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Cassius Marcellus Clay
Cassius Marcellus Clay.jpg
United States Ambassador to Russia
In office
May 7, 1863 – October 1, 1869
President Abraham Lincoln
Andrew Johnson
Ulysses S. Grant
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 (1810-10-19)October 19, 1810
Madison County, Kentucky, U.S.
Died July 22, 1903(1903-07-22) (aged 92)
Madison County, Kentucky, U.S.
Political party Republican (1854–1870; 1884–1903)
Liberal Republican (1870–1872)
Democratic (1872–1884)
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
David Kevin 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
Military service
Branch/service 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, politician and emancipationist who worked for the abolition of slavery. A founding member of the Republican Party in Kentucky, he was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as the U.S. minister to Russia. Clay is credited with gaining Russian support for the Union during the American Civil War.

Early life, family, and education

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

Clay was a member of a large and influential Clay 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. 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." Clay was politically incrementalist, supporting gradual legal change rather than calling for immediate abolition the way Garrison and his supporters did. He thought this more likely to bring success.

Marriage and family

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:

  • Elisha Warfield Clay (1835–1851)
  • Green Clay (1837–1883)
  • Mary Barr Clay (aka Mrs. J. Frank Herrick) (1839–1924)
  • Sarah "Sallie" Lewis Clay Bennett (1841–1935)
  • Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. (1843–1843)
  • Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. (1845–1857)
  • Brutus Junius Clay (1847–1932)
  • Laura Clay (1849–1941)
  • Flora Clay (1851–1851)
  • Anne Clay Crenshaw (1859–1945)

Later, he adopted Henry Launey Clay, believed to be his son by 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, the orphaned sister of one of his sharecropping tenants. According to newspaper reports at the time, Dora was 15 to 16 years old. Her age varies in the few extant records; the 1900 US Census indicates that she was born in May 1882, suggesting that she may have been as young as 12 when she married Cassius M. Clay. Her age was a contentious issue, leading the minister who was initially to marry them to bow out. Clay's children also objected, and Clay reportedly mounted a cannon in his doorway to detour anyone who intended to interfere with the wedding.

Early political career

Cassius Clay was 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.

Clay was elected to 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 scabbard 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.

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. 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.

Clay served in the Mexican–American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He had 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, which it still claimed. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by the six Turner brothers, who beat 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, 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 for the presidency in 1860. Clay was briefly a candidate for the vice presidency at the 1860 Republican National Convention, but lost the nomination to Hannibal Hamlin.

Civil War and Minister to Russia

Cassius M. Clay Battalion Defending White House, April 1861. Washington, DC, 1961 - 1986 - NARA - 518141
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. As Minister to Russia, Clay witnessed the Tsar's emancipation edict.

During the Civil War, Russia came to the aid of the Union, threatening war against Britain and France if they officially recognized the Confederacy. Cassius Clay, as minister to Russia during that time, 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 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. 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.

The action of 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.

Офицеры фрегата Ослябя (Бостон, 1863 год)
Russian frigate visits Boston, 1863

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 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 years

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 left the Republican Party in 1869. He also disapproved of the Republican Radicals' reconstruction policy after Lincoln's assassination.

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.

Clay had a reputation as a rebel and a fighter. 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 elected by the members as the Convention's President. 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.


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

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. After Ali converted to Islam he claimed that his earlier name was a "slave name" and added that "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 slavemaster's name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonored?"


  • The Writings of Cassius Marcellus Clay (edited with a memoir by Horace Greeley. New York, 1848)

See also

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