Controversial from the beginning, and controversial still, he was an emancipationist who lived in the slave-holding South among slave holders. He became very vocal in speeches for the emancipation of slaves, making many enemies in the process. Newspaper editor, soldier, politician ... above all, Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) was a fascinating Kentucky personality.
Cassius was born on October 19, 1810 to General Green Clay and his wife, Sallie (Lewis) Clay, at Clermont, their home in the Richmond area of Madison County, Kentucky. Green was a contemporary of Daniel Boone who had amassed great wealth from property in the area. Sallie was a Calvinist Baptist, and Cassius later said that he owed his character development to her stern upbringing.
Cassius attended the Madison Seminary, St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Transylvania University in Lexington, and then Yale, where in 1832 he was impressed by an anti-slavery speech by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. From then on, Cassius Clay spent a great deal of his life opposing slavery and working for its end.
Clay was an emancipationist, not an abolitionist. Emancipationists sought to eliminate slavery by gradual, legal means, while abolitionists wanted slavery to end by any means possible. Their methods sometimes included violence and a disregard for law and the United States Constitution. Clay and the emancipationists (including his cousin, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, the "Great Compromiser") hoped to maintain the law and the constitution while ridding the country of slavery by peaceful means.
Those high hopes, of course, would eventually prove futile. America would soon be at war with itself over the issues of slavery and political determination, with the Union itself in jeopardy. Abraham Lincoln, a fellow Kentucky native who was to become Cassius Clay's friend, would have to decide how to resolve the issue of slavery in the South in the midst of the Civil War.
In the mid-1830s, though, Clay was a political optimist -- and a young man with a future to make. After returning to Lexington after college, he married Mary Jane Warfield. (Eventually, they would have ten children, with six surviving.) He completed a law degree at Transylvania. And he embarked on a political career: Cassius was elected state representative from Madison County in 1835, defeated the next year, but then elected again in 1837.
Cassius Clay's speeches won him praise for his oratorical skills, but their subject matter also made him many enemies in Central Kentucky, which was a center of the Southern slave trade. He was threatened often and fought many duels. During the Wickliffe-Garret Davis debate at Russell's Cave Spring in 1843, Clay was attacked by a hired assassin named Samuel Brown. Brown shot Clay in the chest, but Clay defended himself vigorously with a Bowie knife, seriously injuring Brown. The helpers who carried Clay away were astonished to find that Clay's knife scabbard -- which he kept strapped to his chest -- had stopped Brown's bullet.
A few years later, another speech incited another incidence of violence, and this time Cassius was not so lucky.
On June 15, 1849, Clay traveled to Foxtown, KY to speak out against slavery at a local political gathering. He was then a member of the Liberal Party, which hoped to elect anti-slavery delegates to the upcoming state constitutional convention. As Clay stepped down from the podium, Cyrus Turner, the son of a pro-slavery candidate, called him a liar and struck him. Clay drew his knife but was surrounded by a crowd, who disarmed him and began clubbing him. Clay was stabbed in the lung, and his breastbone was severed.
Wounded deeply, Clay grasped his knife and wrested it away from an attacker, cutting his own fingers to the bone. He then found Turner in the crowd and stabbed him. Clay's son, 14-year-old Warfield Clay, handed him a pistol, but Cassius was beginning to lose consciousness from loss of blood. Another Turner tried to shoot Clay in the head, but the gun misfired. As he passed out, Clay was reported to have said, "I died in the defense of the liberties of the people." The statement was a little premature: Clay did not die, although it took him months to recover. Turner, however, died some days later.
Last Updated: Wednesday, 27-Aug-2014 15:27:11 EDT