Governor Clement Comer Clay, A Vintage Vignette

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Governor Clement Comer Clay
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
September 6, 2010

The year was 1811. Bachelor Clement Comer Clay at age 22 put his law books into saddlebags and mounted a horse to travel south. He left his fledgling law practice in Knoxville, Tennessee, to head down to the pioneer town of Huntsville, Alabama. Clement faced an uncertain future, having enough money for only a few days of subsistence on the trip. Born 1789 in Virginia, his father was Revolutionary War veteran William Clay. His mother was Rebecca Comer Clay. His great grandfather Charles Clay was father of a Henry Clay that became the ancestor of famous orator and politician Henry Clay of Kentucky, a contemporary of Clement Comer Clay. Clement's family moved from Virginia to Tennessee when he was only six years old. Clement was educated in private school, after which he entered the newly-founded University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He graduated with honors only three years later, then studied law under Hugh Lawson White in Knoxville. He was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1809 at the age of 20.

At the age of 25 Clement Clay married Susanna Claiborne Withers, who was born in Virginia in 1798. She was still 16 years old when they married. Clay quickly acquired land here, including a plantation entailing land that is immediately north of the international airport in southwestern Madison. It adjoined holdings of John Withers, father of Susanna and subject of a 2007 Vintage Vignette. Clement may have first seen Susanna while inspecting his plantation here. In 1916 local lifetime resident Robert Emmett Wiggins wrote a history of the Madison area when he was 73. By Wiggins' account, Susanna gave birth to her son Clement Claiborne (born 1817) in the Clay plantation house two miles south of the original historic district of Madison. That son became quite famous in his own right and was the subject of another Vintage Vignette in 2007.

Both Clement Comer Clay and his wife Susanna died in 1866, according to their tombstones in Maple Hill Cemetery. Clement was a Madison County representative to the first territorial legislature session in February 1818. He was appointed chairman of a committee to recommend the site of the permanent capitol for the territory. When the first constitutional convention was held in Huntsville in 1819, he received the highest number of votes among the eight delegates chosen to represent Madison County. He then became chairman of the committee to draft the initial constitution for the state. At the first meeting of the new state legislature, Clay was chosen to be one of five circuit judges for the state. When the judges formed the state supreme court, Clay was elected to preside as chief justice at the age of 30. In 1823 Clay returned to his plantations and private law practice. He was defeated in a couple of elections until 1828, when he was returned to the state legislature and became Speaker of the House. In 1829 he was elected to the U. S. Congress and served three terms. In 1835 he became Alabama's eighth governor. Upon completion of that term in 1837 Clay became a U. S. Senator from Alabama. Family illnesses led him to resign his Senate seat in 1841, again returning to his plantation life and living in Huntsville. He owned three different plantations totaling over 3,000 acres with more than 70 slaves at the time. In addition to Clement Claiborne Clay, his sons included John Withers Clay and Hugh Lawson Clay. In 1842 ex-Governor Clay was appointed to update the Alabama Law Digest, which was completed in 1843 when Clement returned to the Alabama Supreme Court to fill a vacancy for a few months. Before retiring, he was chosen as a bank commissioner for the state bank. After a lifetime of public service Clement retired to enjoy leisure, but the Civil War intervened. The occupying federal troops imprisoned Clay in the Huntsville courthouse, attempting to leverage his popularity for prevention of Confederate ambushes on the scavenging Union forces. It didn't work, and Clement was treated harshly as an old and feeble man. Possibly this treatment contributed to his demise soon after the war, but overall, he did okay for a pauper's start.

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