October 19, 2012
Born into privilege, on a wealthy slave-holding plantation in Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay broke with neighbors and became an ardent abolitionist, started the anti-slavery “True American” newspaper, and was one of the founders of the Republican Party in 1854.
Cassius Clay was born on Oct. 19, 181o. His father, Green Clay, had fought in the American Revolution and moved to Kentucky after the war. Green Clay worked as a surveyor and started several businesses; he owned a tavern and several distilleries, and operated ferries across the Kentucky River. Green Clay built a large plantation in Madison County, and he became one of the larger slaveholders in Kentucky. He became a general in the Kentucky militia and was a hero in the War of 1812 for his relief of Fort Meigs. He returned to his plantation after the war, and when he died in 1828 was considered one of the wealthiest men in Kentucky.
The family’s wealth enabled Cassius to receive a rare education. He studied rhetoric, Latin and the classics with Joshua Fry, a celebrated teacher who tutored select young men, and lived with the Fry family in Danville while his tutor lectured at Centre College. He studied at Saint Joseph’s College in Bardstown, and graduated from Yale College in 1832. It was at Yale that Cassius, who had lived with slaves all his life, began questioning the practice when he attended a speech by William Lloyd Garrison, founder of “The Liberator” and of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In his memoirs, Clay wrote, “In a lucid and logical speech, Garrison treated the ‘Divine Institution,’ so as to burn like a branding-iron into the most callous hide of the slave-holder and his defenders.”
Clay added that Garrison’s words were to him “as water to a thirsty wayfarer.”
Many young men of 22 become enamored of philosophies that counter their upbringing, but few hew so consistently through life to them.
Clay was not consumed with Garrison’s call for immediate emancipation of slaves. Clay pushed for a gradual change in slave laws. He served three terms in the Kentucky legislature, but as his political focus narrowed to anti-slavery issues his constituency turned against him.
In 1845, he founded the “True American,” an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. The paper was attacked and physically sacked. Clay ended up printing the paper in Cincinnati.
Though his anti-slavery position made him unpopular in Kentucky, his connections outside the South flourished.
When the Whig Party, which had been formed to oppose the Andrew Jackson-dominated Democratic Party in 1833, began to fall apart over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Clay was one of the founders of a new Republican Party in 1854. The party quickly grew in strength, and by 1860 was the party in power with the election of President Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln, who had become Clay’s friend, first tried to appoint Clay as ambassador to Spain; Clay declined. But Lincoln did convince Clay to accept the ambassador post in Moscow.
The Civil War began before Clay could depart. With no Federal troops in Washington, D.C., he organized a volunteer militia, “Cassius Clay’s Washington Guards,” to protect the White House from Confederate attack. Clay was a forceful proponent of the Emancipation Proclamation; he was ambassador to Russia until 1869, and took part in the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska.
His legacy was compromised when in 1878 he was divorced from his wife of 45 years, she refused to put up with his infidelities, and then in 1894, he married Dora Richardson, the 15-year-old daughter of a tenant farmer on his land.
Cassius Clay, Sr., father of boxing champion Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay Jr.), was named for the “Lion of White Hall.”