Sunday, September 16, 2012

1861 Border State Conference in Frankfort

At the end of May 1861, a Border State Conference was held in Frankfort, Kentucky. It was chaired by notable politician John Jordan Crittenden (pictured), who's compromise proposal had been unable to breech the nation's division the previous winter. At the conference's conclusion the committee made addresses to the nation at large and to the people of Kentucky.

In their message to Kentucky the committee explained that the state declined to fill Lincoln's order for troops after Fort Sumter out of a spirit of the "purest patriotism," rather than comply and be guilty of further fracturing the country.  The state's action was made for "self-preservation" and was thankfully "respected by the [Lincoln] administration."

The message confirmed Kentucky's continued loyalty to the Union: "In all things she is as loyal as ever to the Constitutional administration of the Government. She will follow the Stars and Stripes to the utmost regions of the earth, and defend it from foreign insult. She refuses alliance with any who would destroy the Union."

Kentucky sought to be mediator in the country's trouble, much as political hero Henry Clay in the past had done with offering compromises. "When called to take part in it, she believes that there is more honor in the breach than in the observance of any supposed duty to perform it." To do so the commonwealth "announced her intention to refrain from aggression upon others, she must protest against her sail being made the theatre of military operations by any belligerent. The war must not be transferred, by the warring sections, from their own to her borders."

This war was serious stuff the committee reminded anyone who would listen. "The day of mere party platforms has, we trust, gone forever. It has passed from being a mere struggle for place that may gratify personal ambition, to one for the present and future welfare of a whole people, for the safety of homes and firesides."  It came down to this: "Union or no Union--Government or no Government--nationality or no nationality. Before this grand and commanding question everything else gives way."

The committee recognized that the war was unnecessary as "it so happened that at this dangerous crisis, when a sectional President had been elected, there was a majority in opposition to him in both Houses of Congress, by which he could have been controlled, and the people protected." But, unwisely, as the Southern states seceded, their representatives left Washington "and placed a President who would have been in a minority at the head of a triumphant majority."

During this mess though "Kentucky remained true to herself, contending with all her might for what were considered to to be the rights of the people, and although one after another of the [slave] States that should have been by her side ungenerously deserted her, leaving her almost along in the field, yet she did not surrender her rights under the Constitution, and never will surrender them."  And, for a point of emphasis they remarked " She will insist upon her constitutional rights in the Union, and not out of it."

Much like rejecting Lincoln's call for troops, Kentucky also refused to secede, not out of submission to the Lincoln administration, but out of "exalted patriotism." By maintaining a neutral position, Kentucky hoped to avoid being desolated by the contending armies. "Already the cannon and bayonets of another section are visible on our most exposed border. Let these hostile armies meet on our soil, and it will matter but little to us which may succeed, for destruction to us will be the inevitable result. Our fields will be laid waste, our houses and cities burned, our people will be slain, and this goodly land be baptized 'the land of blood.'" To emphasize slavery's central role in the disagreements between the belligerents and importance to the state it was added, "And, even the institution, to preserve or control which this wretched was was undertaken, will be extermination in the general ruin."

The committee warned that no matter how much danger there was from outside the state there was potential trouble in the Bluegrass State too if they citizens did not stick together. "People of Kentucky, look well to it that you do not get to fighting among yourselves, for then, indeed, you will find, that it is an ill fight where he that wins had the worst of it. Endeavor to be of one mind, and strive to keep the State steady in her present position. Hold fast to that sheet-anchor of republican liberty, that the will of the majority constitutionally and legally expressed must govern."  And "Trust and love one another. Avoid angry strife. Frown upon the petty ambition of demagogues who would stir up bad passions among you."

Kentucky, of course, would not maintain their position of neutrality throughout the war. It probably was not possible as the war escalated. Unfortunately, too, when those tough decisions were made and lines were drawn Kentuckians did not "stick together."  Some fought for the Union, some fought for the Confederacy, some fought for their own material gain and to take from their neighbors, and some simply tried as best they could to sit it out. The Civil War in Kentucky should serve as an illustrated reminder of what results when compromise breaks down and minds are closed to diplomacy.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

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