Slavery and Abolition in KY History
Enslaved people accompanied first settlers including Danial Boone and his entourage. Slaves were viewed as necessary to help clear land and build houses, and later for small-time farming. There were those who disapproved of enslavement from the beginning, and made their views known. Several ministers, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist, risked their careers to speak out. "Father" David Rice made the most significant contributions in a pamphlet entitled "Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy" that spoke straight to the heart of the issue. Here are some excerpts quoted in Harrison's 1978 book, "The antislavery movement in KY":
- "As creatures of God, we are, with respect to liberty, all equal…unless his master can prove that [the Black man] is not a man...he must be judged free, the justice of his claim must be acknowledged.”
- "Slavery 'naturally tends to sap the foundations of moral and consequently of political virtue...[It] produces idleness, and idleness is the muse of vice'...It [corrupts] youth by giving them a false sense of pride; wherever slavery became common, 'industry sinks into disgrace.'"
Rice challenged arguments that emancipation would be unjust 'because it would deprive men of their property; but is there no injustice on the other side? Is nobody entitled to justice, but slaveholders?...who is the greater sufferer, and who is treated with the greatest injustice?
In spite of those voices, public sentiment and politics assured that in 1792 KY constitutional and legislative provisions required that enslaving practices were affirmed in the final documents. In fact, many of those who spoke in favor of abolition, including Rice, were slaveholders themselves and could not sustain their moral arguments against what they saw as economic necessity. Slavery was so important that Article IX of the Constitution was devoted to sustaining the practice. That Article began with this: "The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners..."
The slave code of 1798 placed restrictions on the movements of free and enslaved African Americans. Enslaved people were defined as property, to be passed to descendants of the deceased along with non-human forms of property. If an enslaved person were executed, the enslaver was to be paid the full 'worth' of that individual, as deemed by a court assessment. There was a penalty of $300 for anyone who imported an enslaved person from a foreign country. Laws were imposed regarding catching runaways, rewards for the return of runaways, posting notices about runaways. Limitations were placed on the hiring of fugitives.
In 1833 legislation was passed that prohibited the importation of slaves to KY for the purpose of re-sale. This law was controversial until the time it was repealed in 1849. Some thought it would raise the value of their slaves while others thought it was a step toward abolition. In the 1830's the number of Black people in KY dropped, and the Act of 1833 may have been a factor in that.
New arguments against enslavement were raised. Emancipationist Cassius Clay promoted the idea that slavery was evil, not because of his conscience, but because he saw statistics which showed that neighboring free-state Ohio's economy surpassed KY's economy. He simply believed that ending slavery would increase the wealth of white people.
Cassius Clay and John G. Fee, an abolitionist, partnered to move the antislavery movement forward. Clay donated land to Fee in Madison County where Fee founded several churches, schools, and Berea College in the 1850's. The college charted a path of integrated learning, which many County residents found disturbing. They responded accordingly, using violent means to remove Fee and his family and friends from the County. After the Civil War things settled down and the college admitted 2 Black individuals to study alongside White students.
Meanwhile, 40 miles north, Lexington was the state’s center for trading enslaved people. Slave-trader Edward Stone’s business practices were particularly brutal to the point of offending public sensibilities. Robert Wickliffe, Sr., introduced legislation to stop the abominations of Stone’s practices and “…the horrid practice of driving them like cattle to market…” (p. 8). Wickliffe called it a great blot on the moral character of Kentuckians. But before long the Hughes and Downing law firm set up practice in downtown Lexington, immediately purchased six girls and seven boys for $5,292.50 and sold them the following year for $8,695. Their ongoing presence o doubt rendered Wickliffe’s efforts untenable.
For the most part, Kentuckians did not support Lincoln’s Presidential bid, nor did they support most of his policies. Those who signed on to fight in Union forces did so because they thought they were helping to quell a rebellion. When Black men were invited and encouraged to also fight in Union forces, many Kentuckians were furious because enlisting Black men suggested equality and a detriment to enslavement options. As it happened, many Black men in Kentucky did enlist with the Union and were granted their freedom and freedom for their families. By October 1865, the enslaved people numbered just 153,000 and their total estimated value was $7000, down from $88,000,000. KY did not ratify the 13th amendment, the option for freedom through fighting for the Union was a huge influence in the state's inability to continue the practice of enslaving people.
Slavery and the intent to enslave have never stopped. Although Kentucky did not label laws as Black Codes, our laws were essentially the same in that they limited the movements of and potential for Black and Indigenous people to prosper in any way. The Black Codes made sure Black people were incarcerated as often and as long as possible. From the 1840's to the 1920's convict leasing provided the free labor that kept white people wealthy. Chain gangs followed, and from the 1970's to today, a system of mass incarceration continued the practice of slavery.
Harrison, Lowell H. The antislavery movement in Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky, 1978.