Sunday, June 14, 2009

Just finished reading - Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky by Harold D. Tallant

Unlike many of the Deep South states who viewed slavery as a "positive good" in the antebellum years, Kentucky and other Upper South states saw slavery more as a "necessary evil." Most Kentuckians thought that slavery was necessary as an institution to continue its economic prosperity, and right of property, especially in western Kentucky and the in the Bluegrass region where slavery flourished most. But, it was also a necessary evil because it was thought that slavery was the best means of social control for the 22% of the population (1850) that was black. Just as many, and some of the same people that saw it as necessary, also saw it is evil. Evil in that it led to idleness, a lack of innovation, a sense of tyranny (even if only locally), and an undeserved air of entitlement.

Thus, slavery, being viewed as an "evil necessity," brought a wide spectrum of opinions on how to deal with it. These diverse viewpoints are illustrated in a number of Kentucky's notable personalities during this era.

There were those that supported the idea of colonizing slaves to another country; mainly Liberia. There were those that saw colonization as impractical in expense in effort. There were those that believed that slaveholders should be compensated for their property if they were freed. There were those that proposed emancipating slaves when they reached a certain age. This plan known as "post nati," then usually stipulated that the blacks be required to leave the state after a certain period after being freed. And, there were those very few who wanted an immediate, uncompensated freedom for the slaves, and then have them integrated into society as social and political equals. Kentuckians such as Robert J. Breckinridge (uncle to future Vice President John C. Breckinridge), William G. Birney, John G. Fee, Cassuis M. Clay, and Robert Wickliffe, all expressed varying degrees of pro-slavery or anti-slavery thoughts along these lines. Some of these men changed their ideas over time, and some remained firmly committed to their goals. Most white Kentuckians, due to racism, believed that however slavery was ended - if in fact that was what was best - blacks would have to be removed from the state. Tallent argues this is what in fact caused Kentucky to hold on to the institution to the bitter end - the 13th Amendment; which by the way, Kentucky did not ratify until 1976 (by then a symbolic gesture).

Tallent sums up this book and his thesis quite well in the last paragraph of the book, as follows:
"In the end, Kentucky's moderation - its theory that slavery was a necessary evil - had the effect of preserving slavery and white domination of the state. Kentuckians demonstrated that their moderation on the issue of slavery was little different, in its effects, from immoderation. Expected to be the first to give up slavery because of its moderation, Kentucky actually became the one of the last two states to give up slavery - because of that same moderation. Kentucky's highest ideals became not the antebellum period's vision of the African American's innate humanity and abstract right to freedom, but the postbellum period's support for the Lost Cause and white supremacy. Throughout the years of controversy, Kentucky tried to serve two masters: God and Mammon - their highest ideals and their love of the things and ways of this world. Caught between their potential for antislavery idealism and their loyalty to racism, property, and reputation, Kentuckians found they could not successfully serve two masters. For in loving one, they came to hate the other."

Tallent, a history professor at Georgetown College, Kentucky has produced a book that gives the student of Kentucky history a better understanding of the wide scope of though on slavery and emancipation that existed in the state up to the time of the Civil War. I eagerly recommend this book to anyone wanting a fuller understanding of the unmonolithic stance on slavery that was common to the Border and Upper South states in the antebellum years.

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