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We have seen that the general trend of public opinion from about 1798 had been progressively in favor of gradual emanc.i.p.ation provided it was coupled with some form of colonization which would remove the liberated Negroes from the State. Public sentiment, however, received a serious set-back about 1838 with the beginning of the Underground Railroad system and the incoming of the abolitionist literature. In a speech in the Kentucky legislature of 1838 James T. Morehead, one of the leading anti-slavery statesmen of the State, portrayed the coming of the newer era in the history of Kentucky slavery when the people would make more strenuous efforts to hold firmly to the slavery inst.i.tution. Morehead pictured the popular mind in these words: “Any man who desires to see slavery abolished–any friend of emanc.i.p.ation, gradual or immediate— who supposes for a moment that now is the time to carry out this favorite policy, must be blind to the prognostics that lower from every quarter of the political sky. Sir, the present is not the period to unmanacle the slave in this or any other state of the Union. Four years ago you might have had some hope. But the wild spirit of fanaticism has done much to r.e.t.a.r.d the work of emanc.i.p.ation and to rivet the fetters of slavery in Kentucky…. The advocates of abolition–the phrenzied fanatics of the North, neither sleep nor slumber. Their footsteps are even now to be seen wherever mischief can be perpetrated–and it may be that while the people of Kentucky are reposing in the confidence of fancied security, the tocsin of rebellion may resound through the land–the firebrand of the incendiary may wrap their dwellings in flames–their towns and cities may become heaps of ashes before their eyes and their minds drawn off from all thoughts of reforming the government to consider the means necessary for their self-preservation–the protection of their families and all that is dear to men.”[441]

Such was the idea of one of the most prominent public men of Kentucky and such became in time the opinion of the average citizen who had come to believe in gradual emanc.i.p.ation as the hope and solution of the Negro problem in the State. The future course of events regarding slavery in Kentucky is to be explained by this radical change of mind. Thus did the wise and constructive plans of the gradual emanc.i.p.ationists come to naught with the incoming of the radical abolitionist movement which the Kentucky populace thought would bring about a civil insurrection among the slaves in their own State. The abolitionists misunderstood the gradual emanc.i.p.ation movement in Kentucky and really fanned the flame of the pro-slavery sentiment that came in its place.


[397] Davidson, _History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky_, p.


[398] _Minutes of Transylvania Presbytery_, Vol. 1, p. 147.

[399] _Minutes of Transylvania Presbytery_, Vol. 2, pp. 102-3.

[400] _Ibid._, Vol. 2, pp. 163, 224.

[401] _Minutes W. Lexington Presbytery_, Vol. 1, p. 38.

[402] _Ibid._, p. 81.

[403] _Minutes of Kentucky Synod_, Vol. 5, pp. 28, 31.

[404] _Minutes of Kentucky Synod_, Vol. 5, pp. 50-52.

[405] _Address to Presbyterians of Kentucky_, pp. 33-34.

[406] _Ibid._, p. 34.

[407] Davidson, _History of the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky_, p.


[408] _Op. cit._, p. 340.

[409] Blanchard and Rice, _Debate on Slavery_, p. 88.

[410] Spencer, _History of the Baptists in Kentucky_, Vol. 1, p. 186.

[411] _Niles’ Register_, May 24, 1845.

[412] _Ibid._, June 28, 1845.

[413] _Ibid._, June 8, 1844.

[414] _Ibid._, May 17, 24, 31, 1845.

[415] _Niles’ Register_, September 27, 1845.

[416] Collins, _History of Kentucky_, Vol. 1, p. 81.

[417] _Ibid._, Vol. 1, p. 83.

[418] Schurz, Carl, _Henry Clay_, Vol. 1, p. 31.

[419] Colton, _Works of Clay_, Vol. 6, p. 153.

[420] His att.i.tude was perhaps best shown when, on a visit to Richmond, Indiana, in the fall of 1846, he was presented with a pet.i.tion by a Quaker by the name of Mendenhall asking him to liberate all the slaves he owned. Clay made a rather lengthy speech to the gentleman on the general principles of the question and then, came down to the practical side of the problem:

“Without any knowledge of the relation in which I stand to my slaves, or their individual condition, you, Mr. Mendenhall, and your a.s.sociates, who have been active in getting up this pet.i.tion, call upon me forthwith to liberate the whole of them. Now let me tell you, that some half a dozen of them, from age, decrepitude, or infirmity, are wholly unable to gain a livelihood for themselves, and are a heavy charge upon me. Do you think that I should conform to the dictates of humanity by ridding myself of that charge, and sending them forth into the world with the boon of liberty, to end a wretched existence in starvation? Another cla.s.s is composed of helpless infants, with or without improvident mothers. Do you believe as a Christian, that I should perform my duty toward them by abandoning them to their fate?

Then there is another cla.s.s who would not accept their freedom if I would give it to them. I have for many years owned a slave that I wished would leave me, but he would not. What shall I do with that cla.s.s?”

“What my treatment of my slaves is you can learn from Charles, who accompanies me on this journey, and who has traveled with me over the greater part of the United States, and in both the Canadas, and has had a thousand opportunities, if he had chosen to embrace them, to leave me. Excuse me, Mr. Mendenhall, for saying that my slaves are as well fed and clad, look as sleek and hearty, and are quite as civil and respectful in their demeanor, and as little disposed to wound the feelings of any one, as you are.”

