Judge George Robertson

Historical Marker #816 in Robertson County commemorates the naming of that county after George Robertson, a prominent judge who tangled with Abraham Lincoln about slavery during the Civil War.

Born in Mercer County in 1780, Robertson was a lawyer, speaker of the Kentucky House, Kentucky secretary of state, congressman, and chief justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. A prominent Whig politician, he and Lincoln became friends in the 1840s.

Their relationship became troubled in September 1862, when Lincoln issued a preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation. Robertson complained to Lincoln that Union troops were "forcibly detaining the slaves of Union Kentuckians." Robertson asked Lincoln to prevent this, and the president drafted (but never sent) an irritated response, noting that "I may as well surrender this contest, directly, as to make any order, the obvious purpose of which would be to return fugitive slaves."

Lincoln's policies affected Robertson when one of his slaves fled to the camp of the 22nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel William Utley. The colonel refused to return the slave and banned the judge from the camp. Robertson had Utley indicted for harboring a slave and sued the officer in U. S. District Court.

An exasperated Utley wrote Lincoln about the situation, and Lincoln offered Robertson $500 if Utley could free the slave. Robertson refused, and, in 1871, he received a $935 judgment against Utley. Two years later, however, the U. S. Treasury paid the bill. Thus, six years after the Civil War, the federal government reimbursed Robertson for his lost slave.

Robertson died in 1874 and is buried in Lexington.

Images

Judge George Robertson

Judge George Robertson

Robertson was a lawyer, speaker of the Kentucky House, Kentucky secretary of state, congressman, and chief justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. He and Abraham Lincoln argued over slavery during the Civil War, especially after one of his slaves was taken by Union soldiers. View File Details Page

George Robertson

George Robertson

Noted Kentucky artist Paul Sawyier drew this portrait of Judge George Robertson. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

George Robertson

George Robertson

Robertson served as attorney for Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln to help settle the estate of Mary's father Robert Todd after he passed away. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

George Robertson Bust

George Robertson Bust

This plaster bust of Robertson shows a determined and principled countenance; two personality traits that were closly associated with the man. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

George Robertson

George Robertson

In addition to the many poltitical positions that Robertson held during his life, he was also a law professor at Transylvania University in Lexington. Courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society. View File Details Page

George Robertson to Abraham Lincoln

George Robertson to Abraham Lincoln

George Robertson wrote this letter to President Abraham Lincoln on November 20, 1862, complaining that Union army officers were not returning runaway slaves to loyal Kentucky citizens. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Sanders, “Judge George Robertson,” ExploreKYHistory, accessed March 29, 2017, http://explorekyhistory.ky.gov/items/show/40.

Subjects

Tour navigation:  Previous | Tour Info | Next

Share this Story