Cassius Marcellus Clay
Clay, Cassius Marcellus (1810-1903)
Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903)
Abolitionist newspaper editor
Journalism and Social Justice . The link between journalism and social justice has long been a feature of American life. This was certainly the case for the fiery Cassius Marcellus Clay, a wealthy Kentuckian who served as antislavery crusader, politician, journalist, soldier, and diplomat. Though his career in journalism was brief, Clay—like several other nineteenth-century journalists—founded a newspaper not to advance his fortunes but as a means to an end: the abolition of slavery.
Education . Born in 1810 to a large slaveholding family on a plantation near Lexington, Cassius Clay received an education including instruction in French at St. Joseph, a Jesuit school in Kentucky. In 1831 he traveled east, where he met President Andrew Jackson and other important men who were friends of his father. He soon enrolled at Yale College, where he was inspired by William Lloyd Garrison, the firebrand editor whose life and newspaper, The Liberator, were dedicated to abolition.
From Politics to Journalism . Back in Lexington, Clay began a political career, succeeding in a race for the state legislature when he was only twenty-five. His political career sputtered over the next decade, in large measure because of his increasingly outspoken opposition to slavery. In this hostile political climate, Clay’s move to journalism was predictable, a way to extend his antislavery crusade. Clay’s newspaper, the True American, established in Lexington in 1845, proved to be a financial disaster and a danger to its founder’s life. Its mission was clear: “Devoted to Universal Liberty; Gradual Emancipation of Kentucky; Literature; Agriculture; the Elevation of Labor, Morally and Politically;… etc., etc.”
The True American. The newspaper soon attracted enemies. More troubling to Clay, however, was finding like-minded writers to staff the paper. Clay’s first choice as editor, a Frankfort man named T. B. Stevenson, was immediately intimidated and never moved to Lexington. Clay was not a man to dodge a fight. He fortified the paper’s doors with sheet iron and installed two brass cannons loaded with shot and nails behind folding doors. “I furnished my office with Mexican lances, and a limited number of guns,” Clay wrote. “There were six or eight persons who stood ready to defend me. If defeated, they were to escape by a trap-door in the roof; and I had placed a keg of powder, with a match, which I could set off and blow up the office and all my invaders; and this I should most certainly have done.…”
The Newspaper Fails . Among those who sought to stop Clay and his paper was a secret group known as the Committee of Sixty. Within weeks of the paper’s founding, Clay came down with typhoid fever. While he was recovering, the Committee of Sixty broke into the office, where they packed up the type, presses, and other equipment and shipped it to Cincinnati. Clay continued to edit the paper from Lexington, though less effectively. The break-in hurt the paper, and it failed in 1846 after moving to Louisville. Clay used the incident to reinforce the fight for free expression in Kentucky. Having learned the identities of some of the Committee of Sixty, Clay filed suit and won, collecting $2,500 in damages. By prevailing, Clay demonstrated the importance and legitimacy of a free press in Kentucky and, by implication, in much of the Midwest.
Personal Tests . Clay went on to advance the antislavery cause as a passionate and effective orator. Like his stories in the True American, Clay’s speeches frequently caused an uproar, involving him in several fights and at least one duel. Clay survived a duel in 1845 by dodging a bullet and then disfiguring his attacker, gouging out an eye, cutting off an ear, and splitting the man’s face with his Bowie knife. Clay’s courage was tested again when he led troops into battle in the Mexican War. He was captured in early 1847 and later freed in a prisoner exchange. Back in Lexington, Clay was honored as a war hero, even among his old proslavery foes. Clay entered politics again in 1849, running for governor under the banner of the Emancipation Party. He lost, but he attracted national attention for his efforts. In 1856 his abolitionist views led him to the new Republican Party, where he became a friend of Abraham Lincoln.
Ambassador to Russia . Following Lincoln’s election, Clay hoped for a cabinet post. Instead Lincoln offered an ambassadorship. Clay turned down an ambassadorship in Spain in favor of Russia, a country Clay saw as important to the war-torn United States. After a year in St. Petersburg, Clay returned to Washington, where he urged Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Clay was ordered back to Russia in 1863, a move his wife protested. She and Clay’s seven living children remained in the United States. He served in St. Petersburg until 1869, charming the Russian nobility and carrying on an affair with Anna Petrov, prima ballerina in the Russian Imperial Ballet.
The Lion of White Hall . Clay retired to the family plantation during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, an old man now known as the Lion of White Hall. He and his wife were finally divorced in 1878. Even in retirement, Clay was irascible. At age eighty-four he married a fifteen-year-old neighbor and held off the group of officials who had come to remove the girl. The marriage ended after three years, however, and Clay’s finances ran low, prompting him to apply for and receive a pension for his service in the Mexican War. Clay died in 1903 during a violent thunderstorm, appropriate weather for the passing of a Southerner brave enough to carry on a lifelong crusade against slavery and racial injustice.
Ronald Truman Farrar, “Cassius Marcellus Clay,” in American Newspaper Journalists: 1690–1872, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 43, edited by Perry J. Ashley (Columbia, S.C.: Bruccoli Clark / Detroit: Gale Research, 1985), pp. 98–102.