The following article was published as part of the Northern Kentucky Encyclopedia, 2009, University Press of Kentucky.
Antislavery. Antislavery movements in Ky. have been characterized by historians of slavery as Caucasian experiences, each new intellectual concept capturing attention, galvanizing sporadic actions, and then running out of steam. Biographies of Henry Clay, Cassius Marcellus Clay, John G. Fee, Robert J. and William Breckinridge, and even John Speed, champion the antislavery credentials of each of these prominent Kentuckians. Yet in spite of nearly continuous antislavery activity from 1830 to 1860 by some of Ky.’s leading social and political figures, slavery as an institution was stronger and more widely fixed in the state in 1860 than it was in 1830.
Several recent histories recall free people of color who provided aid to fugitive slaves, including Elijah Anderson, John P. Parker, George De Baptiste, Sheldon Morris and Washington Spradling. There are even a few slaves living in Ky. who have been identified as aiding other slaves during escapes–Arnold Gragston in Bracken Co., Richard Daly at Hunters Bottom, Uncle Simon and Ben Swain at Henderson, and Uncle Elias at Cattletsburg.
The only continuous antislavery activities from 1780 to 1860 in Ky. involved free people of color and slaves themselves. The black antislavery position required direct action–to purchase their freedom, escape to freedom, aid others escape to freedom, and to resist slavery in place. These actions alone did not overturn the institution of slavery, but they gave hundreds of slaves a free life and helped to injure slave owners economically. Neither the white antislavery pamphlets and conventions nor the pinpricks of black activism, however, were successful in removing slavery from Ky’s. soil. That required a bloody Civil War, the defeat of the Confederacy, and passage of the Thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
When the Reverend David Rice stormed out of the 1792 State Constitutional Convention at Danville, Ky., the first antislavery movement in ky. involving whites had already reached its political zenith. Rice was among the early white Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist preachers and elders attempting to keep a perpetual slavery system out of Ky. For the early settlement in Ky., there were two models, that of the Northwest Territory just to its north across the Ohio River that was established free of slavery in 1786, and the Va. model that institutionalized slavery for people of African descent.
Passage of Article IX in the 1792 Ky. Constitution, over the objections of sixteen white preachers and lay leaders, permitted slave owners to bring their slaves into Ky. and gave local jurisdictions authority to regulate slavery. Rev. John Rankin’s short Memoir of Samuel Donnell shows some of the efforts to defeat Article IX’s passage in the activities, during the 1790s, of leaders of the Concord Presbyterian Church, located in Bourbon (later Harrison) Co
During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the Va. planter system that had been brought to Ky. by the children of the Va. gentry solidified through landholdings and political power. And the number of slaves imported into Ky. rose from 40,843 in 1800 to 126,742 in 1820. In those twenty years, the slave system won out in the Commonwealth of Ky. through overt political power of the landed gentry and failure of the yeomen farmers to perceive that slavery was detrimental to their own welfare. The state’s planter class took control as magistrates, as judges, as elected legislators, senators, and governors, and large sections of middle Ky. became Whig in its political leanings, Henry Clay territory. Most significantly, property rights, i.e. land and slaves, became defined like a religious dogma standing above justice, mercy, and equality under God.
Yet in those same twenty years, the Second Great Awakening in religion sent evangelistic tremors through and around mainstream Protestant denominations in Ky. Religiosity spread chiefly through the yeoman classes into Ky. It originated with the Separate and Freewill Baptists denominations that sprang from George Whitfield and Stubal Stearns, with the Pentecostal experience of Presbyterians, Methodists, and Reformed Baptists at Cane Run in Ky. in 1801 and subsequent tent revivals, and from the peeling away from Presbyterians by Associate Reformed, Cumberland and Rankinites, from Methodists by Methodist Protestants, and later the Wesleyans. And in all this turmoil, many Kentuckians found slavery incompatible with their new heightened sense of divine purpose, deciding that slavery was evil and was bringing harm to the new nation. The contemporary question, therefore, was what to do about the problem?
Between 1800 and 1827, a number of second generation Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Reformed preachers advocated moral persuasion to convince slaveholders to free their slaves in their wills and leave sufficient land or financial resources so the slaves could make a living in Ky. or go to the North. A few of these ministers advocated educating slaves for future freedom, baptizing slaves, and identifying trustworthy slaves that could act as elders and deacons for separate black congregations.
