December 25, 2012
For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them. Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again.
George had tried to save them, breaking a window to re-enter the house, slicing a swath of skin from his arm. He could see nothing through the smoke and fire, which had swept through all of the downstairs rooms: living and dining room, kitchen, office, and his and Jennie’s bedroom. He took frantic stock of what he knew: 2-year-old Sylvia, whose crib was in their bedroom, was safe outside, as was 17-year-old Marion and two sons, 23-year-old John and 16-year-old George Jr., who had fled the upstairs bedroom they shared, singeing their hair on the way out. He figured Maurice, Martha, Louis, Jennie and Betty still had to be up there, cowering in two bedrooms on either end of the hallway, separated by a staircase that was now engulfed in flames.
He raced back outside, hoping to reach them through the upstairs windows, but the ladder he always kept propped against the house was strangely missing. An idea struck: He would drive one of his two coal trucks up to the house and climb atop it to reach the windows. But even though they’d functioned perfectly the day before, neither would start now. He ransacked his mind for another option. He tried to scoop water from a rain barrel but found it frozen solid. Five of his children were stuck somewhere inside those great, whipping ropes of smoke. He didn’t notice that his arm was slick with blood, that his voice hurt from screaming their names.
His daughter Marion sprinted to a neighbor’s home to call the Fayetteville Fire Department but couldn’t get any operator response. A neighbor who saw the blaze made a call from a nearby tavern, but again no operator responded. Exasperated, the neighbor drove into town and tracked down Fire Chief F.J. Morris, who initiated Fayetteville’s version of a fire alarm: a “phone tree” system whereby one firefighter phoned another, who phoned another. The fire department was only two and a half miles away but the crew didn’t arrive until 8 a.m., by which point the Sodders’ home had been reduced to a smoking pile of ash.
George and Jeannie assumed that five of their children were dead, but a brief search of the grounds on Christmas Day turned up no trace of remains. Chief Morris suggested that the blaze had been hot enough to completely cremate the bodies. A state police inspector combed the rubble and attributed the fire to faulty wiring. George covered the basement with five feet of dirt, intending to preserve the site as a memorial. The coroner’s office issued five death certificates just before the new year, attributing the causes to “fire or suffocation.”
But the Sodders had begun to wonder if their children were still alive. (More…)
December 21, 2012
Boxed and wrapped in paper and bows, teddy bears have been placed lovingly underneath Christmas trees for generations, to the delight of tots and toddlers around the world. But the teddy bear is an American original: Its story begins with a holiday vacation taken by President Theodore Roosevelt.
By the spring of 1902, the United Mine Workers of America were on strike, seeking shorter workdays and higher wages from a coal industry that was suffering from oversupply and low profits. The mine owners had welcomed the strike because they could not legally shut down production; it gave them a way to save on wages while driving up demand and prices.
Neither side was willing to give in, and fearing a deadly wintertime shortage of coal, Roosevelt decided to intervene, threatening to send in troops to the Midwest to take over the anthracite mines if the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. Throughout the fall, despite the risk of a major political setback, Roosevelt met with union representatives and coal operators. In late October, as temperatures began to drop, the union and the owners struck a deal.
After averting that disaster, Roosevelt decided he needed a vacation, so he accepted an invitation from Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino to head south for a hunting trip. Longino was the first Mississippi governor elected after the Civil War who was not a Confederate veteran, and he would soon be facing a re-election fight against James Vardaman, who declared, “If it is necessary every Negro in the state will be lynched; it will be done to maintain white supremacy.” Longino was clearly hoping that a visit from the popular president might help him stave off a growing wave of such sentiment. Vardaman called Roosevelt the “coon-flavored miscegenist in the White House.”
Undeterred, Roosevelt met Longino in mid-November, 1902, and the two traveled to the town of Onward, 30 miles north of Vicksburg. In the lowlands they set up camp with trappers, horses, tents, supplies, 50 hunting dogs, journalists and a former slave named Holt Collier as their guide.
As a cavalryman for Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War, Collier knew the land well. He had also killed more than 3,000 bears over his lifetime. Longino enlisted his expertise because hunting for bear in the swamps was dangerous (which Roosevelt relished). “He was safer with me than with all the policemen in Washington,” Collier later said.
