When Rand Paul announces Tuesday in Louisville, Ky., that he is seeking the Republican nomination for president, he will be a stone’s throw from the office where Henry Clay first practiced law and a half-hour from the Richmond, Ky., home of Clay’s cousin, Cassius Marcellus Clay.
The Clay cousins may not be on the tongue-tips of most political pundits, academics or pollsters. But how Paul reflects their impact on our history is worth considering.
"I sit at Henry Clay’s desk. It was fascinating for me to find that out when I came up here," the junior senator from Kentucky told the Trib during a brisk walk from the Russell Senate Office Building to the U.S. Capitol.
"He is probably the most famous Kentuckian, ran for president numerous times. When I came to the Senate, I gave my first speech about Henry Clay and also about his cousin, Cassius Clay."
Most people of a certain generation associate the latter name with the Lexington-born boxing legend who changed his name to Muhammad Ali in the 1960s.
"Cassius is so forgotten that, when I mention him in speeches, people get confused and think I am talking about the boxer," Paul said.
Henry Clay gets history’s glory: A U.S. senator, speaker of the House and presidential candidate, he was immortalized for his compromises and bargains that temporarily staved off the Civil War; fellow Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln was so profoundly influenced by Clay that he often quoted him in speeches and called him "a beau statesman."
Learning why Paul feels more kinship to Cassius than Henry is an exercise in figuring out who he is and his relationship with past and future. It also tells you a bit about his worldview.
Paul said he compared the two men before coming to office: "I have had a little mixed feelings about Henry; he supported slavery most of his life, his compromises continued the fugitive slave law, and he himself continued to own slaves his whole life — did not free them until his death — whereas Cassius Marcellus Clay was a staunch abolitionist who fought against slavery his whole life, in a time when it was much harder to be against slavery."
In fact, Cassius paid a steep price for his outside-the-norm views. Confrontational, sharp-tongued and a fervent abolitionist newspaper editor, he was forced — because of attacks on his newspaper office — to move from Kentucky to Cincinnati.
Despite that, he also sought the presidency, fought in the Civil War and became Lincoln’s ambassador to Moscow, where he helped to orchestrate the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia.
In one of his speeches about the two men, Paul "basically made the point that there are some things you compromise for and some things you don’t … I would hope I would have been more like Cassius Clay, who said owning people you don’t compromise over."
Cassius gave land and money to start a liberal-arts work college in Berea, south of Lexington, Paul said. "Berea College is distinguished for providing free education and for having been the first college in the southern United States to be coeducational and racially integrated.
"There is a work ethic there that has been instilled in people for generations."
He believes it illustrates how "we were going in the right direction" right after the Civil War. But then, "right around 1900, a great deal of animus and bias crept back in and we started creating all of these laws that legally separated people."
"Interestingly, some of the worst offenders were progressive Democrats," he said. "We had integration from the Civil War all the way into Woodrow Wilson, who then says we have to have segregation with our federal employees like the postal workers.
"A lot of people have forgotten that history."
Paul hasn’t — and voters are about to embark on a campaign trip with one of the most fascinating, unconventional people ever to seek the Republican nomination.
That does not mean he will win, but he will at least capture the imagination of a new kind of Republican voter.
Only time will tell if Paul is an agent of change, a statesman, neither, or both.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media ([email protected]).