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History & Genealogy


Asa Earl Martin
Assistant Professor of American History
The Pennsylvania State College
Publ. The Standard Printing Company of Louisville


Pgs. 139-147

     While slavery was introduced into Kentucky with the first settlers, the slaves constituted a comparatively small and unimportant element of the population before 1792.  The early settlers, although coming largely from the slave state of Virginia, were men of moderate means and were consequently small or non-slaveholders.  Furthermore, the prevalent pioneer conditions were not conducive to the development of so aristocratic an institution as slavery.  Since the country was ill adapted to the plantation system, domestic slavery generally prevailed.
And since the cultivation of tobacco, which alone of the chief agricultural products was suited to the extensive application of slave labor, was ruinous to the soil, considerable opposition was early manifested to its wide production in the state.
     In Kentucky, as in other sections of the country before 1792, people generally were hostile to slavery and anxiously looked forward to its final abolition.  It was condemned not only by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Marshall, Jay, and other prominent men but by the leading religious denominations of the country, many of which took vigorous action toward its ultimate elimination.  As long as Kentucky remained an integral part of Virginia, there was little opportunity for anti-slavery effort.  No sooner, however, had the question of the admission of Kentucky into the Union as an independent state been settled and the election of delegates ordered in 1792 to the convention to frame Kentucky's first constitution than the opponents of slavery launched a movement for constitutional emancipation.  In many of the convention elections, the slavery issue received considerable attention and several candidates favorable to emancipation were elected.  Under the leadership of the Rev. David Rice, they made a vigorous fight in the convention against the recognition of slavery in the new constitution, but were defeated by a vote of 26 to 16.  The pro-slavery element was ably led by Col. George Nicholas and was supported by a majority of the political leaders of the state.
     After the adoption of the constitution, anti-slavery effort continued unabated, especially in the churches. The Baptist

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Associations while condemning slavery regarded the question of emancipation as political and as such attempted to prevent its discussion in the local churches and associations.  In this, however, they were not wholly successful, for widespread dissensions arose and in a few instances caused the formation of independent emancipation churches.  While the Presbyterian church was more pronounced in its opposition to slavery than the Baptist Associations, it suffered less from dissensions and secessions.  Less strongly anti-slavery sentiment found expression in the Methodist Episcopal and other religious denominations of the state.
     In 1797 the first emancipation societies west of the Alleghany Mountains were organized in Kentucky.  They were small in numbers, limited in influence, and conservative in policy, advocating gradual emancipation.  After an existence of two or possibly three years they were dissolved.
     In the controversy over the calling of a constitutional convention in 1797 and 1798 and in the convention elections of the following year, the question of constitutional emancipation was one of the leading issues before the people.  In most of the convention elections the candidates either voluntarily or by request expressed their views in regard to slavery, and in a few instances the campaign appeared to have been waged on this issue alone.  Among those who favored emancipation at this time and labored to secure its adoption was Henry Clay, who was just beginning his long and eventful political career.  While the anti-slavery forces displayed great activity and strength, they were unable to secure control of the convention and to prevent the new constitution's reaffirming with a few minor changes the slave provisions of the constitution of 1792.
     During the three following decades, anti-slavery sentiment continued to find expression in a number of ways.  In the legislature repeated attempts were made to secure the passage of laws designed to encourage voluntary emancipation, to safeguard the rights and interests of free Negroes, to prevent the importation of slaves into the state, and to secure the calling of a constitutional convention for the purpose of adopting some plan of emancipation.  While the religious denominations were still hostile to slavery, there was a pronounced tendency to regard the question as outside the jurisdiction of the church.  Nevertheless, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Baptist dissensions were numerous and a number of seceding emancipation churches were organized into an association.  The general at

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titude of the churches was a contributing cause of the formation in 1808 of gradual emancipation societies, which furnished an outlet for the expression of anti-slavery feeling.  These societies had an active existence of about twenty years.  During this time they embraced more or less of the colonization idea and finally they were either dissolved or merged into colonization societies.
     One of the great difficulties in connection with emancipation was the problem of the freed slave.  Should he be colonized?  Or should he be permitted to live a free man in the former slave states?  This latter solution, the southern people generally viewed with the greatest apprehension and alarm.  Believing, as they did, in the decided inferiority of the Negro as compared with the white man, they could see only chaos, anarchy, and bloodshed following emancipation without colonization.  This belief was based largely upon their observation of the free Negroes who were criminal, immoral, and depraved and were undesirable members of the population in the North as well as in the South.  Hence to the people in the slave states, where the Negroes constituted a large percentage of the population, colonization was an exceedingly important consideration.  With a desire to solve this problem, the American Colonization Society was founded in 1816.  Its principles, approved by Congress, many state legislatures, religious denominations, and other organizations, spread rapidly.  In Kentucky and the other border states, where the anti-slavery workers were conservative gradual emancipationists, it became from the beginning very closely associated with the emancipation movement, although all emancipationists did not necessarily favor colonization, neither did all colonizationists support emancipation.  In Kentucky the colonization movement was very popular. It received the repeated approval of the legislature and the active support of the religious denominations as well as that of the political leaders of the state, chief among whom was Henry Clay.  During the forties, from funds raised within the state, a large tract of land known as "Kentucky in Liberia" was purchased in Liberia for the purpose of colonizing the free Negroes of the state as well as those Negroes who might be freed for the purpose of colonization.  Although receiving the general approval of people in the state, the movement was very disappointing in its results. Because of the lack of funds and the indisposition of the free Negroes to present themselves to the society for transportation, not a great deal was accomplished in

