Slavery Laws in Old Kentucky

Historical Marker #1989 in Jefferson County notes the legal history of slavery in Kentucky.

Slavery was a part of Kentucky long before statehood was granted in 1792. The state's earliest settlers brought their human property with them from their home states to help tame the wilderness that was then Kentucky.

Upon becoming the fifteenth state in the Union, Kentucky formally legalized slavery by including the institution in the state's constitution. Article IX explained that slavery could only be abolished by the consent of the owner or by compensated emancipation.

In 1833, Kentucky passed a non-importation law that outlawed individuals from bringing slaves into the state for the purpose of selling them. Migrants to the commonwealth could bring slaves with them for their own use, but had to agree not to sell them. This act was supported largely by those who favored colonization as a means of reducing the slave population and by those who wished to increase the value of their slaves. The non-importation act was overturned in 1849.

During the 1849-1850 state constitutional convention, Kentucky debated the possibly of gradual, compensated emancipation. Proslavery forces in the state, however, proved to be too powerful and actually strengthened owners' rights to hold human property. Section three in the 1850 constitution bill of rights declared, "The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction; and the right of the owner of a slave to such slave, and its increase, is the same, and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever."

Although Kentucky slavery was a brutal enterprise, in some ways Kentucky was more lenient in their laws than several other slave states. For example, Kentucky never passed laws that outlawed teaching slaves to read and write, never prohibited owners from freeing their slaves, and never forced freed slaves to leave the state.

The Civil War did much to speed the end of slavery in Kentucky. African American men who served in the Union army received their freedom as did their families. But, slavery only truly ended in Kentucky with the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which the state chose not to ratify.

Images

Emancipation Broadside

Emancipation Broadside

This broadside was distributed during the 1849-50 Kentucky state constitutional convention. It proposed the gradual and compensated elimination of the institution. This emancipationist effort was denied and protection for slaveholders was actually strengthened in the 1850 state constitution. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

1792 Kentucky Constitution

1792 Kentucky Constitution

Although slavery was practiced in Kentucky long before it officially became a state, its first constitution, pictured here, legally legitimized the "peculiar institution." Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Stephen Trigg Letter

Stephen Trigg Letter

This letter was written in 1782 by Stephen Trigg, an early settler to Kentucky. In it he acknowledges the importance of slaves in settling the state. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Manumission

Manumission

The process of legally freeing of one's slaves, called manumission, was never outlawed in Kentucky as it was in some other slave states in the late antebellum period. Interestingly, this manumission was given by a freeman of color setting his son free, who he had purchased. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Slave Sale Broadside

Slave Sale Broadside

To settle inheritances and law suits Kentucky slaves were often auctioned and sold to the public. This broadside advertises a "Public Sale of Lands and Slaves" in Frankfort in 1834. Included in the description of the slaves are their names and ages. It also indicated that some were "accustomed to working in a [hemp] Bagging Factory." Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Tim Talbott, “Slavery Laws in Old Kentucky,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed May 23, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/180.

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