June 4, 2016
Mohammed Ali, who died yesterday, was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a descendant of slaves.
The senior Clay, in turn, was named after a 19th century political and diplomatic figure. When Ali adopted Islam and changed his name, he explained that it was his “slave name,” that he didn’t choose it and didn’t want it.
I get what he meant by “slave name,” but there was a certain irony in the term inasmuch as the original Cassius Marcellus Clay was an abolitionist. In fact, although he was a Kentucky planter, the scion of a wealthy family, and a member of the state legislature, he argued for the immediate abolition of slavery.
During a political debate in 1843, a hired assassin named Sam Brown shot Clay in the chest, but Clay went after Brown with a Bowie knife and threw him off an embankment.
Two years later, Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. Kentucky. This inspired so much antagonism toward him, that he carried two pistols and a knife and sealed himself behind armored doors at his office, which was equipped with two cannons. After a crowd of about sixty men broke into the office and confiscated the printing equipment, Clay moved his operation to Cincinnati, Ohio, but continued to live in Kentucky.
Clay served in the Mexican-American War as a captain with the 1st Kentucky Cavalry from 1846 to 1847. He opposed the annexation of Texas and expansion of slavery into the Southwest. While making a speech for abolition in 1849, Clay was attacked by six brothers, who beat and stabbed him and tried to shoot him. Clay fought them all off and killed one of them, Cyrus Turner, with a Bowie knife.
Clay later served as minister to Russia under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, resigning after Ulysses S. Grant took office. Clay was in Russia when Tsar Alexander II issued an edict emancipating serfs throughout the empire. Clay received a military commission from Lincoln and returned to the United States for a time during the Civil War, apparently influencing Lincoln to prepare the Emancipation Proclamation.
Clay was influential in the Tsar’s decision to threaten war against France and Britain if they were to recognize the Confederate States of America, and also in the sale of Alaska to the United States, which occurred during Andrew Johnson’s administration.
Clay and his wife, Mary Jane, had seven children, but the marriage ended after forty-five years, due to Clay’s chronic infidelity. At 84, he married Dora Richardson, who was 15 years old at the time. Not surprisingly, two of Clay’s daughters, Laura and Mary Barr, were women’s-rights activists.