Cassius Marcellus Clay was born on October 19, 1810 in Madison County, Kentucky and was one of Sally and Green Clay’s seven children. Green Clay was a prominent politician and also one of the wealthiest plantation owners and slaveholders in Kentucky. Cassius recalled his father providing well for their slaves, but when he was a child he remembers a slave girl being arrested for killing an overseer that had attacked her. Cassius never forgot that girl or how unfair slavery was.
When it was time for him to go to college, Clay tried out a few different state schools and then eventually enrolled at Yale College during his junior year. In 1828, Clay’s father died of cancer and left each of his children slaves, several material possessions, and land in his will. While at Yale, Clay discovered a talent for public speaking and found a love for it. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison who was an abolitionist was scheduled to give a speech at Yale. Clay attended the speech and it changed his life. Clay later wrote that the speech was “a new revelation to me… I then resolved… that when I had the strength, if ever, I would give slavery a death struggle.” Clay graduated from Yale in 1832 and then enrolled in law school at Transylvania University in Lexington.
While in Lexington, Clay met a woman named Mary Jane Warfield. They fell in love quickly and made plans to get married. When Mary Jane’s ex-boyfriend Dr. John Declarey, who was a doctor and member of the Kentucky legislature, found about Mary Jane’s wedding, he wrote her a letter that stated that Cassius had been sexually intimate with a woman from Madison County. According to the letter, the affair left the woman so ashamed of herself that her and her family moved to Texas. Dr. Declarey also accused Clay of having an affair with a slave girl. Mary Jane’s mother opened the letter before it ever got to Mary. After reading it, she confronted Cassius who denied any of these allegations and he was mad.
Cassius and his friend James Rollins went to Louisville to confront Dr. Declarey about this letter. When they found him at the hotel he lived at, Cassius showed Declarey the letter and asked if he had any explanations for why he would write these things and Cassius also demanded an apology. Declarey said nothing, so Cassius grabbed a hickory stick that he had brought with him and beat him bad. Bystanders tried to intervene and save Declarey, but Rollins held them back with a pistol. After he was done beating him with the stick, Cassius told Declarey that they would also be staying at the hotel if Declarey wanted to fight some more. When Cassius got settled in his room, he received word that Declarey had challenged him to a duel.
Twice they tried to duel, but there ended up being such big crowds at both events that the duels were called off. Declarey’s friend and Rollins met to iron out the details of the duel. Declarey’s friend said the duel should be held on February 26, 1833 which was also the day Cassius was supposed to marry Mary Jane. Rollins obviously refused that date and told them to come up with a better one. Neither Clay nor Rollins heard from Declarey or his friend about a different duel date, so they just assumed that the duel was called off and Cassius and Mary Jane got married on February 26th, 1833.
A couple days after the wedding, Declarey started to tell everyone that would listen that Clay had chickened out of the duel and never showed up because he was a coward and that he would give Clay a good cowhiding if he ever saw him. Cassius eventually heard about this and figured that he would visit Declarey again. Clay went to Declarey’s hotel and stood at the entrance of the dining room while Declarey ate dinner. Declarey eventually spotted Clay staring at him, went pale and fled the dining room. Clay couldn’t find Declarey after that. He stayed one more day, hoping that Declarey would show himself, but he never did so Clay went home. When he returned home, he was told that Declarey had committed suicide by slashing his wrists the night he saw Clay in the hotel dining room.
After graduating with his law degree, Cassius decided to get involved with politics and he was elected as a representative of Madison County in the Kentucky legislature in 1835. His first act as a politician was to propose free public schools. He was elected again in 1840 against the son of the largest slaveholder in the state by denouncing slavery in his campaign speeches, calling it “an evil morally, economically, socially, religiously, politically – evil in its inception and in its duration.” Clay began to receive threats for his views on slavery, but Clay was unwavering.
During the 1841 election, Clay dueled his opponent after the opponent used Mary Jane’s name in his speech, but neither Clay nor his opponent were able to hit each other. After that, Clay announced that he would no longer accept duel challenges. He would defend himself if he was attacked, but he felt that duels were a waste of time.
