The Schuylkill County Historical Society’s Dr. Peter Yasenchak has been living in Pottsville for a long time.
But he still remembers the day he drove into town for the first time and saw a towering, stately 15-foot statue of a man on a Doric column. The monument, sixty-three feet of white cast iron beauty in all, took Yasenchak by surprise. “I remember thinking to myself, 'who the heck could that be?,'” he recalled.
It did not take Yasenchak long to discover that the stately white figure presiding over the community was Henry Clay (1777-1852), the 19th century politician/statesman who engineered the famous Compromises of 1820 and 1850 that are credited for keeping the nation from splitting apart over the issue of slavery.
Clay, a Kentuckian and a slave holder (he freed his slaves in his will), was not necessarily the type of man Pennsylvanians might be assumed to like. But those were side issues at best to the people who lived in Schuylkill County during Clay’s lifetime.
As an emerging producer of anthracite coal- the nation’s industrial fuel of choice in the pre-Civil War era- the county wanted to see its use grow. By supporting a high protective tariff (a tax on foreign goods coming into the country) on British iron products, Clay encouraged the growth of local iron making. And, since the chief fuel used in the making of iron was anthracite coal, it also encouraged the growth and wealth of Pottsville.
This made Clay a popular “fella” in Schuylkill County. “When my kids asked me why there was a statue of Clay in Pottsville I told them what everybody told me,” says Yasenchak, “that he was the man that helped encourage the use of anthracite coal and made Pottsville rich.”
Chief among Clay’s Pottsville supporters was Benjamin Bannan, the publisher and editor of the Miner’s Journal. It was his idea to build the monument to Clay. From the day of Clay’s death Bannan did everything in his power to see it was built. Even when fundraising lagged and costs rose to the then-astronomical sum of $7.151.00, Bannan pressed on.
On June 14, 1855 the column was completed and on June 23rd of that same year the statue of Clay was carried by a 12 mule team up Pottsville’s South Second Street. Created by Philadelphia sculptor H. Wesche and cast by Robert Wood of that city, the statue was followed by crowd of the town’s people. All watched with awe as the redoubtable Walter Chilson, the monument’s builder, with the aid of six men raised “Clay” to his perch over the city, in a mere hour and fifty minutes.
For some reason- perhaps the outbreak of the Civil War- it was not until July 4, 1885 that an official dedication ceremony was held. Bannan was still around and apparently at the center of things. A devout temperance advocate, the only thing he did not like about the event was the consumption of spirits. He noted that “if liquor could be exiled from Pottsville, it would be one of the most delightful places in the world to live.”
The attention focused on Clay at the time of his death by people like Bannan seems very difficult to understand today. And it was shared by many. When Edwin and Maria Trexler decided to name their son Henry Clay Trexler, aka General Harry C. Trexler, they were following in the footsteps of many people in the 1850s. Today however Henry Clay is largely forgotten.
Americans tend to make heroes of those who fight for principals. It is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt who are on Mount Rushmore, not Henry Clay.
Andrew Jackson- Clay’s great antagonist (he defeated Clay’s bid for the White House)- is far more familiar than Clay as a vigorous common man hero.
Clay was heard to say he did not understand how success fighting Indians prepared someone for the complex duties of the Presidency. But the majority of the voting public at the time-all male and virtually all white- thought differently. Even those who don’t agree with all of his actions recognize Jackson’s place in U.S. history.
Politicians who are compromisers like Clay, was known as the Great Compromiser, are seldom hailed as heroes.
But Henry Clay did have a principle: keeping the Union whole. As head of the Whig party- an ancestor of the Republican Party- he deeply impressed this on an up-and-coming Illinois politician and fellow Whig, Abraham Lincoln. On July 4, 1852, while giving a eulogy for Clay, Lincoln defined those beliefs this way: “Whatever he (Clay) did he did for the whole of the country…Feeling as he did, and as the truth surely is, that the world’s best hope depended on the continued Union of these States, he was ever jealous of, and watched for, whatever might have the slightest tendency to separate them.”
Like many Whigs, Lincoln was also impressed with Clay’s American System, an overall program by the government to encourage the development of roads and canals by using funds from the high tariff on British iron and the sale of public lands. These “internal improvements” meant much to Lincoln who saw them as bringing prosperity to Illinois and the nation.
Lincoln never forgot Clay’s principals. In his first debate with Stephen Douglas for the Senate, he called Clay “my beau ideal of a statesman.” And at least in part it was Clay’s vision of a united prosperous nation “as the world’s best hope” for freedom that inspired Lincoln in the darkest days of the Civil War.
Knowing this, perhaps visitors to Pottsville will take another look at Henry Clay’s statue and remember him.