cassius m clay, jr

Cassius Marcellus Clay

[ah-lee, ah-lee for 1–4; ah-lee for 5]

Cassius Marcellus Clay, nicknamed "The Lion of White Hall" (October 19, 1810July 22, 1903) was an emancipationist from Madison County, Kentucky, United States, and a second cousin of famous politician Henry Clay.


Cassius Clay was a paradox in history, as a wealthy Southerner from Kentucky who became a prominent anti-slavery crusader in the 1830s and 1840s. Ironically, he was the son of Green Clay, one of the wealthiest landowners and slaveholders in Kentucky. He worked toward emancipation, both as a Kentucky state representative and as an early member of the Republican Party.

Clay attended Transylvania University and then graduated from Yale College in 1832. While at Yale, Clay heard abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak, and Garrison's lecture inspired Clay to join the antislavery movement. Garrison’s arguments were to him “as water is to a thirsty wayfarer” (Brennan 20). Yet he was also politically pragmatic, supporting gradual legal change rather than the immediatism of the Garrisonians.

In the late-1830s and early-1840s, Clay served three terms in the Kentucky General Assembly, but he lost support among Kentucky voters as his platform became more focused on ending slavery. In 1845, he began publishing an anti-slavery newspaper called the True American in Lexington, Kentucky. Within a month he received death threats, had to arm himself, and barricade the doors of his newspaper office for protection. Shortly thereafter, a mob of about sixty men, members of the local opposition, broke into his office and seized his printing equipment, which they shipped to Cincinnati, Ohio. Clay continued publication there.

Although he opposed the annexation of Texas, he served in the Mexican-American War, much to the dismay of his abolitionist friends. Yet, his connections to the northern antislavery movement remained strong, and Clay was among the founders of the Republican party and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, whom he also supported for the presidency.

Minister to Russia

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, President Lincoln nominated Clay for the post of ambassador to Spain, but Clay declined the appointment.

Instead, from 1861 to 1862 he was Minister to Russia, where he witnessed the Czar's emancipation edict. After being recalled to the United States to accept a commission as Union major general from Lincoln, he publicly refused to accept the commission unless Lincoln would sign an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln sent Clay to Kentucky to assess the mood for emancipation there and in other border states. Although it is unclear how significant Clay was in Lincoln's decision, following Clay's return Lincoln issued the proclamation.

Clay subsequently returned to Russia from 1863 to 1869, again as Minister, where he was influential in the negotiations to purchase Alaska. Upon his return he founded the Cuban Charitable Aid Society to help aid the Cuban independence movement of Jose Marti. He also began speaking out against robber barons and in favor of nationalizing the railroads. He left the Republican Party, in part, due to President Grant's military interference in Haiti.

Later years and legacy

In Clay's later years, he and his wife divorced and he became burdened with a tremendous amount of debt, causing him to sell much of his property. As he grew older, Clay became increasingly eccentric and paranoid. In 1894, Clay married 15 year-old Dora Richardson, but the couple soon divorced.

Clay died July 22, 1903. Survivors included his daughters, the women's rights activists Laura Clay and Mary Barr Clay. His family home, White Hall, is now maintained by the Commonwealth of Kentucky as White Hall State Historic Shrine.

The world-famous professional boxer Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who was named for the emancipationist.



  • 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).
  • The Other Cassius Clay (Kalamazoo: Brian Tice, 2002), an original musical stage production based on his life.
  • Cassius M. Clay: Freedom's Champion (Turner Publishing Company Keven McQueen, 2001), A look at the life of Cassius Clay by fellow Kentuckian, researcher, and former tour guide of Whitehall, Keven McQueen.
  • A Man Seen But Once: Cassius Marcellus Clay by Betty Boles Ellison (AuthorHouse, 2005)
  • Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom by H. Edward Robinson (University Press of Kentucky, 1976)
  • The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay by Fletcher Brennan (Negro Universities Press, 1970)

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