Wednesday, March 10, 2010

1860 Kentucky Statute Limited Free Blacks

In an earlier post I discussed Governor Beriah Magoffin's call to reorganize the Kentucky state militia in the wake of John Brown's Harpers Ferry raid. In his message to the Kentucky General Assembly in December 1859, the governor also called for tighter restrictions on African Americans, especially the free people of color in the Commonwealth.

With thoughts of a potential John Brown-like insurrection weighing heavily on his mind, Governor Magoffin said, "Self-preservation and the safety of the republic demand renewed vigilance upon our part, whether agents and emissaries of the Republican party, and the enemies of the union come among us as teachers, as peddlers, or as free negroes from the free states." The governor was all too aware that free black men such as Dangerfield Newby, John Copeland, Lewis Leary, and Osbourne Anderson had been among Brown's most trusted men.

Magoffin made several recommendations he hoped the state legislature would take seriously. He said "I would therefore recommend a heavier taxation upon peddlers, a repeal of laws allowing free negroes to come within our borders from other States, and the enactment of a law imposing a heavy penalty upon them for coming to the State, under any pretense whatever." He continued, "It would be well, too, to offer to each free negro, who wished to leave the State, who had not the means, a sufficient sum of money to bear his expenses to this destination; when once out, he could not return." In effect he was saying, we want you gone, and we'll help you leave, and once you're gone, don't come back.

The governor made clear his thoughts about free blacks. "This population is a great nuisance in our State, and while the good and industrious ought to be protected and respected, I am not sure that it would not have been well to have sold into slavery again those who were guilty of crimes of a certain description, and for misdemeanors, instead of punishment now provided by law - for drunkenness, immorality, laziness, and general misconduct, upon proof and conviction before a proper tribunal, it might have been well to have hired them out for a year, or longer, for the first offense, and for the second to have banished them from the State, or sold them into slavery, the money raised this way to be transferred to the school fund. Better far would it have been, both for the black and the white man, than to permit him, an idler, a thief, a drunkard, and a vicious vagabond, to have the name of a freeman, and to be left uninterrupted to associate with and to corrupt our slave population."

The Kentucky state legislature took the legal ball in a hand-off from the governor and ran it for a touchdown when they put into law in that session many of his recommendations. On March 3, 1860 the lawmakers passed 14 laws titled, "An Act concerning free negroes, mulattoes, and emancipation."

The law said that no slave could be emancipated in Kentucky without a bond being taken out to remove that slave within 90 days after emancipation; any free black or mulatto that came into the state would be guilty of a felony and subject to a sentence of six years in the state penitentiary; any Kentucky free black that leaves the state and enters a free state will forfeit his residence and not be allowed to return; any free black "who shall keep a disorderly house, or be found loitering about, engaged in no honest calling" could be sold into servitude for no less than two and no more than ten years; any free black or mulatto that shall allow others "to assemble at houses occupied by them, or upon premises under their control, for the purpose of gaming, drinking, or dancing," would be punished as detailed in the previous statute.

Interestingly the lawmakers allowed free blacks (men over 21, and women over 18) that wanted to, to choose a master or mistress, "whom he or she will serve during life." They also made it illegal for anyone, white or black, to purchase a slave in order to make them anything other than a slave.

I am not passing judgement or trying to justify the actions of these law makers from 150 years ago; I'm only trying to show what they did and the motivations behind their actions. These laws vividly demonstrate the race basis of slavery in mid-nineteenth century America. Now, can you imagine any body of legislature anywhere at this time making laws such as these that applied to white men? How many white Kentuckians would have filled the state penitentiary if they had been subject to these statutes? Think about it.

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