For the Baptists, between 1803 and 1806, the issue came to a head at Mt. Sterling, Ky., in the person of David Barrow, a minister in the Separate Baptist tradition who served the Mt. Sterling, Goshen, and Lulbegrud churches. Through political pressure from the Regular Baptists of the Elkhorn Baptist Association and their fledgling Bracken Baptist Association, David Barrow was expelled from the North District Baptist Association in 1806 for advocating the gradual emancipation of slaves and eventual abolition of slavery itself.
Barrow not only preached continuously against slavery, but he published British Baptist Thomas Clarkson’s Essay on Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, a 1785 treatise that greatly influenced U.S. abolitionists. Barrow himself wrote Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery Examined on the Principles of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy and Scripture that was printed in 1808 by John Bradford at Lexington, Ky. That same year, Barrow joined Carter Tarrant and founded the Baptized Licking-Locust Association, Friends of Humanity, also known as the Emancipation Baptists. The Baptized Licking-Locust Association, Friends of Humanity, included the Licking Locust, Gilgal, and Bracken Baptist churches from the Bracken Baptist Association, and Lawrence Creek Baptist Church from Mason Co.
Because of religious convictions, some slave owners in Ky. would decide to manumit their slaves. However, because in Ky. the average number of slaves held were generally not large these separate individual actions by white slaveholders did not significantly reduce the numbers of slaves held statewide. In the entire period from 1799 to 1868 in Bracken Co. in Northern Kentucky, for example, slaveholders filed only 156 emancipation records in the courthouse, 14 of them in 1834–1836 by Arthur Thome of Augusta. In Owen Co. in 1847, Susan Herndon Rogers freed ten slaves, the Locust family, and gave them 403 acres known as Free Station, or Mountain Island. Her brother James Herndon executed a bond in 1853 for $21,000 in order to have his twenty-two slaves manumitted. The Vinegar, Smith and Carroll families divided 125 acres at Mountain Island (Theodore Vinegar). By 1827, the Emancipation movement in Ky. that had been spurred on by the Great Awakening ran out of steam as the movement’s leaders died or moved away, the impact of moral persuasion proved anemic.
It was Kentuckian Henry Clay, long an advocate of gradual emancipation, who in 1817 stimulated the founding of the national American Colonization Society, an idea originally floated in 1800 by Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. It was not until 1823, that the first of the local colonization societies were created in Ky. Even though there were few free people of color in Ky. in those early years, white slaveholders continuously tried to get them to leave the state, fearing these freedmen would inspire blacks in bondage in Ky. to seek freedom. Colonization was fundamentally an answer to the reality that if slavery were ended, the South would have hundreds of thousands of freed slaves, a nightmare scenario to whites who dominated and controlled the slave system. Colonization as an antislavery concept built on the underlying racism and fear by the white power structure.
Many historians described the reaction of slaveholders to Nat Turner Rebellion in Va. in 1831 as a near hysteria that swept through the entire South producing far more stringent controls on slaves and heightening fears that free blacks might become agitators. In step with these times, contemporary newspapers in Ky., including ones in Northern Kentucky, regularly published sensationalized accounts of all slave revolts in the U.S. and in the Carribbean.
Colonization, then, had more to do with white fear of freed blacks, than it did with ending slavery. Through Clay’s legislative skills and support from many of the Southern delegations, the federal government was persuaded to purchase land in Africa. Ky.’s Colonization leaders—Henry Clay, Robert J. Breckinridge, William L. Breckinridge, John C. Underwood, some Old School Presbyterian congregations, and some Methodist Episcopal Church’s congregations—embraced the colonization concepts, because it would rid Ky. of the perceived twin evils, perpetual slavery and the fact that the nation had 250,000 freed blacks. By sending all blacks back to Africa, Ky. and the nation would thus be able to eliminate its race problem. Moreover, by supporting gradual emancipation, Ky. slaveholders would continue to benefit from their slaves economically until properly compensated for their “loss of property.” The only problem with the often-debated scenarios of the colonization movement was that the free people of color living in Ky. did not want to go to Africa. In the thirty years of activity, Ky. sent only 658 freed blacks to Africa, and some of them returned. Maysville had an active colonization society which, in May 1827, met at the Presbyterian Meeting House and elected the following officers:, Adam Beatty, John Chambers, Rev. John T. Edgar, William Huston Jr., Andrew M. January and as Managers: Johnston Armstrong, Lewis Collins, Peter Grant, James Morris, Captain Thomas Nicholson, Isaac Outten, Major Valentine Peers, James M. Runyon, Francis Taylor, and Rev. Walter Warder.
