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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Profile of Cassius Marcellus Clay

I would rank Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903) foremost among bowie-knife fighters.  Clay was in a number of fights in the course of his long life, involving everything from fists to pistols. He fought three times with the bowie knife, his weapon of choice. Two of Clay's knife fights arose from his stance as an Emancipationist, an anti-slavery position he distinguished from Abolitionism. Abolitionists believed in the immediate freeing of slaves, while Clay felt it must be a gradual and controlled process. This distinction did not placate his opponents much.

The following is an obituary of Clay published shortly after his death:
Reminiscences of General Clay
It was the peculiarity of the late Cassius M. Clay's career that he was a fire-eating antislavery man and a Southerner. He used as haughty and threatening a manner in attacking slavery and slaveholders as the most violent had employed in its defence. In one of his earliest outbursts he made it plain to his opponents that an odd and formidable enemy had appeared among them.

“This is not the first time I have heard the cry of abolition. It has no terrors to my ear. Bowie- knives, and belted pistols. and the imprecations of maddened mobs have not driven me from my country's cause. My blood, and the blood of all whom I hold most dear, is ready when she calls for the sacrifice.”

Clay suited his actions to his words. He constantly wore a bowie-knife in his belt, and when he made a political speech there was always a brace of pistols in the mouth of his carpet bag, which he ostentatiously placed at his feet. He went prepared to let his opponents make their choice of arguments. Though he adopted the Northern view of slavery, he strictly adhered to the Kentucky view of “honor” and good-breeding. He made it a rule of his daily life to argue with the reasonable, to refer his differences with “gentlemen” to the great unknown god of duels, and to stab every cutthroat and kick every coward that crossed his path.
Clay desired an audience larger than any that could come within the hearing of his deep voice, and therefore he established at Lexington, in 1845, an antislavery weekly journal which he called The True American. Its tone was very violent and personal; but it was doubtless pleasing to his antislavery readers in Kentucky. He continued his attacks upon slavery and its champions in Kentucky as if the power were all on his side. His physical and moral courage were marvellous. As in every case where an anti-slavery agitator raised his head in the South, “a number of the respectable citizens” assembled; it was resolved that The True American was “dangerous to the peace of our community, and the safety of our homes and families.”

The usual committee was sent to demand the discontinuance of his paper. Clay likened the “respectable citizens” to “assassins, pirates, and highway-robbers.” To their demands he replied: “I treat them with the burning contempt of a brave heart and a loyal citizen.… Your advice with regard to my personal safety is worthy of the source whence it emanated, and meets with the same contempt from me which the purposes of your mission excite. Go tell your secret conclave of cowardly assassins that C. M. Clay knows his rights and how to defend them.”

Although he had previously made elaborate preparations to protect his office against violence, he had not sufficiently recovered from a serious illness to defend his rights. His press was seized and sent away to Cincinnati. This was a serious check to Clay's growing power. Nevertheless, he continued the publication of his paper in Cincinnati, and even edited it in Lexington, as before. Clay's fearless independence of party shows that he was no mere self-seeker. History will not go wrong in honoring him as the fighting Garrison of the South.
 The last sentence compares Clay reference to William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist in Boston and publisher of the anti-slavery newspaper, The LiberatorThe Liberator constantly inveighed against what it called the "bowie-knife culture" of the South, though the bowie knife played a role in hands of the anti-slavery movement, just as it did in the hands of those who supported "the peculiar institution."

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