Today's Articles

People, Locations, Episodes

Fri, 10.19.1810

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Abolitionist born

Cassius Marcellus Clay

*Cassius Marcellus Clay was born on this date in 1810. Nicknamed the "Lion of White Hall," was a Kentucky planter, politician, and abolitionist.  

Cassius Marcellus Clay was born to Sally Lewis and Green Clay, one of the wealthiest planters and enslavers in Kentucky, who became a prominent politician. He was one of six children who survived to adulthood, seven born. Clay was a member of a large and influential Clay political family. Young Clay attended Transylvania University and then graduated from Yale College in 1832. While at Yale, he heard abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak, and his lecture inspired Clay to join the anti-slavery movement. Garrison's arguments were to him "as water is to a thirsty wayfarer."

Clay was politically supporting gradual legal change rather than calling for immediate abolition the way Garrison and his supporters did. He thought this was more likely to bring success. In 1833, Clay married Mary Jane Warfield, daughter of Mary Barr, and Dr. Elisha Warfield of Lexington, Kentucky. They had ten children, six of whom lived to adulthood. Later, he adopted Henry Launey Clay, believed to be his son, in an extra-marital relationship while in Russia. In 1878 after 45 years of marriage, Clay divorced his wife, Mary Jane (Warfield) Clay, claiming abandonment after she no longer would tolerate his marital infidelities. In 1894, the 84-year-old Clay married Dora Richardson, age 13 or 14, the orphaned sister of one of his sharecropping tenants. 

Clay held three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, but he lost support among Kentuckian voters as he promoted abolition. His anti-slavery activism earned him violent enemies. During a political debate in 1843, he survived an assassination attempt by Sam Brown, a hired gun. The sheath of Clay's Bowie knife was tipped with silver and, in jerking the Bowie knife out in retaliation, pulled this scabbard up so that it was just over his heart. Brown's bullet struck the scabbard and embedded itself in the silver. Despite having been shot in the chest, Clay tackled Brown and, with his Bowie knife, removed Brown's nose, one eye, and possibly an ear before throwing Brown over an embankment.

In 1845, Clay began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper, True American, in Lexington, Kentucky. Within a month, he received death threats, had to arm himself, and regularly barricaded the armored doors of his newspaper office for protection, besides setting up two four-pounder cannons inside. Shortly afterward, a mob of about 60 men broke into his office and seized his printing equipment. Clay set up a publication center in Cincinnati, Ohio, a center of abolitionists in the free state but continued to reside in Kentucky to protect his venture.

Clay served in the Mexican American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He opposed the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery into the Southwest but had volunteered because of Mexico's attempt to seize the state. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by the six Turner brothers, who beat, stabbed, and tried to shoot him. In the ensuing fight, Clay fought off all six and, using his Bowie knife, killed Cyrus Turner. In 1853, Clay granted 10 acres of his expansive lands to John G. Fee, an abolitionist who founded the town of Berea. In 1855 Fee founded Berea College, which was open to all races. Clay's connections to the northern anti-slavery movement remained strong.

He was a founder of the Republican Party in Kentucky and became a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whom he supported for the presidency in 1860. President Lincoln appointed Clay to the post of minister to the Russian court at St. Petersburg on March 28, 1861. The American Civil War started before he departed. As there were no Federal troops in Washington at the time, Clay organized a group of 300 volunteers to protect the White House and US Naval Yard from a possible Confederate attack. These men became known as Cassius M. Clay's Washington Guards. President Lincoln gave Clay a presentation Colt revolver in recognition. When Federal troops arrived, Clay and his family embarked on Russia. As Minister to Russia, Clay witnessed the Tsar's emancipation proclamation.

During the American Civil War, Russia came to the aid of the Union, threatening war against Britain and France if they officially recognized the Confederacy. As minister to Russia during that time, he was instrumental in securing Russia's aid. Emperor Alexander II of Russia gave sealed orders to the commanders of both his Atlantic and Pacific fleets and sent them to America's East and West coasts. The sealed orders were to be used only if Britain and France entered the war on the side of the Confederacy. In 1862, he received a commission from Lincoln as a major general with the Union Army. He refused to accept it unless Lincoln would agree to emancipate enslaved people under Confederate control.

Lincoln sent Clay to Kentucky to assess the mood for emancipation there and in the other border states. Following Clay's return to Washington, DC, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in late 1862, to take effect in January 1863. Clay resigned his commission in March 1863 and returned to Russia, where he served until 1869. He was influential in the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska. Later, Clay founded the Cuban Charitable Aid Society to help the Cuban independence movement of José Martí. He also spoke in favor of nationalizing the railroads and later against the power of industrialists.

Clay left the Republican Party in 1869. After Lincoln's assassination, he also disapproved of the Republican Radicals' reconstruction policy. In 1872, Clay was one of the organizers of the Liberal Republican revolt. He was instrumental in securing the nomination of Horace Greeley for the presidency. In the political campaigns of 1876 and 1880, Clay supported the Democratic Party candidates. He rejoined the Republican party in the campaign of 1884. Due to threats on his life, he had become accustomed to carrying two pistols and a knife for protection. He installed a cannon to protect his home and office. At the 1890 Kentucky Constitutional Convention, Clay was a member of the Convention. Cassius Clay died at his home on July 22, 1903. His family home, White Hall, is maintained by the Commonwealth of Kentucky as White Hall State Historic Shrine.

Herman Heaton Clay, a descendant of enslaved Africans, named his son Cassius Marcellus Clay, who was born nine years after the death of the emancipationist, in tribute to him. This Cassius Clay gave his son the same name, Cassius M. Clay, Jr., a world heavyweight champion boxer who gained international renown and changed his name to Muhammad Ali after his conversion to Islam. After Ali converted to Islam, he claimed that his last name was a "slave name" and added, "I didn't choose it, and I don't want it." He further asserted in his autobiography that while Clay may have gotten rid of his slaves, he "held on to white supremacy." This led Ali to conclude: "Why should I keep my white slave master's name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonored?"

New Poem Each Day

Poetry Corner

Respect yourself, my brother, for we are so many wondrous things. Like a black rose, you are a rarity to be found. Our leaves intertwine as I reach out... BROTHERS LOVING BROTHERS by Vega.
Read More