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Henry Clay


Henry Clay
by Thomas Ball(1819 - 1911) 
Bronze, 1858
Overall measurement
      Height: 30.88 inches  (78.4 cm)
      Width:  12 inches  (30.5 cm)
      Depth: 10.75 inches  (27.3 cm)
Signature (on lower back of drapery): T. BALL Sculp. Boston 1858
Cat. no. 24.00007.000
Sitter: Clay, Henry

One of the leading sculptors of the post-Civil War period, Thomas Ball began his artistic career as a painter, but by 1850 he had turned to sculpture. He quickly established a reputation in this new medium with small plaster statuettes and portrait studies. His first work, a cabinet-size portrait bust of Swedish singer Jenny Lind, won such favor that Ball could not produce replicas swiftly enough.

Following a period of study and work in Italy from 1854 to 1857, the artist returned to the United States and soon began a monumental bronze equestrian statue of George Washington for Boston’s Public Garden. Also at this time, he executed this statuette of Henry Clay as a companion piece to the small bronze of Daniel Webster he had completed five years earlier. “To me it was not as successful,” wrote the artist about his Clay statuette. [1] Ball’s opinion is not one generally acknowledged when the two works are compared, however, because his Clay has precisely the animation that his Webster lacks.

A relaxed pose, both alert and poised, shows Clay’s tall, lanky body to good effect. Clay seems to turn toward his audience while unrolling the pages of a speech or, more probably, a resolution. The distinctive head is vigorously modeled, with broad mouth, straight nose, wide-spaced eyes, and an expansive brow bracketed by markedly depressed temples. At the opposite end of the body are Clay’s remarkably large feet. The attention to accuracy in the feet, as in the head, is characteristic of Ball and is found also in the costume. Yet somehow the detail in the costume is not distracting, as it is in the Webster statuette. Creases and stretches are fitted to a governing rhythm and contribute to the whole effect. Ball clearly profited from his study of Italian sculpture.

The statue is, of course, posthumous: Ball had no more opportunity to take Clay’s likeness from life than he had Webster’s. His sources were the existing paintings, sculptures, and lithographs of the statesman. For instance, Joel T. Hart, another American sculptor then active in Florence, had completed his life-size, full-length marble statue of Clay in Italy during the 1850s. Hart had become Ball’s good friend, and Ball must have been intimately familiar with the statue, which may have been the inspiration for creating his own likeness of Clay.

The abbreviated column beside Clay signifies Fortitude, as it does for Ball’s statuette of Webster. (The classical personification of “Fortitude” later acquired the column as an attribute from the biblical account of Samson sacrificing himself to save the Hebrew people by pulling down the columns supporting the Philistines’ temple.) The two or three papers Clay holds may have had a specific reference to a resolution he offered in the House in 1821 as Speaker. Throughout his life, Clay remained famous for his resolution in support of emerging South American colonies “struggling to burst their chains.” [2] He is still honored in South America for his passionate support of independence there.

As he had with his statuette of Webster, Thomas Ball claimed and assigned the patent for “a new and useful design for a statuette of Henry Clay” to George W. Nichols of New York City on November 9, 1858. Nichols turned again to the Ames foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts, for the casting. The pragmatic drawing, prepared by the examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is keyed with letters referencing Ball’s description in the patent application.

Thomas Ball’s career continued to flourish, and he received many lucrative commissions throughout his life. His public monuments include the Emancipation Group in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., statues of Charles Sumner and Josiah Quincy in Boston, and the sculpture of Daniel Webster for New York’s Central Park. Other bronze copies of the Clay statuette are in the collections of the White House, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and the Newark Museum in New Jersey.


1. Thomas Ball, My Threescore Years and Ten: An Autobiography (1892; reprint, New York: Garland, 1977), 209.

2. Henry Clay, Life and Speeches of the Honorable Henry Clay, vol. 1, edited by Daniel Mallory (New York: Robert P. Bixby, 1843), 324.


The "Great Compromiser," Henry Clay, a native of Virginia, moved to Kentucky at the age of 20 and settled in Lexington. There he practiced law with great success, aided by his sharp wit and nimble mind. In 1806, after a stint in the Kentucky legislature, he was elected to fill the unexpired term of a U.S. senator who had resigned. Clay took the seat, although he was four months younger than the constitutional age requirement of 30. In 1807 he again was elected to the Kentucky legislature, where he eventually served as Speaker. Clay spent most of the years from 1811 to 1825 in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was elected Speaker his first day in office. Almost immediately Clay made a name for himself as one of the warhawks, the young politicians who fueled anti-British sentiment and helped bring about the War of 1812. In 1814, he served as one of the commissioners negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. During his years in the House, the well-respected Clay was elected Speaker six times.

It was during his time in the U.S. House that Clay urged that the United States become the center of an "American System," joined by all of South America, to wean the country away from dependence on the European economy and politics. He dedicated much of his career to a high protective tariff on imported goods, a strong national bank, and to extensive improvements in the nation's infrastructure.

In 1825, after an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, Clay was appointed secretary of state under John Quincy Adams. He served in that position until 1829, and was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate. From 1831 to 1842, and again from 1849 to 1852, Clay distinguished himself as one of the Senate's most effective and influential members.

Clay earned the sobriquet "Great Compromiser" by crafting three major legislative compromises over the course of 30 years. Each time, he pulled the United States from the brink of civil war. In 1820 and 1821, he used his role as Speaker of the House to broker the Missouri Compromise, a series of brilliant resolutions he introduced to defuse the pitched battle as to whether Missouri would be admitted to the Union as a slave state or free state. Although he owned slaves himself, Clay anguished about slavery, which he called a "great evil." He believed slavery would become economically obsolete as a growing population reduced the cost of legitimate labor. Under Clay's compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state.

In 1833 Clay's skill again was tested when South Carolina passed an ordinance that nullified a federally instituted protective tariff. Although President Andrew Jackson urged Congress to modify the tariff, he threatened to use federal troops against South Carolina if the state refused to collect it. Despite a long-standing enmity toward Jackson and with a deep commitment to high tariffs, Clay ended the crisis by placating both sides. He introduced a resolution that upheld the tariff but promised its repeal in seven years.

The argument over slavery flared once again in 1850 when Congress considered how to organize the vast territory ceded by Mexico after the Mexican War. As in 1820, Clay saw the issue as maintaining the balance of power in Congress. His personal appeal to Daniel Webster enlisted the support of that great statesman for Clay's series of resolutions, and civil war was again averted.

Clay died in 1852. Despite his brilliant service to the country and three separate campaigns, he never attained his greatest ambition–-the presidency. A man of immense political abilities and extraordinary charm, Clay won widespread admiration, even among his adversaries. John C. Calhoun, whom he had bested in the Compromise of 1850, once declared, "I don't like Clay. . . . I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God! I love him." [1]


1. Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 578.