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.

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