Monday, October 19, 2009

Happy 199th Bday, C.M. Clay!

*Note: I have not linked directly to many of the digitized newspaper pages from which these clippings appear, though their citations are available. Many are repeated news items within their respective time periods. Similarly, C.M. Clay himself was a popular news item during his life. For a closer view of these clippings, simply click on them with your mouse.

On this day, 199 years ago (1810), one of Kentucky's most notable figures - emancipationist Cassius M. Clay was born into a family of other historical figures including Brutus Clay, Green Clay (his father), and his second cousin Henry Clay. But, we are here to talk about C.M. Clay's life today.

After graduating from Transylvania University, Clay attended Yale, where he heard abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison speak, and his passion for antislavery began. In 1845, he even began publishing an antislavery newspaper out of Lexington, called the True American. Knowing his paper would face dissension, he reinforced his office door, armed himself with weapons (including a cannon!), and even installed an alternate escape route! His suspicions were correct and, shortly after, the city-folk (including Henry Clay's son) petitioned to have him thrown out of town. The paper moved to Cincinnati, where friends and family continued it while he left to fight in the Mexican-American War, earning the rank of General.

In his political life, Clay served 3 terms in the KY General Assembly. When the Civil War began, he turned down Lincoln's nomination for ambassador to Spain, opting instead to serve as ambassador to Russia. His time in this role proved key to American history, as Clay was influential in purchase negotiations of Alaska.

Throughout this time, Clay never lost his belief in emancipation. After returning from the Mexican-American War (but before leaving for Russia), he assisted Rev. John G. Fee in establishing Berea College by donating 10 acres of land, and encouraging the foundation of a church-based school. Although the school did not truly take off until after the Civil War, Berea would prove to be revolutionary as an racially coeducational institution. Over differences of opinion in how the school should be ran, Fee & Clay parted ways - Clay to Russia, and Fee to run the school (after briefly fleeing Madison County due to threats during the Civil War).

Later, in 1904, other "differences of opinion" further squashed the dreams of the revolutionary Berea with the Day Laws, prohibiting racially integrated education. Though Berea College fought it up through the US Supreme Court, including multiple fines for violations, it held until 1950. View the KY newspaper clippings below from 1904-1905 to see the progression of the situation:

As passionate as Clay was in his political & public life - leaving an undoubtedly strong legacy - it also deeply infiltrated his personal life. C.M. Clay married Mary Jane Warfield in 1833, the daughter of another notable KY figure, horseman Dr. Elisha Warfield. They had 10 children, raised on their Madison County estate, White Hall. However, a busy public life full of ambassadorships, lecturing, advocacy, and campaigning kept him away from the family. In 1878, they divorced.

At the time, existing laws meant essentially all property belonged to Cassius; Mary Jane was left with nothing - he even charged her for back rent from the time she kept house raising his children there! She moved the children to an apartment in Lexington. This devastating divorce had quite an impact on Clay's daughters, particularly two that you my recognize - Mary Barr and Laura. The sisters went on to fight for women's rights - Laura went on to form the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) in 1888, with Josephine K. Henry, and lobbied with the passion of her father. She became well-known on the national stage, along with her cousin, Madeline McDowell Breckinridge, the great-grandaughter of Henry Clay (but that's another story). Both were present to see the 19th amendment signed by the Kentucky governor, in 1920. Ironically, Laura's father, Cassius, supportive of emancipation was opposed to Prohibition & Women's suffrage. Check out these clippings below - from early 1891 editions of the Bluegrass Blade to see the respect Josephine K. Henry gives Laura Clay for KERA, & Laura's views on women's property rights:

Though these are some of the more enduring pieces of C.M. Clay's legacy, there are other, lesser-known stories. For example, his affinity for dueling (outlawed by the 3rd KY Constitution in 1850), or knife-fighting, in particular. More specifically, his favorite weapon was the bowie knife; he even published a pamphlet on it! His provocative nature continued into his elderly years, and seems to be what brought him "news-worthy" attention in the gossip columns (that and his quick divorce from his second wife, who was quite a bit younger than him. Perhaps these personality traits, which attracted controversy, is what gained him the nickname the "Lion of White Hall." Below are two clippings - one citing his involvement in a fight, when he was 91 years old!!! and the other referencing his nature and nickname, even after death, as he left 6 wills! (His property and estate were ultimately auctioned off, bringing quite a respectable price).

With any number of legacies to choose from, Cassius M. Clay was respectfully remembered for his achievements and contributions when he died on July 22, 1903. Read his elaborate bio, and view a sketch of him and his estate, White Hall, in this Berea Citizen obituary, published July 30, 1903.

Much of C.M. Clay's legacy, stemming from his life, including Berea College & Laura Clay's contributions to women's movement, occurred after his death. Do you think he would have approved of these achievements? Why or why not? Do you think Clay would have approved of his legacy - the one history books typically see; without the provocative & controversy; no knife-fighting or messy divorce? What do you think of the way Clay lived his life?

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