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.
The anti-abolitionist movement had been sending Clay death threats for years, and attempts had been made on his life in the past, but in 1843, his abolitionist crusading became too much for them. His political opponents hired an enforcer, Sam Brown, to assassinate him publicly at a debate. Presumably, this brazen public onslaught was meant to send a message to other abolitionists that they should fear for their lives. It had the opposite effect.
Brown fired a bullet directly into Clay's chest. He must have assumed he had slain Clay, but he couldn't have been more wrong. Enraged, Clay pulled out his Bowie knife and fought through Brown's allies. When he got to Brown, he wasn't content to simply stab him. Instead, Clay cut off Brown's nose. He cut off Brown's ear. He gouged out Brown's eye. To top off his savage rejoinder, he picked Brown up (Clay still had a bullet in his chest at this point) and tossed him over a wall and down an embankment. Clay's actions were so brutal that he wasn't even charged with assault; he was charged with mayhem.
Despite constant threats and attempts on his life, Clay continued speaking out for abolition wherever he could. No doubt he had many close calls, but one night in Kentucky was one of the closest calls of his life.
Clay had just finished an anti-slavery speech when he was approached by several brothers, the sons of a local pro-slavery politician. The ringleader was named Cyrus Turner. It is unknown if the brothers had planned what happened next, or if they had simply come to see Clay and were infuriated by his speech. Regardless, they went after Clay, with a clear intent to end him once and for all. They took his Bowie knife and stabbed him with it several times, no doubt thinking that was enough to do the job.
It was not. Clay, a strong and imposing man, wrested his knife back from the brothers and proceeded to chase them away. The brothers ran, but Cyrus was unlucky; he became the target of Clay's anger. Clay, a man who had taken a bullet in the chest six years prior and had been knifed several times just minutes beforehand, ran Cyrus down and fatally stabbed him. Afterward, Clay promptly passed out before he was rescued and treated.
The lacerations weren't even Clay's closest brush with mortality that night. During the brawl, one of the brothers attempted to shoot at Clay's head several times, but the pistol wouldn't fire.
Clay was born to a slave-owning family and grew up on the family plantation at White Hall. He would have been accustomed to seeing all manner of slave owners, and all different ways of treating slaves. However, during his time at Yale he attended a speech given by the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. This seemingly kicked off Clay's passionate anti-slavery stance.
In addition to his political activism, Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper, the True American, in Kentucky, which would have been an incredibly bold and provocative move at the time. When he founded it, Clay reportedly said he was the first to "beard the monster in his den."
Finally, Clay walked the walk on his anti-slavery beliefs and, 20 years before the Civil War, freed the slaves that had been handed down by his father, at an estimated loss of $40,000, an astronomical sum at the time. The former slaves were given the opportunity to remain at White Hall and work for wages, which many of them did.
A colleague of Clay once said of him, "He would fight the wind did it blow from the South side when he wanted it to blow from the North."
While Clay was no stranger to a chaotic brawl or a drunken tussle, his conflict of choice was, as befitted a man of his era, the duel. He would issue challenges over just about any subject under the sun, from political matters to personal insults to an argument over Kentucky bluegrass. While many of these challenges were likely simple bravado and dismissed as such, more than a few were answered, and more than a few were fought.
Clay had such a reputation as a duelist that it was said he had slain more men in duels than any other man in America. While this is, of course, impossible to verify, the mere existence of the rumor speaks to both the sheer number of his duels and his skill at surviving them.