Henry Clay Feathered Star Quilt

Jennifer Swope

Well before American women had the right to vote, some used quilts to express their political persuasion. This expertly pieced composition features an image of US statesman Henry Clay (1777–1852).

The quilt maker, whose name has been lost to time, used the canton (upper left corner) from Clay’s 1844 presidential campaign flag as her centerpiece. Its 26 stars represented each state in the Union at the time. The oak wreath framing Clay’s portrait would have been recognized as the civic crown, one of the highest military decorations that could be awarded to a citizen in the Roman Republic. While Rome represented an ideal for American republican government, men of color and all women were unfortunately left out of this equation—even for many generations that followed the presidential election of 1844.

As in our upcoming election, the issue of national borders loomed large in 1844, when then-Kentucky Senator Clay, who led the Whig Party, lost to Democrat James Polk of Tennessee. Though both men were slaveholders, Clay supported the emancipation of slaves. He was called “The Great Compromiser” for negotiating a balance of free and slave states to preserve the Union as US territory expanded. While Democrats sought westward growth and manifest destiny, Clay’s Whig Party feared this expansive policy: it would tip the balance in Congress in favor of slavery. Ultimately, the Civil War followed in 1861.

The maker of this quilt could not have known that Clay’s great-granddaughter, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge (1872–1920), would successfully campaign for women’s suffrage in the early 20th century and earn the right to cast a ballot in the 1920 presidential election. In the coming weeks, Americans can exercise this right as our historically divisive presidential election takes course.

star-patterned quilt with portrait of Henry Clay at center
Henry Clay, Feathered Star Quilt, American, about 1844. Printed cotton plain weave; pieced and quilted. Gift of Julie Powell. 2013.1565


Jennifer Swope is assistant curator of Textile and Fashion Arts.