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Tom Chaney: The Lion of Whitehall

Of Writers And Their Books: The Lion of Whitehall. Tom reports that Clay was a founder of Berea College; published an abolitionist paper; helped organize and train the militia which protected the national capital and his friend Lincoln; and served as Lincoln's ambassador to the court of the Czars in St. Petersburg. This column first appeared 1 May 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Trapped: Collins and Fancher

By Tom Chaney

The Lion of Whitehall

Cassius Marcellus Clay has been a favorite Kentucky character of mine since I first heard the recording of William H. Townsend's The Lion of Whitehall in the late 1950's.

Townsend's speech about the Kentucky abolitionist and President Abraham Lincoln's minister to Russia was given before the Civil War Round Table in Chicago in 1952. The speech is less a factual history than an impression of the personality of Clay; and is a fine example of old-fashioned Kentucky oratory

A more balanced account of the fiery cousin of Henry Clay is to be found in H. Edward Richardson's little volume, Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom, a part of the Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf, published in 1976.

There is no space here to do justice to the 93 years this "damned Republican and damned Abolitionist" bestrode the stage of Kentucky, national and international life. Cassius Marcellus Clay was born the son of Green Clay, master of Whitehall above the Kentucky River in Madison County, and owner of hundreds of slaves. Cassius and his elder brother Sidney P. freed them all in about 1831.

His poor second cousin, Henry Clay over in Lexington, never would free his slaves and Cassius chided him all his life about his belief in "gradual emancipation" and colonization.

At Yale University Cassius fell under the abolitionist spell of William Lloyd Garrison. During his senior year, he was baptized in the New Haven Sound by a Baptist minister. However, he found the Baptists did not share his abolitionist views, even in New Haven. When he returned to the Bluegrass, he wrote asking that his name be stricken from the Baptist roll there.

It is said that Clay helped persuade Abraham Lincoln to become opposed to slavery. Clay spoke in favor of abolition in Illinois as well as in his native Kentucky. As a young man he boarded with the Robert Todd family where he knew their daughter, Mary Todd, as a young girl. In 1831 in Washington he was welcomed by President Jackson, and knew Martin Van Buren.

Clay was known as a fighter. He wrote the army's manual on the use of the Bowie knife. He would have considered himself not properly attired were he without such a knife on his person.

Lincoln had presented him with a pair of pistols, which he cherished.

There is a story of Clay's speaking in favor of an abolitionist candidate at Stanford, Kentucky. He had received several threats were he to speak there. Undaunted, he stepped to the lectern.

Reaching into his carpetbag he removed a copy of the constitution and placed it on the stand. "This," he said, "is for those of you who honor the laws of man."

He stooped and removed a Bible placing it atop the Constitution. "This," he continued, "is for those of you who honor the laws of God."

Bending over again he removed the Bowie knife and the pair of Lincoln's pistols and crossed them on top of the Bible. "And this," he thundered, eying the section from which he expected trouble, "is for the rest of you SOB's."

It is said that he spoke without interruption.

Clay had a full career. He was a founder of Berea College; published an abolitionist paper in Lexington; helped organize and train the militia which protected the national capital and his friend Lincoln; served as Lincoln's ambassador to the court of the Czars in St. Petersburg.

He was ever a fighter. When in 1894 at 84 he took a second wife, Dora, a lass of 15, his neighbors protested and a posse headed by "High" sheriff Josiah P. Simmons was sent to interfere with the wedding. The wedding had taken place at dawn in anticipation of interference.

Clay met the posse on the veranda of Whitehall; Dora appeared at an upper window and assured the men that she was wed of her own free will; then the fighting began.

Nobody knew who fired the first shot, but Clay fired his two cannon filled with pieces of trace chain and nails, then charged with his pistols and bowie knife. The sheriff reported to the Judge, "It was a mistake to go out there with only seven men . . ." They were thoroughly routed.

Much more could be told of this interesting Kentucky character. Fortunately his home, Whitehall, has been restored to its nineteenth century glory under the leadership of former first lady Beulah Nunn. Clay published his own memoirs -- now out of print. The Townsend speech was printed in a small edition. The Richardson volume is available in used bookstores.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2015-07-05 04:15:02
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