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.

Cassius Marcellus Clay. (Matthew Brady, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.