When studying history it is easy to forget just how different the past is from our own times. The people we encounter in history are children of their times, just as we are children of ours, and the impact of that fact should never be forgotten by anyone seeking to understand a period of history.
Henry Clay, the Great Compromiser, one of the towering figures of the first half of the nineteenth century, and his wife Lucretia provide a simple example. They had eleven children. In a time when families with more than three children are a rarity, that alone is a fact that separates them from most of us, but it is the fate of those children that points out another major difference. At the time of his death, Henry Clay had outlived all of his six daughters and one of his five sons. Of the six girls, two died in infancy, two as children and two as young women. One son, Henry Clay, Jr, predeceased his father, dying at the battle of Buena Vista in 1847. By the time that Lucretia Clay died, she had outlived another son, who died a few months before her in 1864.
The sorrows of the Clays were not unusual. High mortality among children was simply a sad fact of life. Abraham Lincoln viewed Henry Clay as his ideal of what a statesman should be, and modeled his political principles after those of Clay. Lincoln was preceded in death by two of his sons, and Mary Todd Lincoln would outlive the third, leaving their oldest son Robert as the sole survivor of the Lincoln family. Such familiarity with death was a constant feature of life until the advent of modern medicine in the last century, and is a factor that separates us from life as it was lived by almost all the generations that came before ours. Just one of countless factors we must keep in mind when viewing “as if in a glass, darkly” the foreign country that is the past.