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THE ANTI-SLAVERY MOVEMENT
IN KENTUCKY
PRIOR TO 1850
By
Asa Earl Martin
Assistant Professor of American History
The Pennsylvania State College
Publ. The Standard Printing Company of Louisville
1918

THE FIRST ATTACK UPON SLAVERY

CHAPTER I
Pgs. 11-17

     During the period of the Revolution and the early years of the Republic, sentiment in the country as a whole was unfriendly to the institution of slavery.  It was regarded as inconsistent with Christian civilization and out of accord with the great principles of liberty for which the Colonies had contended.  Since slavery existed in every state of the Union, the feeling that it was injurious to society was in no sense dependent upon sectional lines.  Its existence was lamented by such men as Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Franklin, Hamilton, Jay and Adams.  There was a general regret that the institution had ever been planted in America and it was hoped that in time it would be abandoned.  No effort was made to defend it or to present it as an ideal basis for the political and economic structure of society and at best it was regarded as a necessary evil.1  It was opposed upon economic grounds by some and upon moral and religious grounds by others and the question, as Jefferson stated it, was whether "the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are of the gift of God."2  It is, therefore, not surprising that Jefferson in the constitution which he proposed for the state of Virginia in 1776 inserted a provision that "no person hereafter coming into this country shall be held in slavery under any pretext whatever." 3  His opposition to slavery was expressed again in 1784 in the report to Congress on a plan of government for the Western Territory, which contained a clause prohibiting slavery or involuntary servitude in this territory after the year 1800.4  Three years later this principle was accepted in the famous Northwest Ordinance.

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1. W. F. Poole: "Anti-Slavery Opinion before 1800"; S. B. Weeks: "Anti-Slavery Opinion in the South," publications of the Southern Historical Association, Vol. 2, 1898.
2. Jefferson:  "Notes on Virginia," p. 222
3. Writings of Thomas Jefferson:  Vol. 2, p. 26.
4. Writings of Thomas Jefferson:  Vol. 3, p. 432.  Later in his life Jefferson was forced to abandon his early hope that slavery would soon cease to flourish in America; yet he still believed in its ultimate extinction.  In 1814 he said:  "The love of justice and the love of country plead equally for the cause of these people."  Ibid., Vol. 4, p. 477.  He still believed that the hour of emancipation was advancing with the "march of time" and urged continued effort on the part of the friends of freedom.

[Pg. 12]
     It was during the Revolutionary period that slavery was introduced to Kentucky and one need not be surprised to find that the newly settled district shared in the opposition described above.  The economic and social conditions of the frontier were antagonistic to slavery and favorable to the development of a democratic society.  Frontier life tended to produce self reliance, independence, and individuality.  It fostered a sense of equality.  There was an absence of great wealth, of highly polished society, and of their leisure class.  Slaveholding could not be an important element in the social, economic, or political life of such a people and a large percentage of the population did not own slaves.  In addition to these pioneers in the Blue Grass region, there were settlers of decided anti-slavery tendencies from New England and other northern states who settled in the northern part of the state.  Such was John Filson, the "Yankee Schoolmaster" and the first historian of Kentucky.5
     While Kentucky remained an integral part of Virginia, there  was little opportunity for a general expression, their opinion was indirectly voiced in the debate before the Danville Political Club, which, as has been stated, embraced some of the leading men of Kentucky.  At one of the meetings, in 1788, the new federal constitution, which has recently been submitted to the states for ratification, was taken under consideration.  Sentiment was unanimous against the clause relating to the importation of slaves because it deprived Congress of the power to prohibit the foreign slave trade before 1808.  It was the opinion of the members that Congress ought to be given power to cut off the odious traffic at any time it should choose to do so.6  while this act was not a direct condemnation of slavery, it showed an early desire to check the growth of the institution.
     Though the opposition to slavery was general throughout the country, there was, however, little organized sentiment against the institution as such.  What there was, seems to have existed in Kentucky as elsewhere, chiefly among the churches.
     It was David Rice, the father of Presbyterianism in the West, who took the first conspicuous step toward securing the abolition of slavery in Kentucky.7  He moved from Virginia in

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5. R. H. Collins:  "History of Kentucky," Vol. 2, pp. 195, 492
6. Speed: "Political Club," p. 151
7. R. H. Bishop:  "Outline of the Church in Kentucky, containing the Memoirs of David Rice," pp. 114, 95, 385, 417; R. H. Collins: "History of Kentucky, "Vol. 1, p. 132f; J. M. Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 226; Robert Davidson: "History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky," pp. 65-71.

