This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, September 11, 1932
The Day Henry Clay Visited Dayton
by Howard Burba
If the city of Dayton was given to celebrating the anniversaries of its most spectacular historical events, there would be a red ring around Sept. 29, and everyone for miles around would be anxiously awaiting its arrival.
When an assemblage of any kind, and particularly a political rally, can hold the place of honor over a time-measured gap of 90 years, it must have been, in language familiar to the current generation, “one whale of a day.” Yet Sept. 29, 1842, the day on which Henry Clay visited Dayton still stands out as the date of the most spectacular political rally in this city’s history.
Two years before, or to be exact on the tenth day of September, 1840, William Henry Harrison had made Dayton a port of call in his memorable “Hard Cider” campaign, also a red-letter event in the old Northwest Territory. But that record remained unbroken for only two brief years. Then came the Clay convention, when it seemed that the whole face of the earth had shut up shop for two days and found its way by every known means of locomotion to the capital of the Miami Valley.
To fully appreciate the task the youthful city had on its hands one must first of all bear in mind that in 1842 Dayton’s population was less than 7000.
Hotels were few, and capable of accommodating a mere handful of guests. Restaurants and public eating houses could, in all possibility, have been numbered on the fingers of one hand. Now try to imagine the sudden arrival of between 150,000 and 200,000 guests for a two-day stay and you will doubtless conclude that something akin to the loaves-and-fishes miracle had to be performed to take care of them. The Whig newspaper of that day estimated the attendance at 200,000; the opposition organ grudgingly declared it did not exceed 30,000. Unbiased historians, however, estimated the crowd at 150,000. So it is fair to place the attendance at approximately 175,000. Only on one occasion in more modern times has that figure been equaled, and then at the Cox-Roosevelt notification meeting at the fair grounds on August 7, 1920.
So much for the crowd. Now let’s thumb the musty newspaper files of 90 years ago and learn some of the details of the celebration itself. We are told that promptly at 9 o’clock in the morning of the 29th of September a monster parade formed at “Main cross street” and marched down Jefferson st. Out of each intersecting street came vast delegations of visiting supporters of the principles which Clay espoused. At the junction of Main st. and the Lebanon road, and the Lebanon and Cincinnati turnpike, the parade halted and formed two solid walls of expectant, eager humanity, each with eyes to the south, from which direction Mr. Clay was to appear.
Having been met at Centerville on the evening of Sept. 28 by members of the local reception committee, Clay spent the night there and announced himself as ready for his triumphal entry into Dayton after a hearty breakfast on the morning of the 29th. The party left Centerville at 7 o’clock, and after two hours of steady travel in the most resplendent vehicles that would be mustered for the occasion, reached the waiting host out beyond the city’s southern gateway.
“With all the efforts that had been made by the grand marshal to have the line of march and arrangements fully understood,” asserts a paper of the same date, “it was found utterly impracticable to adhere to the plan. The entire procession was so large it did not pass any one point in the city, but seemed literally to fill almost all the streets.
“First in line were Mr. Clay and Gov. Tom Corwin in an open barouche; next the Citizens’ guards, and then the juvenile choir of 100 boys and girls handsomely uniformed and highly trained. A number of mechanics’ shops on wheels were also in line. Among then were a blacksmith’s forge and anvil upon which the clink of the hammer was constantly heard.
“The cotton spinners were busily engaged in reeling, twisting and spinning as they passed, and the machinists carried on their business; the wagon and plow makers had their work under way; the potters had a wheel in operation, and the tanners and curriers were busily at work. In one high car all the operation of dressing and spinning flax were performed. The carpenter’s car was drawn by six horses, and bore a miniature temple which had been built by the Whig carpenters of the city for the occasion. There was a big elk from Perry tp. and hundreds of other curious and strange sights. From a stand on Main st. Mr. Clay and his party viewed a part of the parade.”
Long before the hour fixed for Clay’s address the woods south of the city, the last vestige of which is now represented by the plot that serves as a county fairground, was a surging, shouting, laughing mass of humanity. Clay was to speak at 1 o’clock. Long before noon the gathering had reached enormous proportions and, showing signs of restlessness, had to be entertained. Accordingly three of the talented orators accompanying Clay from Kentucky, Messrs. Ewing, Crittenden and Andrews, were escorted to the grove, where each delivered an address.
