Meeting up with friends on Canal Street has always been a hassle. For many years, most New Orleanians, including the portly Lucky Dog aficionado Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “A Confederacy of Dunces,” were fond of saying “I’ll meet you under the clock at D.H. Holmes.” In the late 1800s, however, locals rendezvoused instead at the base of this towering statue of Henry Clay that once stood in the Canal Street neutral ground where St. Charles Avenue and Royal Street begin.
Although a heroic-sized monument to the Kentucky statesman might seem odd in New Orleans, Clay was wildly popular here in the 19th century and had strong political and family ties to the city, including his brother John. According to a 2011 article by Ned Hémard for the New Orleans Bar Association, Clay made numerous trips to the city, including one in 1849 to lay the cornerstone for the Custom House on Canal Street. Also, says Hémard, Clay’s wife Lucretia loved New Orleans “macaroni.”
It was Clay who said (and is often quoted), “I’d rather be right than be president.” At the national level, the “Great Compromiser” represented Kentucky in Congress for over four decades, served as U.S. Secretary of State, and ran five unsuccessful campaigns for president. He co-founded the short-lived Whig Party and National Republican Party (not the same GOP of today), and his “American System” agenda stood for high tariffs to protect American industries, a strong national bank, and federal funding for infrastructure projects such as canals, roads, ports, and bridges. Many believed his political skills in Congress averted an earlier civil war when he hammered out the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Compromise of 1850.
Upon Clay’s death in 1852, New Orleans friends, headed by the city’s Kentucky-born Mayor John Lewis, formed the Clay Monument Association to erect a statue in Clay’s honor. The association commissioned the Kentucky sculptor Joel T. Hart to design the statue, which was cast in Munich, Germany. The formal unveiling took place on Canal Street on April 12, 1860, to much fanfare. By 1900, however, streetcar traffic on Canal had become so busy, the city moved the statue to Lafayette Square where it stands to this day across from Gallier Hall.
A side note – The performance of Verdi’s “Trovatore” mentioned on the streetcar sign took place Oct. 25, 1890.