The hunt had been scheduled as a 10-day excursion, but Roosevelt was impatient. “I must see a live bear the first day,” he told Collier. He didn’t. But the next morning, Collier’s hounds picked up the scent of a bear, and the president spent the next several hours in pursuit, tracking through mud and thicket. After a break for lunch, Collier’s dogs had chased an old, fat, 235-pound black bear into a watering hole. Cornered by the barking hounds, the bear swiped several with its paws, then crushed one to death. Collier bugled for Roosevelt to join the hunt, then approached the bear. Wanting to save the kill for the president but seeing that his dogs were in danger, Collier swung his rifle and smashed the bear in the skull. He then tied it to a nearby tree and waited for Roosevelt.
When the president caught up with Collier, he came upon a horrific scene: a bloody, gasping bear tied to a tree, dead and injured dogs, a crowd of hunters shouting, “Let the president shoot the bear!” As Roosevelt entered the water, Collier told him, “Don’t shoot him while he’s tied.” But he refused to draw his gun, believing such a kill would be unsportsmanlike.
Collier then approached the bear with another hunter and, after a terrible struggle in the water, killed it with his knife. The animal was slung over a horse and taken back to camp.
News of Roosevelt’s compassionate gesture soon spread throughout the country, and by Monday morning, November 17, cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman’s sketch appeared in the pages of the Washington Post. In it, Roosevelt is dressed in full rough rider uniform, with his back to a corralled, frightened and very docile bear cub, refusing to shoot. The cartoon was titled “Drawing the Line in Mississippi,” believed to be a double-entendre of Roosevelt’s sportsman’s code and his criticism of lynchings in the South. The drawing became so popular that Berryman drew even smaller and cuter “teddy bears” in political cartoons for the rest of Roosevelt’s days as president.
Back in Brooklyn, N.Y., Morris and Rose Michtom, a married Russian Jewish immigrant couple who had a penny store that sold candy and other items, followed the news of the president’s hunting trip. That night, Rose quickly formed a piece of plush velvet into the shape of a bear, sewed on some eyes, and the next morning, the Michtoms had “Teddy’s bear” displayed in their store window.
That day, more than a dozen people asked if they could buy the bear. Thinking they might need permission from the White House to produce the stuffed animals, the Michtoms mailed the original to the president as a gift for his children and asked if he’d mind if they used his name on the bear. Roosevelt, doubting it would make a difference, consented.
Teddy’s bear became so popular the Michtoms left the candy business and devoted themselves to the manufacture of stuffed bears. Roosevelt adopted the teddy bear as the symbol of the Republican Party for the 1904 election, and the Michtoms would ultimately make a fortune as proprietors of the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. In 1963, they donated one of the first teddy bears to the Smithsonian Institution. It’s currently on view in the American Presidency gallery at the National Museum of American History.
Articles: ”Holt Collier, Mississippi” Published in George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, Connecticut: The Greenwood Press, Inc.,1979, Supplement Series1, v.7, p. 447-478. American Slave Narratives, Collected by the Federal Writers Project, Works Progress Administration, http://newdeal.feri.org/asn/asn03.htm ”The Great Bear Hunt,” by Douglas Brinkley, National Geographic, May 5, 2001. “James K. Vardaman,” Fatal Flood, American Experience, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/flood-vardaman/ ”Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902,” by Rachael Marks, University of St. Francis, http://www.stfrancis.edu/content/ba/ghkickul/stuwebs/btopics/works/anthracitestrike.htm “The Story of the Teddy Bear,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/thrb/historyculture/storyofteddybear.htm “Rose and Morris Michtom and the Invention of the Teddy Bear,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Michtoms.html “Origins of the Teddy Bear,” by Elizabeth Berlin Taylor, The Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History, http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/politics-reform/resources/origins-teddy-bear “Teddy Bear,” Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University, http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Learn-About-TR/Themes/Culture-and-Society/Teddy-Bear.aspx
December 19, 2012
With powerful engines, extensive firepower and heavy armor, the newly christened battleship USS South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia in August of 1942 spoiling for a fight. The crew was made up of “green boys”—new recruits who enlisted after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor—who had no qualms about either their destination or the action they were likely to see. Brash and confident, the crew couldn’t get through the Panama Canal fast enough, and their captain, Thomas Gatch, made no secret of the grudge he bore against the Japanese. “No ship more eager to fight ever entered the Pacific,” one naval historian wrote.