In 1843, Cassius was finally free of the conditions of his father’s will and was able to free his slaves and then bought thirteen more slaves for $10,000 who he immediately freed. Though they were free to go, many of Clay’s ex-slaves stayed on his property as hired help.
That same year, Clay was giving a speech at a barbeque/political rally in support of Garrett Davis who was running for congress as a representative of Kentucky. During his speech, a man named Sam Brown stood up an yelled that what Clay was saying was a “damned lie” and then hit Clay with a heavy umbrella. Then Clay grabbed his bowie knife and tried stabbing Sam Brown, but he was grabbed by bystanders before he could stab him. Brown then started waving his revolver around and yelled “Clear the way and let me kill the damned rascal!” That caused the men that were holding Clay to let go and Clay started to rush at Brown. Brown shot and hit Clay, but Clay kept coming. Using his bowie knife, Clay cut of Brown’s nose and left ear and then gouged out his right eye. Brown’s friends tried to get Brown away from Clay by throwing chairs at Clay and then picking up Brown and throwing him over a wall. Brown fell eight feet down into a spring on the other side, but he survived. When Clay’s friends looked to see where Clay had been shot, there was a tiny red mark right over his heart where the bullet had hit Clay’s knife that he always kept in his inside pocket. Clay was arrested for mayhem, but he was eventually found not guilty.
In 1845, Cassius decided to start his own paper that we would call True American. The paper would publish articles that were all devoted to the cause of emancipation. Cassius figured that he wouldn’t make any money with the paper and would actually probably go broke, but he had enough money from his inheritance and decided that it was worth it. Cassius hired T.B. Stevenson to be the editor, but Stevenson quickly resigned when local plantation owners began to make threats, so Clay took over as editor. The paper was headquartered out of a three-story brick building in Lexington that Clay decided to fortify in case of violence. Clay armed the building with rifles, shotguns, cavalry lances, and two small brass cannons. There was also a trap door on the roof so that he could escape if needed and a keg of powder that he could explode from outside the building. The first issue came out on June 3rd, 1845 and was sent to 300 Kentuckians and 1,700 other subscribers from out of state.
Cassius was then asked to serve as a defense lawyer in a local murder case, despite never actually practicing law. A local man had been charged with murdering his neighbor, however the man claimed it was all in self-defense because his neighbor had given him a very menacing look. No other lawyer would take the man’s case, so the man asked for Cassius Clay to represent him. Clay agreed. After the prosecutor had made his case for how there was no way this was self-defense, Clay got up to talk to the jury. Suddenly, Clay glared at the jury with a very malicious look and the jury even jumped it was so intimidating. Clay then asked “Gentlemen of the jury, if a man should look at you like this, what would you do?” The jury only took fifteen minutes to deliberate before they delivered a verdict of not guilty. After somebody complimented Clay on his trial win, Clay responded “It was not so easy as you think. I spent days and days in my room before the mirror practicing that look. It took more hard work to give that look than to investigate the most obtuse cases.”
In 1846, Clay voluntarily enlisted for the Mexican-American War. He was opposed to the war, stating that he thought annexing Texas was just an excuse to create more slave territory. However, he decided that if the war was already declared, all Americans were required to help the nation win the war. Cassius Clay entered as a private in the 1st Kentucky Cavalry, but was quickly promoted to Captain. Almost as soon as Clay reached Mexico, Clay and his men were surrounded by Mexicans and forced to surrender. One of Clay’s officers escaped, which caused the Mexicans to threaten to kill all of the prisoners. Clay told the Mexicans in his best Spanish “Kill the officers – spare the soldiers! Spare the men; they are innocent. I alone am responsible.” And then Clay opened his shirt waiting for a bullet, but the Mexicans were impressed by his bravery and they decided to spare all of their lives. After months of being held prisoners of war, they were exchanged back to America and Clay was presented with a jeweled sword for his bravery.
