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1808 | Henry Clay: The hemp farmer, manufacturer, and politician

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

Henry Clay
Henry Clay

Hemp was a principal element of Henry Clay’s personal economy and as a result influenced his public career. Clay was a staunch advocate of American Hemp and wanted it be used exclusively by the US Navy and to be the primary product in the US marketplace. Ideally, he wanted that American hemp to be Kentucky hemp, Lexington hemp, and Ashland hemp (

Henry Clay

Henry Clay moved to Lexington from Virginia in 1797 to practice law. Less than two years later, he married Lucretia Hart, the youngest daughter of Col. Thomas Hart. In doing so he gained a sizable dowry, which formed the basis of his later fortune, and perhaps his own interest in hemp production.

His father-in-law’s example inspired the young Clay to invest in a variety of commercial and fledging manufacturing ventures, as well as speculative land purchases and his 600-acre hemp-growing estate in Lexington. Within a few years, Clay owned more than 2,500 acres and was involved with the growth, manufacture, and sale of hemp.

Henry's first significant contribution to the hemp industry occurred June 17, 1808, when he helped guide a charter for The Madison Hemp and Flax Spinning Company. The factory had been erected on Silver Run Creek in Madison County during 1806 and the proprietors, finding limited resources would not allow the full operation of the plant, asked the legislature and received permission to form a corporation and to sell stock. Clay held stock in the corporation and briefly acting as proprietor, he also assisted it as an officeholder.

In 1810, Clay wrote to George Thompson, “I am gratified with the prospect of good prices for our produce in Kentucky, particularly hemp. We have the finest Country in the world, and he who had seen it & doubts it out to receive the punishment denounced against unbelievers.”

Early in his Congressional tenure, Clay advocated for tariffs against imported hemp. In 1811, he wrote to Adam Beatty: ‘With regard to Hemp I feel all the solicitude that belongs to this great staple of our Country. In the Senate, we are precluded constitutionally from introducing a bill which would impose a duty. The other House has had its attention slightly drawn to the subject, and it will be pressed upon them again by our delegation. But such are the jarring interest & views which pervade the National Legislature that I fear nothing effectual will be done.”

During the War of 1812, like Colonel James Morrison, Clay sought to interest the U.S. Navy in buying Kentucky cordage for its ships. In 1810, he made his “Speech on Domestic Manufacturers” where he proposed an amendment to a bill that would instruct the Navy to show preference to American grown and manufactured cordage and sail cloth. At one point he said he “planned to rig the entire navy with cordage made of “American Hemp - Kentucky Hemp - Ashland Hemp.” After the war, hemp and hempen products were imported from Russian again, which imperiled the local market.

Clay had a diverse career in politics, alternating as U.S. Senator and Representative, serving as Secretary of State, and running unsuccessfully three times for the U.S. presidency. He became most renowned for his platform he called the "American System," devised in the burst of nationalism that followed the War of 1812. The hemp industry played a large role in shaping his vision, as the “system” was devised around protective tariffs and transportation improvements, with the ultimate goal of developing profitable markets for agriculture and local manufacturers.

This "System" consisted of three mutually reenforcing parts: a tariff to protect and promote American industry; a national bank to foster commerce; and federal subsidies for roads, canals, and other "internal improvements" to develop profitable markets for agriculture. Funds for these subsidies would be obtained from tariffs and sales of public lands. Clay argued that a vigorously maintained system of sectional economic interdependence would eliminate the chance of renewed subservience to the free-trade, laissez-faire "British System."

During the years from 1816 to 1828, Congress enacted programs supporting each of the American System's major elements. After the 1829 inauguration of President Andrew Jackson, however, the American System became the focus of anti-Jackson opposition that coalesced into the new Whig party under the leadership of Henry Clay. Clay lost to Jackson largely in part due to the Southern cotton products and Northern manufacturers fell for Jackson’s smear campaigns against the protective tariff and Clay’s American System.

After a successful career in politics, he returned to Ashland to give to the plantation his personal attention. Clay became involved in large-scale hemp production and would become one of the most respected breeders and scientific farmers in the country. He became expert in the art of growing hemp and preparing it for market, and had been active in farming only a year when he wrote: “My attachment to rural occupation every day acquires more strength...My farm is in fine order, and my preparations for the crop of the present year are in advance of all my neighbors. I shall make a better farmer than Statesman.”

The letter below portrays Clay's eagerness to develop the industry. It is signed, Ashland, April 8, 1837, to O.A. Hall, scientist and author of “A brief oratorical treatise on astronomy, and natural philosophy”. Hall had sent Clay some seeds of a new variety of hemp, and Clay was enthusiastic about experimenting to determine its quality.