[Pg. 13]
1783 and identified his fortunes with those of the new settlement.  Besides his active duties as a minister of the Gospel and as the organizer of numerous churches, he was zealously engaged in advancing the cause of education.  He established in his house in Lincoln County, in 1784, the first grammar school of the West.  He was also the first teacher in Transylvania Seminary, and for years the chairman of its board of trustees.  "Father" Rice, as he was commonly known, was recognized for his ability and piety as a leader of the religious and educational thought in the West.8
     On the even of the meeting of the convention of 1792 to frame a constitution for Kentucky as a state in the Union, he published, under the signature of "Philanthropos," a pamphlet entitled "Slavery, Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy"9 which embraced the doctrine he had long preached.  In this he spoke freely of the infringement on personal rights; the want of protection for females; the deprivation of religious and moral instruction; the violent separation of families; the growing danger of servile insurrection; the tendency to sap the foundations of moral and political virtue; the indulging in habits of idleness and vice, especially among the young en; the comparative unproductiveness of slave property; the discouraging of valuable immigration from the eastward; and the probable deterioration of the country.  He undertook to answer objections that were commonly raised to emancipation, especially those drawn from the Scriptures, which were being used to justify slavery.  In conclusion he proposed that the coming convention should "resolve unconditionally to put an end to slavery in Kentucky."10 Not content with mere argument, he succeeded in being elected a delegate to the coming convention.11
     Soon after the assembling of the convention in Danville, in 1792,12 a special committee, of which Colonel George Nicholas

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8. Davidson:  "History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky," pp. 65-71
9. Bishop:  "Outline of the Church in Kentucky," pp. 385ff, gives this pamphlet in full
10. Ibid.
11. Lewis Collins: "Historical Sketches of Kentucky," p. 147, gives a list of the delegates to the Convention from the different counties.  J. M. Brown:  "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 26f, Filson Club Publications.  R. H. Collins: "History of Kentucky," Vol. 1, p. 133; Humphrey Marshall: "History of Kentucky," Vol. 1, p. 394.
12. Marshall:  "History of Kentucky," Vol. 1, p. 394; Man Butler: "History of Commonwealth of Kentucky," pp. 206-7.
J. T. Morehead
in "An Address in Commemoration of the First Settlement of Kentucky" (133-4), at Jonesborough on the 25th day of May, 1840, in speaking of the members of the convention of 1792 said: "From the County of Mercer was the Rev. David Rice, a minister of the Presbyterian Church. *** He sought a place in the convention, in the hope of being able to infuse into its deliberations a zeal for the gradual extirpation of slavery in Kentucky. ***His learning, his piety, his grave and venerable deportment, and his high rank in the church to which he belonged, gave to his opinions deserved influence, and he supported them in debate with considerable ability.