Many, if not most, of the early antislavery people left Ky. as soon as the land title offices opened in Ind. and Ill. They found themselves neighbors to fiercely antislavery farmers from Me., N.H., Vt., and upstate N.Y., and among these antislavery peoples in Ind. and Ill. early runaway slaves found people willing to give them food, rough shelter, and direction where another safe place might be found. By mid-1824, several friendly communities aiding runaway slaves dotted the shoreline across from Ky. on the north side of the Ohio River–Vevay and Pleasant Township in Switzerland Co., Ind.; the Free Will Baptists, Methodist Protestants, and Universalists of Aurora and Dearborn Co., Ind.; and the Seceder and Associate Reformed Presbyterians of South Hanover and Carmel and Rykers Ridge outside Madison, Ind. In Ohio, major assisting communities for runaway slaves were forming in Clermont and Brown counties.
As people migrated from N.C. and eastern Tenn. into and through Ky., information about the Quaker and Separate Baptist- inspired manumission societies filtered into the Commonwealth of Ky. A total of eighty-nine manumission societies had been established before 1830 along the Va. and Carolina tidewater cities and in Tenn. There were fifty manumission societies in N.C., and twenty-five societies, totaling 1,000 members, were formed in eastern Tenn., particularly in the area around Jonesboro. Quaker abolitionists transported hundreds of former slaves, purchased intact by family or manumitted by slave owners under the proviso that these freedmen would be taken out of the South. Soon free black agricultural communities emerged all along the southern regions of Ohio, Ind. and Ill. Each of these communities became a haven for runaway slaves.
Runaways found shelter among Ky.’s Free Blacks that had been brought, sent or who migrated naturally into the Northwest Territory. In 1821, E.S. Abdy, a British scholar, found runaway slaves hiding among formerly enslaved Kentuckians at Graysville, near Hanover, Ind. These transplanted Kentuckians, black and white, often guided by evangelistic religious denominations, were natural adherents of antislavery societies of the late 1830s, were often activists in the emerging Underground Railroad, and were promoters of antislavery political parties.
In the river counties north of the Ohio River, Universalists and Free Will Baptists, Seceder and Associate Reformed Presbyterians—all denominations that promoted true equality and slavery as the root of evil in the American political system—had only a modest influence as religious denominations on both sides of the Ohio River, but they clearly had a major impact on those individuals choosing to aid fugitive slaves.
Prior to 1838, when local and statewide antislavery societies were formed in Ind. and Ohio, aid to fugitive slaves was handled informally by small cells of antislavery black and white families that had relatives or trusted friends further north. Even with regular meetings and attempts to create secure routes to handle increasing numbers of runaway slaves, the so-called Underground Railroad was never very organized and continued to rely on experienced free black conductors such as Elijah Anderson and John P. Parker to bring large numbers of runaway slaves out of Ky. to freedom.
Cheryl LaRoche’s recent work comparing and contrasting free black agricultural communities in southern Ill., Ind., and Ohio concluded that harboring and aiding runaway slaves was a natural activity, an extension of their own experiences as former slaves and now freedmen. She also points out the significance of Bishop William Paul Quinn’s evangelism on behalf of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the founding of aggressive antislavery churches, and Prince Hall Masonic orders as being significant components in establishing successful Underground Railroad routes. On Ky. soil, the AME congregations–Quinn Chapel in Louisville, St. James in Lexington, St. John in Frankfort, Bethel at Shelbyville, Ky., and Mill Creek in Cincinnati, Ohio–were all associated with black abolitionist and Underground Railroad activities.
Alarmed by the large free black community at Cincinnati and the economic loss of slaves along the Ohio River, Northern Kentucky newspapers provided a steady drumbeat over the 1840s and 1850s portraying abolitionists and free people of color with extreme pro-slavery prejudice. The 1829 and 1841 race riots at Cincinnati were portrayed as proof that blacks could not make good citizens while ignoring that Ky. invaders and white troublemakers had brought about this violence, even to the point of employing cannons in use against the black community of Cincinnati. The 1831 Lane Seminary debates in Cincinnati by Theodore Weld, James Bradley, and others were not covered as being challenges to slavery as an institution but rather as examples of unruly and disruptive elements among the seminary’s students. To Ky. newspapers, the 1836 mob violence against James Birney’s antislavery newspaper press in Cincinnati was not an infringement of U.S. Constitutional rights, but rather showed that even in Ohio, the vast majority of citizens objected to formation of the Philanthopist, an avowed antislavery newspaper. Underground Railroad agents, John G. Fee’s congregations in Ky. in Bracken, Madison and Lewis counties, Berea College in Ky., the Liberty Party, and the Indiana and Ohio Antislavery Societies all, in turn, were portrayed by these newspapers as irresponsible agitation by outsiders interfering in Ky.’s affairs. Were the newspapers representing prevailing sentiment among Ky.’s citizens or goading latent prejudices into action? The arguments cut both ways among recent historians.
