Friday, January 1, 2010

Kentucky Governor Magoffin on Slavery

In graduate school we gave good natured grief to a fellow student from northern Kentucky about whether Kentucky should really be considered a Southern state or not. Most all of us that hung out together were from states that had formally seceded in 1860-61. We all agreed that "our states," Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and South Carolina were all truly Southern, but Kentucky seemed to fall into some kind of limbo. Of course the ribbing was all in good fun, but it does beg the question, what does in fact make a state Southern?

Is it that they formally removed themselves from the Union that makes them Southern, or should that designation be based on whether they legally allowed slavery? If the latter is the case then Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware should also be considered Southern states. For me, its difficult to think of Delaware as a Southern state, but that's just me. Or, do habits and custom make a state Southern? If that is the case, then yes, now that I have lived in Kentucky, I would consider it a Southern state. People here have accents that are more Southern than anything else, they cook meals that are traditionally Southern, and they also have manners and preferences for things I think of as being Southern. Kentucky after all was once a county of Virginia and was overwhelmingly settled by from people that came from that state, as well as from North and South Carolina. It's difficult to think that influences from those areas didn't have a long lasting impact on Kentucky.

In doing some research recently I came across Governor Beriah Magoffin's address to the Kentucky General Assembly in December of 1859. I was interested in finding out whether he made any reference to slavery or John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid that had occurred just 2 months before. I was not surprised to find that he mentioned both; those two topics after all were the reigning hot topics of the day. But, what I was surprised to find was his strong defense of the institution. He clearly stated that he thought that slavery was "a good" that benefited both races. The following is an excerpt from that speech.

"They [Kentuckians] have heard this cry about he poor oppressed African, and in looking back, even in our own day, at the history of the institution and his race, we have seen him not a century ago brought here from Africa a crooked, miserable, naked, starved, ill-shaped, chattering, half-reasoning sort of link between the baboon and the white man, as wild nearly as the beasts of the forest, and never was there such a change for the better produced within the same length of time upon any people on earth. We now behold him in the third generation finely formed, straight, intelligent, moral and well centered, if left to the management of his master...but the moment you set him free, he descends in the scale of civilization far more rapidly than he ascended and as such becomes a worthless, idle, lazy, besotted vagabond in a very few years, so much so, that some of the free states, where there seems to be so much sympathy for him has passed strong laws to prevent his becoming a resident."

This idea of slavery as being a positive good was promoted all though the states that eventually seceded from the Union, but was expressed less often in the Border States. Slavery was seen in those states as more of a "necessary evil" than a positive good. But, it appears that as the nation moved closer toward war those in the Border States that did believe in slavery became more defensive of its so called benefits. And, while most Northerners were just as racist as their Southern neighbors, few saw the good that slavery brought. Most Northerners certainly didn't see African Americans as their equals or deserving of political and social rights, but they did see slavery as limiting the opportunities for their fellow whites, particularly poorer whites.

Was/is Kentucky a Southern state? In many ways, I would say yes; in the 19th century as well as today.

No comments:

Post a Comment