Welcome to another Kentucky History Friday! Although last week we stated that our next article was to be of relation to the uncharacteristic culture of Frontier Lexington, we have elected to alter the agenda thereof. Rather, we shall hereby instigate a series of sorts; as many will note, the years 2011-2015 denote the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War (1861-1865) and thus we are swiftly approaching the closure of such celebrations and commemorations. Our Commonwealth wielded no insignificant position therein, and hence from this day unto the 12th of April 2015 (the sesquicentennial of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) we are to focus upon immediate Antebellum and Civil War Kentucky. This series is entitled Perpetual Disunion and our discussion this evening is given as Perpetual Disunion Volume I: A House Divided: Antebellum Kentuckian Society and its Wartime Implications.
Well acquainted are most with the annals of historiography which lend dedication to the legacy of the American Civil War (known by numerous nomenclatures, i.e. the War Between the States, War of Northern Aggression, and Mr. Lincoln’s War) and its Unionist leadership of Abraham Lincoln; yet how many may, with non-erroneous honesty, claim familiarity with the involvement (or lack thereof) of Kentucky therein? Likely few, unfortunately. Our series – which is to be comprised of five volumes – seeks to rectify this.
There are numerous factors for which we must account; let us, in brevity, examine the societal, economic and cultural development of Antebellum (1792-1860) Kentucky. That peculiar institution of slaveholding had arisen centuries earlier (in the African American sense, that is; slavery itself has existed since nearly the dawn of civilization) and had since rooted itself firmly in the soils of the North American continent; Kentucky indeed seceded from the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1792, the latter retaining numerous proportions of enslaved individuals as was of a Southern typicality. Given the natural implications of the Western Frontier – i.e. the Illinois and Indiana Territories, as well as the newly founded state entitled Kentucky – one could reasonably, and correctly, presume the fervent spread of slavery within Kentuckian society. Industrialization of these United States was not to occur in a significant manner unto decades succeeding; that which had discovered partial incorporation was predominantly within major urban societies such as Boston or Philadelphia. Rather, these now-15 states remain a primarily rural social construction; those of the Frontier especially so, given its non-inhabitance via settlers prior to the expeditions of those so inclined (notably Daniel Boone.) An agriculturally dependent economy was swift to be established within the state; therewith slavery is fostered.
Circa 1830, the population of the Commonwealth was comprised of 24% enslaved persons. Let us then sway our attention to the immediate Antebellum Period (circa 1860); ardent sectionalism had been instilled within the United States, perpetuated by the relentless clashing regarding the issue of the institution of slavery. Those who bequeathed the Federal Constitution to their posterity had endeavored to let alone the problematic concept; rather, they offered little yet as to state that the numeric of representation – as determined via population – of states was to consider only 3/5 of all other persons. Unquestionably, they too sought to avoid the dissolution of a fragile, infant union. The 19th century had thus witnessed continued battery of the inquiry of slavery; as recent as 1854 (persisting unto 1861) the call to action had been bellowed for abolitionists and pro-slavery sympathizers to flood the Kansas Territory, resulting in Bleeding Kansas or a violent clash of militant abolitionists and their opponents. Within the halls of the US Congress years prior, the preeminent Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois sought the incorporation of the doctrine of popular sovereignty whereby a territory’s people may determine the existence or lack thereof of slavery within their borders; rival statesman Abraham Lincoln earnestly rejected such a notion, favoring the halt of the institution’s expansion (though not its immediate abolition) such that it may die a natural death.
A depiction of Bleeding Kansas.
Kentucky retained the stance of the mediator. Our state’s adopted son, Henry Clay, had been bestowed the title the Great Compromiser. He and others tirelessly endeavored to ensure the reconciliation of both ideologies; the Missouri Compromise of 1850 had adjudicated the admission of Missouri as a slave state, whilst asserting that such an institution shan’t exist within the Western territories at any latitude above that of Missouri’s southern border. Yet but 4 years thereafter, the Kansas-Nebraska Act (despised by Lincoln and promoted by Douglas) would repeal the former and give causation to Bleeding Kansas. The Act then became a primary subject of critique during the Lincoln-Douglas debates (both of which were in competition for a senatorial seat); Lincoln, upon accepting the Republican senatorial nomination, captured an eerie sentiment within his speech: In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed. A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will be cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Now befalling the Federation was the Presidential campaign of 1860; incumbent and out-going James Buchanan had left to his successor a tangled, angry Union. Much of the candidates’ platforms were centered upon the peculiar institution; Lincoln proposed gradual abolition via geographic restriction; Douglas, the candidate of the Northern Democrats due to severe internal divisions within the Democratic Party, proposed popular sovereignty; John C. Breckinridge, candidate of the counterpart Southern Democrats, championed states’ rights and Federal defense of the constitutionality of slavery in territories; John Bell of Tennessee, candidate of the Constitutional Union Party, was relatively silent on the issue though did not favor gradual abolition. Due in part to misinterpretation as well as fear, various states threatened secession from the Union were Abraham Lincoln to be elected; likely to the aggravation thereof, Lincoln and Liberty – a campaign song composed by the Hutchinson Family Singers – proclaimed Our David’s good sling is unerring, the Slaveocrats’ giant he slew; though shout for the Freedom-preferring, for Lincoln and Liberty too! to the melody of Old Rosin the Beau.
