This article was published in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, 2009, University Press of Kentucky.
Emancipationists. Between 1790 and 1850, Kentuckians developed two quite different concepts, constitutional emancipation and gradual emancipation, concerning how to abolish slavery. During the first decades of Ky. statehood, constitutional emancipation formed the conceptual basis for emancipationist’s antislavery political actions. These early antislavery people tried to prevent Ky. from becoming a slave state, and once the 1799 state constitution legalized slavery, they attempted to repeal that part of it. This movement was most closely identified with the Reverend David Rice and several other Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian preachers and churchmen.
Constitutional emancipation was the path that Northern states chose in eliminating slavery. In some New England states, the abolition of slavery took place as outright bans—Vt. (1777), Mass. (1780), and N.H. (1784)–or in the form of gradual emancipation codified by state constitutions in R.I., N.Y., Pa., Conn., and eventually N. J. The major unresolved issues in the North were the legal status of a slave who moved into or fled from a slave state into a free state and whether or not to grant full citizenship to free people of color. As settlers from New England and Pa. flooded into Northern Kentucky, they brought the experience of having lived in states that had enacted constitutional emancipation.
In Southern states, where slavery had become embedded as an institution, and where slaves had the status of private property, emancipation took place through a legal process called manumission in which the individual slave owner could free slaves from bondage through a will or through a declaration in a local court. The counties that were formed in Ky during the state’s early years tended to enshrine the principle of private ownership of slaves. Many counties in Ky. required that a slaveholder or an administrator of an estate post a bond or provide sufficient financial resources, such as land or money, to avoid making a freed black a pauper dependent on the county. The Quakers, some Presbyterians, and Separate Baptists were active in N.C., Tenn., and parts of Ga. in creating manumission societies, dedicated to promoting, and in fact, purchasing families of slaves in order to free them from bondage. As settlers from these regions came into and through Ky., a small number of such manumission societies were established.
Some slaveholders in Ky. believed slavery to be evil but also regarded their slaves as prized private property. Generally, these slaveholders applauded the economic benefits of emancipation accruing to white landowners but also feared that emancipation might produce large numbers of freedmen living in Ky. Gradual emancipationists believed that slavery would be eliminated over time as slave owners of their own volition freed existing slaves through legal manumission. One form of gradual emancipation, publicized by James G. Birney and Cassius Clay, emphasized that slavery impeded economic development in Ky. They contrasted the booming economies of Ohio and Ind. with that of Ky. to prove their point. These arguments were meant to persuade slave owners to emancipate their slaves. In any case, gradual emancipationists tended to believe that slaveholders should be compensated for the loss of their property, if, at some point, slaves were freed by action of the state.
Abolitionists, by contrast, advocated eliminating the institution of slavery without compensation to slave owners. In early Ky., both constitutional and gradual emancipationists used the term abolition when advocating an end to slavery ; however by 1850, abolition referred only to those who favored immediate emancipation in the South.
Slavery and emancipation proved difficult topics for a number of Christian denominations. For the Baptists in 1803–1806, 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 Goshen, Lulbegrud, and Mt. Sterling 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 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, in Ky. included: Bracken, Gilgal, and Licking Locust Baptist churches from the Bracken Baptist Association, Lawrence Creek Baptist Church from Mason Co., Bethel and Mt. Sterling Baptist churches from the North District Baptist Association, New Hope Baptist Church from Woodford Co. with members from the original Clear Creek and Hillsboro Baptist churches, and Bullskin Baptist Church from Shelby Co.
The Emancipation Baptists acted chiefly in the traditional method of other Baptist Associations with messengers, queries, reports, and periodic meetings and preaching. It was not a political party. However, these same Kentuckians were influenced by the creation in 1814 of the Tenn. Manumission Society, with Charles Osborn and John Rankin as charter members, and the creation of the American Emancipation Society. The Ky. antislavery people began to think about political action to repeal the slavery clause in their constitution and moral-ethical action by individual slave owners to emancipate their slaves in their wills.
In 1821, Carter Tarrant and David Barrow formed the Ky. Abolition Society. At that time, Tarrant was living in Carrollton, Ky. The Ky. Abolition Society included the Baptist churches from the Emancipationist Baptists Tarrant had helped to form and a few preachers and elders from the Methodist and Presbyterian denominations. Three of these were the Reverends Alexander, Moses Edwards, and John Mahan; twenty-one ordained members also belonged to the Ky. Abolition Society. At its peak, however, the statewide organization never claimed more than 200 members.
