Founded in 1780 as the first college west of the Alleghenies and the 16th in the nation, Transylvania University was just 25 years old in 1805 when the 28-year-old Clay became a professor in the university’s seminal law department. In 1807, Clay was elected a trustee of the college.
In 1818, Clay served on a committee that brought the young Bostonian scholar and minister Horace Holley to Lexington to serve as Transylvania’s third president. Under Holley’s leadership, Transylvania’s rose to national prominence, largely on the strength of its pioneering law and medical departments, considered the equal, if not the better, of those at more established eastern colleges. Clay remained a staunch supporter of Holley, even after he, Holley, and Transylvania were accused by the Jacksonian forces of the 1820s of being aristocratic instead of egalitarian in their stewardship of higher education opportunities.
Clay oversaw the construction of Old Morrison, completed in 1833 and now home to the university’s administrative offices. This magnificent Greek Revival structure is a Registered National Historic Landmark, a distinction given to fewer than 2,500 of the nation’s most significant historic places. It is the college’s most recognizable image and is also featured on the city seal of Lexington. Clay served as executor to the estate of Colonel James Morrison, whose $30,000 bequest to Transylvania supported the construction of Morrison College, as it was then called.
Old Morrison was also the location of Henry Clay’s last address to a jury in a murder case, which occurred in 1846 as Clay defended the grandson of Kentucky’s first governor, Isaac Shelby. The trial was so sensational that it was adjourned from the courthouse to Morrison Chapel to accommodate the throngs of interested citizens.
Though Clay left Kentucky to become nationally prominent as a statesman, earning the well known title of the “Great Compromiser,” he maintained a home in Lexington at beautiful Ashland and always kept Transylvania in his thoughts, remaining a trustee and friend of the university until his death in 1852.