Clay, Cassius M.

Born: 1810-10-19 White Hall, Kentucky

Died: 1903-07-22 White Hall, Kentucky

Son of wealthy Kentucky landowner and slaveholder Green Clay and Sally Lewis, Cassius M. Clay grew up amid luxury and affluence. He attended college at Transvlvania University and Yale College, earning a bachelor’s degree from the latter in 1832. He returned to Transylvania to study law, and in 1833 married Mary Jane Warfield. The union produced ten children. Clay served in the Kentucky House of Representatives for three terms (1835-41). Like his distant cousin Henry Clay, Clay gravitated to the Whig Party. After the Panic of 1837, Clay joined the anti-slavery movement. He developed an economic analysis of slavery, which he articulated most notably in his 1843 pamphlet, Slavery: The Evil--The Remedy. Clay spent much of the 1830s and 1840s working to retain Kentucky’s ban on the importation of slaves. Clay’s economic critique of slavery made him a darling of northern abolitionists, but earned him enmity throughout Kentucky and most of the South. In 1841, he fought a duel, and in 1843 he repulsed an assassination attempt with his Bowie knife, wounding the would-be assassin. In 1844, northern abolitionists enlisted Clay to travel North to court the abolitionist vote for Henry Clay’s presidential bid. In 1845, he established an anti-slavery newspaper, the True American in Lexington, Kentucky. He loaded the offices of the True American with cannons and gunpowder so that, in the event of an attack, he could detonate the powder and demolish the building around the assailants. In August, a mob stormed his offices and seized his printing equipment, making Clay a hero of the anti-slavery crusade. In 1846, he raised a volunteer calvary unit to fight in the Mexican War. Captured on a scouting mission, Clay was a prisoner of war from January to September 1847. After the war, Clay returned to his anti-slavery career. He opposed the annexation of Texas and the expansion of slavery into the southwest. In 1849, he established an emancipationist party in Kentucky. Several political opponents attacked Clay after a speech on abolition in 1849, and in the ensuing brawl he killed one of his attackers with his Bowie knife. He fought unsuccessfully to include an anti-slavery clause in the Kentucky Constitution of 1850. In 1851, he ran for governor on the emancipationist ticket, losing badly to Lazarus W. Powell. In the 1850s, Clay financed abolitionist newspapers, and gave funds, land, and armed protection to abolitionist John G. Fee, who founded the town of Berea. After the collapse of the Whig Party, Clay became a leading figure in the Republican Party. He served on the Republican National Committee in 1856, and finished second in voting for the Republican nomination for vice-president at the Chicago Convention in 1860. Clay served as U.S. minister to Russia from April 1861, returning to the United States in 1862 to accept a commission as major general in the Union Army. He returned to Russia in 1863, remaining U.S. minister for the balance of the war.

Harold D. Tallant, "Clay, Cassius Marcellus," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5:18-20; David L. Smiley, Lion of White Hall: The Life of Cassius M. Clay (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962); H. Edward Richardson, Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1976).