Cassius Marcellus Clay was an American politician and abolitionist.
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, 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.
Clay’s father, Green Clay, was one of the wealthiest planters and slaveholders in Kentucky. When Cassius inherited his father’s plantation, and his slaves, he 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 even 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.
In 1843, Clay was at a political debate and he was struck by an assassins bullet. Despite the wound to his chest, Clay pulled out a Bowie knife and went after the attacker and reportedly cut the mans eyes out before pushing him over an embankment. In 1845, Clay opened an anti-slavery news paper called the True American. Within a month he was receiving death threats and had turned the papers 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.
From 1846 to 1847, Clay served in the Mexican-American war. After the war he continued working on the abolitionist cause by opposing the annexation of Texas and opposing the spread of slavery to the Southwest. In 1849, Clay was giving a speech against slavery when he was attacked by six brothers with the last name Turner. Clay fought off all six, killing one of the brothers.
In 1861, Clay was appointed by President Lincoln to be the Minister to Russia. Before he and his family could depart, the American Civil War started. Clay, seeing that there were no troops in Washington, D.C. at the start of the war, organized 300 volunteers to guard the White House and U.S. Naval Yard until Union troops could arrive. Once the Union troops arrived, Clay and his family headed for 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 the 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.
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.
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. Clay rejoined the Republican Part in 1884.
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.
It should be noted that Cassius M. Clay, Jr., also known as Muhammad Ali, is the name sake of Clay. Ali’s grandfather, named his son after Clay and Ali’s father carried the name on.
Clay was a mason and member of Davies Lodge No. 22 in Lexington, Kentucky.
Adapted from the masonrytoday.com website.