Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kentucky Courted by Secessionist

Alabamian Stephen Fowler Hale was not home for Christmas in 1860, but he was having a homecoming of sorts. Born in Crittenden County, Kentucky in 1816, Hale was on a mission to bring his native state into a confederacy of southern states that would shortly form and had already been started by South Carolina's secession five days before.

Both of Hale's parents were native South Carolinians and they apparently raised their son with strong southern sentiments. Hale received his education in Kentucky at Cumberland University and later at Transylvania University's law school. He emigrated to Greene County, Alabama in 1837 to teach school and began a law practice a couple of years later. In 1843 he was elected to the Alabama state legislature and served in the Mexican War. In 1860 Hale was again serving in Alabama politics, lawyering, and was a small scale planter who owned a dozen slaves. As Alabama contemplated a formal severing of ties with the Union, Hale was named commissioner to Kentucky by governor Albert B. Moore; most likely due to his Bluegrass roots.

Hale took a train from Alabama and arrived in Nashville, Tennessee on Christmas Day, 1860. He planned to arrive in Frankfort, Kentucky the following day. While in Kentucky's capital city he expected to rub elbows with state legislators and convince them that the Bluegrass state belonged in the southern fold that at time did not even include Alabama, as it would not secede until January 11, 1861.

Apparently Hale did not properly prepare for his visit because when he arrived the Kentucky legislature was not in session. And, although it seems that Hale did have some contact with political movers and shakers while the Commonwealth, the secessionist focused his attention on the next best target, the state's governor, Beriah Magoffin.

I have not been able to determine if Hale succeeded in making a face-to-face meeting with Magoffin, but he did leave an amazing letter to the state's executive that outlined his reason for visiting and the reasons slave holding states should remove themselves from the Union forthwith. This letter can be found in the War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, ser. 4, I.

After a quick outline of the responsibilities of the people, the states, and the federal government Hale reminded Governor Magoffin the importance of slavery to the states that practiced the institution. He wrote, "And in the meantime African slavery has not only become one of the fixed domestic institutions of the Southern States, but forms an important element of their political power, and constitutes the most valuable species of property, worth, according to recent estimates, not less than $4,000,000,000; forming, in fact, the basis upon which rests the prosperity and wealth of most of these States, and supplying the commerce of the world with its richest freights, and furnishing the manufactories of two continents with the raw material, and their operatives with bread." He went on to explain that the North had been waging a type of cold war against slavery. "They attack us through their literature, in their schools, from the hustings, in their legislative halls, through the public press, and even their courts of justice forget the purity of their judicial ermine to strike down the rights of the Southern slave-holder and override every barrier which the Constitution has erected for his protection...."

Hale also railed against the refusal of northern states to enforce the fugitive slave law. "A majority of the Northern States, through legislative enactments, have openly nullified it, and impose heavy fines and penalties upon all persons who aid in enforcing this law, and some of those States declare the Southern slave-holder who goes within their jurisdiction to assert his legal rights under the Constitution guilty of a high crime, and affix imprisonment in the penitentiary as the penalty."

John Brown and Harper's Ferry are also alluded to by Hale as reason enough for secession. "The more daring and restless fanatics have banded themselves together, have put in practice the terrible lessons taught by the timid by making an armed incursion upon the sovereign State of Virginia, slaughtering her citizens, for the purpose of exciting a servile insurrection among her slave population, and arming them for the destruction of their own masters." He continued, "Nor is this the mere ebullition of a few half-crazy fanatics, as is abundantly apparent from the sympathy manifested all over the North, where, in many places, the tragic death of John Brown, condemned felon, is celebrated with pubic honors, and his name canonized as a martyr to liberty; and many, even of the more conservative papers of the Black Republican school, were accustomed to speak of his murderous attack upon the lives of the unsuspecting citizens of Virginia in a half-sneering and half-apologetic tone."

Hale claimed that the South's safety rested on secession. He explained that the election of any man to the presidency shouldn't be reason to secede, but in the case of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican party it is justified. "Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection, consigning her citizens to assassins and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans. Especially this is true in the cotton-growing States, where, in many localities, the slaves outnumbers the white population ten to one."

Rhetorically Hale asked Magoffin, "Will the South give up the institution of slavery and consent that her citizens be stripped of their property, her civilization destroyed, the whole land laid to waste by fire and sword? It is impossible. She cannot; she will not. Then why attempt longer to hold together hostile States under the stipulations of a violated Constitution? It is impossible. Dissolution is inevitable. Why, then, wait longer for the consummation of a result that must come? Why waste further time only to be met, as we have been for years past, by renewed insults and repeated injuries?"

Hale concluded his letter politely, "Permit me, in conclusion, on behalf of the State of Alabama, to express my high gratification a the cordial manner in which I have been received as her commissioner by the authorities of the State of Kentucky, as well as the profound personal gratification which, as a son of Kentucky, born and reared within her borders, I feel at the manner in which I, as the commissioner from the State of my adoption, have been received and treated by the authorities of the State of my birth. Please accept the assurances of the high consideration and esteem of, your obedient servant..."

During the Civil War Hale represented Alabama in the Confederate congress and later served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 11th Alabama Infantry Regiment. He was wounded in the savage fighting at Gaines Mill, Virginia on June 27, 1862 and died in Richmond on July 18, 1862.

Those that claim that slavery had nothing to do with the South's secession, and thus the Civil War, would do well to read this significant primary source in its entirety.


  1. For those who are interested, Hale's mission to Kentucky is also discussed, and his letter reprinted in full, in Charles B. Dew's Apostles of Disunion.

  2. Thanks for providing the additional source.