Clay in Russia-Was Popular Figure


Clay in Russia-Was Popular Figure


The purpose of this article is to present some little known facts about Cassius Marcellus Clay, including information about his appointment to be ambassador to Russia.

In 1856, Clay left the Whig party (once headed by his cousin, Henry Clay) and helped organize the Republican party in Kentucky. Not many people know it, but the first state convention (1856)' was held in an oak grove in the Slate Lick Community in southern Madison County. This convention named a full ticket of Republicans, including Clay for US Senator. In 1860, Clay was powerful enough in his party to be nominated for vice president. The first ballot read Hannibal Hamlin 194, C.M. Clay 101 1/2. However, Hamlin was nominated on the second ballot.

After Lincoln was elected, Clay sought the position of Secretary of War, but was turned down for this position because of his rabid anti-slavery stance. Then on May 6,1861, he was commissioned as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the United States to Russia. Clay journeyed to Russia via London and Paris. He won favor with noble and peasant alike and joined every club in St. Petersburg. Unlike many ambassadors who were bookworms, Clay lived a life of action and soon became a favorite of the Russian people. He became very close personally to Czar Alexander II and his foreign minister, Prince Gortchacow. This friendship helped move the Russian government to reject the sending of Confederate commissioners to St. Petersburg.

Clay gave up the ministerial position in 1862 and returned to Washington to seek military duty. He almost got in on the Battle of Richmond (Kentucky), having been offered a position on the staff of Gen. Lew Wallace (who later wrote Ben Hur). However, Wallace was replaced by Gen. Nelson and the new commander did not offer Clay a place. Although commissioned a Major General, Clay found no suitable position in the army and in 1863 accepted a reappointment to Russia. There he remained until 1869, when, after the election of President Grant, he resigned and came home. While at St. Petersburg Clay was a prime mover in the negotiations which led to the purchase of Alaska, a fact overlooked by many writers who give Seward all the credit. Before leaving Russia for the last time, Clay was the recipient of many honors and dinners in his honor.

Upon his return to the United States, Clay was repelled by the reconstruction policies of his party. So, like many anti-slavery union supporters in Kentucky, he went over to the Democrats in 1872, by way of the Liberal Republican candidate Horace Greeley, who was also nominated by the Democratic party. He supported Tilden in'1876, but when Republican Hayes withdrew the troops from the South and moderated reconstruction policy, Clay returned to the GOP where he remained, in the main, until his death in 1903.

In closing, it might be well to remember that two other Madison County natives have served their country as ambassadors. Clay's son, Brutus Junius Clay II, was appointed ambassador to Switzerland by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, in which position he served until 1909. And David R. Francis served as ambassador to Russia from 1916-1921. This encompassed the time of the Russian Revolution. One wonders if the Czar and Francis ever discussed the one's ancestor and the other's fellow Madison Countian.


Dr. Fred Engle




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Dr. Fred Engle, “Clay in Russia-Was Popular Figure,” Madison's Heritage Online, accessed August 19, 2018,