The Maysville Abolition Society, led by Amos Corwine Jr., was active during this period. A small group was located at Shelbyville, Ky., and another at Frankfort, Ky., hosted the statewide organizing meeting. Although there was clearly an antislavery group at Louisville, Ky., led chiefly by Presbyterian and Unitarian ministers, there is no indication that they were part of the Ky. Abolition Society.
Lucien Rule cited Lyman Beecher, Gideon Blackburn, John Dickey, Henry Little, Samuel Shannon, and Parson John Todd as early influential antislavery Presbyterian preachers in Northern Kentucky and Southern Ind. The Scots Coventer, Seceder, and Associate Reformed Presbyterians led by John Anderson, Andrew Fulton, and George Shannon settled on the Ind. side of the Ohio River, north and west of Madison. These Scots congregations formed early aid to fugitive slaves all along the Ohio River and up into central Ind.
John Finley Crowe, a student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., was charged with editing a flagship newspaper for the Ky. Abolition Society, the Abolition and Intelligence Messenger. Crowe began the publication in Lexington. He then moved to Shelbyville, Ky., where he published his paper a few months advocating the repeal of Kentucky’s slave laws. Crowe then proceeded to seminary, ordination, and in 1825, began his first church assignment at Vernon, Ind. He later achieved prominence as the first president of Hanover College at Madison, Ind., and as head of the Ind. Old School Presbyterian Colonization Society.
The enthusiasm for emancipation of slaves soon began spread through the mid-South. In 1823, Tenn. reported twenty-five manumission societies, mostly in the eastern part of the state. In 1823, N.C. declared fifty societies active at the national Emancipation Society Meeting at Philadelphia, Pa. Between 1823 and 1828, representatives from Baltimore, Md., New England, and Philadelphia met annually. The East Tenn. groups usually sent delegates, but there is no evidence of Ky. having been represented at the national level.
A number of slave owners manumitted their slaves. However, in the entire period from 1799 to 1868, slaveholders in Bracken Co., Ky., for instance, filed only 156 emancipation records in the courthouse, 14 of them by Arthur Thome of Augusta, Ky., in 1834–1836. In Ky. in 1847, in Owen Co., Susan Herndon Rogers freed the ten slaves of the Locust family and gave them 403 acres known as Free Station, or Mountain Island. Susan’s brother, James Herndon, executed a bond in 1853 for $21,000 in order to have his twenty-two slaves manumitted. James Herndon’s manumitted slaves, the Carroll, Smith, and Vinegar families, divided 125 acres at Mountain Island. Yet, actions such as these hardly made a dent in the huge numbers of slaves pouring into Ky. from the Carolinas, Md., and Va. . By 1827, the emancipation movement ran out of steam as the leaders died off or moved away, and the impact of moral persuasion proved anemic.
Into this intellectual vacuum, the faculty at the Danville Presbyterian Seminary led by the Reverend Dr. Robert J. Breckinridge, with the aid of his brother William J. Breckinridge, an influential Louisville minister, steered the antislavery movement toward a conservative approach that linked gradual emancipation with the concept of colonization, sending freed blacks back to Africa. The American Colonization Society, founded in 1810, was developed chiefly as a method of ridding the nation of its free people of color and was not originally conceived as a tactic to eliminate slavery from the South. In fact, it was the opposite. The manumission movement, adopted by many Presbyterians and Methodists in the early years of Ky. statehood, had been all too productive; hundreds of free blacks now populated southern cities and northern rural communities. To the slave owner, a free black living in a community where there were slaves represented an unnecessary tension, a temptation for slaves to become dissatisfied with their bondage. The Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831 in Va. exacerbated all the latent fears of a tiny slaveholding minority controlling the daily movements of millions of black slaves. One result was the immediate imposition of harsh laws against free people of color throughout the South and the Ohio River valley. The second result was that the antislavery leadership within the Presbyterians, Methodists, and many forms of Baptists, vigorously adopted the tenets and the tactics of the colonization movement. Sending free blacks to Africa was considered the ultimate solution. At first, colonizationists, with Ky. statesman Henry Clay as their leader and the federal government and wealthy individuals backing the movement, purchased large tracts of land on the coast of Africa, lined up ships to transport former slaves to Liberia, and convinced some slave owners to follow their precepts in educating slaves to Christianize their new African homelands. By 1849, it became evident that free people of color did not want to go to Africa. Fewer than 650 former Ky. slaves ever went to Liberia and some later returned. The colonization-emancipationists were faced with 250,000 Ky. slaves who intended to stay in the U.S.
