Chapter 1: Kentucky’s Political System: 1840 to 1860
In November of 1860, Kentucky, like the rest of the nation, gathered at the polls to elect a new president of the United States. However, this election differed from previous ones in that the very survival of the nation was as stake. Many Southerners saw the possible election of Abraham Lincoln as the ultimate betrayal of their rights and a justification for secession. Unlike the major parties during the antebellum period, the Democrats, Whigs, and Know Nothings, Lincoln and the Republican Party represented only the Northern half of the country. Southerners worried that Lincoln’s sectional views and his party’s free-soil tendencies could threaten the future of slavery. When Illinois Republicans nominated Lincoln as their candidate for the Senate in 1858, he had accepted their nomination with his now famous “House Divided Speech.” In his speech, Lincoln professed his belief that the nation could not survive half slave and half free, leading Southerners to believe that Lincoln intended to attack slavery once he took office. The platform adopted by the Republicans in 1860 even rejected the Dred Scot decision and called for the outlawing of slavery in new territories.1
1 Avery Craven, The Coming of the Civil War (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957),
391, 417; David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row Publishers,
Kentucky, like many other slave states, had strong concerns about the election of Lincoln. Though Lincoln was a native son of Kentucky, his sectionalism and free-soil ideology were not accepted by the majority of the population. Slavery had been an institution in Kentucky since statehood. In the 1830s, Kentucky had one of the highest ratios of slaves to whites at 24 percent, and the number of slaves within the state grew further over the next thirty years. However, with the large influx of white immigrants, the percentage of slaves fell to 19, with a total slave population of 225,483 by 1860.2
Most Kentuckians in 1860 did not own slaves, and a small population within the state believed slavery to be morally wrong. However, for most people, whether one owned slaves was purely a question of expense. A slave in antebellum Kentucky cost an average wage earner about two years’ salary. Even with the high expense, 28 percent of Kentucky families did own slaves. This was a very high number compared to the rest of the South, with only Virginia and Georgia having a higher percentage of slave owners. The difference between Kentucky and the cotton states was the number of slaves a family owned. Only five families in Kentucky owned more than 100 slaves; most owned around five or six. The number of slaves in Kentucky was smaller mainly due to the fact that the state’s agriculture was not as labor-intensive. The shift in Kentucky’s economy away from labor-intensive crops led to the profitable business of selling Kentucky’s surplus slaves to the cotton states.3
With families owning fewer slaves but more families owning them, slavery
tied the state to the rest of the South. The slave trade from Kentucky south only strengthened the bond. With the prominence of slavery and the importance of the slave economy, Kentuckians had no interest in supporting Lincoln or the Republican Party.
While most Kentuckians generally disagreed with Lincoln, they also disagreed with the argument that Lincoln’s election was grounds for secession. The Louisville Daily Journal declared itself full of sorrow and anxiety over Lincoln’s possible election and prayed he would not be successful. However, the paper did not believe in abandoning the Union in its time of crisis, and insisted a legally elected president should be supported. It also maintained that the Congress, being controlled by the South, would be too strong to allow
Lincoln to harm slavery in any way. The Journal saw no reason to fear a Republican president. Even one of Kentucky’s most famous and respected Kentucky’s Political System: 1840-1860 3 statesmen, John J. Crittenden, tried to cool passions raised by the chances of Abraham Lincoln’s election. Crittenden delivered a speech in August of 1860 in which he questioned what would happen if Lincoln won while the South still controlled the Congress and the courts. Crittenden did not agree with Lincoln’s politics, but he knew him and believed him to be a good and decent man—and one smart enough to marry a Kentucky girl. Crittenden’s one complaint was not with Lincoln himself but with the Republican Party. Crittenden feared that Lincoln had to follow the ideology of the Republican Party, leading to more sectional agitation for the country; but this factor alone, he said, did not justify secession.4
2 For the history of slavery in Kentucky, see Harold Tallant, Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political
Culture in Antebellum Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2003); Lowell H.
Harrison, The Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1975), 1;
Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter, A New History of Kentucky (Lexington: University
Press of Kentucky, 1997), 167-168; William W. Freehling, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at
Bay, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 2:132, 199.
3 Harrison, Civil War in Kentucky, 1; Barbara Fields, Freedom: A Documentary History of
Emancipation 1861-1867, Series I, 9 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 1:
493-194; Harrison and Klotter, A New History of Kentucky, 167-168.
4 Louisville Daily Journal, October 8, 1860; John J. Crittenden, The Union, the Constitution, and the
laws: speech of the Hon. John J. Crittenden, at Mozart Hall, on the evening of August 2d, 1860 (Louisville:
Bradley & Gilbert, 1860), 6.