Located in Madison County near Richmond, White Hall was home to emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), a naturalist, newspaper publisher, and well-known orator who served as U.S. minister to Russia from 1861-1869. Clay is credited with urging President Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation freeing American slaves. As students move through White Hall’s stately rooms, they learn about Clay’s long and varied career and his involvement in the Mexican-American and Civil Wars. They’ll also learn about his daughter, Laura Clay, who was active in the women’s rights movement of the 19th and early 20th century.
Grade Levels: 4-12
Resource Types: Video
Electronic Field Trip to White Hall Historic Site, Home of Cassius M. Clay
Visitors to White Hall today are guided by actors in period costume who explain the history of both the house itself and the fascinating family who lived there.
Cassius Clay: Biography
The biography of Cassius Clay in three sections
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.
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.
After the 1843 disturbance, Clay had been charged with mayhem, but was successfully defended by Henry Clay. In return, Cassius set out to actively support his cousin for the 1844 presidential election, traveling and giving many speeches on his behalf. But his efforts ended up backfiring.
At the time, Henry Clay was already a well-known and respected senator and congressman, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. He had been speaking out against slavery as an emancipationist since 1799. But he had also already run for president twice and lost both times, in 1824 and 1832. So at first he welcomed his cousin’s assistance, hoping that Cassius could campaign for him in the East, where Henry feared that he might lose votes to the more radical abolitionists.
Clay ran under the banner of the Whig Party, which he had helped form and lead. But by this time the Whigs were showing signs of disunity, with Southern and Northern factions growing farther apart over the issue of slavery. Once the 1844 campaign was in full swing, Henry grew concerned that the Southern, slave-holding Whigs were being turned away from him by cousin Cassius’ fiery oratory against slavery. So he wrote a letter to Cassius, asking him not to “commit” him so strenuously. But the letter was intercepted and ended up being used by the northern Whigs, as well as abolitionists from the rival Liberty Party, as showing that Henry was “soft” on the slavery issue. Clay ended up losing many Whig votes to the northern abolitionists’ candidate, James G. Birney, an editor who had once attempted to start an abolitionist newspaper called The Philanthropist in Danville, KY. (The publisher, S.S. Dismukes, fled Danville after threats.)
With the Whigs so split, neither Clay nor Birney could muster enough votes to win. In an ironic turn of political events, the 1844 presidential election was won by James Polk of Tennessee, a pro-slavery Southern Democrat.
Adventures in Publishing
In 1845, Cassius Marcellus Clay and his family lived for a time in the “Lord Morton House” at Fifth and Limestone streets in Lexington, KY, while still retaining White Hall. Clay was now publishing a newspaper called The True American. From the beginning, its anti-slavery editorials aroused much anger, as can be seen in this letter received by Clay not long after the paper opened:
You are meaner than the autocrats of hell. You may think you can awe and curse the people of Kentucky to your infamous course. You will find, when it is too late for life, the people are no cowards. Eternal hatred is locked up in the bosoms of braver men, your betters, for you. The hemp is ready for your neck. Your life cannot be spared. Plenty thirst for your blood — are determined to have it. It is unknown to you and your friends, if you have any, and in a way you little dream of.
Clay fortified his office on Mill Street with iron doors, a cannon, and rifles. Several friends, including the architect Thomas Lewinski, helped him plan to defend the structure from attack. Meanwhile, a “committee of sixty” slavery supporters was organized to get rid of the paper. On August 18, 1845, while Cassius was sick in bed with typhoid fever, a delegation led by James B. Clay — Henry Clay’s son — entered the newspaper office with a city judge’s injunction against the paper and dismantled the printing equipment, which they sent by rail to Cincinnati.
Cassius simply relocated his operation, resuming publication shortly thereafter from Cincinnati (though still using a Lexington dateline), and two years later he was awarded a $2,500 legal settlement against James Clay. Unfortunately, the original structure that housed The True American at Number 6 North Mill Street in Lexington has been demolished.
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.
History of White Hall
Located in Richmond, Kentucky, White Hall is really two houses in one. The original building, called Clermont, was built in the Georgian style in 1798-1799 by Cassius Clay’s father, Gen. Green Clay. A contemporary of Daniel Boone, Green Clay had amassed a great fortune on the Kentucky frontier; his holdings included distilleries, taverns, farms, and a ferry across the Kentucky River.
After inheriting Clermont from his father, Cassius Clay enlarged the house from 7 to 44 rooms between 1861 and 1862 and renamed it White Hall. The work was largely done while Cassius was away as ambassador to Russia. The renovation, designed in the Italianate style by renowned architect Thomas Lewinski and builder-architect John McMurty, was overseen by Clay’s wife, Mary Jane Warfield-Clay. Lewinski also designed the renovation of Ashland — cousin Henry Clay’s home in Lexington. That project was completed in 1857.
In fact, there are obvious similarities between the two Lewinski projects. Both White Hall and Ashland feature high, browed windows in the Italianate style, enlarged and reinforced cornices, and iron balconies and porches. Indoors, both houses also contain examples of the Greek Revival style, popular at the time, including plaster medallions around the bases of the chandeliers and elaborate plaster cornices that decorate the edges of the ceilings in some rooms.
While her husband was away during the Civil War, Mrs. Clay gained protection from Southern troops by allowing Union troops to bivouac on her property. They paid her for the right to let their horses graze at White Hall, and she received protection from Rebel threats.
The interesting and unusual features of White Hall itself include a central heating system that was fed by two basement fireboxes. The heat traveled up and into the rooms through ducts to openings in false fireplaces. Also rare for its time was White Hall’s indoor plumbing: Rainwater was collected in a large cistern on the third floor of the house, which in turn fed the water closet, bath, and commode on the floor below.
After Cassius M. Clay’s death, White Hall stayed under family ownership for several decades. It was purchased by the state in 1967 restored a few years later through the efforts of Kentucky Gov. Louie B. Nunn and his wife, Beula. It is now a Kentucky Historic Site, maintained by the state.
Visitors to White Hall today can take guided tours led by guides in period dress. The house and grounds are open from April 1 through October 31 and again for a few days at Christmas time, with tours given between 9:00 am and 4:30 pm ET. (The grounds open one hour earlier and close one hour later.) White Hall is open seven days a week from April 1 to Labor Day, but is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays after that, except for special events. School groups are welcome. Call (859) 623-9178 or visit the White Hall web page maintained by the Kentucky Parks Department for information and admission fees.
One popular “special event” at White Hall — appropriate for a house long rumored to be haunted — is the annual Halloween celebration, “A Haunting Evening with the Clay Family.” Costumed guides reenact some of the history of White Hall as guests wander through the home at night. Our own virtual tour includes video clips of several of those White Hall ghost stories.
White Hall is located at 500 White Hall Shrine Road in Richmond, KY. By car, it is off I-75 at exit 95 between Richmond and Lexington. Fort Boonesborough, the site of one of Kentucky’s earliest settlements, is nearby; combination tour packages are available.
White Hall Links
The White Hall Historic Site web page maintained by the Kentucky Department of Parks includes tour dates and times, admission fees, a calendar of special events, travel instructions, and contact information.
The Political Graveyard is an interesting place to check on historical figures.
Learn more about Cassius Clay’s cousin, statesman Henry, at the web site for Ashland: The Henry Clay Estate, a museum run by the Henry Clay Memorial Foundation.