[Pg. 14]
was the most influential member, was appointed to draft the constitution, which was soon offered for adoption.  Apparently no serious differences existed among the delegates except as to recognizing the existence or the perpetuity of slavery.13  This question was brought directly before the convention by the ninth article which legalized slavery.  After considerable discussion the article was adopted and while it was designed to make the institution as mild and as humane as possible it nevertheless made it virtually perpetual unless there should be a change in the fundamental law.  The legislature was denied power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, nor could it prevent immigrants from bringing in their slaves.  On the other hand, the General Assembly was given extensive powers in respect to importation of slaves into the state as merchandise.14.
     It was upon the adoption of this article that the friends and opponents of slavery joined battle.  The ablest of those who opposed the definite establishment of slavery in Kentucky was David Rice.  During the early days of the convention he delivered an address before that body which was one of the most earnest and forceful productions of the period.15  In it he pointed to the agency, and obliged to act according to the will of another free agent of the same species; and yet he is accountable to his Creator for the use he makes of his own free agency."16
     He declared sarcastically that the legislature, in order to be consistent, should make the master accountable for the actions of the slaves in all things here and after.17  He
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13.  Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 227f.
14. "The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, previous to such emancipation, and a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated.  They shall have no power to prevent emigrants to this State from bringing with them such persons as are deemed slaves by the laws of any one of the United States, so long as any person of the same age or description shall be continued in slavery by the laws of this State.  They shall pass laws to permit the owners of slaves to emancipate them, saving the rights of creditors, and preventing them for becoming chargeable to the county in which they reside.  They shall have full power to prevent slaves being brought into this State as merchandize.  They shall have full power to prevent any slaves being brought into this 'State from any foreign country, and to prevent those from being brought into this State who have been since the first day of January, one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine, or hereafter may be, imported into any of the United States from a foreign country.  And they shall have full power to pass such laws as may be necessary to oblige the owners of slaves to treat them with humanity, to provide for them necessary clothing and provision, to abstain from all injuries to them, extending to life or limb, and in case of their neglect or refusal to comply with the directions of such laws, to have such slave or slaves sold for the benefit of their owner or owners."  William Littell: "Statute Laws of Kentucky," Vol. 1, p. 32; B. P. Poore: "The Federal and State Constitutions," Part 1, p. 653.
15. This address was printed in pamphlet for soon after the adjournment of the convention under the same title as his pre-convention pamphlet, but under his own name.  The pamphlet went through many editions.
16. David Rice: "Slavery, Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy," Edition 1792, pp. 5-6.
17. Ibid., ***, p. 6

[Pg. 15]
regarded liberty as inalienable by the legislature except for vicious conduct, and claims to property in slaves as invalid.  "A thousand laws can never make that innocent, which the Devine Law has made criminal: or give them a right to that which the Divine Law forbids them to claim."18  He replied to the argument that slaveholders would be prevented from emigrating to Kentucky by saying that five useful citizens would come for every slaveholder that was lost, and that if  slavery was permitted, free labor would seek other regions.19  The alleged unfitness of slaves for freedom was met by the question, "Shall we continue to maim souls, because a maimed soul is unfit for society?"20  But he considered that present conditions should be taken into account and that gradual emancipation was the only practical plan.  His proposal was that the constitution should declare against slavery as a matter of principle, leaving it to the legislature to find the most suitable means of abolishing it.  He suggested, however, that it would be expedient for that body to "prevent the importation of any more slaves" and to "enact that all born after such a date should be born free" and that some system of education be devised for making useful citizens of the slaves.21  Emancipation by some means he regarded as a political necessity, and he closed with an earnest appeal that the new state might not be strained with this sin at his birth.  "The slavery of the Negroes," he said, "Began in iniquity; a curse has attended it, and a curse will follow it.  National vices will be punished with a national calamities.  Let us avoid these vices, that we may avoid the punishment which they deserve.  *** Holding men in slavery is the national vice of Virginia; and while a part of that state, we were partakers of the guilt.  As a separate state, we are just now come to the birth; and it depends upon our free choice whether we shall be born in this sin, or innocent of it.  We now have it in our power to adopt it as our national crime; or to bear a national testimony against it.  I hope the latter will be our choice; that we shall wash our hands of this guilt; and not leave it in the power of a future legislature, evermore to strain our reputation or our conscience with it."22
     The constitutional provision fixing slavery in the state was ably supported by Colonel George Nicholas, the most distin-
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18.  Rice:  "Slavery, Inconsistent ***," p. 14
19.  Ibid., p. 15.
20.  Ibid., p. 21
21.  Ibid., p. 21
22.  Ibid., p. 24