”I received your obliging letter of the 31 ult. with the paper of hemp seed to which it refers, and for which I request your acceptance of my cordial thanks. It has reached me in good time to have it sowed at the best period (which is from the 20th April to the 10th May), and which I will have carefully done. I hope that the result of the experiment may be the naturalization of a new and valuable variety of hemp in our country.”

Clay grew acres of hemp at his Ashland estate, having it turned into rope and cotton bagging. In 1843, he regretfully declined an invitation because he was “so busy at home with my vats for water rotting hemp…. that I cannot conveniently leave it.” He often experimented with new methods of hemp planting and harvesting, and was looked to for advice on growing. He wrote the “HEMP” chapter in the 1837 Farmers School Journal which describes in detail his recommending methods and techniques for hemp cultivation. A copy is on display at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate today.

Thomas Hart Clay

Clay also interested his son, Thomas Hart Clay, in the hemp business. While Henry kept an eye on the National hemp market from Washington during 1830-1840, Thomas ran a hemp company in Lexington. Thomas went into the hemp business with his brother-in-law, Waldemar Mentelle, although Henry Jr., James, and James Erwin were all partners in the operation at various times.

Thomas's company produced hemp, processed it, and manufactured it into rope and cotton bagging. Henry’s hemp, and that raised by his brother Henry Jr., was raised at Maplewood and made its way through Thomas’s manufacturing company. Additionally, Thomas bought hemp at Henry’s suggestions with money loaned to him by his father.

The business prospered until a major economic depression in 1841 affected commerce across the nation. Thomas worked diligently to save the business, collecting debts owed the company in order to pay what he owed others. His efforts proved unsuccessful, and the hemp company folded in late summer or fall of 1842. Henry, being a loving father, rushed in an effort to cover the losses. As in so many of the family businesses, determining one member’s responsibility from another’s is difficult. James had an interest in the company until his father advised him to withdraw in late 1841.

Henry used Thomas’s company for the processing and sale of his own crop. He also made contracts, then expected Thomas to meet them. One of the reasons H. T. Duncan signed a note for $5,000 is that he had arranged a contract with one of his relatives, Dr. Stephen Duncan of New Orleans, for the purchase of Clay’s hemp rope and bagging. Clay encouraged Thomas to take out loans in order to purchase additional hemp to meet the contract. He also loaned Thomas money for hemp purchases he suggests and charged him interest. As the same time, he was encouraging his son to “practice all the economy you can, manufacture the articles well & purchase hemp as low as you can get it.”

Thomas was forced to sell the rope and bagging below his costs. He then sold the land, buildings, and equipment in an effort to pay his creditors. All debtors except his father were paid. Although Henry Clay never admitted to any personal responsibility for the failure of the hemp business, his reaction to Thomas and his comments about the failure differed simnifically from his traditional approach to his son. He was almost consoling in a letter written on December 12, 1842, “ I see no alternative, I lament my dear Son to say, but the sale which you contemplated of your property” (Apple, 2011).

The Clay appetite for risk taking recovered quickly. In 1845, another hemp business was under way. Henry greeted the venture with enthusiasm, and in the same year he wrote to Henry Clay Jr. that he was thinking about buying more slaves to work the hemp looms. It’s unknown if he ever followed through with the purchase. Over the next few years, Clay’s health began to deteriorate. On June 29, 1852, Henry Clay asked Thomas to come and sit by his bedside, and just before the hour of noon, he passed away (Clark, n.d.).

Henry Clay selected his tenth child, James Brown Clay, as his successor at Ashland. Thomas, however, was left with Mansfield estate just down the road. Thomas’s hemp business ultimately failed after the death of his father, and the onset of the Civil War. In 1862, he was appointed Minister Resident of the U.S. to the Republic of Nicaragua. After his health became impaired, he returned to Lexington, where he died March 18, 1871.

Part of Postcard Collection, circa 1890-1990 (Kentucky Digital Library)

Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate

Late in 1804, Henry Clay purchased 125 acres on the outskirts of Lexington on what eventually became his 600-acre Ashland estate. Although not nearly as large as typical Bluegrass farms of the time, which consisted of thousands of acres, Ashland was considered particularly superb. It was fertile, remarkable in its diversity, and named for the lush ash forest that grew upon it.