In less than four months, the South Dakota would limp back to port in New York for repairs to extensive damage suffered in some of World War II’s most ferocious battles at sea. The ship would become one of the most decorated warships in U.S. Navy history and acquire a new moniker to reflect the secrets it carried. The Japanese, it turned out, were convinced the vessel had been destroyed at sea, and the Navy was only too happy to keep the mystery alive—stripping the South Dakota of identifying markings and avoiding any mention of it in communications and even sailors’ diaries. When newspapers later reported on the ship’s remarkable accomplishments in the Pacific Theater, they referred to it simply as “Battleship X.”
That the vessel was not resting at the bottom of the Pacific was just one of the secrets Battleship X carried through day after day of hellish war at sea. Aboard was a gunner from Texas who would soon become the nation’s youngest decorated war hero. Calvin Graham, the fresh-faced seaman who had set off for battle from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the summer of 1942, was only 12 years old.
Graham was just 11 and in the sixth grade in Crockett, Texas, when he hatched his plan to lie about his age and join the Navy. One of seven children living at home with an abusive stepfather, he and an older brother moved into a cheap rooming house, and Calvin supported himself by selling newspapers and delivering telegrams on weekends and after school. Even though he moved out, his mother would occasionally visit—sometimes to simply sign his report cards at the end of a semester. The country was at war, however, and being around newspapers afforded the boy the opportunity to keep up on events overseas.
“I didn’t like Hitler to start with,” Graham later told a reporter. When he learned that some of his cousins had died in battles, he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to fight. “In those days, you could join up at 16 with your parents’ consent, but they preferred 17,” Graham later said. But he had no intention of waiting five more years. He began to shave at age 11, hoping it would somehow make him look older when he met with military recruiters. Then he lined up with some buddies (who forged his mother’s signature and stole a notary stamp from a local hotel) and waited to enlist.
At 5-foot-2 and just 125 pounds, Graham dressed in an older brother’s clothes and fedora and practiced “talking deep.” What worried him most was not that an enlistment officer would spot the forged signature. It was the dentist who would peer into the mouths of potential recruits. “I knew he’d know how young I was by my teeth,” Graham recalled. He lined up behind a couple of guys he knew who were already 14 or 15, and “when the dentist kept saying I was 12, I said I was 17.” At last, Graham played his ace, telling the dentist that he knew for a fact that the boys in front of him weren’t 17 yet, and the dentist had let them through. “Finally,” Graham recalled, “he said he didn’t have time to mess with me and he let me go.” Graham maintained that the Navy knew he and the others on line that day were underage, “but we were losing the war then, so they took six of us.”
It wasn’t uncommon for boys to lie about their age in order to serve. Ray Jackson, who joined the Marines at 16 during World War II, founded the group Veterans of Underage Military Service in 1991, and it listed more than 1,200 active members, including 26 women. “Some of these guys came from large families and there wasn’t enough food to go around, and this was a way out,” Jackson told a reporter. “Others just had family problems and wanted to get away.”
Calvin Graham told his mother he was going to visit relatives. Instead, he dropped out of the seventh grade and shipped off to San Diego for basic training. There, he said, the drill instructors were aware of the underage recruits and often made them run extra miles and lug heavier packs.
By the time the USS South Dakota made it to the Pacific, it had become part of a task force alongside the legendary carrier USS Enterprise (the “Big E”). By early October 1942, the two ships, along with their escorting cruisers and destroyers, raced to the South Pacific to engage in the fierce fighting in the battle for Guadalcanal. After they reached the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, the Japanese quickly set their sights on the carrier and launched an air attack that easily penetrated the Enterprise’s own air patrol. The carrier USS Hornet was repeatedly torpedoed and sank off Santa Cruz, but the South Dakota managed to protect Enterprise, destroying 26 enemy planes with a barrage from its antiaircraft guns.
