The Life and Public Services of Henry Clay, Down to 1848

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Title page from Sargent's Life and Public Services of Henry Clay, Down to 1848 (Auburn, NY: Derby & Miller, 1852).

First published in 1842, Epes Sargent's (1813 – 1880) biography of Henry Clay[1] is important to Wythe scholarship for a few, scant paragraphs relating Clay's early life, when he was George Wythe's amanuensis for four years as a teenager, taking dictation and copying the court decisions for Wythe in the Virginia High Court of Chancery in Richmond, from 1793 to 1796.[2]

Sargent relates the young Clay's struggle with comprehending what he was copying, and Wythe recommending three basic grammar texts (among others) in particular: James Harris's Hermes, or, A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Universal Grammar, John Horne Tooke's Epea Pteroenta (1786), and Robert Lowth's A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). It is possible that Wythe loaned his young assistant his own copies of these books from his personal library.

Henry Clay died in 1852, at which time a new edition of Sargent's biography was published. The editor of the 1852 edition, Horace Greeley, suggests in his introduction that the story of Clay's time as Wythe's assistant came directly from Clay himself:

The aim of Mr. Sargent was not so much to impart his own conception of Mr. Clay's views and motives as to enable every reader to infer them directly from the Statesman's own words, or those of his illustrious cotemporaries—whether adversaries or rivals. His work, therefore, is rather a collection of authentic materials for the future biographer than an original and exhaustive essay.[3]

Sargent was a playwright, poet, and noted editor, part of the "Knickerbocker" group which included Washington Irving. In addition to his Life of Henry Clay, Sargent also published a seven-volume collection of standard, popular plays (1846) and, posthumously, Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poets (1881).[4]

Excerpt from Chapter I

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HENRY CLAY is a native of Hanover county, Virginia. He was born on the 12th of April, 1777, in a district of country familiarily known in the neighborhood as the Slashes. His father, a baptist clergyman, died during the revolutionary war, bequeathing a small and much-embarrassed estate and several children, of whom Henry was the fifth, to the care of an affectionate mother. The surviving parent did not possess the means to give her sons a classical education; and the subject of our memoir received no other instruction than such as could be obtained in the log-cabin school-houses, still common in the lower parts of Virginia, at which spelling, reading, writing, and arithmetic, are taught.

In 1792, his mother, who had become united in a second marriage, with Mr. Henry Watkins, removed to Woodford county, Kentucky, taking all her children, with the exception of Henry and his oldest brother. It was always a subject of regret with Mr. Clay, that he was deprived at so early an age of his mother's counsel, conversation, and care. She was a woman of great strength of mind, and was tenderly attached to her children.

He hall been only five years old when he lost his father; and, consequently, his circumstances in early life, if not actually indigent, were such as to subject him frequently to hard manual labor. He has ploughed in cornfields, many a summer-day,

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without shoes, and with no other clothes on than a pair of Osnaburg trowsers, and a coarse shirt. He has often gone to mill with grain to be ground into meal or flour; and there are those who remember his youthful visits to Mrs. Darricott's mill, on the Pamunkey river. On such occasions he generally rode a horse without a saddle, while a rope supplied the place of a bridle. But in the absence of a more splendid equipment, a bag containing three or four bushels of wheat or com was generally thrown across the horse's back, mounted upon which the future statesman would go to mill, get the grain ground, and return with it home.

At the age of fourteen, he was placed in a small retail store, kept by Mr. Richard Denny, near the market-house in the city of Richmond. He remained here till the next year (1792), when he was transferred to the office of the clerk of the high court of chancery, Mr Peter Tinsley. There he became acquainted with the venerable Chancellor Wythe, attracted his friendly attention, and enjoyed the benefit of his instruction and conversation. The chancellor being unable to write well, in consequence of the gout or rheumatism in his right thumb, bethought himself of employing his young friend as an amanuensis. This was a fortunate circumstance for the fatherless boy. His attention was thus called to the structure of sentences, as he wrote them down from the dictation of his employer; and a taste for the study of grammar was created which was noticed and encouraged by the chancellor, upon whose recommendation he read Harris's Hermes, Tooke's Diversions of Purley, Bishop Lowth's Grammar, and other similar works.

