Cassius Marcellus Clay Biography

Activist (1810–1903)
Cassius Marcellus Clay was born in Kentucky to a slave-holding family, but became a major figure in the abolitionist movement.


Cassius Marcellus Clay was born on October 19, 1810, in Kentucky. His father was a slave owner, but Clay became influenced by abolitionists while attending college. In the 1830s, despite his anti-slavery views, he was elected twice to the Kentucky legislature. He published the anti-slavery journal True American, and later served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, where he helped orchestrate the U.S. purchase of Alaska. He died on July 22, 1903 at the age of 92.

Early Life 

Cassius Marcellus Clay was born on October 19, 1810 near Richmond, Kentucky. He was the son of General Green Clay and Sallie Lewis Clay. His father had been an early explorer of the American wilderness and had even fought alongside the more famous Daniel Boone. Clay's family was wealthy and owned a great deal of land. They also owned many slaves.  

Clay attended the Madison Seminary, St. Joseph’s College, Transylvania University (where he earned a law degree), and Yale University. In 1832, at Yale, he heard abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak. The speech influenced him to take a stand against slavery, which he did despite being from a Southern, slave-holding family and state.

While Garrison was an abolitionist, seeking to end slavery immediately and by any means necessary, Clay was an emancipationist, which meant that he favored the gradual ending of slavery through legal means sanctioned by the Constitution.

In 1833, Clay married Mary Jane Warfield. The couple had 10 children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Professionally, Clay undertook many different careers over the course of his long life.

Anti-Slavery Activist, Military Man, Diplomat

In 1835, despite his emancipationist views, he was elected to the Kentucky state legislature in 1835. He was unseated in 1836, but won again in 1837. In 1844, Clay freed his own slaves.

In 1845, Clay founded True American, an anti-slavery newspaper that he ran until 1846. A group known as the Committee of Sixty drove the newspaper out of its office in Lexington, Kentucky by packing up the type, presses and other equipment while Clay was recovering from typhoid fever. Undeterred, Clay then published True American from Cincinnati, which he continued to edit from Lexington.

Clay also served in the military. As a captain in the Kentucky militia, he fought in the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. Clay and his men were taken prisoner, and spent a year and a half in Mexico City, where they appear to have lived relatively freely. When he returned, he ran for governor of Kentucky, but his anti-slavery position did not entice voters.

In 1853, Clay donated land and money to abolitionist William Fee to start Berea College, which Fee did in 1855. Berea was the first integrated college in the South, accepting African American and white students, as well as both men and women.

Clay played an important part in founding the Republican party, and supported Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for president in 1860. When the Civil War broke out, Clay again took a military post: He led the “Clay Battalion” to protect Washington, D.C. from a possible attack by the Confederacy until federal troops arrived to take on the task. A biographer described Clay as conceited and somewhat ridiculous. He described Clay’s stay in Washington: “With three pistols strapped to his waist, and an elegant sword hanging at his side, he talked to anyone who would listen about his Mexican War exploits and his political battles.” Senator Orville Browning reported that President Lincoln said Clay “had a great deal of conceit and very little sense,” and that Lincoln “did not know what to do with him, for he could not give him a command—he was not fit for it.”

Lincoln appointed Clay ambassador to Russia, a post he held from 1861-1862, and again from 1863 to 1869. Some suggest that Clay played a role in enabling the United States to buy Alaska from Russia in 1867.

Clay believed he played a role in shaping Abraham Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves who lived in the Confederate States of America. Clay said being able to influence the Emancipation Proclamation was “the culminating act of my life’s aspirations.”

Later Life

In 1878, Clay divorced his wife of 45 years and married a 15-year-old named Dora Richardson. That marriage lasted about a year and also ended in divorce. Cassius Marcellus Clay died on July 22, 1903 at the age of 92 at Whitehall, his home, in Richmond, Kentucky.

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