Standing on the bridge, Captain Gatch watched as a 500-pound bomb struck the South Dakota’s main gun turret. The explosion injured 50 men, including the skipper, and killed one. The ship’s armor was so thick, many of the crew were unaware they’d been hit. But word quickly spread that Gatch had been knocked unconscious. Quick-thinking quartermasters managed to save the captain’s life—his jugular vein had been severed, and the ligaments in his arms suffered permanent damage—but some onboard were aghast that he didn’t hit the deck when he saw the bomb coming. “I consider it beneath the dignity of a captain of an American battleship to flop for a Japanese bomb,” Gatch later said.
The ship’s young crew continued to fire at anything in the air, including American bombers that were low on fuel and trying to land on the Enterprise. The South Dakota was quickly getting a reputation for being wild-eyed and quick to shoot, and Navy pilots were warned not to fly anywhere near it. The South Dakota was fully repaired at Pearl Harbor, and Captain Gatch returned to his ship, wearing a sling and bandages. Seaman Graham quietly became a teenager, turning 13 on November 6, just as Japanese naval forces began shelling an American airfield on Guadalcanal Island. Steaming south with the Enterprise, Task Force 64, with the South Dakota and another battleship, the USS Washington, took four American destroyers on a night search for the enemy near Savo Island. There, on November 14, Japanese ships opened fire, sinking or heavily damaging the American destroyers in a four day engagement that became known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Later that evening the South Dakota encountered eight Japanese destroyers; with deadly accurate 16-inch guns, the South Dakota set fire to three of them. “They never knew what sank ‘em,” Gatch would recall. One Japanese ship set its searchlights on the South Dakota, and the ship took 42 enemy hits, temporarily losing power. Graham was manning his gun when shrapnel tore through his jaw and mouth; another hit knocked him down, and he fell through three stories of superstructure. Still, the 13 year-old made it to his feet, dazed and bleeding, and helped pull other crew members to safety while others were thrown by the force of the explosions, their bodies aflame, into the Pacific.
“I took belts off the dead and made tourniquets for the living and gave them cigarettes and encouraged them all night,” Graham later said. ”It was a long night. It aged me.” The shrapnel had knocked out his front teeth, and he had flash burns from the hot guns, but he was “fixed up with salve and a coupla stitches,” he recalled. “I didn’t do any complaining because half the ship was dead. It was a while before they worked on my mouth.” In fact, the ship had casualties of 38 men killed and 60 wounded.
Regaining power, and after afflicting heavy damage to the Japanese ships, the South Dakota rapidly disappeared in the smoke. Captain Gatch would later remark of his “green” men, “Not one of the ship’s company flinched from his post or showed the least disaffection.” With the Japanese Imperial Navy under the impression that it had sunk the South Dakota, the legend of Battleship X was born.
In mid-December, the damaged ship returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for major repairs, where Gatch and his crew were profiled for their heroic deeds in the Pacific. Calvin Graham received a Bronze Star for distinguishing himself in combat, as well as a Purple Heart for his injuries. But he couldn’t bask in glory with his fellow crewmen while their ship was being repaired. Graham’s mother, reportedly having recognized her son in newsreel footage, wrote the Navy, revealing the gunner’s true age.
Graham returned to Texas and was thrown in a brig at Corpus Christi, Texas, for almost three months.
Battleship X returned to the Pacific and continued to shoot Japanese planes out of the sky. Graham, meanwhile, managed to get a message out to his sister Pearl, who complained to the newspapers that the Navy was mistreating the “Baby Vet.” The Navy eventually ordered Graham’s release, but not before stripping him of his medals for lying about his age and revoking his disability benefits. He was simply tossed from jail with a suit and a few dollars in his pocket—and no honorable discharge.