As the Ky. constitutional convention in October 1849 approached, the anti-slavery forces in the state made a determined assault on slavery. A statewide emancipation convention was scheduled for April 1849 in Frankfort, Ky. Leading up to this meeting, the abolitionists in Ky., led by John G. Fee from Lewis and Bracken Cos., demanded non-importation of slaves and called upon the Ky. Legislature to emancipate slaves and grant them status as free citizens. The colonizationists, led by Robert J. Breckinridge, William Breckinridge, Henry Clay, and John R. Young, backed a gradual emancipation plan by which slave owners would pay for the transportation costs to send freed slaves to Africa instead of paying county and state taxes on their slave property. The April showdown was a disaster. The abolitionist voices championed by Fee and the colonization forces championed by the Breckinridges could not find common ground, and a weakened plank highlighting gradual emancipation with immediate colonization of freed blacks was finally hammered out to no one’s satisfaction. Meanwhile the pro-slavery leaders, John Breckinridge and Robert Wycliffe, and others were courting delegates to the October convention labeling all antislavery people as radical abolitionists. They reminded voters of the August 1848 Doyle armed slave revolt affecting Lexington and Bracken Co. in Ky. and other slave revolts in the South. The scare tactics worked to perfection, and the antislavery people were routed badly. Statewide, only in Campbell Co., with the election of Ira Root, and in Knox and Harlan counties, with Silas Woodson’s election, were emancipationists successful in electing delegates to the constitutional convention.
Emboldened by the political disarray among antislavery parties, the Ky. Legislature moved quickly to repeal the non-importation of slaves act of 1833, and the 1850 Ky. constitution squeezed the economic noose around free people of color, and constricted emancipation requirements, demanding that any freed slave immediately leave the state thereby clearly delineating Ky.’s status as a slave state.
During the early 1840s at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio, John G. Fee not only turned his back on his father’s slave holdings and his Bracken Co. neighbors’ approval of the peculiar institution, but Fee moved all the way to embrace the concept of the immediate abolition of slavery. Fee spent the next few years searching for a method of challenging slavery on southern soil. At first, he worked within the New School Presbyterians, founding churches in Ky. in Lewis and Bracken counties; but the New School Synod disciplined him for his virulent antislavery activities. Fee had already moved toward an anti-caste, antislavery position, and gradually moved beyond any attachment to a denomination. And, in fact, he influenced the Bracken and Lewis county churches to become part of the Free Church movement.
Fee worked with Simeon S. Jocelyn, Amos Phelps, Lewis Tappan, and George Whipple of the American Missionary Association to develop a colporteur system, bringing northern antislavery preachers and dedicated lay people to distribute Bibles, antislavery literature, and anti-caste congregation development into the mid-South, particularly into Madison Co., Ky. Greatly influenced by Eli Thayer and John C. Underwood’s concepts of Northern Emigrant Communities in the upper South, Fee decided in 1858 to model an egalitarian community at Berea, Ky., on lands donated by Cassius M. Clay. Fee recruited religious and educators but never had the economic managerial expertise of the similar Ceredo community formed in W.Va. Both as an educator and symbol, Fee stands alone in Ky.’s antislavery history.
Most historians acclaim John G. Fee’s courage at Berea, where former slaves and white men could form a community, for his work in educating men, women, and children in Ky. at Camp Nelson in Garrard Co. and at Berea. But most historians also find Fee irrelevant to the attitudes and actions taken by the overwhelming numbers of Kentuckians during the 1860s. John G. Fee, the last emancipationist, neither convinced slave owners to give up their slaves nor yeomen to embrace blacks as fellow citizens. Consequently, Ky. would move into and through the Civil War as a slave state.
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Bland, Ballard. Address to the People of Kentucky on the Subject of Emancipation, April 1848.
Bland, Ballard, and John Speed, et al. Slave Emancipation in Kentucky, Bland Ballard, 1849.
Dumond, Dwight Lowell. Antislavery, The Crusade for Freedom in America, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1961.
Howard, Victor B. The Evangelical War against Slavery and Caste, the Life and Times of John G. Fee, Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1996.
Martin, Asa Earl. “Pioneer Antislavery Press,” Missouri Valley Historical Review, 2 (March 1916): 510–528.
Miller, Carolyn R., comp. African American Bracken County Kentucky 1797–1999, Brooksville, Ky.: Bracken County Historical Society, 1999.
____________________ Slavery in Newsprint, Central Ohio River Borderlands, 1840–1859. Brooksville, Ky.: Bracken County Historical Society; 2003.
Tallant, Harold D. Evil Necessity, Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003.
Tenkotte, Paul A. “Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790–1890.” Ph.D. diss., University of Cincinnati, 1989.
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Diane Perrine Coon