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Kentucky and the Question of Slavery

      Entering the Union in 1792 under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, Kentucky continued its Virginia heritage as a slave-holding state. Unlike Virginia, Kentucky developed a diverse agriculture, which varied from region to region. The majority of enslaved Africans in Kentucky were held primarily in the Bluegrass and the Jackson Purchase, the largest 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 southcentral section of the state. Few slaves lived in the mountainous regions of eastern and southeastern Kentucky. Those slaves that were held in eastern and southeastern Kentucky served primarily as artisans and service workers.(1)

      Unlike in the Deep South, with its large cotton plantations and longer growing seasons, Kentucky slavery operated with greater diversity and on smaller plantations. In addition to providing the much-needed labor force to raise and harvest Kentucky tobacco and hemp, Kentucky slaves 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 performed all the household chores in the homes of the white elite.(2)

      Unlike slaves in the Deep South, Kentucky slaves lived on farms, not plantations, in units that averaged about five slaves. Only 12 percent of Kentucky’s masters owned 20 or more slaves, and only 70 persons held 50 or more.(3) Fluctuating markets and seasonal needs characterized Kentucky slavery.

      Congress prohibited the importation of slaves into the United States in 1808, and Kentucky prohibited the importation of slaves into the state for sale in 1833. However, because of the lucrative nature of the slave trade, slaves continued to be bought and sold, despite legal restrictions. In order to gain maximum benefit from their slaves, Kentucky slaveholders also frequently hired out skilled slaves as carpenters, blacksmiths, brick masons, coopers, herders, stevedores, waiters, and factory workers. In 1860, James Klotter estimates, roughly one-quarter of Louisville’s enslaved were hired out. The hiring-out system provided masters with considerable flexibility in using slave labor and afforded the enslaved a sense of freedom(4) and perhaps a small measure of independence not experienced on larger plantations in the Deep South.

      The invention of the cotton gin and the implementation of better-growing cotton and rice seeds and improved agricultural techniques 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 Southern plantations. According to historian George Wright, “Ownership of slaves was profitable to Kentucky whites; the slave trade shipped approximately 80,000 Africans southward between 1830 and 1860.”(5)

      In addition to enslaved African communities, Kentucky maintained small but vocal “free” black hamlets throughout the state. Kentucky’s free black population ranked third among the slave states that remained loyal to the Union in 1861 and seventh overall among slave states and the District of Columbia.(6) The number of “free” blacks in Kentucky prior to the Civil War is uncertain, but noted scholars such as Wright list the total at about 11,000 in 1860, compared to a total of 211,000 enslaved Africans at that time. (7)

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

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

      Nicholas was the son of Virginia attorney Robert Nicholas, the president of Virginia’s 1775 Revolutionary convention. George Nicholas migrated to Kentucky from Williamsburg, VA in 1788 and rapidly established himself as one of the territory’s leading legal minds.(8) Nicholas successfully defended his draft of a resolution adopted as article IX of the 1792 state constitution. Article IX ensured that “The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, previous to such emancipation, or a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated.” Nicholas would later be appointed the first law professor at Transylvania University in 1799.

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

      The most prominent proslavery arguments used in Kentucky and most Southern states, represented in the thinking of George Nicholas and John Breckinridge, supported slavery as a “positive good,” as a “necessary evil,” and as biblically ordained. The “positive good” theory put forth the argument that African slaves would die from starvation without the protective and benevolent control and oversight of slave masters who knew what was best for them, while also proclaiming the supremacy of white property rights. Proponents of slavery as a “necessary evil” argued that though slavery was not desired, the potential economic and social disaster that would result from freeing slaves would be greater than any burden of maintaining slavery. Implicit in this theory was the fear that freedom for African slaves would result in amalgamation of the races.(9) 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 but was, in fact, ordained by God.

      As a border state positioned between slavery and freedom, Kentucky had strong economic ties to African slavery as well as Northern industrialism. Kentuckians’ identification with slavery (even though the vast majority never owned slaves) linked them culturally and economically to the plantation South. But Kentucky’s links to an industrialized North and an expanding West made them less willing to end Union ties over the question of slavery or the issue of states’ rights. The conflicting pulls of economic gain, westward expansion, and fundamental support for slavery caused Kentuckians to be morally divided over the issue of slavery before, during, and immediately after the Civil War. Though loyal to the Union, the Kentucky majority never intended to end slavery or reject notions of white supremacy.(10)

  1. Klotter, “Slave Life in Kentucky,” Our Kentucky, 1992:107.
  2. Wright, 1992:3-5
  3. Ibid, 1992:108-109.
  4. Ibid.
  5. George Wright essay, “Afro-Americans,” Kentucky Encyclopedia, 1992:3-5.
  6. Ibid, 1992:107.
  7. George Wright, 1992:4.
  8. Jeffrey Brooke Allen, “The Origins of Proslavery Thought in Kentucky, 1792-1799,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Spring 1979, Vol. 77, 2:75-90.
  9. Ibid, p. 80.
  10. Klotter, 103.
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