Back in Houston, though, he was treated as a celebrity. Reporters were eager to write his story, and when the war film Bombadier premiered at a local theater, the film’s star, Pat O’Brien, invited Graham to the stage to be saluted by the audience. The attention quickly faded. At age 13, Graham tried to return to school, but he couldn’t keep pace with students his age and quickly dropped out. He married at age 14, became a father the following year, and found work as a welder in a Houston shipyard. Neither his job nor his marriage lasted long. At 17 years old and divorced, and with no service record, Graham was about to be drafted when he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He soon broke his back in a fall, for which he received a 20 percent service-connected disability. The only work he could find after that was selling magazine subscriptions.
When President Jimmy Carter was elected, in 1976, Graham began writing letters, hoping that Carter, “an old Navy man,” might be sympathetic. All Graham had wanted was an honorable discharge so he could get help with his medical and dental expenses. “I had already given up fighting” for the discharge, Graham said at the time. “But then they came along with this discharge program for [Vietnam-era] deserters. I know they had their reasons for doing what they did, but I figure I damn sure deserved [an honorable discharge] more than they did.”
In 1977, Texas Senators Lloyd Bentsen and John Tower introduced a bill to give Graham his discharge, and in 1978, Carter announced that it had been approved and that Graham’s medals would be restored, with the exception of the Purple Heart. Ten years later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation approving disability benefits for Graham.
At the age of 12, Calvin Graham broke the law to serve his country, at a time when the U.S. military might well be accused of having had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to underage enlistees. For fear of losing their benefits or their honorable discharges, many “Baby Vets” never came forward to claim the nation’s gratitude. It wasn’t until 1994, two years after he died, that the military relented and returned the seaman’s last medal—his Purple Heart—to his family.
Articles: “A Medal of Honor,” by Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune, June 17, 1994. “Life Aboard ‘Battleship X’: The USS South Dakota in World War II,” by David B. Miller, South Dakota State Historical Society, 1993. “Calvin Graham, 62, Who Fought in War as a 12-Year-Old,” by Eric Pace, New York Times, November 9, 1992. “Congress Votes WWII Benefits For Boy Sailor,” Washington Post, October 23, 1988. “Underage Sailor Wins Recognition,” Hartford Courant, May 9, 1978. “U.S. Battleship’s Green Crew Bags 32 Planes, 4 Warships,” New York Times, January 4, 1943, “Civilian Seeks Navy Discharge,” Hartford Courant, April 12, 1977. “The Navy’s ‘Baby’ Hero Who Won the Bronze Star at 12 Now Wants Justice From the Nation He Served,” by Kent Demaret, People, October 24, 1977. “The USS South Dakota (BB-57) Battleship,” by J.R. Potts, MilitaryFactory.com, http://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=USS-South-Dakota-BB57 “USS South Dakota BB 57,” http://www.navysite.de/bb/bb57.htm “Decades Later, Military Veterans Admit Being Underage When They Enlisted,” Associated Press, November 3, 2003. “Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Turning Point in the Pacific War,” by David H. Lippman, World War II Magazine, June 12, 2006. “I’m Twelve, Sir: The Youngest Allied Soldier in World War Two,” by Giles Milton, http://surviving-history.blogspot.com/2012/07/im-twelve-sir-youngest-allied-soldier.html “Sailor Who Enlisted at 12 Seeks Help,” Washington Post, April 20, 1978.
Film: “Battleship X: The USS South Dakota,” Produced by Rich Murphy, 2006, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1mX_K9lFbA
December 14, 2012
Salt is so commonplace today, so cheap and readily available, that it is hard to remember how hard to come by it once was. The Roman forces who arrived in Britain in the first century C.E reported that the only way the local tribes could obtain it was to pour brine onto red-hot charcoal, then scrape off the crystals that formed on the wood as the water hissed and evaporated. These were the same forces that, according to a tradition dating to the time of Pliny the Elder, gave us the word “salary” because they once received their wages in the stuff.
Salt was crucially important until very recently not merely as a condiment (though of course it is a vital foodstuff; hearts cannot beat and nerve impulses cannot fire without it), but also as a preservative. Before the invention of refrigeration, only the seemingly magical properties of salt could prevent slaughtered animals and fish hauled from the sea from rotting into stinking inedibility. It was especially important to the shipping industry, which fed its sailors on salt pork, salt beef and salt fish. The best salt meat was packed in barrels of the granules–though it could also be boiled in seawater, resulting in a far inferior product that, thanks to the scarcity of fresh water aboard wooden sailing ships, was then often cooked in brine as well, reaching the sailors as a broth so hideously salty that crystals formed on the sides of their bowls. The demand for salt to preserve fish was so vast that the Newfoundland cod fishery alone needed 25,000 tons of the stuff a year.