“I shall, Mr. Mendenhall, take your pet.i.tion into respectful and deliberate consideration; but before I come to a final decision, I should like to know what you and your a.s.sociates are willing to do for the slaves in my possession, if I should think proper to liberate them. I own about fifty, who are probably worth about fifteen thousand dollars. To turn them loose upon society without any means of subsistence or support would be an act of cruelty. Are you willing to raise and secure the payment of fifteen thousand dollars for their benefit, if I should be induced to free them? The security of the payment of that sum would materially lessen the obstacle in the way of their emanc.i.p.ation.”–Colton, Reed & McKinley, _Works of Henry Clay_, Vol. 6, pp. 388-390.

This sums up in Clay’s own words his treatment of the slaves that were under his control. It is not to be presumed in any case that general conditions in the State were like this. There were obvious reasons why Clay couldn’t get one or two of his slaves to accept freedom when he offered it, for they realized that they were far better off under his own particular care than they could ever hope to be under an absolutely free status in society.

[421] So consistent was Clay in deed as well as words in spite of all that the opposing forces had accomplished in the “State of Kentucky that when he died he left a will which did for his own slaves just what he would have had others do in his lifetime. As long as he lived he refused to emanc.i.p.ate his slaves but when he pa.s.sed away he left a written doc.u.ment, the following portion of which forms the eminent climax to a career of continuous labors for the eventual good of the Kentucky slave owners as well as the slaves themselves.

“In the sale of any of my slaves, I direct that members of families shall not be separated without their consent.

“My will is, and I accordingly direct, that the issue of all my female slaves, which shall be born after the first day of January, 1850, shall be free at the respective ages, of the males at twenty-eight, and of the females at twenty-five; and that the three years next preceding their arrival at the age of freedom, they shall be ent.i.tled to their hire or wages for those years, or of the fair value of their services, to defray the expense of transporting them to one of the African colonies and of furnishing them with an outfit on their arrival there.

“And I further direct, that they be taught to read, to write, and to cipher, and that they be sent to Africa. I further will and direct, that the issue of any of the females, who are so to be ent.i.tled to their freedom, at the age of twenty-five, shall be free at their birth, and that they be bound out as apprentices to learn farming, or some useful trade, upon the condition also, of being taught to read, to write, and to cipher. And I direct also, that the age of twenty-one having been attained, they shall be sent to one of the African colonies, to raise the necessary funds for which purpose, if they shall not have previously earned them, they must be hired out for a sufficient length of time.

“I require and enjoin my executors and descendants to pay particular attention to the execution of this provision of my will. And if they should sell any of the females who or whose issue are to be free, I especially desire them to guard carefully the rights of such issue by all suitable stipulations and sanctions in the contract of sale. But I hope that it may not be necessary to sell any such persons who are to be ent.i.tled to their freedom, but that they may be retained in the possession of some of my descendants.”–Colton, Reed & McKinley, Vol.

3, p. 153.

[422] Birney, William, _James G. Birney and his Times_, p. 132.

[423] Birney, William, _James G. Birney and his Times_, p. 133.

[424] _Ibid._, p. 182. The interesting story of Birney and his troubles with his fellow townsmen does not come within the scope of this investigation and will be found treated at length in William Birney’s _James G. Birney and His Times_.

[425] Birney, William, _James G. Birney and his Times_, p. 185.

[426] _Ibid._, p. 155.

[427] Birney, William, _James G. Birney and his Times_, p. 156.

[428] Quick to recognize this tendency, Clay referred to it in his Senate speech of February 7, 1839:

“The proposition in Kentucky for gradual emanc.i.p.ation did not prevail, but it was sustained by a large and respectable minority. That minority had increased, and was increasing, until the abolitionists commenced their operations. The effect has been to dissipate all prospects whatever, for the present, of any scheme of gradual or other emanc.i.p.ation. The people of that state have been shocked and alarmed by these abolition movements, and the number who would now favor a system even of gradual emanc.i.p.ation is probably less than it was in the years 1798-9. At the session of the legislature held in 1837-8 the question of calling a convention was submitted to a consideration of the people by a law pa.s.sed in conformity with the Const.i.tution of that state. Many motives existed for the pa.s.sage of the law, and among them that of emanc.i.p.ation had its influence. When the question was pa.s.sed upon by the people at their last annual election, only about one fourth of the whole voters of the state supported a call of a convention. The apprehension of the danger of abolition was the leading consideration among the people for opposing the call. But for that, but for the agitation of the question of abolition in states whose population had no right, in the opinion of the people of Kentucky, to interfere in the matter, the vote for a convention would have been much larger, if it had not been carried…. Prior to the agitation of this subject of abolition, there was a progressive melioration in the condition of the slaves–schools of instruction were opened by humane and religious persons. These are now all checked, and a spirit of insubordination having shown itself in some localities, traceable, it is believed, to abolition movements and exertions, the legislative authority has found it expedient to infuse fresh vigor into the police and the laws which regulate the conduct of the slaves.”–Colton, Reed & McKinley, _Works of Henry Clay_, Vol. 6, pp. 153-154.

[429] _Niles’ Register_, July 4, 1835.

[430] Shaler, N. S., _Kentucky_, p. 197.


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Published inThe Journal of Negro History