The Rabbit Hole with a Tiger’s Tail and Henry Clay’s Goat

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I didn’t plan on transcribing an insane newspaper piece about Henry Clay and a goat, that might have been the very furthest thing from my mind when I set out to find the age of the phrase “have a tiger by the tail.”

Anyhoo, I’m a stickler for anachronisms, I bet. They undoubtedly creep into my 19th century novels, but I work very hard to keep them out and no one has called me on any, yet. Thanks to Shakespeare and The Bible, one can have 19th century American characters quoting all sorts of things that are familiar to the modern reader.

In that spirit, I turned to the Library of Congress newspaper archive to search for uses of “tiger by the tail” that were earlier than 1896. Pay dirt of the strangest kind included an 1882 rant about our hero, the goat, and Henry Clay, who was hero to many people and the subject of more than a couple of fables long after his death.

Henry Clay (1777-1852) would be played by Micheal McKean in my imaginary production of the goat re-enactment, naturally.

henry clay and michael mckean from better call saul-thank you

Henry Clay might or might not be pleased with the state of modern America, but he would definitely be bummed that his party, the Whigs, are long gone and largely unremembered by the voters. He might be amused that his most repeated quote is, “I would rather be right than President,” since he ran for president a lot more often than anyone can afford now, and he totally wanted the job with a fiery hot passion.

So what’s with the goat story? It seems that Clay wrestling a goat on Capitol Hill was an oft repeated story. In its simplest version, human kids were messing around with a goat, who then charged Clay. Quick thinking Clay seized its horns, but then he was stuck because if you leg go of an angry goat, it’s curtains for you, or something. One of the “urchins” suggested he turn the goat’s head and run away, he did and it worked.

Here we have the massive expansion of the tale by a writer I have to think I am descended from:

The Semi-Weekly Miner, Butte Montana, 11 Feb. 1882 via Library of Congress

The Mormon Question

Has Congress Got a Goat by the Horns or a Tiger by the Tail?

To the Editor of the World:

Sir: The position of Congress on the Mormon question reminds me of an old Washington story about Henry Clay. That distinguished statesman, orator and, as we shall see, “Humanitarian,” taking a stroll one day through the streets of Washington came upon some boys engaged in teasing a notoriously aggressive goat belonging to the stables of the “Gadsby House.” The goat was charging hither and thither, and the boys were dodging as boys will and as only boys can.

Mr. Clay stopped and remonstrated with the boys as if he were president of a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. The awestricken youngsters, who recognized their monitor, stood abashed in safe places, behind lamp-posts, tree boxes and such like shelters, while Mr. Clay, harangued them from “the open” of high moral principle. Suddenly the goat, who was still aggressive and saw no other available arrangement, made a plunge at Mr. Clay himself that threatened to wipe him out of the list of Presidential candidates at once and forever.

With his usual fertility of romance in emergencies Mr. Clay managed to seize the beast by the horns and held on for dear life. There was no doubt now that he had the goat, but the trouble was that the goat had him. Mr. Clay was not used to athletics, whereas the boys had kept the goat in constant training. Matters began to look serious for the statesman for while the goat was not a “bigger man” than Mr. Clay, he was about as big an animal and went on all fours while Mr. Clay had only two legs to begin with and was reaching his last pitch of exhaustion where we would not have “a leg left to stand on.”

At this crisis it suddenly occurred to Mr. Clay that as bad as the boys were they probably knew more about goats than he did, and, like many another pretender of righteousness, he appealed to “the children of this world” for practical “wisdom” in his extremity. “Boys, what shall I do?” he said. “Why don’t you know?” said a ragged urchin, tucking up his trousers and preparing to set an example, “Let go of his horns and run like thunder.”

At this point authentic history ceases. For I know to the contrary, Mr. Clay may have held on to that goat all through the Presidential canvas and lost his election by his dignity, a solemn warning to all future statesmen of Presidential proclivities, but an admirable example of all politicians who would “rather be right than be President.” It was not the only time that the distinguished statesman and politician found himself holding on to both horns of a dilemma, and the habit he had in time — undoubtedly cost him the fruition of his desires.