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the way of ridding the state of the free Negro population or in preparing the state for emancipation.  It served, however, as a means for the expression of anti-slavery sentiment through which the evils of slavery and the question of emancipation were kept constantly before the people.
     As a result of the general philanthropic and reform movement which swept over the country about 1830, in Kentucky there was an increased interest in the slave and the free Negro and a pronounced renewal of anti-slavery agitation.  Emancipation became a popular topic of discussion and the Kentucky
newspapers gave the subject more attention than at any time in the history of the state.  A sentiment, supported largely by slaveholders, favoring emancipation was rapidly developing, which found expression in part in the formation of gradual emancipation societies composed of slaveholders, who pledged themselves voluntarily to emancipate their slaves and to work for the adoption of constitutional emancipation in the state.  While the number of these societies was small, as a result of the prominence of many of the members they exerted an influence far out of proportion to their numbers.  The dissolution of these organizations after an existence of less than five years was due in no small degree to the rise of the modern Garrisonian abolition movement and the formation in 1835 of a society in Kentucky auxiliary to the American Anti-Slavery Society.  This branch, although under the able leadership of James G. Birney, continued only a few months.  Both the society and The Philanthropist, an abolition newspaper published by Birney, called forth from all classes of the population, even the gradual emancipationists, such violent opposition that he was forced to discontinue his publication in Kentucky.  With the discontinuance of this paper, the modern abolition movement in the state, which had become a great drawback to the real anti-slavery work and in many instances caused its cessation altogether, collapsed.
     The increased anti-slavery activity during the early thirties brought the question of emancipation constantly before the religious denominations of the state.  Although they regarded slavery more and more as a political question with which they should not interfere, a strong attempt was made in the Presbyterian church to force a decided stand in favor of emancipation.  While the attempt failed, the controversy attracted wide attention, since in this church were many of the leading political leaders and large slave owners of the state. In all the religious de-

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nominations, interest was being diverted from the original issue to the question of the general well-being of the slave population.  Particularly the Methodist Episcopal, the Presbyterian, and the Baptist churches made special efforts to educate and Christianize the slaves.  When the divisions occurred in the Methodist and the Baptist churches during the forties, the Kentucky churches almost unanimously supported the southern wing of the church.
     From the very beginning, opposition to the importation of slaves from other states and from foreign countries was pronounced in Kentucky, which upon receiving statehood enacted a number of laws designed to regulate and, to a limited extent, to restrict the importation of slaves.  But since inadequate provisions were made for their enforcement, they accomplished little.  Anti-slavery workers, in their endeavors to make slavery as humane as possible while it lasted, not only opposed the ordinary traffic in slaves but diligently sought to secure the enforcement of the existing importation laws and, further, to restrict importations of slaves from other states.  This, it was maintained, would check the increase of the slave population and consequently lessen the difficulties of emancipation.  About 1830, wider interest was manifested in favor of the adoption of a new stringent importation law. After a thorough discussion of the subject for three years in the legislature and throughout the state, the law was passed in 1833.  Unfortunately, the controversy did not end here.  The supporters of slavery at once launched a campaign to secure the repeal of this law.  The question came before the legislature annually until 1849, when the most important features of the law of 1833 were repealed.  This controversy was especially important in connection with the antislavery movement in Kentucky because in these annual debates on the subject almost every phase of slavery and emancipation was most thoroughly discussed.
     While anti-slavery workers labored in every way possible to counteract the many evil effects of slavery, the ultimate object of their efforts was constitutional emancipation.  For more than three decades after the ratification of the constitution of 1799, the question of calling a constitutional convention came before the legislature nearly every year, almost unanimously supported by the anti-slavery workers, although many other advocates of the convention were opposed to emancipation.  During the early thirties, the convention bill became one of the lead-

