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Memorializing a Magnificent Oak and “The Great Pacificator”

Somewhat hidden on North Street near the intersection with Blount Street lies a historical marker denoting the location of what was until two decades ago likely the oldest White Oak in the City of Oaks. It was at this spot in which presidential candidate Henry Clay in the name of peace famously declared: “I’d rather be right than be president”.

The stone marker and bronze plaque which lie in the area of the Andrews Duncan House and across from the Heck-Andrews House (as well as the Bath Building) was erected in 1939 by the Wake County chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Henry Clay was the founder of the Whig Party and ran three unsuccessful bids for President of the United States. He was known as “The Great Pacificator” as well as “The Great Compromiser” for his abilities in bringing conflicting parties to agreement. He was Speaker of the House of Representatives and was held in high regard by fellow Kentucky native Abraham Lincoln.

The marker was placed directly in front of the White Oak tree under which he wrote the famous “Raleigh Letter” expressing opposition to annexation of Texas without the consent of Mexico, on the grounds it would lead to war.

Annexation and war with Mexico are identical. Now, for one, I certainly am not willing to involve this country in a foreign war for the object of acquiring Texas. I know there are those who regard such a war with indifference and as a trifling affair, on account of the weakness of Mexico, and her inability in inflict serious injury upon this country. But I do not look upon it thus lightly. I regard all wars as great calamities, to be avoided, if possible, and honorable peace as the wisest and truest policy of this country.

— Henry Clay, in an excerpt from a letter to the Editor of the National Intelligencer

It was this stance on avoiding war (as well as not taking a firm stance on the issue of slavery) which cost him the presidency by a narrow margin of victory (~38,000 popular votes).

Pictured above is the former director of Archives and History Dr. Henry Crittenden at the site of the marker and now absent oak tree in 1955. (image courtesy of Department of Archives and History)

The tree under which he wrote the famous letter was on the grounds of the Col. William Polk house. Clay’s friend and colleague Kenneth Rayner had inherited the house and used it to host the Presidential Candidate. The Polk house was moved in the 1870s and the Andrews Duncan house which now sits on the site was constructed shortly thereafter.

There are differing accounts of the oak tree’s age, ranging from 350 to 500 years old. In 1987 the tree was diagnosed with a deadly root fungus, but public sentiment temporarily delayed felling. In 1991 parts of the tree were falling to the earth in large pieces, and it was cut down in the latter part of that year.



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