Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Kentucky Hated Abraham Lincoln

The Kentucky Museum on the campus of WKU is currently building a permanent Civil War exhibit called "A Star in Each Flag: Conflict in Kentucky." The exhibit opens in mid-October 2008, and it promises to be a good one. Mark your calendars. Further, the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth (in KY) is fast approaching (1809-2009) and there will undoubtedly be much programming at the KY Building celebrating this event.

That said, as I was in the KY Building with my classes this week, I picked up a copy of Lowell Harrison's The Civil War in Kentucky (Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 1975) to skim over between classes. In the opening pages, I learned something quite interesting about Lincoln and Kentucky: he got trounced in his bid for the presidency in his home state. You can't swing a dead cat in this state without hitting a poster for an event connecting Abe to the land and place of his birth (near Hodgenville, KY, just an hour or so up I-65 from Bowling Green). Kentuckians love to lay claim to Lincoln.

But, the 1860 election is a real thorn in the Kentucky/Lincoln love fest. Harrison notes, "when the Democratic party split along sectional lines, one of the last political bonds holding the nation together disappeared." The Southern Dem's went with John C. Breckinridge (the US Vice President under James Buchanan) as their candidate, while Northern Dem's backed Stephen A. Douglas. Harrison then lays out the good stuff:

Kentuckians found little solace in the nomination of Lincoln by the Republicans. He was a native of Kentucky, but his "house divided" speech had alarmed many slaveholders who would not accept the curtailment of slavery expansion that he and his party demanded. As the campaign progressed, many Kentuckians turned toward John Bell, the Constitutional Union candidate from neighboring Tennessee, who simple platform was the preservation of the Union.

Bell captured a majority in 35 of Kentucky's 110 counties in 1860 and won a plurality in 25 more...Breckinridge had a majority in 36 counties but pluralities in only 7...Douglas had a majority in only 7 counties, and Lincoln did not carry a single one. The popular vote was 66,501 for Bell, 53,143 for Breckinridge, 25,638 for Douglas, and 1,364 for Lincoln. Although Fayette County contained a number of Lincoln's in-laws, he received just five votes there.(1) [bold mine]
Of course, Lincoln won the election powered by his sweep of most of the northern states. But, make no mistake, the native Kentuckian was not only stomped in his state of birth, but came in a distant fourth, garnering less than 1% of the vote! Lincoln was viewed as the anti-slavery candidate and that just did not play in a state looking to preserve the Union. Keep this in mind as we celebrate Lincoln over the coming year. This is just another interesting tidbit in Kentucky's rich and bizarre history.

Read more about the 1860 Election here.

1. Harrison, 4-5.


Luke Harlow said...

Great post. And timely, from where I sit at the moment (I'm in the middle of drafting a dissertation chapter on key aspects of this issue.) Lincoln was not as polarizing a figure in KY as elsewhere in the South (his election didn't give the state a strong enough pretext to secede), but that's because Constitutional Unionism spoke so well to the bulk of white Kentucky's opinion at the time: don't mess with slavery, but don't mess with the Union either (other than KY, Bell only prevailed in TN and VA--not exactly big on the national stage). That ship had sailed in failed compromise after failed compromise, but it didn't stop white Kentuckians from holding onto bedrock conservative principles in 1860. The attitude was: don't change anything. Ever. Secessionists were extremists, as were "radical" Republicans (and, really, if pressed, white Kentuckians knew that Yankee infidel abolitionists had coerced the secessionists for three decades. . . But still, that was not cause to go off half-cocked and start a friggin war!)

To that point, actually, Lincoln did ok by KY before he announced the Emancipation Proclamation--or, maybe Lincoln didn't fare great in public opinion, but the secession movement didn't hold enough sway to get KY out of the Union. Since, from white Kentucky's perspective, the war was initially about preserving the Union as it existed in 1860, they could more or less deal with Lincoln--some more than others, of course. After emancipation was announced--even though it didn't apply to KY until the 13th amendment--it was all downhill, though. Kentuckians started remembering their great Confederate legacy, erecting monuments, flying the stars and bars in pickups, and Colonel Sanders made himself up like the master of a plantation. Not exactly a strong base for "Lincoln of Kentucky."

For further reference, see Luke E. Harlow, "From Border South to Solid South: Religion, Race, and the Making of Confederate Kentucky, 1840-1880," (Ph.D. diss, Rice University)--just don't look for it until next May or so!

