On September 9, 1850, California was admitted into the United States. For years, Americans had been settling in the Mexican territory, many to trade, some to begin new lives. Men like Jedidiah Smith, Dr. John Marsh, Robert Semple, John Bidwell, John Bartleson. and others made the long and arduous trek to the Mexican territory. Even before Mexican Independence, there were men, like Andrew Jackson, who believed that the United States should rightfully possess all of “Spanish North America”. By the time of the discovery of gold, fewer than 1000 Americans lived in California. The entire population of Alta California was around 160,000, the vast majority of whom were native peoples. The United States expressed interest in California, primarily as a point of access to the Pacific Ocean as early as 1844, yet until the end of the Mexican War nothing much came of the dreams of the proponents of “Manifest Destiny”.
Of course, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill and the subsequent events changed all of that. An estimated three hundred thousand of gold seekers, the “49ers”, the “Argonauts” flooded the newly acquired region in search of wealth and adventure. The flood of gold stabilized the US economy and drove the desire that California should enter the Union. There were issues however, the United States was unraveling. Missouri entering as a slave state in 1820, the tariff and nullification crisis of 1828 and the annexation of Texas had all caused threats of disunion and civil war. Each of these resulted in a compromise which delicately held the Union together. In 1849, President Zachary Taylor urged leading Californians to write a constitution and apply for statehood as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, California, New Mexico, and the Latter Day Saints in the Great Salt Lake area all applied for statehood nearly simultaneously. There was almost no chance that three free states would be admitted to the Union at once and there were issues surrounding New Mexico’s boundary with Texas and with the practice of polygamy in the proposed state of Deseret. There was one man who could possibly get California admitted to the Union, the man who, as Speaker of the House, had crafted the Missouri Compromise, who had ended the Nullification Crisis, who had crafted the American System of internal improvements and that was Henry Clay of Kentucky.
Henry Clay was born in 1777 in Virginia, the son of a Baptist minister. His father died in 1781 and his mother remarried. Clay learned how to read and write and his hand writing caught the attention of Virginia jurist George Withe, who was Thomas Jefferson’s mentor. Clay read law under Withe’s tutelage and was admitted to the Bar in Kentucky and Virginia in 1791. Clay began his political career in 1803 in the Kentucky legislature and eventually become a US Representative, Senator, Secretary of State and presidential candidate. He would be known as “The Great Compromiser” and play an important part in the three major compromises of the 1800’s that delayed the Civil War.
To solve the issues surrounding the admission of California into the Union, Clay originally proposed eight resolutions. Eventually, the Compromise of 1850 consisted of five separate statutes, one admitting California into the union, one settling Texas’s debts and settling the boundaries of Texas, one establishing a new fugitive slave law, one ending the slave trade in Washington DC, and finally one creating two new territories, New Mexico and Utah and allowing the territories to decide whether or not to allow slavery. The bills were signed into law by President Millard Fillmore on September 9, 1850. There was jubilation, not only in California, but in the whole United States as many thought that the disputes that had led to threatened civil war had finally been put to rest; but in reality the crisis had only been forestalled.
In 1806, Henry Clay purchased a 672 acre estate he named Ashland for the many ash trees on the property. Located near Lexington, conveniently close to his law office it has been preserved as a memorial to Henry Clay and his family who lived on the estate until 1950. Clay himself died in Washington DC in 1852 believing that his final compromise has saved the country from civil war. While Clay was alive, he took an active role in the running of the estate, introducing new breeds of cattle, horses, and donkeys. Many race horses can trace their ancestry to Henry Clay’s stock today. Hw as also a gambler who once famously waived $40,000 he has once won after asking for $500 of it from the loser. His greatest gamble however, was the compromise that brought California into the Union and delayed the Civil War for ten years. Henry Clay, the statesman responsible for California’s statehood never once visited California, yet he, with some help from Stephen A. Douglas, can be considered the person who brought California into the United States.
Ashland is located in Lexington, Kentucky at 120 Sycamore Road. For more information about tours, exhibits and hours please visit their website at: www.henryclay.org