William W. Freehling (1990): The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 (New York: Oxford University Press: 0195058143) <http://amzn.to/2jTYTon>: "Kentucky, while not as southern as Virginia, was more western...
...Kentuckians suffered from the usual western problem: too much land, not enough laborers. Slavery, prime solution to labor shortages deeper in the Southwest, could never be as widespread in Kentucky’s cooler climes. A low percentage of slaves arguably intensified the labor shortage, for potential white settlers preferred free Ohio, immediately to Kentucky’s north.
Cassius Clay grew up a rich father’s heir on White Hall Plantation, near the confluence of slaveholding and nonslaveholding Kentucky. He came to intellectual maturity at Yale College in thickly populated New England. Clay witnessed New Englanders thriving “luxuriously on a soil which here would have been deemed the high road to famine.” New England, with its rocky land, teemed with free labor enterprise and dense population. Kentucky, with its lush terrain, was sluggish amidst slave labor and sparse population. Free laborers would rarely rush where slaves trod. Nor would whites work hard where sweating was deemed “nigger.” Kentuckians, to flourish in western competition for whites, must push out slaves.
Cassius Clay did not, upon returning from New England, see how to begin pushing. If the Kentucky legislature paid to send blacks to Africa, excessive taxation would deter white emigrants. If the legislature allowed 200,000 free blacks to stay, white emigrants would head to whiter midwestern frontiers. Cassius Clay’s favorite Kentucky law at least prevented the bad situation from growing worse. The Law of 1833 barred slaves from being imported into Kentucky except by emigrants for their own use. That ban, together with Kentucky’s drain of bondsmen to the Lower South, helped ease Kentucky’s slave percentage down from 24% in 1830 to 21.5% in 1850.
Clay’s first campaign involving slavery sought to preserve this first step. In 1840, Robert Wickliffe, Jr., son of the very wealthy slaveholder “Iron Duke” Wickliffe, agitated for Clay’s state legislative seat by urging repeal of the Law of ‘33. When Clay called the edict right because slavery was wrong, Wickliffe branded him “disloyal.” Kentucky’s real traitors, Clay answered, valued aristocratic property more than majority interests. Clay won the election. He would never win again.
Driven from the legislature as an extremist the following year, he determined to make Kentucky more extreme. His Lexington True American, a weekly newspaper inaugurated in June of 1845, brought class warfare implications of the anti-Wickliffe campaign to full consciousness. The Bluegrass newspaper also displayed Clay’s cure for Kentucky’s labor shortage. The solution did not charm Iron Duke.
Clay’s remedy would have been no delight to Iron Duke’s slaves either. The Lion of White Hall, Clay’s appropriate nickname, proposed using the threat of post-nati emancipation to intensify sale of slaves to the Lower South. The Kentucky legislature, Clay urged in 1845, should declare female slaves born after a certain date free when they reached 21. In 1851, Clay would advocate freeing male and female slaves born after 1860 when they reached maturity. In both campaigns, Clay predicted that Iron Duke and fellow slaveholders would beat the deadline. Some would unload their investments in New Orleans slave auctions. Kinder masters would send their people back to Africa. The legislature, a third of a century hence, could easily compensate patriarchs for those few blacks “of the best quality” who remained. A population rush to whitened Kentucky, cheered Clay, would ensue.
Kentucky’s 200,000 slaves had kept out 1,000,000 whites. Kentucky’s emancipation would pull in millions of emigrants. Manufacturing would blossom, for enterprising white laborers would buy more for themselves than Iron Duke dribbled out for slaves. Schools would flourish, for a large white population would make for extensive public education. Labor would intensify, for no more “niggers” would be around to make hard work degrading. “Give us free labor,” concluded Cassius Clay, “and we shall, indeed, become ‘the garden of the world.’”
The Lion of White Hall here pulled old proposals to whiten the least-enslaved South into a fresh synthesis. His view that the state should pass future emancipation, hoping that slaves would be sold down river before emancipating birthdays, recalled dismal results of New Jersey-New York laws early in the century. Clay’s proposed legislative encouragement of marketing slaves in Lower South black belts copied Thomas Jefferson Randolph’s motion in the Virginia Slavery Debate. His desire to draw in whites by pushing out blacks resembled Henry Brawner’s prayers for Maryland.
Cassius Clay joined to those Old Eastern ways of removing slaves the newest western entrepreneurial vision. His notion that ending slavery would entice free farmers, thereby enriching land speculators, paralleled Pearl Andrews’s argument several years earlier in Texas. The cautious Andrews, however, had appealed to the wealthy. The bold Clay would appeal over the elite’s obstructionary heads to nonslaveholders resentful of the Iron Dukes. Clay’s resulting ideological amalgam, while highly racist, conditional, and conservative, was also the most radical form of southern reform yet. It called on the white majority to outvote the propertied elite and to expel the black minority.
