The amazing life of the original Cassius Clay


By Tom Fannon, Alexandria
(Image/The Library of Congress)

To the editor:

The story of Russian attention to the American Civil War (“From Russia with love,” July 10) involves one of the more interesting characters of the era — Cassius Marcellus Clay.

A Kentucky planter, ardent abolitionist, Republican and a state legislator, he was a man of contrasts who stood up to the many enemies his political positions earned him. He was twice attacked during political speeches — in one he was shot, in the other stabbed — and fought off the would-be assassins with a Bowie knife, killing one. After one of his attackers, Sam Brown, died in a steamboat disaster, Clay paid tribute and called Brown the bravest man he had ever fought.

Clay published an abolitionist newspaper, True American, in Lexington, Ky., and received enough threats that he was compelled to outfit his office with cannons. When a mob broke in and destroyed his presses, he moved the operation across the Ohio River to Cincinnati.

Clay also fought in the Mexican-American War, and donated the land upon which Berea College was founded.

In 1861 he accepted the post of minister to Russia. (Despite having a close relationship with Abraham Lincoln, it was said that the president preferred to keep him at some distance.) There he witnessed the Russian Emancipation Reform of 1861, which freed the country’s serfs. He came back to the U.S. urging Lincoln to follow suit.

Clay returned to Russia and his diplomatic efforts there were rewarded with the Russian fleet’s visit to the U.S. The naval detachment carried sealed orders to be opened if England entered the war on behalf of the Confederacy.

Clay later initiated the negotiations that bore fruit in the purchase of Alaska.

He remained active in American politics into his 80s and died at the age of 92. His picture hangs in Moscow as the first U.S. ambassador to Russia. The father of the great American boxing champion was named in his honor and gave the name to his son, who later changed it to Muhammad Ali.