When Clay reached the scene pandemonium broke loose. The cheering that greeted his presence could easily be heard in every part of the little city, and as it reached its height cannon planted near the Main sty. bridge boomed forth a prolonged salute, while every church sexton whose political faith was of the same stripe as the distinguished visitor grasped his bell rope and contributed to the din. It is related that for a full half hour R. C. Schenck, head of the citizens’ committee, stood with uplifted hand in an attempt to calm the multitude. Securing quiet he proceeded to read this preamble and resolutions prepared for the occasion:
“Among a people, free themselves to determine, to transmit unimpaired to posterity the same great inheritance, the selection of their public agents is the dearest to them. It is their free gift, and no man who values the true spirit of republican institutions should lightly thwart the popular will.
“In this spirit, the Whig masses of Ohio have met today to welcome their brethren of Kentucky. The Whig masses of the two states are animated by a like undivided, unanimous opinion as to the individual to be selected for the consummation of our principles.
“Resolved, therefore, that the Whig masses here assembled announce to the Whig brethren of the Union, Henry Clay of Kentucky, the long cherished, the master spirit, the incorruptible statesmen of the great west as their candidate for the presidency in 1844.
“Resolved, also, that the Whigs of Ohio here assembled do nominate as their candidate for the vice presidency John Davis of Massachusetts, a man distinguished for his stern, practical honesty, his known principles, his long valuable public service.
“Resolved, that the best guarantee Ohio can give to the other states of her determination to carry out and maintain Whig principles and measures will be the election of Thomas Corwin as our governor.”
After the demonstration following the reading of the resolutions had died down, Mr. Schenck had opportunity to speak but one word as he presented the illustrious speaker of the day. It was possibly the shortest introductory speech on record. He turned slightly to one side, raised his hand and extended it at arm’s length, as all eyes turned in the direction indicated. “Clay!” he shouted by way of introduction, and again the multitude went into a prolonged burst of shouting, cheering, singing and handclapping.
“We cannot, need not, attempt any account of the speech,” wrote the political reporter of 1842, “with which for an hour and a half he held every person in the crowed enchained in listening admiration. It is sufficient to say it was worthy of his fame.”
At the conclusion of the demonstration visitors were loathe to leave the city. Clay was remaining over for another day; they wanted to stay and continue their tribute to him. As a result a half-dozen night rallies in as many parts of the town were arranged, with local and visiting orators exhorting their hearers to a still greater pitch of political excitement.
Every home in Dayton was packed with visitors; every possible sleeping accommodation was drawn upon. It had been announced in the papers that every latch-string would be out and that “no one need hesitate to enter any house for dinner or lodging where he may see a flag flying.”
“In early times,” says a pioneer historian in writing of the event, “when hotel and boarding house accommodations in Dayton were very limited, it was the custom, whenever there was a political or religious convention, or any other large public meeting here, for the citizens to freely entertain the delegates at their homes. At night stray beds were laid in rows, a narrow path between each row, on the floors of rooms and halls on both stories of dwellings, and in this way accommodation was furnished for many guests. The making of the ticks for these beds before the days of sewing machines, required many days of labor; often principally done by the hostess. As late as 1853, when the first state fair was held in Dayton, public spirited citizens who cold afford the expense exercised this generous but somewhat primitive hospitality.
“When a meeting was of a religious character, the different denominations assisted in entertaining the guests. During the Clay convention the hot dinners which were served wherever possible were supplemented by large quantities of cold roast and boiled meats, poultry, cakes, pies and bread that had been prepared long beforehand There were no caterers or confectioners in those days, so the major part of the labor of preparing the meals fell upon the individual housewives.
“Practically every house in Dayton was crowded to capacity. One family, according to a letter written but its mistress at the time, entertained 300 persons at dinner that day Clay spoke here and the same night lodged nearly 100 guests. The letter continued an interesting description of a reception for ladies at the home of J. D. Phillips, were Mr. Clay stayed while in the city. A crowd of women of all ranks and conditions – some in silks and some in calico – were present. Mr. Clay shook hands with them all, afterwards making a complimentary little speech, saying among other graceful things, that the soft touch of the ladies’ hands had healed his fingers, bruised by the rough grasp of the men whom he had received the day before.”