The exact date that Henry Clay and his family began living at Ashland is difficult to ascertain; 1806 is a reasonable estimate since he contracted for the brick to build the Ashland mansion in 1805, but it is known that he occupied the estate by 1809. Henry Clay would occupy and cherish his estate for the rest of his life. As Richard Troutman in his study of southern plantation life observed, “It is doubtful…that any estate, regardless of size, brought as much enjoyment to its owner as Ashland did to Henry Clay.” “The Sage of Ashland,” as Clay became known, always considered himself “H. Clay of Ashland”—never of Lexington. Not only did Ashland symbolize his status, his love for his estate was one of the strongest affections of his life.

James Brown Clay

Henry Clay passed away on June 29, 1852, and soon after, James Clay became the owner of the 325-acre Ashland proper. James took this obligation very seriously and accepted the enormous responsibility involved. He would endeavor to perpetuate his father’s private life and his public reputation: “I shall purchase Ashland, this I promised my father – I think it gave him happiness, and it is my intention faithfully to perform my promise…Nothing would so much have added to my happiness as to have been able to take my father’s place at Ashland, and to have done all in my power to have perpetuated his great name…” (July 1852).

James would purchase—not inherit—Ashland. Clay biographer Joseph Rogers states that it was “necessary to sell Ashland in order to distribute the estate.” Clay family historian Lindsey Apple explains that James got nothing in Clay’s will but the privilege—the blessing—to take on the house and estate. Lucretia authorized that Ashland be sold at public auction on September 20, 1853. James was the highest bidder, paying double the assessed value of the estate to become its owner (Posts about John Clay on History of a House Museum).

Each subdivided portion of the original Ashland land that had gone to a Clay son was a sizeable, fully operational tract of prime farm land: while his brother Thomas had a fine house at his 125-acre “Mansfield” portion and John [Clay Morrison] would live in his new home on the 200-acre “Ashland-on-Tate’s-Creek,” and James would possess the mansion at Ashland that uniquely symbolized their father. He purchased Ashland from his mother, the Lexington, Kentucky home built by Henry Clay.

After the Civil War James’s widow, Susan Jacob Clay, sold the estate to Kentucky University which held the title to Ashland until 1882. Ashland returned to the family at that point when Clay’s granddaughter Anne Clay McDowell purchased the property and she and two more generations of her family resided at Ashland. The last Henry Clay descendant, Clay’s great-great grandson Henry Bullock, lived privately in part of the mansion until 1959, even as Ashland had opened to the public as a historic house museum in 1950 (History of a House Museum).

Henry Clay Memorial Foundation

Today, the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation owns and operates Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate and is dedicated to preserving Henry Clay’s historic estate and important legacy for future generations. The Henry Clay Memorial Foundations exists to promote the legacy of Henry Clay, to share his continued relevance locally and nationally as a great statesman and to preserve his beloved “Ashland” as a testament to his life and his love of Kentucky and country.

Governed by a diverse volunteer board of directors, the Foundation is working to insure Ashland remains a vibrant and progressive National Historic Landmark and community resource. It is open for tours Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10:00am to 4:30pm. The tour lasts approximately one hour but visitors should allow time to visit the Museum Store and view the formal gardens. The estate is closed in January and on holidays. For more information, visits Ashland's website or call 859-266-8501.

In 2016, Kentucky Hempsters partnered with the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation to bring hemp back to the historic Henry Clay estate in Lexington. The first hemp crop planted on Ashland property was planted in May 2016 by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and facilitated by Kentucky Hempsters parent company, United Hemp Industries. Guests can now visit and tour the grounds of Ashland and see the historic hemp plot grow each season.

To commemorate the return of hemp to Ashland, Kentucky Hempsters and the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation hosted a hemp dinner and symposium during Hemp History Week in June 2016. The hemp dinner has become a staple event for Ashland and Kentucky Hempsters, now coming up on its fourth annual year. The dinner raises funds for historic education and preservation through the Kentucky Hemp Heritage Alliance. The hemp plot is featured as part of the Heritage Hemp Trail.

Kentucky Hempsters co-founders Kirstin Bohnert and Alyssa Erickson at historic hemp plot at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate in Lexington (Summer 2017).
Kentucky Hempsters co-founders Kirstin Bohnert and Alyssa Erickson at historic hemp plot at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate in Lexington (Summer 2017).



Ambrose, Charles T., "Transylvania University and its Hemp Connection" (2015). Microbiology, Immunology, and Molecular Genetics Faculty Publications. Paper 60.

Clay, H. (1984). To Hamilton County (Ohio) Agricultural Society. In Papers of Henry Clay: Candidate, Compromiser, Whig (Vol. 8, pp. 272-278). University Press of Kentucky.

Henry Clay: In Defense of the American System. (1832, February 2). Retrieved December 8, 2015, from

Henry Clay. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2015, from

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