THE NATION'S NEW COMMONWEALTH
When Spain interrupted Mississippi River trade and disputed French land rights, Kentuckians prepared for battle, but matters resolved peacefully. Instead, they contributed William Clark, York, and others to the 1807 expedition into newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Kentuckians soon had opportunity to defend America.
Senate ""war hawks"" demanded war after Britain disrupted trade and land treaties. By 1811, Isaac Shelby returned to lead Kentuckians. After crushing defeats, he commanded at the Battle of Thames, where Native American morale died with Tecumseh. Henry Clay assisted 1814 Treaty of Ghent negotiations. Kentucky contributions enhanced its reputation.
National post–war depression and debt pitted anti–relief (""Old Court"") against pro–relief (""New Court"") Kentuckians. Replevin legislation assisted debtors, but upset creditors and state appellate justices. In 1824, legislators abolished this court, establishing their own. Exiled justices refused disbandment, coexisting until 1826 legislation dissolved the ""New Court.""
Reform evoked <i>national</i> parties. By the 1820s, Andrew Jackson led Democrats, favoring minimal federal intervention. Clay developed Whigs, promoting federally–supported stability, interdependence, and his ""American System."" Whigs dominated Kentucky until Clay’s death, when most embraced short–lived Know–Nothing nativist principles, which incited riots in 1855 Louisville.
Longstanding adversaries, Clay spearheaded Jackson’s opposition, supporting the national bank’s charter and passionately protesting the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the Trail of Tears. Pre–presidency, Jackson and Shelby negotiated the Jackson Purchase (1818) — Kentucky’s first systematically surveyed region, including its official southern border.
Though initially unofficial, 36°30’ (the border) divided slave and free states. Missouri’s statehood petition triggered sectionalism debates. After failed suggestions, Henry Clay successfully offered an 1820 compromise: extend the line through the Louisiana Purchase, admit slave state Missouri, and admit Maine as free, for Senate balance.
Clay’s eloquence earned him esteem as ""The Great Compromiser."" His final mediation involved slavery and sectionalism conflicts initiated after the Mexican–American War. Exhausted from his omnibus proposal, Clay supported the 1850 successful, fragmented version: Texan land relinquishment, new conditional territories and statehood, stricter fugitive slave laws, and revised DC slavery.
Despite believing slavery was wrong, Clay owned slaves; one even sued for freedom her previous owner promised! Upon his Lexington return, Charlotte Dupuy continued her DC tenure until the 1830 decision. Despite legal rejection, Clay manumitted Dupuy in 1840. A similar 1857 Supreme Court case historically ruled slaves were ""property.""
A 1798 ""code"" legally outlined slavery, defining bondsmen as ""chattel."" Though it hypothetically protected slaves, common violations avoided restrictions while regular modifications accommodated society. It denied citizenship and even legal marriages! Ironically, market price was better protection because punishments, including crippling and imprisonment, devalued ""property.""
Of potential resistance, slaveholders feared education, believing it encouraged opposition. Churches provided limited schooling. Reverend Henry Adams’s Louisville church hosted the first African–American–sponsored school. By 1850, sixteen Kentucky counties reported African–American schooling. Berea boasted an integrated college, which continuously faced adversity, even after the Civil War.
Another option — escape — proved dangerous as fugitive slave laws limited potential contacts; Underground Railroad ""conductors"" assisted. Ex–slave Josiah Henson, inspiration for ""Uncle Tom,"" founded a fugitive community in Canada. Delia Ann Webster — Kentucky prisoner, then 1845 exile — later returned and continued freeing slaves.
Abolitionists used various resources towards immediate manumission. Emancipationists, such as Cassius M. Clay, argued gradual liberation with economics. Other proponents advocated colonization (African relocation of freedmen). Henry Clay co–founded the American Colonization Society, which established Liberia. These groups clashed, but attempted (and failed) to elect constitutional convention delegates in 1850.
Kentuckians revised their constitution after 50 years of corrupt politicking. Focused on irresponsible fiscal legislation and debt, delegates enhanced democratic power by increasing popularly elected officials. Other issues addressed, such as slavery, remained unaltered from the 1799 version, except for adding a public education article.
With largely private education, land acts produced poor–quality schools with irresponsible trustees. Governors glorified public education, but prioritized transportation, even ""borrowing"" school funds! Surveys showed inefficient systems, unqualified teachers, and devastating literacy rates. Superintendents of Public Instruction and the Board of Education were ineffective until Superintendent Robert J. Breckinridge (1847–1853).
Breckinridge regained ""borrowed"" funds, increased revenues, designated ""appropriate"" expenditures, and saw constitutionally implemented changes, including his now–elected office. He increased enrollment and attendance, but failed to keep tuition or exclude state board textbook choices. One of the most educationally progressive states, the Civil War temporarily halted this movement.
Antebellum conflict, courage, and compromise gained Kentucky a proud reputation. Though the Civil War interrupted American history, forever transforming society, Kentuckian character and stories prevailed.