[Pg. 16]
guished man in the convention and at that time the most eminent lawyer in Kentucky.23  After a thorough discussion which lasted for a number of days, the question was put to a vote.  This was the only case in which the ayes and noes were recorded in the Journal.  Under the date of Wednesday, April 18, 1792, is the following entry: "A motion was made by Mr. Taylor, of Mercer, and seconded by Mr. Smith, of Bourbon, to expunge the ninth article of the constitution, respecting slavery, which was negatived; and the yeas and nays on the question were ordered to be entered on the Journals." 24  The result of the vote was: yeas 16; nays 26.25
     Three of the delegates, Wallace of Woodford County, Walton of Nelson County, and Sebastian of Jefferson County, who were generally regarded, prior to the meeting of the convention, as emancipationists, supported the constitution as proposed by the committee.  This change of attitude has been attributed by Brown and others to the influence of Nicholas,26 although no evidence has been produced to support the contention.  Had they not upheld the constitution, the final result would have been the same, though the pro-slavery majority would have been the same, though the pro-slavery majority would have been reduced from ten to four.
     If the constitution could be described as the work of any one man, that man would doubtless be Colonel George Nicholas.27  In speaking of the political unwisdom of adopting the ninth article a prominent historian of Kentucky makes the
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23. Marshall:  "History of Kentucky," Vol. 1, pp.395, 414; L. Collins:  "Historical Sketches of Kentucky," p. 44; Butler: "History of Kentucky," p. 207; Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 227.  Colonel Nicholas had immigrated from Virginia in 1791, but the fame of his abilities and the record of his public services had preceded him.  As a member of the Virginia Convention which had adopted the federal constitution, he had ably sustained debate against Patrick Henry and George Mason, and deservedly shared with James Madison the credit of carrying the vote that ratified that document.  A list of hte delegates to the convention is given in L. Collins: "Historical Sketches of Kentucky," p. 147.
24.  Brown: "Political Beginning of Kentucky," p. 229.
25.  Ibid., p. 230.  The following table represents the free and the slave population in 1790 of each of the nine counties into which Kentucky was divided at that time and the votes cast in the constitutional convention two years later for and against slavery.

1790 WHITES SLAVES SLAVE
PER CENT.
VOTES IN
PRO-SLAVE
CONVENTION
ANTI-SLAVE
Bourbon 6,929 908 13 2 3
Fayette 14,626 3,752 25 2 3
Jefferson 3,857 903 24 2 0
Lincoln 5,446 1,094 18 3 2
Madison 5,035 739 15 4 1
Mason 2,500 229 9 2 3
Mercer 5,745 1,339 23 2 3
Nelson 10,032 1,248 12 4 1
Woodford 6,963 2,220 32 5 0
          Total 61,333 12,430 20 26 16

United States Census: Population, 1870, pp.31-33; L. Collins: "Historical Sketches of Kentucky," p. 147; Gilbert Imlay: "Western Territory of North America," p. 378 (map).
26. Brown:  "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 230.
27. Marshall: "History of Kentucky," Vol. 1, p. 414; Butler: "History of Kentucky," p. 207; Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 228.   Mr. Speed in the "Danville Political Club," p. 162, says that the influence of Nicholas in the convention has been over estimated; that the convention was composed of strong men who thought and acted for themselves.

[Pg. 17]
following comment:  "And the unfortunate step was taken under the guidance of a man whose ability and uprightness can not be questioned, whose experience in affairs was large, and whose performances justified confidence.  But Nicholas was not yet a Kentuckian.  He had not yet learned the ways of the West, nor comprehended where the interests of the new commonwealth were different from what suited or seemed to suit Virginia and her people." 28
     Seven of the forty-five members of the convention were ministers, of whom three, Bailey, Smith, and Garrard, were Baptists; three, Crawford Swope, and Rice, were Presbyterians; and one, Kavanaugh, was a Methodist. 29  Though David Rice resigned his seat in the convention before the final vote was taken, Harry Innes, 30 elected to take his place, supported the emancipationists.  The six ministers voted solidly against slavery, showing that the religious leaders were in accord in this matter, although none of the others seems to have taken as active a part in opposition to it on the floor of the convention as did David Rice.
     The constitution of 1792 was not submitted to the people for ratification, but, had it been, there is no reason to doubt that article nine would have been accepted by popular vote.  There were not more than 15,000 slaves in the state and the majority of the people, mostly immigrants from Virginia where slavery existed and seemed to be profitable, did not appreciate the importance of the question.  The new state had stood at the parting of the ways and the way that was chosen was destined to lead it to the unhappy fate so ably foretold by David Rice.31

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28. Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 231
29. Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," p. 230; Lewis Collins: "Historical Sketches of Kentucky," p. 147
30. Brown: "Political Beginnings of Kentucky," pp. 228-229
31. For attitude of the churches of Kentucky toward slavery before 1792, see the following chapter, pp. 19ff.

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