All this demand created places that specialized in producing what was known colloquially as “white gold.” The illustration above shows one remnant of the trade in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a sleepy Caribbean backwater that, from 1678 to 1964, subsisted almost entirely on the profits of the salt trade, and was very nearly destroyed by its collapse. The islands’ history is one of ingenuity in harsh circumstances and of the dangers of over-dependence on a single trade. It also provides an object lesson in economic reality, for the natural products of the earth and sky rarely make those who actually tap them rich.
The islands, long a neglected part of the British empire, lie in the northern reaches of the Caribbean, far from the major trade routes; their chief call on the world’s notice, before salt extraction began, was a disputed claim to be the spot where Christopher Columbus made landfall on his first voyage across the Atlantic. Whether Columbus’s first glimpse of the New World really was the island of Grand Turk (as the local islanders, but few others, insist), there is no doubt about the impact the Spaniards had once they began to exploit their new tropical empire. The indigenous population of the Turks and Caicos—estimated to have numbered several tens of thousands of peaceable Lucayan Amerindians—made a readily exploitable source of slave labor for the sugar plantations and gold mines the conquistadores established on Haiti. Within two decades of its discovery, the slave trade and the importation of diseases to which the Lucayans possessed practically no resistance (a large part of the European portion of what is termed the Columbian Exchange), had reduced that once-flourishing community to a single elderly man. (More…)
December 6, 2012
To this day, he is considered one of the most influential politicians in U.S. history. His role in putting together the Compromise of 1850, a series of resolutions limiting the expansion of slavery, delayed secession for a decade and earned him the nickname “the Great Pacificator.” Indeed, Mississippi Senator Henry S. Foote later said, “Had there been one such man in the Congress of the United States as Henry Clay in 1860-’61 there would, I feel sure, have been no civil war.”
Clay owned 60 slaves. Yet he called slavery “this great evil…the darkest spot in the map of our country” and did not modify his stance through five campaigns for the presidency, all of which failed. “I’d rather be right than be president,” he said, famously, during an 1838 Senate debate, which his critics (he had many) attributed to sour grapes, a sentiment spoken only after he’d been defeated. Throughout his life, Clay maintained a “moderate” stance on slavery: He saw the institution as immoral, a bane on American society, but insisted that it was so entrenched in Southern culture that calls for abolition were extreme, impractical and a threat to the integrity of the Union. He supported gradual emancipation and helped found the American Colonization Society, made up of mostly Quakers and abolitionists, to promote the return of free black people to Africa, where, it was believed, they would have better lives. The organization was supported by many slaveowners, who believed that free blacks in America could only lead to slave rebellion.
Clay’s ability to promote compromise in the most complex issues of the day made him a highly effective politician. Abraham Lincoln said Clay was “the man for a crisis,” adding later that he was “my beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.”
Yet there was one crisis in Henry Clay’s life in which the Great Pacificator showed no desire to compromise. The incident occurred in Washington, D.C., when he was serving as secretary of state to President John Quincy Adams. In 1829, Charlotte Dupuy, Clay’s longtime slave, filed a petition with the U.S. Circuit Court against him, claiming she was free. The suit “shocked and angered” Clay, and whatever sympathies he held with regard to human rights did not extinguish his passion for the rule of law. When confronted with what he considered a “groundless writ” that might result in the loss of his rightful property, Henry Clay showed little mercy in fighting the suit.
Born into slavery around 1787 in Cambridge, Maryland, Charlotte Stanley was purchased in 1805 by a tailor named James Condon, who took the 18 year-old girl back to his home in Kentucky. The following year, she met and married Aaron Dupuy, a young slave on the 600-acre Ashland plantation in Lexington, owned by Henry Clay—who then purchased her for $450. The young couple would have two children, Charles and Mary Ann Dupuy.
