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Lexington, Kentucky with an Eye on History

Source: http://waybackwhenmagazine.com/Lexington-Kentucky.html – By Norman E. Hill, Photos by Maralyn D. Hill

The famous Nelson Eddy song, “Stout Hearted Song”, lauds “____and Canucks, Virginians and Kentucks.” These lyrics reflect a close tie Lexington KY housebetween Kentucky and Virginia. So many early Kentucky settlers came from Virginia, and this was certainly true with the Lexington area. Many of the latter settlers brought much of the culture and sophistication of Virginia, so that Lexington, Kentucky was once termed “The Athens of the West.”

Our International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association Press Trip to Lexington let us experience June weather. Primarily, we explored historical, distillery and brewing, horse breeding and culinary sites. This feature focuses on several notable historical sites we experienced. We visited two historical museum homes, that of the Todd family and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Ashland, home of Henry Clay. Although we lacked time to visit the Civil War site of the Battle of Perryville, we spoke to a knowledgeable Convention and Visitor Bureau member about this key but little known battle.

Lexington KY ToddMary Lincoln’s father, Robert Todd, was a wealthy citizen of Lexington, politically active, and a slave owner. Her father had an extremely large family from two marriages, and fourteen of his large brood survived to adulthood.

Mary Todd lived in the house from 1818 through 1839, was very well educated for a woman. Her father apparently encouraged her to join him and other males in conversations on issues of the day.

Mary was known to be opposed to slavery. Whether this led to leaving her family home at age 21 is uncertain. But she moved to Springfield, Illinois, the state capital, where her older sister had married Ninian Edwards, son of the first Illinois governor. Here, she met and eventually married Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincolns and two of their sons visited Lexington after their marriage, first in 1847, and later in 1849, after her father’s death. Mary’s high spending habits have been recorded, and while Lincoln later earned substantial legal fee income, her inheritance may have helped sustain the life style to which she had become accustomed. Upon moving to the White House, Mary Lincoln’s situation may be described as impossible. The tragedies of her life are well known, losing her husband to assassination and three of her four sons to early death. To make matters worse, she was scorned as a Southerner and slave owner, in a city where the socially dominant southern ladies had left, due to the Civil War. Women from New England and Philadelphia, who figured they would take their place, were put off by a southern woman, organizing elegant and expensive White House social events.

Several of Mary’s stepbrothers were Confederate officers and at least one had emphatically refused Lincoln’s offer of a Union army commission. Her fragile mental state and later insanity have been well documented and the tumultuous White house environment during the Civil War (so different from the environment of her father’s home) surely contributed to it. In fairness, it should be emphasized that Mary was subsequentlyLexington KY Lincoln judged sane and lived the balance of her life outside of metal confinement.

We also visited Ashland, home of the American statesman, Henry Clay.

Both Robert Todd and Clay were prominent in the Whig party, wealthy, and slave owners. Clay was morally opposed to slavery and freed his slaves upon his death. But he also opposed immediate abolition, because of its economic impact and because he thought such a radical move would tear the Union apart.

Our Ashland guide described one little known aspect of Clay’s early life, due to his skill as a card player. In 1814 negotiations with the British over the War of 1812, the great American victory at New Orleans had not yet occurred. Therefore, in terms of victories, the two nations were basically at a draw. But Clay correctly sensed when the British delegation was bluffing and when they were not, which considerably helped the American position.

Clay evidently had a close affectionate relation with the young Mary Todd. Once, when she was outside the Ashland door, she wanted Clay to look at her new horse. When his servant told her he was busy, Mary reportedly said, either he must come out or she would bring the horse inside for his inspection.

Abraham Lincoln, also a Whig, viewed Henry Clay as a mentor. The attitude of both on slavery seemed quite in synch. There is now evidence that Clay autographed a book for Lincoln in 1847, supporting the argument that the future President had visited Ashland.

Henry Clay made three unsuccessful Presidential runs, in 1824, 1832, and 1844, the latter his biggest disappointment. But he is best known as the Great Compromiser, for supporting the Missouri Compromise of 1820, formulating a compromise tariff in the early 1830s and, primarily, for preparing and advocating the Compromise Bill of 1850. Clay said the latter had averted Civil War and saved the Union. It could be argued that the extra 10 years from 1850 to 1860 only served to strengthen the slave-owner’s’ moral certainty and thus ensured an even longer Civil War.

In any event, Henry Clay’s life, from 1777 to 1852, coincided with the formation of the new United States. He must be viewed as a magnificent speaker and loyal American, who passionately loved the Union. The Ashland Museum is a fitting monument to such a man.

We hope to return to the Lexington area to visit the Battle of Perryville site. It is located south of Lexington, where a Union victory ended any Confederate hopes of dominating Kentucky. Although a slave state, Kentucky was considered a “border” state where a majority (perhaps a slim one) was loyal to the Union. This situation was considered the reverse of neighboring Tennessee, where a slim majority favored secession. Confederate commanders evidently hoped that a decisive victory in Kentucky might even enable an invasion of Ohio. Such audacious strategy was ahead of Lee’s later invasion of Pennsylvania. But, with high casualties on both side, a clear Union victory at Perryville in 1862 ended this plan. It served to drive the Confederate army back into Tennessee and ensured that Kentucky would remain in Union hands for the rest of the Civil War.

Lexington and its surrounding area are rich in history. To gain insight into key events in American history, it is well worth visiting.


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