That heretical notion made Cassius Clay a Kentucky household name. Everyone, chuckled a fellow emancipator, “wants to see what sort of monster C. M. Clay is. They expect to see a face … made of brass & iron.” They assuredly saw a strapping Westerner. The Lion of White Hall was over six feet tall, hard and hulking, with a thick square face and a solid chin.
His reformist credentials were equally solid. “Cash” Clay had sacrificed $40,000 to free his slaves before talking about other people’s slaves. Bluff, hardy mid-Americans liked that sincerity. Kentucky frontiersmen also admired a man who risked his life for his principles. Clay shunned the examples of James Birney and Pearl Andrews, who fled north upon intimations of possible lynchings. Cassius Clay, brawling frontiersman, never ran from anything. He seized his bowie knife over such crowning concerns as the genealogies of shorthorn bulls and the origins of Bluegrass seed. He hounded one foe into suicide. He slashed another’s skull to the brain. He was such a pro with bowie knives that he filled a pamphlet with his expertise. He was so determined to be heard that he mounted podiums twirling pistols.
In mid-1845, Clay crammed the Lexington True American’s office with heavier artillery. Iron Duke, to smash the Lion’s press, would have to bomb out two four-pound cannon, sundry lances and rifles, and a keg of powder. Clay scorned fear of “treasonable and revolutionary enemies of constitutional liberty.… We can die, but cannot be enslaved.” While self-defense, the Kentuckian believed, justified extra-legal brawling, Clay remained otherwise a domesticated reformer. He pointed out to practical Americans that his proposals would free no one for over three decades. “We should not,” he counseled a fellow agitator, “needlessly offend any one.”
Cassius Clay was no fanatic hunting martyrdom. He was a determined politico who fanned nonslaveholders’ racist and class hatreds. Clay’s challenge, like Pearl Andrew’s Galveston foray, excited slaveholders’ uneasiness about democratic processes. Even if 99 out of 100 slaves were Cuffees, should any black be exposed to seditious ideas? Even if most nonslaveholders wished to have all blacks in their neighborhoods enslaved, might they prefer having no blacks around? In 1844 the national Congress had decided that national republicanism required expunging slavery-inspired gag rules.
In 1845, citizens in Lexington, Kentucky, had to decide whether slavery was compatible with Cassius Clay’s democratic challenge. In mid-August 1845, his head perhaps turned by typhoid fever, his pen surely driven by venom at the Wickliffes, Clay impelled immediate decision. “Remember,” he wrote, “you who dwell in marble palaces, that there are strong arms and fiery hearts and iron pikes in the streets, and panes of glass only between them and the silver plate on the board and the smooth-skinned women on the ottoman.” Remember, you Wickliffes, that “the day of retribution is at hand—and the masses will be avenged.”
Iron Duke’s cronies, not anxious to charge Clay’s cannon, secured an injunction against this demand for lower-class revolt. Clay, seeking to abolish slavery by legal process, handed over his armed newspaper office. His press was exiled to Cincinnati. “Thus,” lamented Clay, “on the 18th day of August 1845, were the Constitutional liberties of Kentucky overthrown; and an irresponsible despotism of slaveholding aristocracy established on their ruins.”
Slaveholders who had expelled the “seditious” press offered their usual rationalization for undemocratic control: Clay’s newspaper supposedly fomented slave insurrection. Clay ridiculed the excuse. Fantasies about “insurrection in Kentucky, where there are about six whites to one black,” were absurd. The oligarchy, charged Clay, really feared majoritarian reform in a state where non-slaveholding outnumbered slaveholding families three to one. Slave insurrection was the “Bug-a-boo” used to legitimize “Austrian vigilance.” As much as he hated slavery because of its “wrongs to the blacks” and its impoverishing of nonslaveholders, he hated it more “because it will not allow law … allow constitutions … allow Republicanism.”
Clay proceeded to detour around localistic repression. The Louisville neighborhood further north, unlike the Lexington neighborhood further south, relished a free press. Clay re-established his newspaper up in the Ohio River city. Frustrated Bluegrass vigilantes could not lynch him inside that alien locality. Cassius Clay’s opponents were driven back to enchaining his ideas the democratic way, by raising issues and winning elections.