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ing issues before the legislature.  Believing that the time was ripe for emancipation, the opponents of slavery pushed the bill with all their energy and were largely instrumental in causing the legislature, in accordance with a constitutional provision, to submit the question to the people in 1837.  The anti-slavery workers throughout the country were very optimistic concerning the result and pro-slavery leaders in Kentucky and the South were much alarmed.  While the anti-slavery workers of the North pronounced Kentucky "the battleground of freedom" and concentrated their efforts there, openly predicting that the abolition of slavery in Kentucky would be followed in the near future by similar action in Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and then the states of the lower South, the pro-slavery leaders of Kentucky and the South appealed to Kentucky to remain loyal to her sister slave states, from which came threats of commercial retaliation and even secession in case she deserted them and allied herself with the North.  Sectional feeling, which was probably stronger than at any previous period in the history of the state, played an important part in the convention elections. Henry Clay, the most influential man in the state, was joined by many other prominent men in opposing the convention and emancipation largely on the ground that due to the antagonism aroused by the radical abolition movement it was not expedient to abolish slavery at that time.  Many of the conservative emancipationists, also, took this attitude with the result that the convention bill and consequently constitutional emancipation were defeated by a large majority.  Henry Clay and other Kentuckians of that period expressed the belief that had it not been for the interference of radical abolitionists and northern support of the Underground Railroad System, by which hundreds of Kentuckians were deprived of their property in slaves, Kentucky probably would have adopted some plan of gradual emancipation. This assumption seems to be borne out by the historical evidence.
     For a few years following the defeat of the convention bill, anti-slavery activity was not conspicuous.  But during the early forties, the bold, fearless, and energetic Cassius M. Clay, nephew of Henry Clay, and a member of one of the wealthiest and most prominent slave-owning families in the state, assumed the leadership of the anti-slavery forces and gave new life to the movement.

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     Believing that the anti-slavery sympathizers of Kentucky should have some medium for the expression of their views, since the columns of many of the newspapers were closed to antislavery discussions, he established at Lexington, in 1845, an anti-slavery newspaper, The True American.  The circulation of the paper increased rapidly; but after the appearance of a few numbers the pro-slavery element, fearing its influence, particularly upon the non-slaveholders, to whom it made an especial appeal, by force compelled Clay to discontinue its publication in Kentucky.  The press was moved to Cincinnati, where the paper was printed for a few months.  Soon after Clay's enlistment in the army at the opening of the Mexican War, some of the men associated with him in the publication purchased the press and moved to Louisville, where they began in 1847 the publication of The Examiner, a weekly anti-slavery paper modeled after The True American.  This, although a pronounced anti-slavery paper, encountered but little opposition during the two years of its existence.
     When the legislature, due to the demand for constitutional reform, in 1846 submitted the question of calling a constitutional convention, the people in the elections of 1848 and 1849 returned large majorities in favor of it.  It is impossible to say just what part anti-slavery workers had in this result.  It is certain, however, that emancipation was the leading issue in some counties and one of the important issues in many others.  Since emancipation had been one of the troublesome questions in the state for more than half a century, there was a general desire on the part of both pro- and anti-slavery men to force a definite and final settlement.  This fact was of importance in the elections.
     Immediately after the election of delegates had been ordered for the convention, the anti-slavery men began to organize and held emancipation meetings throughout the state.  In April, 1849, there was a great state convention, presided over by Henry Clay, who had come out openly in favor of gradual emancipation in the new constitution, which adopted a series of resolutions condemning slavery and advocating gradual emancipation and colonization.  After this meeting, emancipation candidates were nominated in many counties and the candidates in many of the remaining counties were forced to state their positions in regard to emancipation. United States Senators Henry Clay and J. R. Underwood, together with many other prominent Kentuckians,

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canvassed the state in the interest of emancipation.  The question was freely discussed both on the platform and in the press.
     One of the weaknesses of the anti-slavery cause was the lack of agreement upon any specific plan of emancipation and colonization out of the hundreds of plans proposed and discussed.  There was much talk of the submission of the question of emancipation to the people for a referendum vote; and local option as applied to slavery found many supporters.  But the plan that attracted the most attention provided that all slaves in 1849 should remain slaves for life but that all children of slaves born after a fixed date, as 1855, should be free, males at the age of twenty-five and females at the age of twenty, and upon acquiring freedom should be colonized in Africa at the expense of the state.
     The pro-slavery leaders were equally active and far better organized.  They nominated for convention delegates their best men,ómen who were recognized as conservative and safe and who held the confidence of the people.
     The result of the campaign was the election of pro-slavery candidates in every county in the state.  The convention which assembled a few months later, instead of providing some plan of gradual emancipation, added a number of provisions to the slave clause of the old constitution making voluntary emancipation more difficult and safeguarding the rights of slaveholders to their property in slaves.
     With the defeat of the emancipation party in the convention election of 1849 and the ratification of the new constitution, the possibility of the abolition of slavery in Kentucky for many years vanished.  While the anti-slavery leaders did not lose confidence in the ultimate success of their efforts, they realized both that a long and systematic campaign was necessary to convince the people that slavery should be abolished because it was not only morally wrong but economically harmful to their interests, and that some definite, practical plan of emancipation and colonization must be brought forward to command the support of all the elements in the anti-slavery ranks.
     During the fifties, the anti-slavery party gradually increased in strength and influence through the addition to their numbers of many prominent men.  As in the preceding decade, emancipation was in many counties an important issue.  And in one instance Cassius M. Clay canvassed the state as an emancipation candidate for governor.

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     As the hostility between the North and the South increased after 1850, the sectional lines in Kentucky became more closely fixed and the national questions such as the extension of slavery into the territories of the United States and the right of secession attracted more and more attention.  Because of the loyalty of the great majority of Kentuckians to the Union, slavery in Kentucky became so closely associated with these national questions that were rapidly dividing the Union into two hostile camps that it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to treat them separately.  For this reason it has been thought advisable to consider the period after 1850 in a second volume.







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