When most of us hear the name “Cassius Clay” we think of the boxer Mohammad Ali, since that was his name at birth until he joined the Nation of Islam and changed it. Oddly, he claimed his birth name, “Cassius Clay” was his “slave name.” We say odd, because his namesake, the Cassius Clay of the 1800s was a prominent abolitionist politician who spent his career fighting for against slavery. He was the Cassius who served in the Kentucky House of Representatives and was also appointed to Russia by Abraham Lincoln. In his own way, this Cassius Clay was a hell of a fighter too, not for money, titles, and fame, but to end slavery.
Cassius Marcellus Clay
Clay was born with a golden spoon, as his parents were Sally Lewis and Green Clay, one of the wealthiest planters-turned-politician and enslavers of Kentucky. The Clay family was big with politics: his older brother became a politician at the state and federal levels, his two cousins were Kentucky politicians and Alabama governors, his sister married a state and US politician, too, while their son would be elected to Congress.
As for Cassius, he attended Yale and came across abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and his lectures were what inspired him to join the anti-slavery movement.
Later in his life, he would be known as the Lion of White Hall, named after the estate and plantation where he grew up. He would also turn out to be a politician in Congress to not mess with, very vocal with his advocate for the abolition of slavery during the 1840s, especially in Kentucky.
His charisma and boundless energy brought him close to Lincoln, even when his ambitions were foreign to the president. Regardless, Cassius was definitely something. Here’s why.
Took a Bullet to His Chest
It was a matter of course for Abolitionists like Clay to receive numerous death threats from anti-abolitionists. In 1843, however, his political opponents hired an assassin, Sam Brown, to kill him during a public debate. This was also to send a message to other abolitionists to shut up and fear for their safety. In the halls of Congress, the issue of slavery could barely be mentioned on the floor without the risk of it turning into bloodshed.
In 1856, the Senate has just adjourned when Representative Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chamber carrying a cane and beat Senator Charles Sumner half to death with it. The violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery politicians became so common that members of Congress armed themselves with pistols and knives while in Congress.
Following the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision which found that blacks(even freed blacks) could never be citizens and therefore not entitled to any rights under the Constitution, a brawl broke out on the floor of the House involving some 30 Congressmen who left each other bloodied and injured.
Sam Brown rushed the stage Clay was speaking on and drew out a pistol and fired it at Clay who had saw him coming and was pulling his Bowie knife from the scabbard on his belt. As he drew the blade out across his abdomen, the bullet stuck the blade and broke up with fragments going into Clay’s chest.
Rather than dying on the spot, an enraged Clay cut and slashed his way to Brown. When he reached Brown, he managed to cut his nose off and then his ears. Then he gouged out one of Brown’s eyes. As a finale, Clay then picked Brown up and threw him off the stage. All done with the bullet fragments lodged in his chest. He was charged not with assault but with mayhem.
Stabbed But Still Alive
He was not deterred by the continuous threats against his life and certainly not by the bullet he took in the chest six years previously. He still continued to be vocal against slavery. His haters, of course, would not easily stop. He just finished his anti-slavery speech when the six Turner brothers, sons of a local pro-slavery politician, went after Clay. All six attacked him with clubs, knives and a pistol.
They obviously underestimated Clay who in spite of his injuries managed to draw his Bowie knife again fighting off all six of his attackers and fatally gutting Cyrus Turner, before passing out himself from loss of blood.
After the Civil War and the end of slavery, Clay returned to Kentucky to find he was very unpopular for his part in freeing the slaves. During the war, Kentucky was pretty evenly split between pro and anti-slavery factions, and the state initially declared its neutrality in the war. Its strategic position as a border state was of concern to both the Union and the Confederacy and when it was discovered that the Confederates planned to invade Kentucky and make her part of the Confederacy, the state appealed to Lincoln for troops and support, effectively driving her into the arms of the Union. Some 30,000 Kentuckians would serve in the Confederate army while nearly 120,000 would wear the Union blue.
Clay, now in his eighties still had his enemies seeking revenge. One night three men broke into his house with the intent of killing and robbing him. One of Clay’s house staff heard the commotion and rode off to get the Sherrif. When the law did arrive, they found the elderly Clay sitting by his fire with his Bowie knife and pistol, bloodied with bullet holes in his bathrobe, and two of his assailants dead on the floor.
He Died Of Natural Causes
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the life of Cassius Clay was his eventual death. Given his rough life, the assassination attempts, civil war, and the general state of medicine at the time, he died of natural causes at an incredibly old age of 92 on July 22, 1903. He was 92 years old. A life like his only deserved an explosive exit, it is claimed that at that moment that he died, a huge thunderbolt struck down the head of his cousin’s statue at a nearby cemetery.
His legacy also lives on at his estate, the White Hall, found in Richmond, Kentucky.
Muhammad Ali himself is the descendant of one of the slaves Cassius Clay inherited and then freed, Herman Heaton Clay. Herman in turn named his son Cassius Clay after his emancipator. Cassius Clay Sr named his son Cassius Clay Jr., which was no other than the renowned boxer Mohammed Ali.