In the 1845–9 period, Bluegrass politicians attacked Kentucky reformers’ first containment, the Law of 1833, which outlawed most slave importation. In 1848, the Law of 1833 narrowly survived a legislative test. In 1849, modifications tantamount to repeal were passed. A vote for delegates to a convention, charged with writing a new Kentucky constitution, was coincidently imminent. Cassius Clay and his sympathizers hoped to use the new election to regain the old statute. They provoked the most searching southern debate on slavery since that supposedly final discussion, the Virginia Slave Controversy of 1832.
A convention meeting in Frankfort, the state capital situated halfway between Cassius Clay’s stronghold of Louisville and his opponents’ stronghold of Lexington, initiated confrontation. The eleven reformers, when signing the first call for the provoking convention, declared Kentucky’s founding fathers wrong to think that slavery would ease the state’s labor shortage. Too few slaves came to Kentucky. Too many whites turned elsewhere. “While the immense stream of [white] immigration has been passing population, wealth, mechanic and manufacturing skill and industry into the States north of us, it seems to have avoided Kentucky as though she had been a land of pestilence.” The “withering blight must be ended.” Whites proud to labor must replace workshirking slaves.
On April 25,159 delegates met in Frankfort to endorse those themes. Henry Clay, Cassius Clay’s cousin and Kentucky’s most famous statesman, chaired the convention and gave it political respectability. Robert J. Breckinridge, the renowned Presbyterian clergyman, gave the major speech and added religious sanction. Breckinridge would “transmit to our posterity” an implacable “hatred of, and hostility to, this most atrocious of all human institutions.” But prudence required reformers to seek no more now than re-enacting the Law of 1833 and empowering a future legislature to emancipate. Breckinridge would rally non-slaveholders, “the only class from whom aid can be expected,” by emphasizing that banning black imports would save white jobs.
Some delegates wished a more extreme crusade, seeking termination of slavery now. Others urged a quieter campaign, showing that reformers were not fanatics. Cassius Clay stood in the middle with Breckinridge. “How are we to get at the nonslaveholders,” he asked, “but by agitation?” Still, agitation best captured “the ear of the people” when dressed up as moderation. “We fanatics,” said Clay, “are willing to take your compromise.” The Frankfort convention agreed to a Breckinridge-Clay campaign aimed at reinstalling the Law of 1833 and permitting a future legislature to remove slaves.
In the ensuing four-month canvass, a reforming colleague, William M. O. Smith, best summed up Cassius Clay’s case. On a June Court Day in Paris, Kentucky, the widely admired Smith began his heretical statement with a southern heretic’s necessary disclaimer. He was no outside agitator. He was born and bred a Kentuckian. No “maukish sensibility in favor of the slaves” moved him. “But looking as I do to the interests of the white population, I wish to be clear of them.” Kentucky could get clear of blacks cheaply and easily. Slaves must be barred from entering, and bondsmen born after 1860 must be declared free when they grew up. Most post-nati slaves would be sold south before age 21. The rest could be cheaply sent to Africa. Then Kentucky would no longer have “to play second fiddle to those vile Yankees.”
Kentucky, continued William M. O. Smith, was second best because a halfway house, fully benefiting from neither northern nor southern solutions to labor shortage. The northern free labor solution worked best when abundant free laborers labored energetically. Scarce free white labor worked badly in Kentucky, “because slaves have made all labor… dishonorable.” Most Kentucky white free laborers, determined to avoid being considered “white negroes,” acted as if hard work was “nigger” work. Most whites elsewhere preferred second-best lands in Ohio to degraded work in Kentucky.
Labor shortfall, sloppy wage earners, “and vicious habits of all kinds” abounded. Kentucky’s sloppy form of slavery could not take up the slack. Slavery worked best, Smith maintained, when blacks were abundant and masters were imperious. Kentucky slaves would never be abundant, for labor-starved Lower South planters could use slaves more profitably in more tropical climes.
Kentucky masters would never be imperious, for they were too democratic and apologetic. In South Carolina and eastern Virginia, an aristocrat scorned pure democracy and ruled like “a feudal baron.” In Kentucky, planters lauded democracy and proclaimed bondage “a great evil.” Slaves latched onto masters’ ambivalence. The “faltering hand” of authority encouraged “the governed to become refractory.” Governors countered with bribes. The “half free indolent negro” responded with a splendid demonstration of “how to work least for most.” Leniency, admitted Smith, made border slavery milder. But “if slavery must exist in a community, let it be slavery and not this halfway sort of slavery.”
Most Kentucky defenders of slavery conceded that Providence would ultimately drain the “evil” away. As soon as lawmakers gave Providence a nudge, first by banning blacks from coming in, then by encouraging slaveholders to sell out, free laborers would mass to the Bluegrass...