Weird History
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Duel-Happy Abolitionist Cassius Clay Was The Most Metal Politician In American History

Updated November 21, 2019 188.1k views14 items

For most people, the name Cassius Clay is associated with one man and one man only: Muhammad Ali. Perhaps the most famous athlete of the 20th century, Ali famously rejected the name Cassius Clay when he joined the Nation of Islam and refused to answer to what he had dubbed "my slave name."

This bold move had the intended effect and cemented Ali as a crusader for equality and African American rights, but ironically, the name Cassius Clay was taken from a man who had fought for abolition his entire life. So who was the original Cassius Clay? The simple answer is that he was a prominent abolitionist politician in the mid-1800s. He served in the Kentucky House of Representatives and was appointed ambassador to Russia by Abraham Lincoln.

But that's not the whole story. Known as the Lion of White Hall - named after the estate and plantation he owned and grew up on - he was also one of the toughest politicians ever to walk the halls of Congress. He won duel after duel, and his physical exploits are legendary. Not only that, he was an open and vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery in the 1840s, in Kentucky of all places.

He was bombastic and charismatic, but could also be vicious and cruel. His boundless energy brought him close to Lincoln, even as his ambition alienated the president. He embodied the volatile, contradictory spirit of his age, and in the end Cassius Marcellus Clay went down as perhaps the most larger-than-life figure of the day.

  • He Once Scared A Would-Be Opponent Into Suicide The Night Before Their Scheduled Duel

    In 1833, Clay was studying law at Transylvania University in Lexington and wooing a woman named Mary Jane Warfield. During their courtship, a former suitor of Warfield, Dr. John Declarey, sent her a letter containing numerous accusations against Clay.

    Clay got his hands on the letter, then almost immediately found the man and beat him within an inch of his life with a hickory stick. By way of satisfaction, Declarey challenged Clay to a duel, likely thinking nothing would come of it. Indeed, he seemed to be trying to avoid an actual confrontation, since he set the date of the duel for the day of Clay's wedding to Warfield. Naturally, Clay was unable to attend, and Declarey told everyone within earshot that Clay had fled the duel out of cowardice.

    This did not sit well with Clay. A few days after the wedding, Clay returned to Lexington to confront Declarey. Clay went to the man's hotel and Declarey challenged him to a duel. Declarey left for the evening, and Clay awaited his challenge. But no challenge came, and the next day Clay was informed that Declarey had been so intimidated that he had gone upstairs, cut his wrists, and bled out.

  • Photo: Currier & Ives / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    He Was A Hero Of The Mexican-American War, And Tried To Sacrifice His Life For His Men

    Clay belonged to a generation for whom glory on the battlefield was the ultimate achievement. During the Mexican-American War, when he arrived in Mexico as captain of a company of Kentucky volunteers, he and his men were captured almost instantly by the Mexicans. 

    At one point, a captain managed to escape the prison and the guards were threatening to slay all the prisoners as retribution. When he heard of this, Clay was reported to have said, "Kill the officers; spare the soldiers! Spare the men; they are innocent. I alone am responsible." Some soldiers reported he even opened his shirt to submit to the final blow. The blow never fell, however, as the guards were so impressed by his courage that they spared the entire company.

  • Photo: Mathew Brady / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    At The Age Of 89, He Was Assaulted By Three Intruders - And Slayed Two Of Them, Injuring The Third

    Late in his life, Clay got entangled with a young man named Riley Brock. Brock married Clay's ex-wife Dora, and Clay suspected that some form of domestic abuse was taking place. Relations between Clay and Brock were strained, and Clay believed that both he and Dora were in serious danger from the young man. Clay even wrote to a friend that he suspected Brock was planning to rob White Hall.

    As it turned out, he was right to worry. In 1899, Brock and two other men broke into White Hall with the intent to swipe whatever they could. It is unknown what exactly transpired that night, but when police arrived on the scene, hours after the break-in, they discovered one of the burglars dead of a gunshot wound, the other had been fatally knifed, and Brock had fled for his life. Clay was alive and well - and hadn't lost a penny.

  • He Dedicated His Career To The Abolitionist Cause, And His Anti-Slavery Writings Were Influential

    As the editor of the True American, Clay dedicated the lion's share of his time to condemning the institution of slavery. The majority of his arguments were not moral, but economic. He saw the South lagging far behind in terms of technology, transportation, and economy:

    It is an evil to the free laborer, by forcing him by the laws of competition, supply, and demand, to work for the wages of the slave - food and shelter. The competition of unrequited service, slave labor, dooms the laboring white millions of these states to poverty; poverty gives them over to ignorance; and ignorance and poverty are the fast high roads to crime and suffering.

    This was a fairly common argument at the time - that enslavement made it difficult for white laborers to compete, which forced white men to slave-like compensations for their labors. Be it out of opposition to enslavement itself or economic philosophy, Clay clearly held his position on the matter with a fierce conviction, facing near-constant death threats and attempts on his life without ever wavering.