White Hall-Clermont Foundation
White Hall State Historic Site
White Hall State Historic Site
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Cassius Standinga

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Question: 2009 marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. Is there a connection between Cassius M. Clay and Abraham Lincoln?

Let’s join a tour already in progress and find out!

Guest: I have heard that there is a connection between Abraham Lincoln and Cassius M. Clay, what is it?

Lincoln Unknown Datea

Tour Guide: That is a very good question; actually the life of Cassius Marcellus Clay and that of Abraham Lincoln could not have been more dissimilar. Lincoln was born of poor parents with little formal education. Clay, on the other hand, was born the son of General Green Clay, a wealthy land and slave owner, and had all the advantages that money and position could afford. Clay studied at Translyvania University and later at Yale University. While a student at Yale, Clay heard a speech by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, which influenced him to become opposed to slavery.

Throughout his career, Clay fought for the eventual emancipation of slaves. He was the owner and editor of the True American, an antislavery newspaper published in Lexington, Kentucky. Clay invited abolitionist John G. Fee to move to Kentucky and donated to Fee a ten-acre tract in Madison County for the beginnings of a school that would become Berea College. In 1856 Clay became an ardent supporter of the Republican Party. He campaigned for Lincoln in 1860, and received the appointment of Minister to Russia. Before Clay left for his diplomatic post, he organized a battalion of volunteers to help defend Washington, D.C. until federal troops arrived.

Lincoln recalled Clay in 1862, and commissioned him a major general. The President sent Clay to Kentucky to gather information on the possible reaction of the state to the emancipation of slaves in the rebelling states; Clay reported that Kentuckians loyal to the Union would remain steadfast. In 1863 Clay returned to Russia as ambassador, and in 1867 helped negotiate the American purchase of Alaska from the Russian Empire.

Clay’s relationship with Mary Todd’s family began early when he stayed with them in his college days at Translyvania after a servant accidentally burned the building he lived in. Cassius Clay in his Memoirs frequently commented on what a good friend Mary Todd’s father Robert Todd was to him, and Robert’s daughter Elizabeth Todd served as an attendant at Cassius and Mary Jane’s wedding. The close relationships extended to Clay’s daughters. Mary Barr and Sarah Clay, while visiting their Uncle Brutus Clay in Washington D.C., attended a party given by the Lincolns. At this function Mary Barr wore a gold silk dress, which had originally been designed for and worn by her mother Mary Jane when she was presented to the royal Russian court. Later Sally and Mary Jane attended a play at Ford’s theater with the Lincolns. Mary Barr Clay later reminisced about that fateful evening, “In the theatre President and Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sally Clay and I, Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay, occupied the same box which the year after saw Mr. Lincoln slain by [John Wilkes] Booth. I do not recall the play, but Wilkes Booth played the part of the villain. The box was right on the stage with a railing around it. Mr. Lincoln sat next to the rail, I next to Mrs. Lincoln, Miss Sally Clay and the other gentlemen farther around. Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his fingers close to Mr. Lincoln’s face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said ‘Mr. Lincoln he looks as if he meant that for you.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?’

Clay died on July 22, 1903. As a testament to the antislavery work of Clay, mourners at his death included both the white and African-American population. A contemporary newspaper commented, “Never was a more striking scene witnessed on the way to Richmond, where the funeral services were to be held. From every humble negro cottage along the roadside and at every cross roads, the mothers and large children carrying those who were too little to walk, the negroes were lined up to pay their last respects to the man whom they honored as the Abraham Lincoln of Kentucky.” Because of his outspokenness against slavery in a pro-slavery area, his willingness to fight for those beliefs, and scandal within his own personal life, Clay had been one of the most controversial Kentuckians of his time; yet, his support of Lincoln and of the Union helped to preserve the United States.

Mary Barra

Mary Barr Clay

Mary Jane Presentation Dressa

Mary Jane Clay wearing “The Presentation Dress”

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White Hall State Historic Site
500 White Hall Shrine Road     Richmond, KY 40475-9159
Telephone: 859-623-9178               Fax 859-626-8489

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