Kentucky and the Question of Slavery Source
Kentucky and the Question of Slavery
Source: KET "Kentucky Educational Television"

      Entering the Union in 1792 under the terms ofthe Northwest Ordinance, Kentucky continued its Virginia heritage as aslave-holding state. Unlike Virginia, Kentucky developed a diverse agriculture,which varied from region to region. The majority of enslaved Africans inKentucky were held primarily in the Bluegrass and the Jackson Purchase, thelargest hemp- and tobacco-producing areas in the state.

      Many Kentucky slaves resided in Louisville;Henderson and Oldham counties along the Ohio River; and Trigg, Christian, Todd,and Warren counties in the tobacco-growing south central section of the state.Few slaves lived in the mountainous regions of eastern and southeasternKentucky. Those slaves that were held in eastern and southeastern Kentuckyserved primarily as artisans and service workers.

      Unlike in the Deep South, with its largecotton plantations and longer growing seasons, Kentucky slavery operated withgreater diversity and on smaller plantations. In addition to providing themuch-needed labor force to raise and harvest Kentucky tobacco and hemp, Kentuckyslaves worked in salt mines, in iron works, and on bridge and road construction.In Kentucky’s urban centers, slaves worked in the better hotels and performedall the household chores in the homes of the white elite

      Unlike slaves in the Deep South, Kentuckyslaves lived on farms, not plantations, in units that averaged about fiveslaves. Only 12 percent of Kentucky’s masters owned 20 or more slaves, andonly 70 persons held 50 or moreFluctuating markets and seasonal needs characterized Kentucky slavery.

      Congress prohibited the importation of slavesinto the United States in 1808, and Kentucky prohibited the importation ofslaves into the state for sale in 1833. However, because of the lucrative natureof the slave trade, slaves continued to be bought and sold, despite legalrestrictions. In order to gain maximum benefit from their slaves, Kentuckyslaveholders also frequently hired out skilled slaves as carpenters,blacksmiths, brick masons, coopers, herders, stevedores, waiters, and factoryworkers. In 1860, James Klotter estimates, roughly one-quarter of Louisville’senslaved were hired out. The hiring-out system provided masters withconsiderable flexibility in using slave labor and afforded the enslaved a senseof freedom and perhaps a smallmeasure of independence not experienced on larger plantations in the Deep South.

      The invention of the cotton gin and theimplementation of better-growing cotton and rice seeds and improved agriculturaltechniques caused demand for slave labor in the South to grow at alarming rates.To capitalize on expanding markets and to meet the needs of Southern planters,Kentucky quickly became a major supplier of hogs, corn,African slaves, and “fancy girls.” By the time of the Civil War, Kentucky was known as a“slave-growing” state, responsible for supplying African slaves for Southernplantations. According to historian George Wright, “Ownership of slaves wasprofitable to Kentucky whites; the slave trade shipped approximately 80,000Africans southward between 1830 and 1860.”

      In addition to enslaved African communities,Kentucky maintained small but vocal “free” black hamlets throughout thestate. Kentucky’s free black population ranked third among the slave statesthat remained loyal to the Union in 1861 and seventh overall among slave statesand the District of Columbia. Thenumber of “free” blacks in Kentucky prior to the Civil War is uncertain, butnoted scholars such as Wright list the total at about 11,000 in 1860, comparedto a total of 211,000 enslaved Africans at that time. 

      The differences cited above in how Africansexperienced slavery in Kentucky have led many historians to speculate thatKentucky provided a “milder” form of slavery for its African population.Despite seeming differences in work and living conditions, Kentucky slavessuffered the same grueling work schedules; separation from family; threat ofdeath or severe punishment; and mental, physical, and spiritual abuseexperienced by slaves farther south. In many ways, enduring slavery in Kentuckywas made even harder because of the nearness of freedom in the free states ofOhio, Indiana, and Illinois.

      Kentucky entered the Union as a state deeplydivided over the issue of slavery. Two of the most visible proponents of thepro-slavery argument in Kentucky during the 1790s were the state’s first andsecond attorneys general, George Nicholas and John Breckinridge.

      Nicholas was the son of Virginia attorneyRobert Nicholas, the president of Virginia’s 1775 Revolutionary convention.George Nicholas migrated to Kentucky from Williamsburg, VA in 1788 and rapidlyestablished himself as one of the territory’s leading legal minds.Nicholas successfully defended his draft of a resolutionadopted as  of the 1792 state constitution. Article IX ensured that “Thelegislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaveswithout the consent of their owners, previous to such emancipation, or a fullequivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated.” Nicholas would later beappointed the first law professor at Transylvania University in 1799.

      John Breckinridge, a former member of theVirginia legislature and also an attorney, settled in Kentucky in 1799. In thesecond constitutional debate in the Kentucky General Assembly, he reaffirmed theCommonwealth’s slave-holding identity. In addition to these two well-knownKentucky proslavery supporters, local Kentucky newspapers were filled withproslavery arguments, often written anonymously.

      The most prominent proslavery arguments usedin Kentucky and most Southern states, represented in the thinking of GeorgeNicholas and John Breckinridge, supported slavery as a “positive good,” as a“necessary evil,” and as biblically ordained. The “positive good” theoryput forth the argument that African slaves would die from starvation without theprotective and benevolent control and oversight of slave masters who knew whatwas best for them, while also proclaiming the supremacy of white propertyrights. Proponents of slavery as a “necessary evil” argued that thoughslavery was not desired, the potential economic and social disaster that wouldresult from freeing slaves would be greater than any burden of maintainingslavery. Implicit in this theory was the fear that freedom for African slaveswould result in amalgamation of the races.The biblical defense of slavery was tied to the fact that God’s chosen people,the Jews, had owned slaves, and that therefore slavery was not a moral sin butwas, in fact, ordained by God.

      As a border state positioned between slaveryand freedom, Kentucky had strong economic ties to African slavery as well asNorthern industrialism. Kentuckians’ identification with slavery (even thoughthe vast majority never owned slaves) linked them culturally and economically tothe plantation South. But Kentucky’s links to an industrialized North and anexpanding West made them less willing to end Union ties over the question ofslavery or the issue of states’ rights. The conflicting pulls of economicgain, westward expansion, and fundamental support for slavery caused Kentuckiansto be morally divided over the issue of slavery before, during, and immediatelyafter the Civil War. Though loyal to the Union, the Kentucky majority neverintended to end slavery or reject notions of white supremacy.

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