his compromising abilities to an issue that could not be compromised.  Clay believed the solution to slavery was the gradual emancipation of African Americans, and their return to Africa via the colony of Liberia.  This concept failed in many ways; the people who were given this opportunity often declined to go because they only knew life in the United States.  Many enslavers did not participate in this program either because of the financial loss they would incur.  Clay, who was a leader in this movement through the American Colonization Society, never sent any of the enslaved people at Ashland to Liberia.  This was seen by the public as a hypocritical aspect of Clay’s life.

This is where the tour fast forwards a few decades.  Madeline McDowell Breckenridge is the family member who did the most to carry on Clay family tradition of civil service, sacrifice, and leadership.  She was a tireless advocate of education for the poor, founding the Lincoln School in Lexington.  She was an extremely vocal leader in the Women’s Suffrage movement where she often wrote letters with razor sharp arguments to her opponents.  Her most famous quote being, “Kentucky women are not idiots, even though they are closely related to Kentucky men.”  However, Madeline did not enjoy a long and healthy life.  She was sick with tuberculosis, and eventually died from a stroke 1920, but she lived long enough to cast her first vote in the 1920 presidential election.

Madeline's Bedroom

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