Americans Should Know the Story of Abolitionist Cassius Clay

In an era of racial “reckoning,” the U.S. seems determined to obliterate statues and other public honors for those, such as Confederate generals, who fought to preserve slavery and racism. But there is no countervailing effort to remember or honor those who risked everything—career, wealth, prominence and personal safety—to promote emancipation.

Start with a towering figure who contributed significantly to the cause of liberation and union,

Cassius Marcellus Clay.

Born in 1810, Clay defied his slave-owning and influential Kentucky family when he became an abolitionist during his student days at Yale. A speech by William Lloyd Garrison, the fiery advocate for emancipation, struck him “as water to a thirsty wayfarer.” Returning home after graduation in 1832, he won four terms in the state Legislature despite his unpopular antislavery views. Clay’s second cousin (and occasional political sponsor) was the state’s most celebrated citizen:

Henry Clay,

the House speaker and longtime senator.

While other antislavery agitators fled the South to escape intimidation and violence, Clay used his inherited wealth to set up an uncompromising abolitionist newspaper in Lexington, named True American. After fighting off a mob of 60 who tried to smash his printing presses, Clay installed two cannons to protect his premises. He also funded Berea College, a Christian institution that became the first college in the South to welcome black students and women.

Cassius Marcellus Clay


Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Though Clay might have continued in the role of philanthropist and humanitarian, his combative nature pushed him toward provocation and confrontation. Henry Clay’s biographers David and

Jeanne Heidler

wrote of Cassius: “A venomous pen was his first weapon of choice, a bowie knife his second, and because he was so effective with the one, he found it wise to have the other handy.”

After a heated public debate in 1843, a hired killer assaulted him and aimed a shot directly to his chest. While struggling to remove the bowie knife from the leather scabbard he carried on his belt, Clay unintentionally pulled up the sheath over his stomach. The would-be assassin’s bullet struck the scabbard and lodged itself into the silver blade, before Cash used the knife to slice off his assailant’s nose and an ear.

Six years later, the pro-slavery Turner Brothers—six of them—attacked Clay with cudgels and knives during a public meeting at Foxtown, stabbing him repeatedly in the back before

Thomas Turner,

the group’s leader, pulled out his revolver. The trigger jammed three times, giving Clay the chance to gut another brother, Cyrus, with his knife, a fatal blow that dispersed his attackers.

On more organized and reputable fields of combat, Clay served in the Mexican War as a cavalry captain and later helped to organize the new antislavery Republican Party in Kentucky. As a strong supporter of

Abraham Lincoln,

Clay personally recruited a battalion of 300 volunteers to defend the White House and the U.S. Naval Yard before federal troops arrived. President Lincoln saluted this service with the gift of a ceremonial Colt revolver, before dispatching Maj. Gen. Clay (as he was then known) to Russia to serve as U.S. minister to the czar.

In one of the crucial but little-publicized turning points in the Civil War, Clay’s work in St. Petersburg helped persuade

Alexander II

to support the Union cause and to threaten war against Britain and France if they recognized the Confederacy. When Russian ships arrived in both New York and San Francisco harbors to show their support, Navy Secretary

Gideon Wells

declared in his diary: “God Bless the Russians.”

Clay also pursued alliances of a more intimate sort. After the war he formally adopted

Henry Launey Clay,

the presumed product of his relationship with a married Russian aristocrat. That son joined the 10 other children Clay conceived with his wife of 45 years, Mary Jane; six of them survived beyond childhood. The marriage didn’t survive, ending in divorce in 1878.

Nevertheless, the “Lion of White Hall” remained active and embattled into extreme old age. To deal with ever-present threats on his life, in his 80s he added two pistols to the bowie knife as part of his personal armament. When he died at 92, his survivors listed the cause of death as “general exhaustion.”

To honor the memory of the famous and fearless abolitionist, one

Herman Heaton Clay,

whose ancestors had been enslaved by the Clay family, named his own son Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. The young man became world-famous 22 years later with an astonishing, underdog boxing victory against heavyweight champion

Sonny Liston.

Shortly thereafter the young fighter jettisoned the name of the old fighter who had inspired his grandfather, and chose to call himself

Muhammad Ali,

an affirmation of his newfound Muslim faith. Without any acknowledgment of the daring, dangerous commitment to emancipation that characterized the life of his namesake, the new champ disparaged Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. as “a slave name.” He said: “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. . . . Why would I keep my white slave master’s name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonored?”

It’s easy enough to sympathize with Ali’s sentiments. But for America today, it makes little sense to devote so much energy to dismantling the memory of pro-slavery notables while colorful and important antislavery figures like the original

Cassius Clay

remain, for the most part, invisible, unknown and unhonored.

Mr. Medved hosts a daily, nationally broadcast radio talk show and is the author, most recently, of “God’s Hand on America” (2019).

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