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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,237

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This is the grave of Cassius Clay.

Born in 1810 to extreme wealth in Madison County, Kentucky, Clay grew up with lots of slaves and around the overtly masculine racehorse culture of the antebellum elite. His cousin was Henry Clay, just as one example. Clay went to Transylvania College in Lexington for a bit and then went to the real home of elites–Yale. He graduated from there in 1832.

Now, as a general rule, the southern slaveholding class sent their super elite kids to Princeton. That was the Ivy school for them and there was very little abolitionist thought there, or any other kind of reform for that matter. It was a conservative school for conservative elites. Clay’s life is a reason why they felt this way. While Clay was in New Haven, he heard a young reformer named William Lloyd Garrison speak. The radical abolitionist sparked something inside of Clay. He had grown up around this but inside of him, he knew slavery to be wrong. This got him thinking about how to end the institution. To be clear, Clay did not become Garrison. But he did become an abolitionist, albeit one who thought a gradual emancipation was more sensible. This was not just a political position. It was a betrayal of his class and place.

Now, Clay didn’t really talk about this all that much when he was early in his adult life. He came home and ran for a spot in the Kentucky legislative, a normal move for a rich guy. He served three terms. But he couldn’t keep his anti-slavery opinions to himself. That he was a Whig wasn’t a big deal–lots of rich southerners were, including his cousin Henry Clay. Yeah, that party had both abolitionists and slaveholders, but the solution was to not talk about slavery. Clay broke that pact. He started speaking about this. Even though he was a rich guy in a paternalistic culture, this was a step too far for Kentucky voters and they evicted him from office in the 1840 election.

After this, Clay’s electoral career might have been over, but his role as a prominent abolitionist was not. In fact, he was nearly assassinated in 1843, having only survived a gunshot wound in a fight with a pro-slavery radical because his knife came up over his heart just in time as he pulled it out to defend himself and the bullet deflected. Clay then proceeded to cut off the guy’s nose and gouged out one of the guy’s eyes with his knife before shoving him over a cliff. Ah, the civilized nature of nineteenth century life.

Clay started publishing his own anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington in 1845. This was just asking to get shot. In fact, he set up two four-pound cannons inside the newspaper office to kill any mobs. Nonetheless, a mob did destroy his newspaper and Clay wisely decided to move to Cincinnati, which was hardly a center of racial peace, but a place that kept his close to home and to the center of slavery. He later moved the operation to Louisville. He volunteered for the Mexican War, despite his criticism of it. This was a violent culture and war is how you defined your manhood. He had to sign up, or so he thought. Then when he got back, he survived another assassination attempt when six brothers attacked him once. He killed one of them too. He also gave John Fee some of his land to found Berea College in Berea, Kentucky in the southern part of the state. This was the first interracial and coeducational institution of higher education in the South. To this day, Berea remains a center of progressive thought in one of the most conservative parts of the nation. In fact, effectively nothing has changed with the relationship between Berea and the rest of Appalachian Kentucky all the way to the present–a center of reform in the middle of a bunch of people who hate it.

Well, Clay was a powerful Kentuckian all the same. He was rich and owned a ton of land and the rest of the southern elite may have hated him, but money was money. This meant he became a close ally of Abraham Lincoln upon his rise in the Republican Party and to the presidency. So Lincoln sent Clay to St. Petersburg as the Minister to Russia in 1861. But Clay delayed a bit. See at this moment, very early in the Lincoln administration, Washington was still undefended by the military. The Army was slowly getting there, but it was under serious threat from Confederate forces and their allies among the Baltimore white working class. So Clay organized a small defense force of about 300 men that helped defend the city until the Army could get there, which was delayed after the Baltimore Riot and the subsequent rerouting of troops to avoid more violence in the streets.

It turned out Tsar Alexander II was a big supporter of the Union cause, unlike the French and British, and claimed that if those nations recognized the Confederacy, he would declare war on them. This made Clay a popular figure in St. Petersburg. Clay originally only stayed a year because he wanted to fight. Lincoln named Clay a major general–he was rich after all–but Clay only agreed to take it if Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Lincoln sent Clay out to get a better sense of how possible this was and he was influential in the creation of the Emancipation Proclamation. He didn’t last long as a general though and went back to St. Petersburg in 1863. After the war, Clay came back to the U.S. but because he was so close to the Russians, he was a key figure in William Seward‘s successful attempt to buy Alaska in 1867.

Clay’s politics got weirder as he got older. He began to criticize the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction policies and supported the Liberal Republican revolt against Grant in 1872. He also came to hate the railroads and started calling for their nationalization. Given the role of political and financial corruption in both the railroads and Grant administration, this is probably how it made sense in Clay’s head. Moreover, he remained a strong supporter of freedom for other peoples, including his active financial support of Jose Martí and the Cuban independence movement. He found the Cuban Charitable Aid Society to support this. He moved between political parties over the years and finally found his way back to the Republican Party later in life, ironically enough to support the true dean of corruption–James Blaine–in 1884. Throughout this period, Clay remained fearful of his life and routinely carried a lot of weapons on him and put cannons outside his home for anyone who wanted to attack him to know he was going to defend himself.

Now, Clay’s personal life was, well, a bit unfortunate. For his whole marriage he had cheated on his wife. He liked them young. Real young. Finally, at the end of his life, his wife had enough and walked out after 45 years of marriage. This was in 1878. That certainly didn’t stop his sexual activity. In 1894, Clay was 84 years old. He married one of the sharecroppers who worked his land. She was probably 12 years old. At most she was 15, but 12 is more likely. Clay’s children went ballistic, but he was a patriarch and was going to do whatever he wanted. Yikes! At the end of his life, he was declared legally insane, but I don’t really know too much about that. I’m sure his children were happy with it though.

Clay died in 1903. He was 92 years old.

And yes, THE Cassius Clay, i.e., Muhammad Ali, was descended from one of the slaves of Clay’s family, who named the boy after this Cassius Clay. Ali’s position later was that Clay was still a white supremacist so why did he owe it to him to keep his name. Given Clay’s later rejection of a real Reconstruction, makes sense to me.

Cassius Clay is buried in Richmond Cemetery, Richmond, Kentucky.

If you would like this series to visit other abolitionists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Elizabeth Margaret Chandler is in Raisin Township, Michigan and Abby Kelley Foster is in Worcester, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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