In the debates leading up to the 1849 Ky. Constitutional Convention, 475 supporters of constitutional emancipation met in 1848 at Maysville in Mason Co. However, the antislavery resolution they drafted at this meeting was in reality a principal plank of the colonizationists–a plan for gradual emancipation and immediate colonization rather than the outright repeal the early Emancipationists desired.
During the 1850s, abolitionists in Ind. and Ohio, concluded it was time to press hard for an end to slavery in the U.S. The “Slave Power” of southern states had broken the Missouri Compromise and was in the process of extending slavery beyond the Mississippi River; no southern state seemed likely to abandon institutional slavery on its own. a point driven home further when the institution of slavery was reaffirmed by Ky.’s new State Constitution in 1850.
Immediatists in Ind. and Ohio split, however, on the means. Boycotting southern products, actively supporting the Underground Railroad, political action through the Liberty and Free Soil Parties, and creating communities sympathetic to northern views on slavery—such as John G. Fee had done at Berea, Ky.–in the midst of southerners were some of the concepts followed. On the national level, Abolitionist William Garrison disapproved of any action other than moral persuasion. John G. Fee’s Berea plan was attractive to the Garrisonites. However, many northern abolitionists believed that only through political action would slavery ever be overturned. James G. Birney turned from gradualism to outright abolition in what he advocated as a leader of the Liberty Party. Salmon P. Chase of Ohio and many of the Ind. leaders pushed the Free Soil Party’s agenda to prevent further encroachment of slavery in the western territories. Infuriated by passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, these abolitionists helped to influence the nomination of Abraham Lincoln for U.S. President by the new Republican Party in 1860.
Direct political action to overturn slavery took many forms. Levi Coffin championed a boycott system by northerners and antislavery people refusing to buy Southern products made from slave labor. His store in Cincinnati sold goods made by free labor, and eliminated cotton products among many others agricultural products tied to the economy of the South. The American Missionary Society tried to distribute thousands of Bibles and antislavery tracts through the South through colporteurs, religious men, and women who traveled with suitcases and satchels full of what pro-slavery forces in the South termed “incendiary literature.” John G. Fee was very much associated with colporteurs in Central Kentucky.
Eli Thayer and John C. Underwood are credited with pushing the American Missionary Society’s activity beyond colporteurs to promote and finance the concept of “northern emigrant communities.” This direct action placed Northern abolitionist Christians living in the middle South and in the disputed western territories to model wage egalitarian societies so slaveowners could be shown how freedmen might act if they were educated and treated as citizens. The emigrant community established Kansas in the 1850s, so much associated with John Brown and the Missouri raids, was the first attempt to test these ideas. The emigrant community established at Ceredo, W.Va., near Ashland, Ky., was a far more successful venture focusing on mining and milling as a profit center. But in Ky., the most famous and controvesial of these abolitionist efforts was the failed community John G. Fee tried to establish in 1859 at Berea that also included a co-educational, integrated college. Located in Berea on lands granted by Cassius M. Clay, both the planned abolitionist colony and the college were immediately targeted by pro-slavery forces angered by John Brown’s October 1859 violent raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., and Fee and his colleagues were forced to flee across the Ohio River.
Typical of the reaction in Ky. to the expulsion of Fee and his associates was a resolution on January 21, 1860, at a meeting at Orangeburg in Mason Co., declaring: “No Abolitionist has the right to establish himself in the slaveholding community and disseminate opinions and principles destructive of the tranquility and safety.” Northerners, therefore, should look to their own salvation and leave Kentuckians alone.
