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The Clays of Alabama

The Clays of Alabama: A Planter-Lawyer-Politician Family

Ruth Ketring Nuermberger
Copyright Date: 1958
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Clays of Alabama
    Book Description:

    Of unique interest to the student of nineteenth century America is this account of the Alabama Clays, who in their private life were typical of the slaveholding aristocracy of the old South, but as lawyer-politicians played significant roles in state and national politics, in the development of the Democratic party, and in the affairs of the Confederacy.

    In the period from 1811 to 1915, the Clays were involved in many of the great problems confronting the South. This study of the Clay family includes accounts of the wartime legislation of the Confederate Congress and the activities of the Confederate Commission in Canada. Equally interesting to many readers will be the intimate view of social life in ante-bellum Washington and the story of the domestic struggles of a plantation family during and after the war, as revealed through the letters of Clement Claiborne Clay and his wife Virginia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6409-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    R. K. N.
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 A Plantation on the Frontier
    (pp. 1-17)

    On a November day in 1811, young Clement Comer Clay rode into the rising frontier town of Huntsville. His visible resources were two horses, one Negro servant, a few law books in his saddlebags, and a small amount of money. He was the typical early nineteenth-century young man “on the make,” come to seek fame and fortune in the West.¹ Here he would establish home and family, plantation and slaves; here he would practice law, and serve his section and state in many capacities. From here he would go as a Jackson man to Washington, where, successively as representative and...

  5. 2 Clement Clay Enters Politics
    (pp. 18-30)

    Clement Comer Clay was not one to hide his talents. He was no more than settled in Huntsville when he began to take an active part in all local affairs, civic, political, and educational. One of Clay’s first services was as a volunteer in the Creek War of 1813-1814, when Andrew Jackson made Huntsville his base of operations. Having returned from this campaign, Clay soon became involved in a personal difficulty with Dr. Waddy Tate. Both men were wounded in the duel that followed. In educational affairs Clement Clay was for many years a trustee of Greene Academy, chartered in...

  6. 3 Representative in Congress
    (pp. 31-47)

    On his first journey to Washington, Clay left Huntsville probably early in November, 1829, stopped in East Tennessee to visit his parents, and there joined his old teacher, Hugh Lawson White, for the remaining distance. They, along with many other members, took “advantage of the late fine weather, to reach the Seat of Government” in the first days of December. Clay and White soon settled themselves at Mrs. Ann Peyton’s, one of the more popular boardinghouses for congressmen. Located on Pennsylvania Avenue, between Third and Fourth streets “near Gadesby’s,” this establishment accommodated one of the largest “messes” in the city....

  7. 4 Governor and Senator
    (pp. 48-66)

    Clement Comer Clay had reached the peak of his political career. Democrats throughout Alabama agreed that he should be rewarded with the governorship. His years of apprenticeship in politics had had their defeats, but now, by adhering strictly to Jackson, he had come out on top. But living next door to the political ferment in Tennessee had its perils. In the spring of 1835 Clement Clay had to do a tightrope act of campaigning for the governorship while maintaining an equivocal position as to the next presidential candidate. Already the boom for Hugh Lawson White was well under way, and...

  8. 5 The Clay Family Grows Up
    (pp. 67-87)

    Clement Comer Clay in 1811 had come to Huntsville with slender means, but high ambitions and boundless energy. Four years of effort gave him an established law practice, a plantation, several slaves, and a house on his town lot on Clinton Street. Clement was then ready to marry. His bride, on April 4, 1815, was seventeen-year-old Susanna Claiborne Withers.¹ Susanna was the daughter of John and Mary Herbert (Jones) Withers, who had come to Madison County in 1808. The Withers family was proud of its English origin as well as its Virginia background dating from 1752, when William Withers had...

  9. 6 Young Clement Tries Politics
    (pp. 88-118)

    Political events of 1840 had given Alabama Democrats a severe fright. The general-ticket system they hastened to adopt to guarantee their supremacy in the state in turn so aroused the Whigs that politics remained at fever pitch for some time. In this heated atmosphere, Clement Claiborne Clay launched his political career. He began as junior editor of the HuntsvilleDemocrat, a temporary appointment for the duration of the campaign of 1841.¹ This post shortly presented developments not altogether anticipated, the details of which Clement, Jr., related to his father.

    “I had a small fight, on an empty stomach, this morning...

