Off to War
In 1846, Cassius volunteered to serve in the Mexican-American War. He had originally opposed the war and the annexation of Texas as a slave state. But now his plan was to gain political favor with Kentuckians through a glorious action in the war. It worked.
Word soon reached Kentucky of how Clay had prevented a mass execution of his men. Captain Clay and his unit had been captured and were about to be put to death by the Mexicans when Clay told the men to lie down. He then approached the Mexican soldiers and declared that their conduct was a breach of the terms of surrender. The Mexican colonel revoked his command to execute the prisoners.
Clay and his fellow soldiers were marched on to Mexico City, where they lived under a sort of "town arrest." Apparently, their time there was eventually very pleasant, as they could come and go freely within the city. After a year and a half, they were set free.
When he returned to Kentucky, Clay was given a Tiffany sword by the people of Fayette County for his bravery. After that, he enjoyed renewed respect from the populace, and a somewhat more comfortable pulpit from which to preach against slavery (except, of course, for the 1849 Foxtown violence).
In the 1850s, Clay traveled widely in the North, speaking against slavery. He also met and befriended John G. Fee, an abolitionist preacher from Bracken County, Kentucky. Clay gave Fee a ten-acre tract of land and some money and encouraged the preacher to begin a school for non-slaveholders in the area. The school eventually became Berea College. Later, Clay publicly gave Fee the credit and honor for developing the school so well.
Clay also ran for governor of Kentucky in 1851, on an emancipation platform. He knew he couldn't win, but he was determined to damage the pro-slavery faction of the Whig party. So even though Clay himself didn't win, he considered it a victory when the Democrat, Lazarus Powell, was elected. Clay proclaimed the Whig Party dead in Kentucky. It would be dissolved nationally by 1860.
The Storm Breaks
On July 10, 1854, Clay went to make a speech against slavery in Springfield, IL. Denied the use of the State House, he spoke from a platform. Two and a half hours into his oration, a heckler in the crowd shouted, "Would you help a runaway slave?" Clay shot back, "That depends on which way he was running." In the crowd that day was Abraham Lincoln, who admired Clay's speech.
In 1860, Clay supported Lincoln for the presidency. After the election, Lincoln appointed his fellow Kentuckian minister to Russia. But before going to Russia, Clay volunteered for another service. The Confederate States of America had formed a government at Montgomery, AL and had fired on Fort Sumter in the Charleston, SC harbor. The troops that were to protect Washington from the close threat of Confederates had been delayed, so Clay offered to enlist to help protect the city. He was given charge of the "Clay Battalion" -- which kept Washington secure until Federal troops arrived. Lincoln gave Clay a Colt revolver as a token of gratitude.
Clay then went to Russia as minister to the court of Czar Alexander II, but was recalled a year later in 1862. He was replaced by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, who had fallen from favor and was sent to Russia to be gotten out of the way.
Back in Washington, Clay was commissioned a major general. He continued his anti-slavery speeches, feeling that the times were politically conducive to advancing the cause of emancipation. Lincoln finally called him in for discussion and shared with Clay his concern that if he declared the slaves free, the Union -- now in full-scale civil war with the South -- would lose the support of Kentucky. Clay assured Lincoln that that would not happen; that he had been speaking against slavery for a quarter of a century, and the people of Kentucky had made up their minds, one way or another. He said that those who still wanted slavery had already joined the Rebel army, and those who remained would stand with the Union. Lincoln then asked Clay to return to Kentucky, attend the state legislature's meetings, and report back, which he did. Weeks later, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which became effective January 1, 1863, declaring all slaves in territories still at war with the Union to be free. Clay considered the event, and his influence on it, to be "the culminating act of my life's aspirations."
It wasn't until the end of the war, of course, that emancipation could become reality in the South. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, outlawed slavery; the 14th, in 1868, declared all those born in the U.S. to be citizens; and the 15th, in 1870, gave black males the right to vote.
Clay's Later Years
In early 1863, Clay was allowed to return to Russia as minister. His most important mission was to keep European countries out of the American Civil War, and Russia in particular on the side of the Union. England was proposing intervention with France to attempt to produce a "reconciliation" between the North and South in the United States that would allow Confederate independence. Russia had, in fact, sent word to England that it would not support such intervention and that England should leave the issue alone. The plan failed, perhaps in part because of Clay's representation.
Because of his long-standing work as representative to Russia and his association with Premier Gortkachow, Clay also helped to bring about the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867.
Clay's final years saw some professional and personal turmoil. At the time he returned to the United States and his home, White Hall, in 1869, Cassius Clay was a Republican (Lincoln's party). But he became a Democrat in response to Republican radicalism during Reconstruction. Then he and Mary Jane, his wife of 45 years, divorced. Clay remarried at 83. But the union with Dora Richardson, the 15-year-old daughter of a local farmer, lasted only about a year.
Cassius Marcellus Clay died on July 22, 1903 and was buried in Richmond, just a few miles from White Hall. He was inducted into the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights' Civil Rights Hall of Fame on July 18, 2000.
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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27-Aug-2014 15:27:46 EDT