U.S. MINT STRUCK ‘PURE GOLD’ PIECE TO HONOR STATESMAN IN THE WEEKS BEFORE HIS DEATH
By Michael Riley
Abraham Lincoln once said Henry Clay was “my idea of a great man.” Lincoln delivered a eulogy in the Illinois statehouse upon Clay’s death in 1852 that closed with the following: “Our country is prosperous and powerful; but could it have been quite all it has been, and is, and is to be, without Henry Clay? Such a man the times have demanded, and such, in the providence of God was given us.”
Clay’s stature in American politics has not eroded since that time.
LINCOLN AND HIS TIMES AMERICANA & POLITICAL GRAND FORMAT AUCTION 6163, a joint auction by Heritage Auctions and The Rail Splitter in recognition of the publication’s 20th anniversary, is scheduled for Sept. 17, 2016, in Dallas and online at HA.com/6163. For information, contact Tom Slater at 214-409-1441 or TomS@HA.com.
The book Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman notes that Clay, who served three non-consecutive terms as Speaker of the House, played a vital role in preventing the dissolution of the infant American republic. “During 50 years in public service — as congressman, senator, secretary of state and four-time presidential candidate — Clay constantly battled to save the Union,” the book notes, “summoning uncanny negotiating skills to force bitter foes from North and South to compromise on slavery and forego secession.”
Just weeks before Clay’s death, the U.S. Mint struck a spectacular 3½-inch medal, containing nearly 30 ounces of pure California gold, for presentation to Clay. On the obverse was Clay’s portrait, and on the reverse a list of his accomplishments.
Clay was frail and had only months to live when a committee of prominent New Yorkers commissioned the medal and presented it to Clay in Washington, D.C. With President Millard Fillmore and leading members of Congress in attendance, the chairman of the presenting committee, Daniel Ullman, declared:
“In the name of a large number of citizens of New York, we offer you this gold medal, and beg your acceptance of it, to be preserved in your family, and by their descendants, we hope, for ages. … It has been our effort,” Ullman continued, “to make it valuable as a work of art … and as a perfect resemblance of your lineaments. We think this effort has been successful, and that no medal ever struck in this country surpasses its beauty.”
Clay struggled to his feet to acknowledge the gift.
“You have come here to present me a beautiful and costly gold medal to commemorate my public life,” he said. “I shall fondly and gratefully cherish and preserve it whilst life endures, and transmit it to my descendants, under the hope that they will receive it and carefully guard it, with emotions of lively gratitude to my New York friends, as the proudest and richest legacy that I could leave them.”
The medal was indeed carefully preserved by generations of Clay descendants, and was for many years exhibited on loan at Ashland, Clay’s Kentucky home-turned-museum. However, the decision was made by descendants to turn over the stewardship to a collector or institution that will value and preserve it as they have. The medal is a highlight of the Lincoln and His Times Grand Format Auction scheduled for Sept. 17, 2016.
“Some will prize this piece as a stunning, one-of-kind U.S. Mint medal,” says Director of Americana Auctions Tom Slater, “while others will see it as an incredibly rich historical relic from one of the towering figures of 19th century American public life. But all will agree that as an object, it is breathtakingly beautiful.”
The medal is contained in an elegantly engraved and embossed silver case in the style of a giant pocket-watch case, with hinged covers to protect each side. On one side of the case are a monument to Clay and the home at Ashland, and on the other a rendering of the U.S. Capitol. The silver case is in the original velvet-lined leather presentation box, and is accompanied by a hand-written presentation document signed by the members of the committee.