Cassius Marcellus Clay (/ˈkæʃəs ˌmɑːrˈsɛləs/; 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. He was a founding member of the Republican Party in Kentucky, and was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as the United States minister to Russia. Clay is credited with gaining Russian support for the Union during the American Civil War.
The younger Clay attended Transylvania University. Transylvania’s name, meaning “across the woods” in Latin, stems from the university’s founding in the heavily forested region of western Virginia known as the Transylvania Colony, which became most of Kentucky in 1792. Transylvania is the alma mater of two U.S. vice presidents, two U.S. Supreme Court justices, 50 U.S. senators, 101 U.S. representatives, 36 U.S. governors, 34 U.S. ambassadors, and the one Confederate President, making it a large producer of U.S. statesmen.
Clay was elected to three terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives, but he lost support among Kentucky 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. Sam Brown’s bullet struck the scabbard, and embedded itself in the silver. Despite being shot in the chest, Clay drew his Bowie knife, tackled Brown, cut out his eyes, and finally threw him over an embankment.
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.
As Minister to Russia, Clay witnessed the Tsar’s emancipation edict. 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 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.
In 1894, the 84-year-old Clay married Dora Richardson, the 15-year-old orphaned sister of one of his sharecropping tenants.
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.