The banners of secession had been raised before; the Jacksonian Era beheld the fiery backlash of South Carolinians during the implementation of what they termed the Tariff of Abominations. Many therefore viewed these renewed ideals as mere cries into an empty sea of threats. Lincoln did not appear on numerous Southern ballots in fact; his name prohibited to the Breckinridge-preferring states. Kentucky – in conjunction with Tennessee and Virginia – had been one of only three states to cast its electoral manners toward John Bell, fearing the abolition of their treasured economic tradition; Kentuckians had failed to support either of the Commonwealth’s native sons of Abraham Lincoln and John C. Breckinridge, with Lincoln only garnering circa 1% of the votes thereof. Breckinridge had overwhelmingly swept the deeper Southern states; the Electoral College system granted the victory to Lincoln though, who had attained 39.8% of the popular vote. It is here that the seeds of chaos are sown; the State of South Carolina detested the election of the frontier illiterate (again, political rhetoric dissuading the Southern opinion of Lincoln) and claimed it would bind itself to the winds of secessionism once more.
Once more the US Senators of Kentucky took to their compromising manners to resolve the matter; John J. Crittenden authored and henceforth proposed the Crittenden Compromise during the December of 1860. Its foundational assertions were the reinstatement of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (differing from that of 1850) as well as the irrevocability of the act. Such was an attempt at slavery appeasement; though it amassed considerable support amongst Southern statesman, as well as Secretary of State William Seward, it was to ultimately fail due to the opposition thereto via President-Elect Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republican contemporaries.
Upon the 20th of December, 1860 the Charleston Mercury newspaper of Charleston, South Carolina began the heralding of a realization: the Union is Dissolved! As states began adopting ordinances of secession, the legislators of Kentucky were confronted with a harrowing alarm; the Commonwealth was situated amongst three free states – Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio – as well as three slave states – Tennessee, Virginia, and Missouri. Its population consisted of 19.5% slaves; slaveholders were circa 38,000 in number, thus positioning Kentucky as the third greatest holder of slaves (following Virginia and Georgia.) Furthermore Kentucky was economically linked with Southern states via its intricate river systems which converged with the ever-powerful Mississippi River. Despite this, the Northeastern portions thereof were slowly drifting toward the ideological solidarity with free states, destructing the institution of slavery by waning its laborious agricultural opportunities whilst cultivating horse breeding. Contrastingly, Kentuckians of the Southwestern regions were largely tobacco and hemp farmers who relied heavily upon slave labor.
Following South Carolina’s secession in 1860, the year 1861 beheld the rapture of a long-delayed struggle: the American Civil War, a culmination of the events of the 19th century, erupted before the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Whereas many were responding to a call to arms or rallying around the Bonnie Blue Flag, our Commonwealth remained the very embodied manifestation of a house divided.
We hope you have enjoyed this article and gained knowledge therefrom. Join us next week for another Kentucky History Friday! Next week we shall examine Volume II: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. In light thereof, begin to ponder the question: what are the implications of Kentucky neutrality? Email us your thoughts!
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- Austin R. Justice, History of Kentucky Group
Electoral map of 1860
Lincoln gave his noted House Divided speech in the House of Representatives of the Illinois Old State Capitol (then-Capitol) in Springfield, Illinois.
Political cartoon depicting Abraham Lincoln the Rail Maker Statesman and Stephen A. Douglas, 1860
Political campaign flag (Lincoln), 1860
Political campaign flag (Douglas), 1860
A map of Kentucky and Tennessee, circa 1860
Charleston Mercury The Union is Dissolved!, 1860
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Austin R. Justice
PMC of River Cities Chapter and Lincoln Forum & Colloquium Student Scholar.
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