Cassius Marcellus Clay (politician)

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This article is about the 19th-century abolitionist and politician. For the boxer born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., see Muhammad Ali. For the boxer's father, see Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr.
Cassius Marcellus Clay
File:Cassius Marcellus Clay.jpg
United States Ambassador to Russia
In office
May 7, 1863 – October 1, 1869
President Abraham Lincoln (1863–1865)
Andrew Johnson (1865–1869)
Ulysses S. Grant (1869)
Preceded by Simon Cameron
Succeeded by Andrew G. Curtin
In office
July 14, 1861 – June 25, 1862
President Abraham Lincoln
Preceded by John Appleton
Succeeded by Simon Cameron
Member of the Kentucky House of Representatives
In office
Personal details
Born (1810-09-19)September 19, 1810
Madison County, Kentucky, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Madison County, Kentucky, U.S.
Political party Republican, Liberal Republican
Spouse(s) Mary Jane Warfield (1833–1878, divorced)
Dora Richardson (1894–1897, divorced)
Children Elisha Warfield Clay
Green Clay
Mary Barr Clay
Sally Clay
Laura Clay
Brutus J. Clay II
Anne Clay
Henry Launey Clay (adopted)
Alma mater Transylvania University
Yale College
Occupation Lawyer, politician, newspaper publisher, soldier, farmer
Known for Southern abolitionist and U.S. ambassador to Russia
Religion Congregationalist
Military service
Service/branch 1st Kentucky Cavalry
Years of service 1846–1847
Rank Union army cpt rank insignia.jpg Captain
Union Army major general rank insignia.svg Major general
Battles/wars Mexican-American War
American Civil War

Cassius Marcellus Clay (October 19, 1810 – July 22, 1903), nicknamed The Lion of White Hall, was a Kentucky planter and politician who worked for abolition of slavery.

He was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as the American minister to Russia during the American Civil War, and is credited with gaining Russian support for the Union.

Early life, education and marriage

Cassius Marcellus Clay was born to Green Clay, one of the wealthiest planters and slaveholders in Kentucky, who became a prominent politician, and his wife Sally Lewis. He was one of six children who survived to adulthood, of seven born.

Clay was a member of a large and influential political family. His older brother Brutus J. Clay became a politician at the state and federal levels. They were cousins of both Kentucky politician Henry Clay and Alabama governor Clement Comer Clay. Cassius' sister Elizabeth Lewis Clay (1798-1887) married John Speed Smith, who also became a state and US politician.[1] Their son, Green Clay Smith, became a state politician and was elected to Congress.

The younger 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."[2] Clay was politically pragmatic, supporting gradual legal change rather than calling for immediate abolition the way Garrison and his supporters did.[3]

Marriage and family

In 1833, Clay married Mary Jane Warfield, daughter of Dr. Elisha Warfield and Mary Barr. They had seven children of their own: Elisha Warfield, son Green, Mary Barr, Sally, Laura, Brutus J., II, and Anne, and adopted Henry Launey Clay (believed to be his son by an extra-marital relationship while in Russia).

Political career

Cassius Clay was a pioneer as an early southern planter who became a prominent anti-slavery crusader. Clay worked toward emancipation, both as a Kentucky state representative and as an early member of the Republican Party.[3]

Clay was elected to three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives,[4] but he lost support among Kentucky voters as he promoted ending slavery. His anti-slavery activism earned him violent enemies. During a political debate in 1843, he survived an assassination attempt by a hired gun, named Sam Brown. Despite being shot in the chest, Clay defended himself. He seriously wounded Brown with his Bowie knife and threw him over an embankment.[5]

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 after, a mob of about 60 men broke into his office and seized his printing equipment. To protect his venture, Clay set up a publication center in Cincinnati, Ohio, a center of abolitionists in the free state, but continued to reside in Kentucky.[3]

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 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.[5]

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.[6]

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, supporting him for the presidency in 1860. Clay was briefly a candidate for the vice presidency at the 1860 Republican National Convention,[3] but lost the nomination to Hannibal Hamlin.

Civil War and Minister to Russia

Clay's Battalion in front of the White House, April 1861

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.[7]

As Minister to Russia, Clay witnessed the Tsar's emancipation edict. Recalled to the United States in 1862 to accept a commission from Lincoln as a major general with the Union Army, Clay publicly refused to accept it unless Lincoln would agree to emancipate slaves 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 proclamation in late 1862, to take effect in January 1863.[8]

Clay resigned his commission in March 1863 and returned to Russia, where he served until 1869. [3] He was influential in the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska.[9]

Later political activities

Later, Clay founded the Cuban Charitable Aid Society to help the Cuban independence movement of Jose Marti. He also spoke in favor of nationalizing the railroads, and later against the power being accrued by industrialists.

