Saturday, April 18, 2015

Just Finished Reading - More American Than Southern

Well, this is my last weekend in Kentucky. I have accepted the Associate Director of Education, Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Collections at Pamplin Historical Park and the National Museum of the Civil War Soldiers in Petersburg, Virginia. I worked at Pamplin before coming to Kentucky six years ago, so it will be nice to return to a place I am familiar with and has loads of diverse historical subjects to dig into. I can not express enough the amazing time I had in Kentucky. I was able to learn so much and make so many new friends, that I can state without hesitation that I leave a much better person than when I arrived.

With it being my last post in Kentucky, I thought I would share a few thoughts on a book I just finished reading. I have been amazed with the number of scholarly works that have appeared discussing Kentucky's antebellum and Civil War eras in the last five to seven years. Kentucky and other border states, too, are finally receiving the attention they so readily deserve.

More American Than Southern: Kentucky, Slavery, and the War for an American Ideology, 1828-1861 (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2014), by Gary R. Matthews, covers a time period within the state that has been long misunderstood and understudied. Although many have suggested reasons why Kentucky, a slave holding state, remained within the Union, few have offered truly compelling arguments.

Matthews contends that Kentucky's brand of slavery was much different than that of the Deep South states. In Kentucky, slaves were allowed to be educated if an owner so wished, and although the state had the third most slaveholders in the 1850 and 1860 census (only Virginia and Georgia had more), Kentucky owners held on average about only four or five slaves each. In addition, African Americans only made up about 20% of the state's population in 1860.

Kentucky's market relationship with their neighbors to the north also affected their outlook. Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana were populated largely with former Kentuckians, so a kin network became established between its northern border states that proved strong. This, combined with a large Whig contingency made Kentucky's northern ties at least as firm as its southern ones. Matthews also argues that Kentucky's latent move toward industrialism in the the late antebellum period brought in new populations with new ideas. While German and Irish immigrants in Louisville and other northern Kentucky cities and towns brought conflict with nativeists, they also influenced their communities thoughts and practices.

Geography was important to Kentucky's antebellum rise. Its location between the northern and southern states brought economic diversity and prosperity. The state's river system connected it to many markets, and the invention of the steamboat proved to be a transportation and commercial revolution for the state.

There are several points that Matthews makes that I am in disagreement. His mention that Kentucky tolerated antislavery (page 63) dissidents is somewhat stretching reality. The men he mentions as being tolerated: James G. Birney, Cassius Clay, and John Fee, were all harassed, attacked, and otherwise persecuted for their antislavery stances. Both Birney and Fee were exiled at points, while Clay had his newspaper press dismantled and shipped out of state in 1845. This is not what I would call "unwillingness to subvert basic constitutional guarantees." I also thought that the author downplayed Kentucky's reliance on the Fugitive Slave Law as a major cog in its Unionist wheel. While he states "The belief that the future of their peculiar institution was better served within the Union, rather than the Southern Confederacy," (page 263), much of that had to do with a constitutional guarantee to return Kentucky's runaway slaves. And while Ohio had passed personal liberty laws designed to circumvent the Fugitive Slave Law, slaves were still returned, and Illinois and Indiana more often than not upheld the law.

I am personally not convinced that "the relevance of slavery declined" (page 269) during the antebellum era in Kentucky. While there appeared to be a somewhat progressive movement through the 1830s and 1840s, the sectional issues of the 1850s, according to my understanding, deepened Kentucky's commitment to slavery from that point on until the national ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. As I have mentioned many times on this forum, Kentucky did not ratify the amendment to abolish slavery until 1976.

While I had some minor quibbles about some of the book's interpretation, and thought that a deeper dive into primary sources to show individual Kentuckians' perspectives may have strengthened it, I found that More American Than Southern is probably the best book I have read thus far that gets at the heart of Kentucky's antebellum disposition and why it chose to remain in the Union when civil war came. One a scale of one to five, I give it a four.

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