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About Cassius Marcellus Clay "The Lion of White Hall", Gen. (USA)
Cassius Marcellus Clay (October 19, 1810 – July 22, 1903), nicknamed "The Lion of White Hall", was an emancipationist from Madison County, Kentucky, United States. He was a cousin of Henry Clay and Alabama governor Clement Comer Clay.
Cassius Clay was a paradox - a southern aristocrat who became a prominent anti-slavery crusader. He was a son of Green Clay, one of the wealthiest landowners and slaveholders in Kentucky. Clay 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, he 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”. Clay was politically pragmatic, supporting gradual legal change rather than the immediacy of the Garrisonians.
Clay served three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, 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 had to barricade the doors of his newspaper office for protection. Shortly after, a mob of about sixty men broke into his office and seized his printing equipment, which they shipped to Cincinnati, Ohio. Clay continued publication there.
Even though he opposed the annexation of Texas, Clay served in the Mexican-American War. His connections to the northern antislavery movement remained strong, and he was a founder of the Republican party and a friend of Abraham Lincoln, supporting him for the presidency. Clay was briefly a candidate for the vice presidency at the 1860 Republican National Convention, but lost the nomination to Hannibal Hamlin.
Minister to Russia
When the Civil War began in April 1861, Lincoln nominated Clay as ambassador to Spain, but Clay declined it.
Instead, he became Minister to Russia, where he witnessed the Tsar's emancipation edict. Recalled to the United States to accept a commission as a major general from Lincoln, Clay publicly refused to accept it unless Lincoln would sign an emancipation proclamation. Lincoln sent Clay to Kentucky to assess the mood for emancipation there and in the other border states. Following Clay's return Lincoln issued the proclamation.
Clay returned to Russia in 1863 and remained until 1869. He was influential in the negotiations for the purchase of Alaska.
Later political activities
Later, he founded the Cuban Charitable Aid Society to help the Cuban independence movement of Jose Marti. He also spoke out against robber barons and in favor of nationalizing the railroads. In 1869, Clay left the Republican Party. This was partly due to President Grant's military interference in Haiti. He also disapproved of the Republican reconstruction policy.
In 1872, he was one of the organizers of the Liberal Republican revolt, and was largely instrumental in securing the nomination of Horace Greeley for the presidency. In the political campaigns of 1876 and 1880, he supported the Democratic Party candidate, but rejoined the Republican party in the campaign of 1884.
Clay had a reputation as a rebel and a fighter. There were threats on his life, compelling him to carry two pistols and a knife for protection; in addition, he used a cannon to protect his home and office. As he aged, Clay became increasingly eccentric and paranoid.
In Clay's later years, his wife, Mary Jane Warfield Clay, daughter of Dr. Elisha Warfield, divorced him and he fell deeply into debt, causing him to sell much of his property. In 1894, he married 15 year-old Dora Richardson, but they soon divorced.
Cassius Clay died at his White Hall home on July 22, 1903. Survivors included his daughters, women's rights activists Laura Clay and Mary Barr Clay.
His family home, White Hall, is maintained by the Commonwealth of Kentucky as White Hall State Historic Shrine.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, father of boxer Muhammad Ali, was named after the politician and he gave the same name to his son, who changed it when he converted to Islam.
Before arriving at St. Petersburg in 1861, he published an abolitionist newspaper in the U.S. slaveholding south, fought off multiple assaults and one assassination attempt, threatened to blow up his house should mobsters try to lynch him, and, as rumor has it, even killed a person with his bowie knife.
Clay had seven children with his wife but left his family in the U.S. to move to Russia — soon fellow U.S. diplomats complained that the minister was paying too much attention to ballerinas. He even had a son by one, Lenya or "Launey" Clay, whom he brought back with him to the U.S.
There are numerous anecdotes about his love adventures in Russia, including an incident when one offended husband slapped the minister in the face as the prelude to a duel. Clay reportedly did not understand the challenge and just used his fist to strike back.
Clay later married his 15 year-old servant, despite being 84 years old at the time. Four years later he divorced her. By that time his reputation of being eccentric had changed to "paranoid"; he spent his last years lonely in his White Hall estate in Kentucky.
However, Clay was a popular figure during his time as minister to Russia, and he himself felt satisfied with his diplomatic work. After his first year in office Clay returned home but soon asked President Abraham Lincoln to be sent back to Russia, and stayed in St. Petersburg until 1869, participating in the 1867 Alaska purchase.
What was the reason for his popularity?
First, the international situation promoted good relations between Russia and the U.S. Both countries were fighting for reforms to abolish the similar institutions of slavery and serfdom. Serfs were emancipated in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II's decree, while President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the midst of the Civil War in 1863.
Clay thus enjoyed the sympathies of Russians who considered the abolition of slavery in the U.S. and emancipation of serfs in Russia to be similarly noble causes. Both sides also bore grievances against England, on Russia's side due to English support for the Polish rebellion of 1863 and on the Northern side for England's tenuous neutrality.
Clay's tenure thus lay within a period of the most intensive contacts and visual demonstrations of friendship between Russia and the U.S. in the 19th century. He was minster to Russia in the fall of 1863 when the Russian Navy arrived at New York harbor to demonstrate support for the Northern cause and he was in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1867 for the sale of Alaska.
Second, Clay was born an "aristocratic" Southerner and obviously felt an affinity for the aristocratic Russian court. Culturally, Russian nobility resembled Clay, an elite of the Old South. He felt at home there — probably more so than he felt among his Northern political allies in the U.S.
In his diplomatic dispatches, Clay cited among his predecessors South Carolinian politician Francis Pickens as the most popular U.S. representative in Russia of the recent years, thereby juxtaposing their shared cultural refinement to the unpolished Northern commoners that filled the position in between.
However, perhaps the most important reason for his success in Russia was his social alienation back home. A Southerner by birth, he could not easily participate in the war on the Northern side nor cheer the destruction of the Old South.
Russia, which abolished serfdom peacefully, offered Clay a much more desirable model for resolving the problem of bondage when, alas, his Motherland choose a bloodier road.
Clay probably realized that his decision to stay out of the Civil War and the political struggle at home would cost him further career advancement, and it was indeed the price he paid.
Decades later Clay lamented his loss of influence while L.Q.C. Lamar, the South's unrecognized representative to Russia, became secretary of interior in President Grover Cleveland's administration.
Nevertheless, his name will be remembered — at least by Muhammed Ali.
Cassius Marcellus Clay "The Lion of White Hall", Gen. (USA)'s Timeline
October 19, 1810
December 30, 1837
Madison, Kentucky, USA
October 2, 1839
November 18, 1841
White Hall, KY, USA
February 20, 1847
February 9, 1849