By Laura Coulter
Cassius Marcellus Clay
Anyone unfamiliar with Kentucky history might know “Cassius Clay” as the given name of the world-famous Louisvillian boxer before he became Muhammad Ali. But Ali’s original namesake was an important—and often overlooked—player in 19th century Kentucky, America and even the world. Most importantly, Cassius M. Clay was a mover and shaker in the antislavery movement during a time when slavery was the ultimate moral issue facing the country. His brick home, White Hall, (restored and registered as a state historic site in 1971), sits on a hill in northern Madison County.
Cassius’ Civil War-era legacy is getting extra attention this year, the sesquicentennial anniversary of many of the Civil War battles that took place in Kentucky. One event – White Hall’s annual Ghost Walk, a dramatic event performed by members of Eastern Kentucky University’s theater department – has been given a Civil War theme. Patrons are led by a “Spirit Guide” through the house and grounds, while actors portraying spirits of Clay family members and acquaintances act out scenes from White Hall history or from emotional battles within the Clay family.
The Ghost Walk is set in October to give it a haunted feel, but White Hall tour guide Jeffrey Boord-Dill described it as more of “a thinking man’s haunted house.” Interested persons can still reserve tickets for this event on Oct. 25-27 by calling 859-623-9178.
Boord-Dill is also an assistant professor at EKU and the writer and director of the Ghost Walk, which uses direct quotes from Clay family letters in some scenes. He said that the legacy of the Clay family is very important to Kentucky history and “even though [Clay] never achieved the memorability [of many of the other influential figures of his day], he was still instrumental in helping end slavery and making the United States what it is today.”
The story of White Hall began when Cassius Clay’s father, Green Clay, came to Kentucky as a young man. Green learned the art of land surveying and became the wealthiest man and largest land and slave owner in Kentucky. He built his home, first called Clermont, in 1798-1799. After Cassius inherited the home, he renamed it White Hall. Cassius and his wife Mary Jane added on to the house in the 1860s.
Cassius Clay turned his family's seven-room house into 44-room mansion called White Hall.
“What was a seven-room house was now a 44 room mansion,” Boord-Dill said. The completed Italianate-style house boasted almost 10,000 square feet of living space. The Clays also installed several amenities rare at the time. Inspired by the homes in Russia (where Cassius served as ambassador for a time), Mary Jane put in furnaces so the house would have central heating. The improved home also had indoor bathroom facilities that included a flush toilet and a bathtub with running water.
But the Clays’ legacy includes much more than just architecture and plumbing. Not only did Cassius completely transform his father’s house, he also changed what the family stood for. Though his father owned over 100 slaves, Cassius was an emancipationist; he wanted to gradually end slavery through the means of the law. After Green died, Cassius inherited the family’s slaves and freed those he could. Other slaves were held in trust for Cassius’ children under the terms of his father’s will.\
Cassius was very outspoken in his views against slavery. He started his own newspaper, The True American, because the newspapers of the day were refusing to print his letters and he saw that as an infringement upon his freedom of speech. The True American became the only successful antislavery newspaper in the South. He also travelled the country, speaking against slavery.
Cassius’ political interests were heavily rooted in the slavery issue. In 1844, when Cassius’ cousin Henry Clay (known as The Great Pacificator, in part because of his success of compromises between the states on slavery) ran for president, Cassius campaigned for him. Cassius was also a founding member of the Republican Party, formed in 1854 as an antislavery alternative. He met Abraham Lincoln at an antislavery speaking engagement, and campaigned for Lincoln in the 1860 election. Once Lincoln was in office, he appointed Cassius as Minister to Russia. He served two terms in that post during 1861-1869. While in Russia, Cassius confirmed that if England and France came in on the Confederate side of the war, Russia would join the Union side and later negotiated the sale of Alaska to the United States. He also built a great rapport with the czar and his son, the grand duke.
Cassius returned to the United States for a time in 1862 and Lincoln commissioned him as a major general. While waiting to receive a command, Cassius gave speeches in Washington, D.C., criticizing Lincoln for moving too slow on the slavery issue.
“At that point,” said Boord-Dill. “Lincoln was working on what would become the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln felt if the Union lost Kentucky, they’d lose the war. . . so he sent Clay back to Kentucky. . . to see if Kentucky would stand with Union if the Emancipation was announced.”
Cassius confirmed that Kentucky would stay with the Union, and Lincoln was able to move forward toward emancipation, the very cause Cassius had spent so much time fighting for.
“[Clay] was one of those 19th century renaissance men,” Boord-Dill said. “He was a newspaper publisher, farmer, politician, soldier, diplomat… and he did all of those things pretty darn well.”
While Cassius’ accomplishments were great, his life was not without trouble. He was known for getting into fights about slavery and rights. According to Boord-Dill, his weapon of choice was the Bowie knife. Cassius also never found the political success after the war that he had enjoyed in the antislavery movement.
Cassius made his share of enemies. The area around White Hall was polarized during the war. Boord-Dill added, “Clay had very strong supporters in Madison County, and at the same time, some of his most ardent attackers were from Madison County.”
In addition, feelings against him in Lexington were very strong, as “Fayette County was the hub of wealthy slaveholding families. Most of the slaves in Kentucky were in the central Kentucky area.” Years after the war, a central Kentuckian was reported as saying that he would never forgive Cassius for taking away his slaves. These negative sentiments even led to the deaths of several people close to the Clay family and even an attempt on his son’s life, which Cassius attributes in his memoirs to the Ku Klux Klan.
Cassius was also not without trouble in his personal life. He and Mary Jane divorced in 1878. At the age of 84, he caused a national scandal by marrying a 15-year-old girl. Their marriage also ended in divorce after just a few years. Near the end of his life, Cassius had what would likely be diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia today and was declared by his family as unfit to manage his estate.
However, his legacy and work were appreciated. When Cassius died in 1903, many African-Americans and whites alike lined the road as his body was transported to the Richmond Cemetery. He certainly played his part in bringing the nation through a tumultuous time and freeing millions from an oppressive institution. While the textbooks might overlook this influential Kentuckian, Clay himself wrote the truth about rubbing shoulders with the history-makers of his day by beginning his memoirs with the Latin phrase Quorum—pars fui, which means “Of them—I was a part.”
Of Cassius’ legacy, Boord-Dill said, “Clay’s activities fighting slavery are monumental in importance– particularly because he was a wealthy southern slave owner himself, took financial hits for freeing slaves, and tirelessly fought against slavery, even at the risk of the lives of himself and his family.”
But Cassius was not the only influential member of the Clay family. Mary Jane and his daughters were active in the women’s suffrage movement. Boord-Dill noted that Laura Clay, the middle daughter, was most prominent in the battle for women’s rights. In fact, when women earned the right to vote in 1920, Laura became the first woman nominated for president by a major political party (the Democratic Party).
(Photos from whitehallclermontfoundation.org)
For more information about the Clay family, White Hall, the Ghost Walk and other events, click here.