Cort said...

I was hoping you'd chime in, Luke. Thanks for the further illumination!


R. Justin said...

Was he really born here? Or in one of the other of the handful states that claims him?

I think, based on the post, that Kentucky should relinquish "birthplace" status to some other state that gave him more props.

(Come and visit sometime.)

Laura Barker said...

This is a great post! I am employed at Lincoln Amphitheatre which is a unique, covered theatre located in Lincoln City, Indiana. Lincoln spent fourteen years of his life here, from ages 7 to 21. It seems that we are the forgotten part of the story when actually Lincoln's formative years were spent in Indiana.

In June of 2009 Lincoln Amphitheatre will be hosting the world premiere of our new theatrical experience, "Lincoln."

This production will be an insight into the life of Abraham Lincoln. Visitors will leave Lincoln Amphitheatre truly understanding this great man, who many consider to be our greatest President.

1-800-264- 4ABE /

Cort said...

Lincoln really was born in Hodgenville, KY. If you haven't been to Lincoln's Birthplace, it would be a good day trip for the fam. E-town and Bardstown (Stephen Foster's place of birth) are nearby.

For the brave of heart, you can even hit Lincoln and Jeff Davis' birth places in the same day. Guthrie, KY, Davis' spot of origin, is about 2 hours from E-town and just about an hour or so west of BG over in Todd Co.

R. Justin said...

Lincoln "really" was born in? I bet you think we "really" landed on the moon too! What a riot!!!

Cort said...

Well, the National Park Service is bold enough to say Abe was born in KY.

And, from historical records we know that, "Lincoln's parents, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, moved to Kentucky's more populated Washington County (later renamed LaRue County) in the winter of 1808, paying $200 for 348 rocky acres on Nolin Creek, called Sinking Springs farm. Just two months later, Lincoln was born in a 16- by 18-foot, dirt-floor cabin." [from the Courier-Journal, Jan 2008]

Even Lincoln claimed KY as his birth home: "I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky."

So, he "really was" in the sense that his mom was hugely pregnant when they settled at Knob Creek near Hodgenville (in what is today LaRue Co), he was born two months after that, and he claimed it as his home.

No eyewitnesses of his birth are around anymore, so that's the best we can do unless we find some historical evidence that refutes it.

Amber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Luke Harlow said...

Lincoln was born in KY. That's basically undisputed. What is clearly wrong, however, is that cabin that is at his birth site. James Loewen's _Lies Across America_ (the solid follow up to his classic _Lies My Teacher Told Me_) has a great chapter on how the Lincoln birthplace cabin--the one in that big building in Hodgenville--was built something like thirty years after Lincoln's death and then went around the country as part of various turn-of-the-century exhibitions featuring--incredibly--Jefferson Davis's birth home as well (also a fake).

Sam Comyns said...

Lincoln was plainly rejected here in Ky. by people of the day in BOTH elections despite in the 1864 election Ky. was under federal military occupation and rule, and elections were rigged for the Lincoln ticket in many counties.
Some KY. counties were even illegally denied the results of or rights of suffrage in the election by the U.S. military, as they were deemed to support the "rebellion".
Such a bizaare (and to me as a proud descendant of KY Confederates) sickening spectacle to see a man that illegally invaded and devestated our sister Southern states, worshipped in Ky.- where our ancestors rejected and largely despised him.
The Lincoln government put Kentucky under often harsh and corrupt military occupation and rule despite Frankfort's "loyalty" to the Union.
Confederate soldiers from Kentucky were murdered by Union authorities when they were captured or returned home during the war. Kentucky citizens deemed supportive of the South were robbed of property, imprisoned illegally, driven out of their homes by federal authorities and their Unionist lackeys in Ky.
The crops of some of my own ancestors were often destroyed by federal troops in the area because my ancestors were known Southern sympathizers with a son in the Confederate Army. In Union county, Ky. where my mother's family is from, entire TOWNS were held hostage by federal troops and had ransoms extorted from the citizens!
So, Lincoln is no historical figure that Kentuckians aware of the facts of our history and heritage ought be worshipping, in my humble "Rebel" opionion.
Sad to note, too, that Kentucky was the birthplace of Senator, veteran,Secretary of War, and President Jefferson Davis who was nearly ignored on his bicentennial last year.
Lincoln, of course,as an ideological and political figure serves the aggrandizement and further consolidation of federal government powers beyond constitutional limits, which of course he started so well.