  10. 7 Senator from Alabama
    (pp. 119-149)

    On December 8, 1853, Clement and Virginia Clay set out for Washington, traveling by boat up the Tennessee River to Chattanooga. Here they “took the cars,” and at Dalton several other members of the Alabama delegation joined them. There was Benjamin Fitzpatrick, whose broad shoulders, erect carriage, and strong, handsome face made him a distinguished-looking senator. His limited education and mediocre talents were offset by a strict honesty, a devotion to public economy, close attention to duty, and a bent for politics. Political advancement had come to him in part through his marriage into the prominent Elmore family of South...

  11. 8 The Road to Secession
    (pp. 150-182)

    Clay’s political future rested on his being returned to the Senate. His term did not expire until March 4, 1859, a comparatively distant date which would have been of no significance in the spring of 1857 had it not been for the fact that the Alabama legislature met biennially in November. Election would have to be in 1857 or 1859. If the senatorial election were not held until 1859, a vacancy would exist in Alabama’s representation from March 4 until December of that year. Hence the question of holding the senatorial election in 1857 required much attention during that summer...

  12. 9 Confederate Senator
    (pp. 183-210)

    Washington was all confusion as southern officialdom hastily departed. Impatient though they were to get away, the Clays remained while Clement tried to back up Alabama’s commissioner Judge in his efforts to negotiate for the Alabama forts. When this failed early in February, Clement and Virginia at last set out southward. Clement was suffering constantly from asthma, and he now became so ill that they were forced to remain in Petersburg, Virginia, with Clay’s cousin, Dr. Thomas Withers. As Clement grew worse daily, Dr. Withers urged him to go to Minnesota.

    Clement and Virginia reached Huntsville on February 24, 1861,...

  13. 10 Confusion and Hardship
    (pp. 211-233)

    In its first 364 days, the war had not touched Huntsville. But that town felt much apprehension in the early months of 1862, especially after the surrender of Forts Donelson and Henry. Before leaving Huntsville in early February, 1862, Clement, Jr., had taken all the precautions he could for the protection of his and his brothers’ property and the safety of their parents. Only a month later, General G. J. Pillow, retreating through Huntsville, predicted Union invasion. On Susanna Clay fell the burden of deciding what to do in such circumstances, although she appealed to Clement, Jr., to “Write & say...

  14. 11 Canadian Adventure
    (pp. 234-266)

    On the night of May 6, 1864, theThistle, on which Clay and Thompson sailed, slipped through the blockade and the following day outran a pursuing Union vessel in a five-hour chase. Of this experience Clay wrote, “I did not feel alarmed, but yet not quite as easy as I desired.— Preparation was made for throwing over the cotton & dividing the Govt Gold—$25.000—among us to save it from the Yankees, if captured. And all our papers, tending to show our missions, were put in the bag with the Govt. Dispatches, to be burned.”

    Clay and Thompson transshipped at...

  15. 12 The Prisoner of State
    (pp. 267-294)

    Virginia Clay was “heart stricken” and “confused with sorrow and dread” as she set out with Clement and Philip Phillips for Macon. The news that Jefferson Davis had been captured increased their gloom and apprehension, and caused Clay to exclaim that his own surrender had been a mistake. But it was too late to turn back, and after one day with friends in Macon, Clement and Virginia Clay were instructed by General James H. Wilson to be ready for departure on the evening of May 13, 1865. Through streets full of Union soldiers and sad-faced citizens, they drove to the...

  16. 13 Reconstructing Life
    (pp. 295-318)

    The joy and relief that Clement first experienced in his freedom and reunion with family and friends soon gave way to despair as he surveyed the loss and destruction that had befallen his neighbors and his state. Property and capital amounting to $500,000,000 were wiped out. Devastation in North Alabama exceeded even that made on Sherman’s march through Georgia. The town of Athens was a shambles after its pillaging at the hands of the notorious Turchin, whose “brigade has stolen a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of watches, plate, and jewelry in northern Alabama.” “Decatur is a ruin,” wrote another observer....

  17. 14 A Historical Estimate
    (pp. 319-324)

    One hundred years had passed between the day when Clement Comer Clay married Susanna Withers in 1815 and the day their daughter-in-law died in 1915. What had been the family’s place in Alabama history and in national history during a century that had taken Alabama from frontier through revolution and debacle into industrialization, and the nation from a weak, isolated, young country to a world power?

    The Clays’ services to their state have been exceeded by few if any others among Alabama’s political leaders. Clement Comer Clay, growing with his frontier state, wisely assayed its needs and worked tirelessly for...

    (pp. 325-334)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 335-342)