Kentucky Slave Law Summary and Record
Kentucky embraced slavery from its earliest days, and historical records indicate that enslaved blacks were part of the pioneer movement across the Appalachian Mountains in the 1750s. One early census shows that nearly ten percent of the population was enslaved in 1777. The percentage grew to around 20 percent in 1800 and nearly 25 percent in 1830, or approximately 165,000 blacks. This number increased to 225,000 slaves by 1860, but that number represented a decline in the relative percentage of enslaved people in the State, standing at only 20 percent in 1860.
Most of the enslaved Kentuckians lived in the Blue Grass region of the State on the eve of the Civil War, and, in some counties, nearly 40 percent were slaves. But, Kentucky was not the “Deep South.” Little in the way of large plantations existed there, and only 25 percent of its whites owned slaves. Among them, 28 percent owned no more than five slaves, and 25 percent owned only one. What this means is that many, if not most, enslaved people in the State worked on small farms, lived and worked in towns and cities, and even labored in factories. In the popular mind, slavery in Kentucky was believed to be less harsh than in the rice, sugar, and cotton plantations of the “Deep South.”
Another factor that set Kentucky apart from the plantation South was its proximity to northern, free states. Enslaved blacks in Kentucky had only to reach the free soil north of the Ohio River to escape slavery: not an easy task what with the slave patrols and armed whites determined to stop runaways by killing them if caught resisting. But, many enslaved Kentuckians did escape. And once in Ohio, the Underground Railroad offered safe houses and protection from slave catchers in hot pursuit. In fact, one runaway, Josiah Henson, who escaped in 1830, became one of the models for the fictional Uncle Tom in the best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
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The laws of slavery in the State were fewer than in other slave states, but the pattern was similar. The first constitution of the State in 1792 provided that all the laws then in force in the State of Virginia should be in force in Kentucky, with a few exceptions. Similar to the Virginia laws, enslaved blacks were defined as real estate legally speaking, with no civil or human rights. The State’s laws also spelled out punishment for offenses committed by slaves, and white legislators used the law to make sure that slaves could not travel freely or easily, hoping thereby to block runaways. If a ship’s captain hired or allowed to travel on board an enslaved person without the permission of that person’s owner, his ship could be seized and sold. The law punished whites for selling liquor to blacks or assisting them in travel. The law also punished enslaved blacks for conspiracy against whites or for resisting whites. Even an enslaved person judged guilty of offering advice to rebellious blacks could receive 100 lashes on a bare back. Among the laws, several statutes did enable owners to testify on a slave’s behalf and afforded slaves some standing in terms of religion, equal to some of the benefits enjoyed by free blacks.
Littell, William, and Jacob Swigert. A Digest of the Statute Law of Kentucky. 2 vols. Frankfort: Kendall and Russell, 1822.
Morehead, C. S., and Mason Brown. A Digest of the Statute Laws of Kentucky. 2 vols. Frankfort: A. G. Hodges, 1834.
Stanton, Richard H. The Revised Statutes of Kentucky. 2 vols. Cincinnati: R. Clarke and Co., 1860.
Harrison, Lowell H. The Antisalvery Movement in Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1978.
Lucas, Marion B. A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891. Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1992.
Kentucky Laws on Slavery from the Colonial Era to the Civil War
|Trials||1789||Statute||Enslaved blacks were to receive the same judgment and stand in the same condition with respect to the benefit of clergy as free blacks or mulattoes.|
|Intestate owners||1790||Chancery proceeding||If an enslaved black belonged to a person dying without a will, the high court of chancery will direct the sale of this person and distribute the proceeds to claimants.|
|Status/Transfer of slaves||1798||Slave code||Slaves are to be deemed as real estate and shall descend to the heirs and widows of deceased owners as lands are directed to descendants.|
|Executed slaves||1798||Slave code||A slaveholder is to be paid the value of an enslaved black who was executed.|
|Runaways||1798||Slave code||It noted how runaways were to be apprehended, the reward for capturing a fugitive slave, and how notices were to be posted about such escaping blacks, and the conditions under which fugitive slaves could be hired out.|
|Transfer of slaves||1798||Slave code||Anyone above the age of 18 could bequeath their slave property by will.|
|Importing slaves||1798||Slave code||Penalty of $300 for importing an enslaved black from a foreign country.|
|Crimes||1800||Statute||Owners may post bail for a black in cases in which free persons can post bail.|
|Status/ Transfer of slaves||1800||Statute||Enslaved blacks were to deemed as real estate, and to pass by will as landed property.|
|Manumission||1800||Statute||Enslaved blacks could be emancipated by the last will of any person 18 years of age.|
|Crimes||1801||Statute||If blacks brought to Kentucky for merchandise or passing through were executed for a felony their owners were not to be compensated.|
|Crimes||1802||Penal code||Any enslaved black convicted of murder, arson, rape committed on a white female, robbery, or burglary was condemned to die. Any black convicted of any other offense to receive on his or her bare back, at the public whipping post, any number of lashes not exceeding 39. Free persons to be confined in the penitentiary.|
|Crimes||1806||Statute||Courts to assign counsel to blacks accused of a crime.|
|Crimes||1811||Statute||Conspiracy among enslaved blacks was punishable by death; enslaved or free blacks guilty of poisoning were also to be put to death.|
|Transfer of slaves||1811||Statute||Enslaved blacks may be divided among the heirs of an estate.|
|Crimes||1811||Penal code||It noted which crimes committed by free or enslaved blacks were felonies. Rebellion, poisoning, and voluntary manslaughter were considered felonies, and punishable by death. Blacks convicted of advising on the murder of any persons would be whipped up to 100 lashes.|
|Importation||1814||Statute||It was prohibited the importation of enslaved blacks by any emigrant if they did not intend to settle in Kentucky.|
|Slave trade||1815||Statute||It prohibited the introduction of blacks for sale.|
|Crimes||1815||Statute||Enslaved blacks or any person of color convicted of destroying a well to receive 39 lashes.|
|Crimes||1819||Statute||Enslaved blacks who wounded a white person with the intent to kill would be sentenced to death. Trials for capital crimes of blacks to be conducted in circuit courts only.|
|Transportation||1820||Statute||It was unlawful for a free person or enslaved black ferrying a black over the Ohio River without the consent and presence of the owner.|
|Transportation||1823||Statute||Unlawful for master of steamboat or other vessel to take any black unless they had a legal certificate of freedom or permission from their master. Boat liable to the aggrieved party.|
|Runaways||1830||Statute||Penalty for enticing an enslaved black to run away or for concealing a runaway was a fine of $50 to $500.|
|Taxation||1831||Statute||Enslaved blacks hired out to be listed for taxation by owner, not hirer.|
|Transfer of slaves||1833||Statute||Courts of equity invested with the power of decreeing the sale of enslaved blacks owned by infants at the request of their guardians.|
|Alcohol||1834||Statute||Unlawful to give, sell or loan liquor to blacks. Tavern owner would lose license for ten years and be fined dollars.|
|Travel||1838||Statute||Prohibited enslaved blacks to travel as passengers on mail coaches anywhere within the state, except with a written request of their owners or if acocmpanied by a master.|
|Runaways||1846||Statute||The penalty for tempting blacks to run away or rebel was imprisonment.|
|Alcohol||1850||Statute||Law prohibiting sale of alcohol to enslaved blacks reenstated. Fine increased to $50.|
|Status of slaves||1852||Statute||Enslaved blacks deemed as personal estate.|
|Free blacks||1856||Statute||Free blacks included in restrictions regarding sale of alcohol unless they had a certificate from “some white person of respectable character.”|