Historical Marker #533 in Madison County notes the life of Kentucky emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay.
During his long life, Clay participated in many battles. Some were fought to ensure free speech for antislavery advocates. Others, including his service in the Mexican War and the Civil War, were fought as a military officer. And, as one of the few early Republicans in Kentucky, Clay also had his fair share of political conflicts.
Although Clay spoke out against slavery from an early age, he owned slaves. Clay freed a portion of those slaves in 1844 at an estimated loss of $40,000. Many of his newly-freed slaves remained at White Hall, his Madison County estate, and were paid for their work. By freeing his slaves, Clay gained credibility in antislavery circles. However, his opposition to slavery rested upon the negative economic, social, moral, and cultural influences that the "peculiar institution" had upon Kentucky’s white population, rather than his sympathy for enslaved African Americans.
In the 1840s, Clay opposed the annexation of Texas on the grounds that it would open up more land for the expansion of slavery. Although he opposed the subsequent Mexican War, he ultimately joined the fight, noting that "stern necessity leaves me no alternative; my country calls for help, and, right or wrong, I rally to her standard . . . . He shall be deemed the true friend of his country, who not only consistently warns against evil, but rescues her from the danger of her errors or her crimes." Clay served as captain in a Kentucky regiment. Captured by Mexican forces and nearly executed, he was eventually exchanged.
During the 1850s, as sectional tensions mounted between the North and South, Clay allied with the newly-formed Republican Party. Clay gave pro-Republican speeches at rallies and was threatened for supporting this unpopular party, which tried to limit the extension of slavery into the American west.
Clay was a life-long fighter who participated in many battles on diverse causes. The moniker the "Lion of White Hall" was well earned.