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Our Rich History: Abolitionism and the Ohio River Valley, intersection points between free, slave states

By Paul Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Part 15 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

It’s difficult for us today to comprehend how Americans could have ever reconciled their beliefs in democracy, capitalism, and individualism with the ownership of slaves. It seems hypocritical, undemocratic, uncivilized, and even barbaric. When you think about it, the fact that we have trouble understanding the existence of slavery in the past is testimony to the brave men and women who sought to abolish it as soon as possible, those whom we call “abolitionists.”

White Americans of the antebellum period (before the Civil War) expressed disparate views on slavery. These viewpoints varied significantly along a broad spectrum, from those who believed in slavery to those who vehemently opposed it. In-between, there were many more perspectives. Some people — called “gradual emancipationists” — opposed slavery, but preferred to see it ended gradually, with compensation to the slave owners. Others — termed “colonizationists” — desired to emancipate enslaved peoples and send them to Liberia in Africa where they could govern themselves in a black democratic republic. Some Eastern businessmen, including textile mill owners and bankers, directly benefited from southern cotton, as well as the plantation system that produced it.

“The Flight of the Garner Family,” by Robert Dafford, Roebling Murals at the Covington Riverfront. Courtesy of: UrbanOhio.com

The vast majority of white Americans, however, had little direct connection whatsoever with slavery, and little if any commitment to either side of the debate. It is to that portion of the white citizenry that both the proponents and opponents of slavery focused their attempts in order to influence public policy, especially by the 1850s.

Of particular political importance to the slavery issue was the admittance of new territories and states to the United States, which constitutionally fell under the auspices of the U.S. Congress. For decades, the Congress had been careful, led by people like Henry Clay of Kentucky, to enact compromises to keep the number of free and slave states even, so as to assure balance in the United States Senate, where each state had two senators. Henry Clay’s (Whig Party) Missouri Compromises of 1820-21 and Compromise of 1850 kept civil war at bay. Looked at alternatively, however, compromises kept “kicking the can down the road,” postponing a future judgment day where the slavery issue would have to be confronted headlong.

With the death of Henry Clay in 1852 and the rapid decline of the Whig Party, the era of compromises began to unravel. U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, in an effort to gain southern votes for the building of a transcontinental railroad west from Chicago, secured the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act “effectively repealed Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise and its prohibition of slavery north of 36⁰30’ latitude” (Tenkotte, Abe ‘n Us: Lincoln and Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati, a special exhibit of the Behringer-Crawford Museum, Covington, Ky., February 12–June 14, 2008, panel 7).

Meanwhile, anti-slavery sentiment continued to grow. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act “opened western territory up to the possibility of slavery, anti-slavery leaders turned to the judicial system to try and prevent slavery’s spread. They would be disappointed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision (1857), upholding slavery” (Tenkotte, The United States since 1865: Information Literacy and Critical Thinking. Online interactive textbook. Dubuque, IA: Great River Learning, 2019, chapter 1).

The Ohio River Valley, including Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, were among the intersection points between slave and free states. Regionally, two incidents along the Ohio River escalated the crisis. The first occurred in January 1856, when seventeen enslaved people from Boone County made their escape through Covington, Kentucky and across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati. There, slave capturers cornered them, but not before Margaret Garner reached for her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mary, and killed her with a butcher knife rather than see her return to slavery. For many people refusing to recognize the atrocities of slavery, the Margaret Garner case—and its resultant trial—forced them off the fence.

John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia was called an “insurrection” by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Courtesy of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, November 5, 1859, p. 359. 

The second Ohio River Valley incident occurred in October 1859, when abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859) attacked and captured the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), hoping to incite a slave rebellion. Captured, tried, and executed, Brown became a martyr for the abolitionist cause. Brown himself had been converted to the abolitionist cause in 1837, when Elijah Lovejoy, editor of an abolitionist press in Alton, Illinois, was brutally murdered.

John Brown, a controversial abolitionist, resorted to violence in his efforts to free enslaved peoples. Two years after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, for instance, Brown and his sons become involved in the murder of proslavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas, part of a mini-civil-war historians refer to as “Bleeding Kansas.”

Although Campbell County had very few slave owners by 1860, the actions of John Brown seemed to galvanize fear in Northern Kentuckians. Even to those with no interest in slavery whatsoever, clearly the nation was being torn apart. Tempers and violence were rising, and in a region whose Ohio River trade depended upon the South for sources of raw materials and for markets for manufactured goods, businessmen were nervous.

The Ohio Valley was also a region where differences of opinion were generally tolerated, and sometimes even encouraged. However, temperatures were rising to uncomfortable levels. William Shreve Bailey’s abolitionist newspaper, The Free South, would find itself the next target of pro-slavery forces.

Next week: William Shreve Bailey

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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