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American National Biography Online
[ illustration ]
Clement Claiborne Clay. Daguerreotype
from the studio of Mathew B. Brady.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-110033).
Clay, Clement Claiborne (13 Dec. 1816-3 Jan. 1882), U.S. and
Confederate senator, was born near Huntsville, Alabama, the son
of Clement Comer Clay, a lawyer and later governor and U.S. senator,
and Susanna Claiborne Withers. He used the designation C. C.
Clay, Jr., to distinguish himself from his father. He graduated
from the University of Alabama in 1834 and studied law under
John B. Minor at the University of Virginia, receiving his degree
in 1839. During his father's tenure as governor of Alabama, 1835-1837,
Clay was his father's secretary. He practiced law with him from
1839 to 1846, after which he became Madison County judge. He
resigned in 1848 for financial reasons. Debt was a lifelong problem,
along with chronic bad health, particularly asthma. Clay was
associated with the Huntsville Democrat, a family organ, most
closely in the 1840s, when he was an assistant editor during
important campaigns. He was elected to the lower house of the
Alabama legislature in 1842 and 1844-1845, then to the U.S. Senate
in 1853 and again in 1857. A Jacksonian Democrat, and a strong
opponent of Henry Clay (a distant relation) and the Whigs, he
moved closer to states' rights and John C. Calhoun over a proposal
for the gradual abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia
and was active in the Nashville convention of 1850. Yet he was
never one of the fire-eaters. He strongly supported President
Franklin Pierce and, with less enthusiasm, President James Buchanan
in the political disputes of the 1850s.
Clay's marriage in 1843 to Virginia Caroline Tunstall (Virginia
Tunstall Clay-Clopton) was in most respects a good match. Her
social skills were unsurpassed in antebellum Washington, and
she assisted him materially in his career. She lived until 1915
and is perhaps better known than her husband because of her memoir,
A Belle of the Fifties (1904). They had no children.
Clay believed the national government was "a confederation,
not a consolidation, a union, not a nation" (Nuermberger, p.
168). As senator he opposed most public expenditures, including
homesteads and college land grants, but favored aid to southern
railroads. A close friend of Jefferson Davis, Clay helped him
avert a duel with Judah P. Benjamin, a Louisiana senator. He
was a bitter foe of Democrat Stephen A. Douglas but also of
and Republicans like Charles A. Sumner and John P. Hale.
Clay resigned his Senate seat after Alabama's secession (11
Jan. 1861) and went to Minnesota because of violent asthma attacks
in late winter. Though he was invited to Montgomery by Davis's
wife Varina Howell Davis, his health prevented his going. He
was instrumental in the selection of Leroy Pope Walker, a North
Alabama rival, as the first Confederate secretary of war after
Clay had declined the post. Walker was a bad choice yet one that
eased Clay's election to the Confederate Senate in November 1861.
He took his seat in Richmond in February 1862. Clay was a moderate
in Congress, sometimes supporting the states' rights group, at
other times the conservative faction, but he generally backed
President Davis. He mediated between Davis and his fellow Alabama
senator, William Lowndes Yancey, a bitter critic of the administration.
Clay also headed a committee that exonerated the Navy Department
for the loss of New Orleans. His loyalty to Davis and his vote
against a pay increase for Confederate soldiers helped defeat
him for reelection. His term expired in February 1864.
Clay was one of three Confederates sent by Davis on a mission
to Canada. In May he ran the blockade out of Wilmington, North
Carolina, to Halifax, Nova Scotia. He headed a War Department
espionage team charged with rescuing Confederate prisoners and
fomenting discontent against Lincoln's government among copperheads
and the Knights of the Golden Circle. In July 1864 Clay was involved
in the Niagara Falls "peace conference" with publisher Horace
Greeley, an attempt to embarrass Abraham Lincoln and influence
the 1864 presidential election. He recruited Bennett H. Young
and directed his raid on St. Albans, Vermont, on 19 October 1864.
The raiders robbed all three banks in the town and escaped across
the border with a quarter million dollars. It was the only successful
action carried out by Confederates from Canada and caused international
repercussions between Great Britain and the United States.
Clay left Canada in January and reported to Secretary of State
Benjamin and President Davis in Richmond on 2 April 1865, as
the Confederate government was evacuating its capital. He traveled
as far as Danville with the presidential party and headed for
Mexico after learning of Lincoln's death. As he moved west across
Georgia he heard of President Andrew Johnson's proclamation for
his arrest and that of other Confederates as conspirators in
the assassination. Clay rode 150 miles from La Grange to Macon,
Georgia, to surrender himself to General James H. Wilson. With
Davis and other officials, he was taken to Augusta and then by
steamship to Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he was held as a prisoner
from May 1865 to April 1866.
Virginia Clay eventually won her husband's freedom with the
help of Ulysses S. Grant and northern politicians who had known
Clay before the war. He was pardoned by Congress in 1880. Upon
his release, the couple returned to Huntsville, which had endured
early Union occupation. Though they suffered little during the
conflict, they faced near poverty in Reconstruction. Yet Virginia
managed to socialize in various cities, while Clay struggled
to pay his own debts and those of his late father. He experimented
unsuccessfully with freedmen as laborers, tried a variety of
crops on his "Wildwood" plantation, practiced law, and sold insurance.
He died near Huntsville without recovering his family's social
or political importance or achieving solvency.
Clay "did nothing in his public life to ease sectional tension,
and much to exacerbate it" (Nuermberger, p. 321) and was second
only to Yancey in Alabama's secession movement. While it has
not been proved that Clay met John Wilkes Booth in Canada, a
charge that he always denied, he probably knew of a plot aimed
at Lincoln. Clay was among the "officers . . . who seem to have
played important roles in intelligence activities" and was "an
aggressive man . . . not averse to a fight" (Tidwell, Come Retribution,
pp. 49, 189, 250). He seemed willing to take direct action for
the cause he believed in.
Clay's papers are at Duke University. The best available study
is Ruth Ketring Nuermberger, The Clays of Alabama: A
Family (1958), a carefully researched and fascinating collective
biography, more than two-thirds of which is primarily devoted
to Clay and his wife. The first part of the volume deals with
his father's career and early life on the frontier in Alabama's
Tennessee River valley. The bibliography is a guide to works
on local and family history and genealogy. Walter L. Fleming,
Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), is supplemented
by J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society:
Alabama, 1800-1860 (1978). Wilfred Buck Yearns, The Confederate
Congress (1960), and Thomas B. Alexander and Richard E. Beringer,
The Anatomy of the Confederate Congress (1972), analyze Clay's
performance in the Confederate Senate. William A. Tidwell et
al., Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the
Assassination of Lincoln (1988) and April '65: Confederate Covert
Action in the American Civil War (1995), document Clay's involvement
in espionage while in Canada. Extensive discussion of his imprisonment
and the possible charges against him as well as correspondence
from the Clays is in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation
of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,
ser. 2, vol. 8 (1899), and Douglas Southall Freeman, A Calendar
of Confederate Papers (1908).
Michael B. Chesson
Back to the top
Michael B. Chesson. "Clay, Clement Claiborne";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
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