Cassius Clay at Yale, by Malcolm Mitchell

I have a suggestion for the students, faculty, and alumni at Yale, where the naming of a residential college in 1931 to honor John C. Calhoun, an 1804 graduate from South Carolina, is being reconsidered. Calhoun had a notable political career — congressman, senator, secretary of state, and vice president twice — but by 1850, when he died, he had become notorious for his advocacy of slavery as “a positive good,” not only in the South but in new states and territories, and for arguing that Southern states had a constitutional right to “nullify” federal legislation.

If the residential college is to be renamed, an alternative might be Clay College, to honor Cassius Marcellus Clay.

No, not that Clay. I mean the white, Kentucky-born, antislavery Clay, a prominent figure in American social and political life in the 19th century — he lived from 1810 to 1903 — and, yes, the man for whom Muhammad Ali’s grandfather Herman named a son, who in turn named his son Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Ali’s full birth name. 

Like Calhoun, the original Clay graduated from Yale, in 1832. He was born into a wealthy Kentucky family whose circle included his cousin Henry Clay (Cassius adopted Henry’s “American System,” promoting Northern industry alongside Southern free-labor agriculture), the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (the lone dissenter in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which legalized separation of the races: “Our Constitution is color-blind,” he objected), and the Robert Todd family of Lexington. Cassius and Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife, began a lifelong friendship when she was 13 and he was a 19-year-old student at Transylvania University (founded in Lexington in 1780 by Jefferson and the Virginia Legislature, before western Virginia became Kentucky).

Justice Harlan was, like Clay, an earthy Kentuckian who attended Transylvania; his fellow justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (Harvard Law School) called him “the last tobacco-chomping justice.” Harlan’s encomium to Clay, shortly after his death, was typical of others: “There was a more striking combination of manly beauty and strength in his face than in the face of any man whom I ever saw. I always had the highest regard for his integrity of character, his manliness, and his fidelity to his own convictions.”

I first came across Cassius Clay while writing my previous “Guestwords” piece, “Am I a Racist?” Even the briefest glance into his life is engrossing. By the time he transferred to Yale early in 1831, he had already inherited from his father thousands of acres of rich bluegrass country and 17 slaves. He graduated not merely with honors — he was chosen to deliver the centennial George Washington birthday address on Feb. 22, 1832 — but as a fervent abolitionist. 

His life after Yale could not have differed more from Calhoun’s. While Clay was emancipating the slaves left to him by his father and carrying the abolitionist campaign to his Kentucky neighbors (he began publishing The True American in Lexington in 1845, exhorting 600,000 white Kentuckians to resist a “despotic and irresponsible minority” of 31,000 slaveholders), Calhoun was pushing the case for extending slavery into new states and territories.

Clay became a founding leader in the Republican Party and promoted Lincoln’s nomination for president in the election of 1860. Calhoun’s pro-slavery views still influenced that election, 10 years after his death. When Jefferson Davis, as a U.S. senator from Mississippi, told his constituents that if a Republican was elected in 1860, “let the Union be dissolved,” the future president of the Confederacy invoked Calhoun’s ghost: “As did the great and good Calhoun, from whom is drawn [this] expression of value, I love and venerate the union of those states — but I love liberty and Mississippi more.”

(Davis was in fact born in Kentucky, two years before Cassius Clay, and also went to Transylvania University. He then graduated from West Point and served seven years in the U.S. Army before he moved to Mississippi and entered politics.)

American historians have largely ignored Cassius Clay. The most recent biography appeared in 1976, a self-described “biographical essay” by H. Edward Richardson that is important more for locating than for using the numerous archives of letters, legal documents, newspaper articles, and earlier books and articles pertaining to Clay’s life. It could serve as a guidebook for a young Ph.D. who would make his mark with a reassessment of an important figure in American history.

Clay was, for example, Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia during the Civil War. His page on the U.S. State Department website calls him “the most famous Southern emancipationist” and credits him with maintaining “Russian support for the Union cause” at a time when both France and England were actively supporting the Confederacy. It concludes, “In 1867, Clay played a key role in the purchase of Alaska.”

One archive of Clay papers is in Berea College, established in Kentucky in 1855 on land that Clay donated, and with money he provided to its founder, John G. Fee. It was the first American college to admit blacks and whites, men and women; its motto remains “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.”

Clay’s importance in antebellum politics was attested by the great newspaperman Horace Greeley, who founded The New York Tribune in 1841 to further “the end of all government — the welfare of the people.” By 1845 Greeley joined the antislavery movement and read Clay’s new paper The True American — “the first paper which ever bearded the monster in his den,” he wrote. In 1848 he published “The Writings of Cassius Marcellus Clay.” Promising readers “passages and pages which have rarely been excelled in vigor, in forecast, or in true eloquence,” Greeley predicted that the book would be “the trumpet-call to the wide battle-field in which the liberties of mankind are now to be struggled for.”

Cassius Clay was, in the tenor of his times, as devoted to his native state as his pro-slavery opponents were to theirs. In his 1885 memoirs, he boasted of his contributions not only to “the overthrow of American slavery [and] the salvation of the Union,” but to “the restoration of the autonomy of the states.” The difference, however, is that for Calhoun and Davis and others, defending “states’ rights” was merely a mask for protecting slavery not only in their home states but wherever the country expanded. 

Despite Lincoln’s often repeated promise while pursuing the presidency to “let slavery alone where it is,” Southern states began to secede within weeks of his election in November 1860. Jefferson Davis was named president of the new Confederacy a month before Lincoln was sworn in as president of the Union on March 4, 1861.

The Confederacy had no interest in Lincoln’s explicit inaugural promise: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.” Exactly a week later, on March 11, the Constitution of the Confederate States was formally adopted.

That document was in fact copied virtually intact from the U.S. Constitution — except for a single permanent injunction: “No law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” Unrestrained expansion of slavery was the sole objective of secession, the single reason why Confederate flags began to replace the stars and stripes over Southern states (but not Kentucky).

Most telling, Southerners’ professed love for states’ rights was unrequited. As in the Union they fought, their central government was supreme: “This Constitution, and the laws of the Confederate States made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the Confederate States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.”

The Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1896 allowed racists in both the North and the South to restrict voting rights for blacks and to impose strict color lines, especially in education, which lasted nearly 60 years. After 1954, when the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated education unconstitutional, racists were mostly restrained by the federal government. They did not, however, give up either their goals or their states’ rights mask. Working within each state, they have succeeded in creating today’s appalling inequalities between primarily white and primarily black public schools — in resources, quality of education, and physical environment.

Incredibly, Congress last December revamped its No Child Left Behind laws, passing with uncommon bipartisanship the cynically named Every Student Succeeds Act, which returns full power over education to the states.

At the same time, however, Connecticut residents have brought a civil case against the state executive in Hartford, alleging inequitable funding of public schools. Its citations include two neighboring school districts, the wealthier (and whiter) of which buses students to school, while students in the poorer district have to find their own transportation or walk to school. 

Readers familiar with the various cases consolidated into Brown v. Board of Education will remember the black minister in 1940s South Carolina who petitioned his school district to provide a bus for his daughter’s school, as it did for white schools — and was quickly hounded out of his job and the county.

The website of the Connecticut Coalition that brought the case is ccjef.org. A judge recently ruled strongly for the Coalition, and the attorney general is appealing. The case could eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court. I would like to live long enough to see that.


Malcolm Mitchell, until recently a part-time resident of East Hampton, is editor and publisher of Investment Policy magazine.