Kentucky Rising: Democracy, Slavery, and Culture from the Early Republic to the Civil War

By James A. Ramage; Andrea S. Watkins | Go to book overview

12
The Politics of Slavery

Opponents of slavery outside Kentucky noticed that the commonwealth had the strongest antislavery movement of any of the slave states, and many hoped that Kentucky would set an example and be the first slave state to abolish slavery. Most Kentuckians agreed with Henry Clay that slavery was evil, but they also agreed with him that it was necessary for public safety— it was an evil necessity. The watershed in the consideration of emancipation as a political issue came with the state constitutional convention in 1849, when antislavery advocates hoped the slaves might be freed. Henry Clay encouraged this when he published a public letter meant to influence the convention. He wrote that Kentucky enjoyed “high respect and honorable consideration” throughout the nation and the world but that none of Kentucky’s past glory would equal the achievement of being “the Pioneer State” in abolishing slavery. But the voters elected a proslavery convention, and the members wrote one of the most proslavery state constitutions in the nation. The constitution used strong language to protect the rights of slave owners; it made the right to own slaves “inviolable,” declared that a majority in the General Assembly had no right to infringe on the “lives, liberty, and property of freemen,” and proclaimed that the right to own slaves was “higher than any constitutional sanction.” Debate continued, but, after the new constitution was ratified in 1850, Kentuckians seemed more committed to slavery than ever—nearly every candidate campaigning for election portrayed himself as a friend of slavery.1

One of the strongest early opponents of slavery in Kentucky was Presbyterian minister David Rice, a man of courage and dignity who came to Kentucky from Virginia in 1783 with his wife and eleven children in response to a request by about three hundred Presbyterian settlers that he organize

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