In 1849, Clay was giving yet another speech calling for emancipation of slaves at a political rally. Cyrus Turner who was a son of a pro-slavery politician, and his five brothers surrounded Clay. They began to punch and club Clay repeatedly. Clay tried to take out his bowie knife to stab them, but the brothers grabbed it and started stabbing Clay with it. One of the brother’s grabbed his pistol and put it to Clay’s head. He pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. He tried firing two more times, but the gun just kept misfiring. Clay was finally able to get away from the brothers and wrestle his bowie knife from them. Cyrus stabbed Clay in the stomach with a knife, so Clay just grabbed the Cyrus’s hand and knife and pushed the knife further into his stomach while he stabbed Cyrus in his own stomach. Right before he passed out from blood loss, Clay raised up his bowie knife and said “I died in defense of the liberties of the people!” Both Cyrus and Clay were carried to a nearby house. Cyrus died 34 hours later, but Clay recovered.
In 1855, Clay granted 10 acres of his own land to John G. Fee, who was an abolitionist, so that he could open Berea College, which was open to all races, genders, religions, and economic statuses. There would be no tuition. Berea college is still around today and awards every enrolled student a no-tuition promise.
During the 1850’s, Clay was very involved in establishing the Republican Party. He was also a huge supporter and friend of Abraham Lincoln. When the Civil War broke out, Clay organized the Cassius M. Clay Battalion, which was a corps of several hundred volunteers that had orders to protect the white house. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Clay as an ambassador to Russia. While there, Clay convinced Russia to support the Union during the Civil War by sending their Navy. During one his trips back to the United States, Clay pressured Lincoln to give the emancipation proclamation. Clay also convinced Russia to sell Alaska to the United States.
After spending eight years in Russia, and then bringing home a 4 year old Russian boy that Clay refused to say was his or not, Cassius and Mary Jane’s marriage was no longer working and they officially divorced on February 7, 1878 after 45 years of marriage. One of the stipulations of the divorce was that Mary Jane could not remarry as long as Cassius was alive. So when a former cook tried to shoot Cassius, and Cassius then killed him, Cassius was suspicious that Mary Jane had something to do with it. So Cassius started arming his house with guns and bowie knives and the brass cannons that used to be at the True American office.
In 1894, Cassius started to develop a crush on the sister of a sharecropper that worked on his land. Her name was Dora and she had long red hair, grey eyes, and a beautiful singing voice. On November 13, 1894, 84 year old Cassius Clay married 15 year old Dora Richardson. The marriage didn’t last long though and Cassius filed for divorce in 1898. Dora married her childhood sweetheart a week after the divorce was official and when she had her first child in 1899, she named him Cassius Marcellus Clay Brock. Dora’s new husband was an abusive drunk though and she went to Clay’s house to hide from him.
Dora’s new husband wasn’t happy about that and planned a robbery of Clay’s home with two of his friends. They planned on breaking in through the first floor library. Unfortunately for them, Clay had been sleeping in the first-floor library because of his gout. When rescuers came to help Clay, they found him just sitting in the library with his robe slightly burned from the fireplace. There was one burglar dead on the floor from a gunshot wound and another man dead outside from a bowie knife stab in the stomach.
On July 22, 1903, Cassius Marcellus Clay died of natural causes at the age of 92. He was buried in Richmond Cemetery, in Richmond, Kentucky. His funeral was notably compromised of a mixed racial crowd. One newspaper wrote “Never was a more striking scene witnessed on the way to Richmond, where the funeral services were to be held. From every humble Negro cottage along the roadside and at every cross roads, the mothers and large children carrying those who were too little to walk, the Negroes were lined up to pay their last respects to the man whom they honored as the Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky.”
In 1964, there was a 22 year old heavyweight boxing champion named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr from Louisville, Kentucky. He was named after his father, who was named after the original Cassius Marcellus Clay. When the boxer converted to Islam, he decided to get rid of the Cassius Clay name, because he said that was “a slave name.” and that he didn’t choose and he didn’t want it. His new name would be Muhammad Ali, which meant “beloved by God.” Muhammad Ali’s great-grandfather had grown up on the original Clay property.
YaleNews article “Muhammad Ali Originally named For Ardent Abolitionist and Yale Alumnus Cassius Clay”
“The Worst-Case Scenario Almanac: Politics” by David Borgenicht and Turk Regan
“Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom” by H. Edward Richardson
“The Anti-Slavery Career of Cassius M. Clay” by Lowell H. Harrison
“Cassius M. Clay: Freedom’s Champion” by Keven McQueen