It is a pity that the story stops just where it does. One can think of so many ways in which it might have ended gloriously for Mr. Clay if he had been more of a politician and less of a statesman and “humanitarian” –using that term in its subjective sense of one who is humane toward both sheep and goats. He might, for instance, have proved a change of venue to convenient lamp post or weather door, and using one hand for leverage and the friendly obstacle for a fulcrum he might even have wrenched off one horn and kept it for a trophy, leaving the goat out in the cold, disabled and confounded while he went into “Gadsby’s” to recover himself in the true Kentucky style. But then he would never have been elected President of a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals. His record would have been bad.

Or, again, he might have vaulted on that goat’s back, and easy feat for a Kentuckian, and ridden the goat to death–or, if he regarded his reputation for “humanity’s”–to exhaustion. And then he, Mr. Clay, could have calmly risen and walked the few blocks to the White House, au vine contenticale. A sham victory of that sort catches the popular sentiment on the fly, whether the goat really dies or recovers to be lusty and strong as ever, and twice as aggressive. But the danger of such a Mazeppa performance even for a Kentucky rider is that he might lose his seat; and what is a statesman without a seat? I mean unless he falls upon an administration, that is a business to “rehash bad spirits.” The double danger of such a course might have spoiled Mr. Clay’s chance of being President of anything, and the mere suggestion of a statesman in the mud with a triumphant goat standing on the pit of his stomach is “shockin’ to nature“ be that nature stately or politic.

Or to hazard one more “expedient,” Mr. Clay, with his Kentucky pluck and backbone, might have backed that goat down Pennsylvania Avenue, from “Gadsby’s” clear to the White House, up the circular walk, up the steps, past the doorkeepers, who always admit senators, goat or no goat attached; up the stairs, across the corridor, right into the executive office–and left it to the incumbent to decide who should be President, the goat or administration. This course of action would need the nerve and qualities of a Conkling and Clay combined, but it is worth considering. A presented goat so forced to a retrograde movement, may be said to have ample time for a “reflection.” All its mental processes must run in that direction for the time being, and so “motion and reaction are equal,” a goat run into the White House in such a manner would require a reserve force that would need no more backing, and the — or respondent who said “Come“ to that knock would soon find himself ready to die or resign, or be so “otherwise disabled” as to need no set of congress to declare a vacancy. Then Mr. Clay or Judge Davis could step in as an “independent” and keep the goat at the foot of the stairs as janitor.

But imagination wearies of “expedients” and possible devices. The fable is long already, seeing its moral can only be guessed at, but nomior Mutato, it has some “narration” for congress. It is an over true tale. I showed my little men the other day a comic picture of a man attacked by a tiger. The man had the good fortune to dodge behind a hogshead and eventually turn the hogshead over on the beast and cage him. The man sat down on the hogshead to keep him in there. The tiger wriggled his tail through the bunghole and the man seized it. Here was a parallel case to that of Mr. Clay and the goat. It was a simple question: “What will he do with it?” My son said with artless alliteration: “I should try to tie the tiger’s tail to a tree.”

Evidently the boy was right. The religious opinions of both tigers and goats are entitled to protection under the constitution, but that is no reasons why such beasts should be allowed free range.

Congress has had the Mormon goat and the Mormon tiger by the tail for twenty years and the creature seems likely to get the better of congress. It all comes of statesmen stopping to deliver moral lectures. If this parable gets a hearing there is more to come.–New York World.

Some days we are the goat, some days we’re Henry Clay, and others we are a cranky gal with a typewriter.

And just in case you doubt that this was a colossal feat of transcription for one far more tenacious and audacious than OCR, here’s the quality of the image I was working from:

goat and tiger tail tale 1

She never actually spells out what The Mormon Question might be. Whaddathink? [There’s a comment box down there somewhere!] Polygamy or child brides? I’m betting polygamy was more of a sticking point in 1882.


Further, further reading:

Undertakers, Harlots and Other Odd Bodies is out now. A free preview is available and all electronic formats are priced at a very reasonable US$5.99 Currently $3.99!!

A print version is for sale (US$14.99) for the benefit of people who prefer paper: | | IndieBound  | BetterWorldBooks | Alibris

More ebook retailer links: Apple | Kobo | | Barnes & Noble | Smashwords | Scribd




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