In 1809, Clay was to elected to fill retiring Senator John Adair’s unexpired term at the age of 29—below the constitutionally required age of 30, but no one seemed to notice or care. The Dupuys accompanied him to Washington, where they lived and worked as house slaves for the congressman at the Decatur House, a mansion on Lafayette Square, near the White House. In 1810, Clay was elected to the House of Representatives, where he spent most of the next 20 years, serving several terms as speaker.
For those two decades the Dupuys, though legally enslaved, lived in relative freedom in Washington. Clay even allowed Charlotte to visit her family on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on several occasions—visits Clay later surmised were “the root of all the subsequent trouble.”
But in 1828 Adams lost in his re-election campaign to another of Clay’s rivals, Andrew Jackson, and Clay’s term as secretary of state came to an end. It was as he was preparing to return to Kentucky that Charlotte Dupuy filed her suit, based on a promise, she claimed, made by her former owner, James Condon, to free her after her years of service to him. Her case long predated the Dred Scott suit, which would result in the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling that the federal government had no power to regulate slavery in the territories, that the Constitution did not apply to people of African descent and that they were not U.S. citizens.
Dupuy’s attorney, Robert Beale, argued that the Dupuys should not have to return to Kentucky, where they would “be held as slaves for life.” The court agreed to hear the case. For 18 months, she stayed in Washington, working for wages at the Decatur House for Clay’s successor as secretary of state, Martin Van Buren. Meanwhile, Clay stewed in Kentucky. The court ultimately rejected Dupuy’s claim to freedom, ruling that Condon sold her to Clay “without any conditions,” and that enslaved persons had no legal rights under the constitution. Clay then wrote to his agent in Washington, Philip Fendall, encouraging him to order the marshal to “imprison Lotty.” He added that her husband and children had returned with him to Kentucky, and that Charlotte’s conduct had created “insubordination among her relatives here.” He added, “Her refusal therefore to return home, when requested by me to do so through you, was unnatural towards them as it was disobedient to me…. I think it high time to put a stop to it…How shall I now get her, is the question?”
Clay arranged for Charlotte to be put in prison in Alexandria, Virginia. “In the mean time,” he wrote Fendall, “be pleased to let her remain in jail and inform me what is necessary for me to do to meet the charges.” She was eventually sent to New Orleans, where she was enslaved at the home of Clay’s daughter and son-in-law for another decade. Aaron Dupuy continued to work at the Ashland plantation, and it was believed that neither Clay nor the Dupuys harbored any ill will after the freedom suit was resolved—an indication, some historians have suggested, that Clay’s belief that his political adversaries were behind Charlotte Dupuy’s lawsuit was well-founded.
In 1840, Henry Clay freed Charlotte and her daughter, Mary Ann. Clay continued to travel the country with her son, Charles, as his manservant. It was said that Clay used Charles as an example of his kindness toward slaves, and he eventually freed Charles in 1844. Aaron Dupuy remained enslaved to Clay until 1852, when he was freed either before Clay’s death that year, or by his will.
Lincoln eulogized Henry Clay with the following words:
He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.
Books: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Henry Clay: The Essential American, Random House, 2010. Jesse J. Holland, Black Men Built the Capital: Discovering African American History in and Around Washington, D.C., Globe Pequot, 2007.
Articles: “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square, 1795-1965, Presented by the White House Historical Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation,” http://www.whitehousehistory.org/decatur-house/african-american-tour/content/Decatur-House ”Henry Clay and Ashland,” by Peter W. Schramm, The Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, http://ashbrook.org/publications/onprin-v7n3-schramm/ ”Henry Clay: Young and in Charge,” by Claire McCormack, Time, October 14, 2010. “Henry Clay: (1777-1852),” by Thomas Rush, American History From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/biographies/henry-clay/ “American History: The Rise of the Movement Against Slavery,” The Making of a Nation, http://www.manythings.org/voa/history/67.html “Eulogy on Henry Clay, July 6, 1952, Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Online, Speeches and Writing, http://showcase.netins.net/web/creative/lincoln/speeches/clay.htm