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The fighter Cassius Clay who you didn't know.

By Curt Anderson
July 19, 2021 5:08 pm
Category: History

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Born into wealth and privilege
Cassius Marcellus Clay was born on October 19th, 1810 in Madison County, Kentucky. He came from a large political family which included his father and his brother, Brutus, entering politics. Cassius attended Transylvania University and then graduated from Yale College in 1832. It was at Yale that Clay heard abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak. He was inspired by Garrison and it was said in at least one source that Garrison's arguments were "as water is to a thirsty wayfarer." Garrison's ideas struck a chord with Clay, though he was not in favor of Garrison's idea of trying to abolish slavery immediately. Clay supported a more gradual legal change, at least in the beginning of career.

An anti-slavery plantation owner
Clay's father, Green Clay, was on of the wealthiest planters and slaveholders in Kentucky. When Clay inherited his father's plantation, and his slaves, Clay freed them all and offered to allow them to continue on as paid employees of the plantation.

Clay was a pioneer when it came to plantation owners who became anti-slavery crusaders. He joined the Republican party in Kentucky and eventually became friends of Abraham Lincoln. Clay was a potential Vice Presidential running mate of Lincoln before losing out to Hannibal Hamlin. In 1835, Clay was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives where he served three consecutive terms. As his anti-slavery rhetoric became louder, he lost voters in Kentucky and failed in his attempt for a fourth term.

Clay foils an assassination attempt
In 1843, Clay was at a political debate and he was struck by an assassin's bullet. Despite having been shot in the chest, Clay tackled Sam Brown, a hired gun and with his Bowie knife removed Brown's nose and one eye and possibly an ear before he threw Brown over an embankment.

Clay's abolitionist newspaper
In 1845, Clay opened an anti-slavery newspaper called the True American. Within a month he was receiving death threats and had turned the paper's offices into a fortress, including two four-pounder cannons. Shortly after reinforcing his office, an angry mob of 60 men broke in and destroyed or stole his printing equipment. Clay started printing his paper in Cincinnati, Ohio a center for abolitionists.

Clay fights off more would-be assassins
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. 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.

Support of Lincoln and abolitionists
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, open to all races. Clay's connections to the northern antislavery movement remained strong. He was a founder of the Republican Party in Kentucky and became a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whom he supported him for the presidency in 1860.

Protection of the White House.
President Lincoln appointed Clay to the post of Minister to the Russian court at St. Petersburg on March 28, 1861. The Civil War started before he departed and, 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 for Russia.

United States Ambassador to Russia
Once in Russia, Clay had influence on the War back in the United States. Clay used his influence with Tsar Alexander II to have Russia back the Union in the war. Alexander II took the step of warning Britain and France that if they recognized the Confederacy they were risking War with Russia. Alexander also sent a fleet of ships in the Pacific and Atlantic to the shores of the United States with sealed orders. In the beginning of the 20th century it was discovered that the sealed orders directed the fleets to attack any French or British ship attempting to enter the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Clay witnessed the Tsar's Emancipation Edict in 1861. By this edict more than 23 million serfs received their liberty and gained the full rights of free citizens.

Clay prompts the Emancipation Proclamation
In 1862, Clay briefly returned to the United States when Lincoln offered him a commission in the Union Army as a major general. Clay declared he would only accept if Lincoln would emancipate slaves under Confederate control. Lincoln sent Clay to Kentucky and border states to test the mood for emancipation. When Clay reported back positively, Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation which went into effect in January of 1863. A few months later, Clay resigned his commission and returned to his post in Russia. While in Russia, Clay was influential in the purchase of Alaska from Russia.

A liberal Republican
In 1869, Clay left the Republican party in large part due to the policies of President Grant. In 1872, he was one of the organizers of the liberal Republican Revolt. 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 being accrued by industrialists. Clay rejoined the Republican Part in 1884.

An eyebrow-raising personal life
In his later years Clay became increasingly paranoid, turning his home into a fortress. In 1878 he divorced his wife of 45 years, claiming abandonment, this was after she would no longer tolerate his infidelities. He would remarry at the age of 84, the 15 year old orphaned sister of one of his sharecropping tenants.

Clay passed away on July 22nd, 1903 at age 92, in Madison County, Kentucky where he was born. Survivors included his daughters, Laura Clay and Mary Barr Clay, who were both women's rights activists.

Herman Heaton Clay, a descendant of African-American slaves, 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 own 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.


Cited and related links:

  1. masonrytoday.com
  2. en.wikipedia.org

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Comments on "The fighter Cassius Clay who you didn't know.":

  1. by HatetheSwamp on July 20, 2021 5:07 am
    Nice. Thanks, Curt.


  2. by Curt Anderson on July 20, 2021 12:52 pm
    Thanks HtS!

    It impressed me that Clay was born into a slave-owning family and became an anti-slavery advocate. It's one thing to be a former slave, as was Frederick Douglass, and becoming an abolitionist, but it's another thing to be a former slave-owner and becoming an abolitionist.

    I was also struck by how apparently commonplace violent physical intimidations and attempted assassinations were in 19th century American politics. Small wonder that Clay allegedly became paranoid in his final year. Contrary to what my sources reported, I am not sure it's paranoia if people are really intent on doing that person harm.


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