Both in Congress and in the Senate Clay always worked for what he believed to be the best interests of his country. Ambition, which so often causes men to turn aside from the paths of truth and honor, had no power to tempt him to do wrong. He was ambitious to be president, but would not sacrifice any of his convictions for the sake of being elected. Although he was nominated by his party three times, he never became president. It was when warned by a friend that if he persisted in a certain course of political conduct he would injure his prospects of being elected, that he made his famous statement, “I would rather be right than be president.”
Clay has been described by one of his biographers as “a brilliant orator, an honest man, a charming gentleman, an ardent patriot, and a leader whose popularity was equaled only by that of Andrew Jackson.”
Although born in a state in which wealth and ancient ancestry were highly rated, he was never ashamed of his birth or poverty. Once when taunted by the aristocratic John Randolph with his lowly origin, he proudly exclaimed, “I was born to no proud paternal estate. I inherited only infancy, ignorance, and indigence.”
He was born in Hanover County, Virginia, on April 12, 1777, and died in Washington, June 29, 1852. With only the humble inheritance which he claimed—“infancy, ignorance, and indigence” —Henry Clay made himself a name that wealth and a long line of ancestry could never bestow.
The teeming life of the streets has vanished; the voices of the children have died away into silence; the artisan has dropped his tools, the artist has laid aside his brush, the sculptor his chisel. Night has spread her wings over the scene. The queen city of Greece is wrapped in slumber.
But, in the midst of that hushed life, there is one who sleeps not, a worshiper at the shrine of art, who feels neither fatigue nor hardship, and fears not death itself in the pursuit of his object. With the fire of genius burning in his dark eyes, a youth works with feverish haste on a group of wondrous beauty.
But why is this master artist at work, in secret, in a cellar where the sun never shone, the daylight never entered? I will tell you. Creon, the inspired worker, the son of genius, is a slave, and the penalty of pursuing his art is death.
When the Athenian law debarring all but freemen from the exercise of art was enacted, Creon was at work trying to realize in marble the vision his soul had created. The beautiful group was growing into life under his magic touch when the cruel edict struck the chisel from his fingers.
“O ye gods!” groans the stricken youth, “why have ye deserted me, now, when my task is almost completed? I have thrown my soul, my very life, into this block of marble, and now—”
Cleone, the beautiful dark-haired sister of the sculptor, felt the blow as keenly as her brother, to whom she was utterly devoted. “O immortal Athene! my goddess, my patron, at whose shrine I have daily laid my offerings, be now my friend, the friend of my brother!” she prayed.