January 26, 2021

Henry Clay, Enigma or Statesman for the 21st Century?

Date: Feb 18, 2021
Time: 6:00 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.


Presented by the Filson Historical Society

Sponsored by the Thomas W. Bullitt Perpetual Charitable Trust.

Over a career spanning five decades, Kentucky lawyer and statesman Henry Clay became the most revered public figure in the United States. By 1833 even his political adversaries recognized Clay as “[the] one man and one man only, who can save the Union,” and “[the] only man who had it in his power” to “extricate” the Union from the “mess” that had been made by seemingly-implacable positions taken by other political leaders. In 1850, with the Union again facing crisis, a New York newspaper asked, rhetorically, “who . . . is better prepared to . . . safely guide the Ship of State beyond the reach of the impending storm than Henry Clay?” The nation’s grief at Henry Clay’s passing in 1852 was said to have been second only to the nation’s grief at the passing of George Washington.

Clay notoriously gambled, drank, fought duels, and swore. While he considered slavery to be morally wrong and a “curse” on both master and slave alike, twice championed abolition of slavery in Kentucky, and devised a national plan that would have gradually emancipated all slaves in the United States, Clay nevertheless owned slaves for his entire adult life and crafted the compromises that allowed the institution of slavery to continue in the United States from 1820 until the adoption of the 13th Amendment. Too many in the 20th and 21st Centuries that is Clay’s enduring legacy – a legacy that cannot be easily reconciled or rationalized away. Clay’s full body of work is not widely known by the American public.

This program will explore Clay’s life and career, draw parallels between challenges faced by the nation in the first half of the 19th Century and the first half of the 21st Century; and explore whether Henry Clay can serve as an example of statesmanship for the 21st Century.

David Ratterman is a Senior Member of Stites & Harbison, PLLC. He holds degrees in law, engineering, and business and has focused his legal practice on representation of the fabricated structural steel industry in the United States. In 2012 the American Institute of Steel Construction established a college scholarship program in David’s name that has provided assistance to over 100 children of industry families. He served as an engineering officer and intelligence officer in the United States Navy, has been inducted into the University of Kentucky College of Engineering Hall of Distinction, and has received lifetime achievement awards from the American Institute of Steel Construction, the University of Kentucky Alumni Association, the Construction Management Founders Society, and the American College of Construction Lawyers, of which he is a Fellow and past Governor. This program is adapted from a paper presented to the Louisville Conversation Club in 2019.

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