While every one in Dayton, it would seem from reading the musty old newspaper files, went out of his way to entertain the visitors, not all of them indorsed the sentiment back of the celebration. Politically, Dayton was a house divided within itself, and aligned against the doctrine preached by the distinguished Kentuckian was the editor of the Western Empire. Evidence of this is to be found in an editorial which appeared in that newly-established journal on the day of the big rally. It reads:
“It is not important to inquire who and what sort of persons made up the crowd. Nine-tenths of those who came into the city on Wednesday were office-holders, bankers, black-legs, bankrupts, pickpockets and soap-lock dandies. Within the space of about an hour more than 50 individuals were pointed out to us who were leading spirits in the hard cider campaign of 1840 and who have since taken the benefit of the insolvent law! But notwithstanding their oath of insolvency, imported broadcloths and gold watches were exhibited in great abundance.
“John Tyler was abused, denounced and cussed without stint or measure. Old Gov. Metcalfe said that he ‘Would to God that John Tyler would do the Whig party the kindness to do as another notorious traitor is said to have done – repent and go hang himself. I mean,’ said the speaker, ‘Judas Iscariot.’ We give this expression of Gov. Metcalfe as a fair specimen of all the speeches we listened to.
“Banners of every device and color were floating in the directions. The banner of the Warren co. delegation is a fair sample of these. On this banner Tyler, Wise and the devil and his imps were represented under the gallows. The devil is saying to Tyler: ‘How do you do, Captain!’ Tyler extends his hand to the devil with a note superscribed: ‘My conscience.’ Tyler also holds a bag of money marked $50,000 at the feet of the devil, a serpent is hissing at Tyler and the imps are in a waiting attitude, ready to seize him at a signal from the devil. Wise is holding the skirt of Tyler, and a noose and gallows are just above Tyler’s head. On top of the gallows is the inscription: “Two miles to the White House – one mile to hell!”
“A few words in relation to the numbers. We admit that there were a large number of people in the town, but we doubt very much if the crowd exceeded 30,000. The idea that there were 200,000 is altogether preposterous and ridiculous. We did intend to go into a mathematical calculation to prove that number could not have exceeded our estimate. But want of room precludes the attempt. The Journal also stated that 130,000 listened to Mr. Clay’s speech! Let anyone who wished try addressing 5000 people in the open air and he will find sufficient labor of his lungs!
“But, it is a matter of the indifference whether there were 10 or 10,000 people here. One thing is certain, at least one-fourth were Democrats and more than one-fourth women and children! The great questions are, what has been accomplished? It is true that John Tyler was condemned and his executive acts execrated; a national bank and high protective tariff and the distribution of the proceeds of the public lands were advocated, and Henry Clay nominated for the presidency in 1844. If the doctrine of ‘availability’ should not interfere between this and the campaign of ’44 we suppose that we are to look upon the issues as made. Though this convention was called 12 days prior to our state election, we did not hear one word about a single questions of state policy or a single word in defense of the conduct of the recrudescent members of legislature. The discussion of these maters were substituted by songs, anecdotes, denunciations, vulgarity, profanity and drunkenness. On Tuesday evening next we shall be able to publish the effect of the Great Dayton Bankrupt Barbecue.”
The editor saw to it that his writeup of the parade was equally sarcastic. Instead of an attempt at an accurate description of the pageant, he saw fit to dip his pen into the well of satire, and to refer to it much as one would attempt a description of a circus parade.
“Next in order in this great moral menagerie,” he wrote, “was an immense Gerrymander, discovered in the loco-foca district by R. C. Schenck and made bridle-wise by our ingenious fellow-citizen, J. W. Van Cleve, who was mounted on the beast which bore him along as an elephant would a child. R. C. Schenck and W. F. Comly, committee on Gerrymander, were each mounted on a Water Whelp. Next came the Giraffe, also discovered by R. C. Schenck & Co., captured near the Ohio river after a desperate struggle, and actually ridden by our talented Senator Joseph Barnett, Esq., D. K. Este and D. A. Haines. At proper distances were placed Richard Green and R. N. Comly, committee on coons; John Mills and Alex. Swayne, committee on corndodgers; J. D. Phillips and H. L. Brown, committee on soft-shells; E. Barney and E. W. Davis, committee on hard cider; John D. Hopkins, committee on good gatherings, and in the distance appeared Thomas Clegg shouting: ‘What has caused this great commotion!”
They took their politics seriously in those days. They had to stage such a demonstration as that of Sept 29, 1842, a demonstration that has never been exceeded in attendance, and certainly not in enthusiasm, during the entire 90 years that have since passed into history.