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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, a