Antebellum newspapers in Northern Kentucky aligned with either the Whig or the Democratic parties and treated news about runaway slaves, slave uprisings and Underground Railroad activities as crime stories. They also reported legislative acts of U.S. Congress concerning slavery, foreign news about the African slave trade, and announced local meetings of abolition, pro-slavery or colonization society meetings. In the 1840s and 1850s, Democratic newspapers took a decidedly anti-black position, running alarmist news stories about the Patrick Doyle slave revolt, Margaret Garner’s trial in Cincinnati for murdering her child , the Henderson slave revolt, runaway slave recaptures, and wherever possible, examples of escaped slaves who returned to their masters voluntarily. The villains in these articles were always Northern agitator abolitionists. Free blacks were characterized as buffoons, criminals, or puffed up by self-importance and by “trying to imitate their betters.”
In 1835, James Gillespie Birney, a slave owner who emancipated his slaves that year, and forty others founded the Ky. chapter of the American Antislavery Society and announced plans for a newspaper, the Philanthropist, to be printed at Danville, Ky., along with a postal campaign to send one million pieces of antislavery literature throughout the South. Danville literally ran James G. Birney and his antislavery publication out of town. Ironically, Birney’s father had supported Rev. David Rice, a Presbyterian minister, in attempting to keep slavery out of Ky. at the state’s 1792 constitutional convention.
Undaunted, Birney published the first issue of the Philanthropist on January 1, 1836, at New Richmond, Ohio, opposite Campbell Co., Ky., He subsequently moved the paper to Cincinnati where an angry mob destroyed the press on July 30, 1836. Birney continued publication of a paper with widespread support among antislavery people in the Northwest states. Editorially, the Philanthopist broke with William Lloyd Garrison’s emphasis on moral persuasion and actively encouraged political action. Birney founded the Liberty Party and ran for president in 1840 and again in 1844. Most of the leading antislavery people in the nation contributed articles to the Philanthropist.
Northern Kentucky made its own contribution to the establishment and printing of an antislavery newspaper through William Shreve Bailey’s The Newport News beginning in 1839 at Newport, Ky., in Campbell Co. Editorially, Bailey was a one-man show, championing the economic interests of working class people and claiming that slavery diminished their chances to earn decent wages. He was not at all interested in religious motivations to end slavery. As a result, abolitionists such as John G. Fee prevented the American Missionary Society from sending funds to Bailey after his newspaper press was burned out by arson. Bailey later traveled to New England and England seeking funds to restart his presses .
Some of the national antislavery newspapers found a few subscribers in Ky., especially in the cities; however most of their influence was through the antislavery societies in Ohio and Ind. The truth was that the Ky. educational system was so poor in quality that few yeomen could read or write. Ironically, it was the landed gentry, the slaveholders that educated their children.
Despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln’s had been born in Ky., his candidacy for president in 1860, seen as being antislavery and anti-southern by his critics, was immensely unpopular in Northern Kentucky. All three of the other candidates out polled the Republican Lincoln in Ky. . The old line Whig constituencies tended to favor John Bell, the Constitutional Unionist from Tenn., while the Democratic vote split in Ky. with native-son John C. Breckinridge, the Southern Democrat, picking up the old Andrew Jacksonites and Stephen Douglas of Ill., the Northern Democrat, the national Democratic vote. Only in the urban communities of Covington and Newport did Lincoln poll respectable numbers in Northern Kentucky in the 1860 election. Just across the Ohio River, both Ohio and Ind. gave major support to the election of Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party ticket.
Northern Kentucky’s Antislavery Vote in 1860
Independent Democrat (South)
Source: Shannon and McQuown, Presidential Politics in Kentucky 1824—1948.
Four years later in 1864, with Ky. under military occupation, with rumors afloat that the Union Army was proposing enlisting black slaves and freedmen, and with many Kentuckians serving in Confederate Army units, the total vote in the state was suppressed significantly. Differences within the region were exaggerated in the 1864 election. Although McClelland won Ky. by a margin of two to one, Lincoln actually won in Kenton and in Campbell counties, albeit with a suspicious and remarkable 107% of eligible voters. By 1864, the overwhelming issues centered on the individual voter’s position in regard to supporting the Union or Confederacy as well as resentment toward Ky.’s continued treatment as a hostile region under military rule. A vote in Ky. for or against Abraham Lincoln now centered more on current political issues and the importance of the antislavery movement in Ky. had been eclipsed in the wake.
Northern Kentucky’s Presidential Vote in 1864
Note: Robertson not formed yet and Soldier’s Vote was statewide tally
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LaRoche, Cheryl Jenifer. “On the Edge of Freedom: Free Black Communities, Archaeology, and the Underground Railroad,” Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 2006.
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