In 1869, Clay left the Republican Party. This was partly due to his opposition to President Grant's military interference in Haiti.[10][page needed] He also disapproved of the Republican Radicals' reconstruction policy after Lincoln's assassination.[3]

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.[3]

Later years

Clay had a reputation as a rebel and a fighter.[11] 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.[11] As he aged, Clay became increasingly eccentric and paranoid.[citation needed]

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.[12]

In 1894, the 84-year-old Clay married Dora Richardson, the 15-year-old orphaned sister of one of his sharecropping tenants.

Cassius Clay died at his home on July 22, 1903 of "general exhaustion." Survivors included his daughters, Laura Clay and Mary Barr Clay, who were both women's rights activists.[13]


His family home, White Hall, is maintained by the Commonwealth of Kentucky as White Hall State Historic Shrine.

During the Civil War, Russia came to the aid of the Union, threatening war against Britain and France if they officially recognized the Confederacy.[citation needed] Cassius Clay, as minister to Russia during that time, was instrumental in securing Russia's aid.[citation needed] Tsar Alexander II of Russia gave sealed orders to the commanders of both his Atlantic and Pacific fleets, and sent them to the East and West coasts of America. They were instructed that the sealed orders were to be opened only if Britain and France entered the war on the side of the Confederacy.[14] When the Russian Atlantic fleet entered New York harbor, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote in his diary:

In sending these ships to this country, there is something significant. What will be its effect on France, and French policy, we shall learn in due time. It may be moderate, it may exacerbate. God bless the Russians.

This action of Tsar Alexander II was confirmed in 1904 by Wharton Barker of Pennsylvania, who in 1878 was the financial agent in the United States of the Russian government.[15]

On November 11, 1912, nine years after the death of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Herman H. Clay, a descendant of African-American slaves, named his son Cassius Marcellus Clay in tribute to the abolitionist.[16] This Cassius Clay gave his own son the same name.[16] Cassius M. Clay, Jr., developed as a heavy-weight champion boxer who gained international renown. After joining the Nation of Islam, Cassius Clay, Jr. changed his name to Muhammad Ali, later embracing orthodox Sunni Islam after leaving the Nation.[17]


  • Cassius M. Clay, The Life, Memoirs. Writings, and Speeches of Cassius Marcellus Clay (Cincinnati, 1896), his autobiography
  • The Writings of Cassius Marcellus Clay (edited with a Memoir by Horace Greeley. New York, 1848)

See also


  1. "KOAR's Russian Connection", Kentucky Online Arts Resource Blog, 15 October 2012
  2. Brennan 20
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Chisholm 1911.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  7. Clay, Memoirs, pp. 260-264
  8. Clay, Memoirs, pp. 305–312
  9. Frank A. Golder. The Purchase of Alaska. The American Historical Review, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Apr., 1920), pp. 411-425.
  10. Clay, Memoirs
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Clay, Cassius Marcellus", by Frank L. Klement, in The World Book Encyclopedia, Chicago: World Book Inc, 1984
  12. Cassius Marcellus Clay, The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay: Memoirs, Writings, and Speeches, showing ..., p. 542
  13. Newspaper article, Death Has Gripped Gen. Cassius Clay, Atlanta Constitution, July 23, 1903
  14. Webster G. Tarpley: Speech for 150th Anniversary of Russian Fleets of 1863, National Press Club, 27 September 2013
  15. "American Banker Wharton Barker's First-Person Account Confirms: Russian Tsar Alexander II Was Ready for War with Britain and France in 1862-1863 to Defend Lincoln and the Union", (March 24, 1904), Webster G. Tarpley website
  16. 16.0 16.1 Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  17. "Muhammad Ali", Biography Online

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Further reading

  • Fletcher Brennan, The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Negro Universities Press, 1970
  • Betty Boles Ellison, A Man Seen But Once: Cassius Marcellus Clay, AuthorHouse, 2005
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  • Richard Kiel and Pamela Wallace, "Kentucky Lion": The True Story of Cassius Clay, Morrison McNae Publishing, 2007
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  • Keven McQueen, Cassius M. Clay: Freedom's Champion, Turner Publishing Company, 2001
  • H. Edward Robinson, Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom, University Press of Kentucky, 1976

External links

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by United States Ambassador to Russia
March 28, 1861 – June 25, 1862
Succeeded by
Simon Cameron
Preceded by United States Ambassador to Russia
March 11, 1863 – October 1, 1869
Succeeded by
Andrew G. Curtin