Cassius Clay Trial

In August 1843, a political rally was held at Russell Cave, six miles north of Lexington, during which Samuel M. Brown attacked Cassius M. Clay.  Clay was a well-known abolitionist.  As Robert Wickliffe was speaking, Clay voiced his objection and Brown stuck Clay with several blows.  “In the affray, Mr. Clay was shot by Mr. Brown, the ball striking him just under the last rib on the left side, but coming in contract with the scabbard of Mr. Clay’s bowie knife, did no injury.  Mr. Brown was badly cut in several places about the head and face by Mr. Clay with the knife.”[i]

Clay was charged with mayhem, while Brown was not charged.  Clay hired his cousin, Henry Clay, to defend him before a “pro slavery” jury.  Many observers credited Clay’s closing argument as the turning point in the trail.  He was found not guilty.  A portion of his closing included:

"The question which this jury of freemen is called upon their honor and conscience to decide, is not whether the political views and sentiments of the prisoner were just or not, nor whether they agreed or disagreed with yours; nor yet, if they were just, whether ill-timed or out of place. You are bound, on your oaths, to say, was Clay acting in his constitutional and legal right?”

“Was he aggressive, or resting peaceably in the security of the laws which guard alike the safety of you, and me, and him? And yet more: Did he occupy even higher ground than all human enactments - the eternal laws of self-defense - which come only of God, and which none but He can annul, judge, or punish?”

“Standing, as he did, without aiders or abettors, and without popular sympathy; with the fatal pistol of conspired murderers pointed at his heart, would you have had him meanly and cowardly fly?  Or would you have had him to do just what he did do — there stand in defense, or there fall?"[ii]


[i] Coleman (Court Houses), pages 18-19, Coleman (Squire’s), page 41 and Lexington Observer & Reporter, August 5, 1843.

[ii] Clay, Cassius M., The Life of Cassius Marcellus Clay, J. Fletcher Brennan & Company, Cincinnati, 1886, pages 86-88.

William M. Ambrose, Bluegrass Court Houses, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2013.

Enter your e-mail address.

Enter the password that accompanies your e-mail.