For his handwriting, which is still remarkably neat and regular, Mr. Clay was chiefly indebted to Mr. Tinsley. Chancellor Wythe was devoted to the study of Greek. He was at one time occupied in preparing reports of his decisions, and commenting upon those of the court of appeals, by which some of his were reversed; and in this work he was assisted by his amanuensis. After the reports were published, he sent copies to Mr. Jefferson, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and others. In these copies he employed Henry Clay to copy particular passages from Greek authors, to whom references had been made. Not understand-

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ing a single Greek character, the young copyist had to transcribe by imitation letter after letter.

Leaving the office of Mr. Tinsley the latter part of 1796, he went to reside with the late Robert Brooke, Esq., the attorney-general, formerly governor of Virginia. His only regular study of the law was during the year 1797, that he lived with Mr. Brooke; but it was impossible that he should not, in the daily scenes he witnessed, and in the presence of the eminent men whom he 80 often heard and saw, be in the way of gathering much valuable legal information. During his residence of six or seven years in Richmond, he became acquainted with all or most of the eminent Virginians of the period, who lived in that city, or were in the habit of resorting to it—with Edmond Pendleton [sic], Spencer Roane, Chief-Justice Marshall, Bushrod Washington, Wickham, Call, Copeland, &c. On two occasions, he bad the good fortune to hear Patrick Henry—once, before the circuit court of the United States for the Virginia district, on the question of the payment of the British debts; and again before the house of delegates of Virginia, on the claim of the supernumerary officers in the service of the state during the revolutionary war. Mr. Clay remembers that remarkable man, his appearance and his manner, distinctly. The impression of his eloquent powers remaining on his mind is, that their charm consisted mainly in one of the finest voices ever heard, in his graceful gesticulation, and the variety and force of expression which he exhibited in his face.

Henry Clay quitted Richmond in November, 1797, his eldest brother having died while he yet resided in that city. Bearing a license from the judges of the Virginia court of appeals to practise law, he established himself in Lexington, Kentucky. He was without patrons, without the countenance of influential friends, and destitute of the means of paying his weekly board. "I remember," says he, in his speech of June, 1842, at Lexington, "how comfortable I thought I should be, if I could make £100 Virginia money per year; and with what delight I received the first fifteen-shilling fee. My hopes were more than realized. I immediately rushed into a lucrative practice."

Before assuming the active responsibilities of his profession,

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he devoted himself with assiduity several months to his legal studies. Even at that period the bar of Lexington was eminent for its ability. Among its members were George Nicholas, James Hughes, John Breckenbridge, James Brown, William Murray, and others, whose reputation was sufficient to discourage the most stout-hearted competition. But true genius is rarely unaccompanied by a consciousness of its power; and the friendless and unknown youth from Virginia fearlessly entered the field, which, to a less intrepid spirit, would have seemed preoccupied. He soon commanded consideration and respect. He was familiar with the technicalities of practice; and early habits of business and application. enabled him to effect an easy mastery of the cases intrusted to his charge. His subtle appreciation of character, knowledge of human nature, and faculties of persuasion, rendered him peculiarly successful in his appeals to a jury; and he obtained great celebrity for his adroit and careful management of criminal cases....

See also


  1. Epes Sargent, The Life and Public Services of Henry Clay, Down to 1848, edited by Horace Greeley (Auburn, NY: Derby & Miller, 1852), 14-15.
  2. Henry Clay to B. B. Minor, May 3, 1851, in Minor, "Memoir of the Author," xxxii.
  3. Horace Greeley, "Introduction," in Sargent, Life and Public Services of Henry Clay, 3.
  4. National Cyclopædia of American Biography, vol. 7 (New York: James T. White, 1897), 243-244.

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