Here is a small story that, while I wouldn’t read too much into it, nonetheless offers a reminder of the importance of place. I was manning the information desk at Federal Hall this morning when a man came in with his two teenage sons. I asked if they were in town doing the tourist thing and the dad responded yes. The family was from Kentucky and the father was clearly an intelligent, aware fellow. It turns out he was a high school history teacher. I told him I’ve always wanted to visit Kentucky and tour Ashland, the historic home of Henry Clay. He responded that he had been there several times and that it is indeed beautiful. This led to a brief discussion about Henry Clay’s life and legacy, including his role in the struggle to save the Second Bank of the United States against the equal determination of President Andrew Jackson to quash it. Old Hickory won that struggle, and in the 1840s Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk created the Independent Sub-Treasury to carry on some of the functions of the now-gone national bank. What is now Federal Hall was the New York Sub-Treasury from 1863-1920.
An hour later I go into the room where the ranger’s desk is and ask the ranger on duty what he’s working on. He said he was writing a social media post about Henry Clay, who it turns out died on this day, June 29, in 1852. I naturally told him about the man and his family from earlier. This led to an interesting discussion on the importance of learning about and understanding the lives and legacies of the leaders who, for good and ill, gave us the nation we live in. Clay certainly fits that category.
Later in the afternoon a couple come in and ask me and the ranger about the other NPS sites in Manhattan. It turns out the couple were from Ft. Lauderdale and are currently on an extended sailing trip across the Eastern Seaboard. They had been at sea for several weeks and had docked their boat in New Jersey for the weekend while touring New York City. They wanted to know especially about Governors Island, and so I gave them the Cliff Notes version of the island’s history. Captain Ulysses S. Grant was stationed there briefly in 1852 before his regiment was slated to sail for California via the Isthmus of Panama. In June Grant went briefly to Washington D.C. on War Department business. It was Sam Grant’s first time in the District of Columbia and his trip there happened to coincide with the passing of . . . Henry Clay, who died of tuberculosis at the National Hotel when the young captain was in town.
Go where history was made. You never know what you’ll see or hear.
(image/Library of Congress)