Posted by: Democratic Thinker | June 30, 2014

Clay—To Richard Pindell (February 17, 1849)

American Correspondence

Henry Clay—a strong Unionist—documents his plan for ridding Kentucky of slavery.

I am aware that there are respectable persons who believe that slavery is a blessing, that the institution ought to exist in every well organized society, and that it is even favorable to the preservation of liberty. Happily, the number who entertain these extravagant opinions is not very great, and the time would be uselessly occupied in an elaborate refutation of them.




NEW ORLEANS, February 17th, 1849.


PRIOR to my departure from home in December last, in behalf of yourself and other friends, you obtained from me a promise to make a public exposition of my views and opinions upon a grave and important question which, it was then anticipated, would be much debated and considered by the people of Kentucky, during this year, in consequence of the approaching Convention, summoned to amend their present Constitution. I was not entirely well when I left home, and owing to that cause, and my confinement several weeks, during my sojourn in this city, from the effects of an accident which befell me, I have been delayed in the fulfillment of my promise, which I now proceed to execute.

The question, to which I allude, is whether African slavery, as it now exists in Kentucky, shall be left to a perpetual or indefinite continuance, or some provision shall be made in the new Constitution, for its gradual and ultimate extinction?

A few general observations will suffice my present purpose, without entering on the whole subject of slavery, under all its bearings and in every aspect of it. I am aware that there are respectable persons who believe that slavery is a blessing, that the institution ought to exist in every well organized society, and that it is even favorable to the preservation of liberty. Happily, the number who entertain these extravagant opinions is not very great, and the time would be uselessly occupied in an elaborate refutation of them. I would, however, remark that if slavery be promotive of these alleged benefits, the principle, on which it is maintained, would require that one portion of the whole race should be reduced to bondage to serve another portion of the same race, when black subjects of slavery could not be obtained; and that in Africa, where they may entertain as great a preference for their color as we do for ours, they would be justified in reducing the white race to slavery, in order to secure the blessings which that state is said to diffuse.

An argument in support of reducing the African race to slavery, is sometimes derived from their alleged intellectual inferiority to the white races; but, if this argument be founded on fact (as it may be, but which I shall not now examine), it would prove entirely too much. It would prove that any white nation which had made greater advances in civilization, knowledge and wisdom than another white nation, would have a right to reduce the latter to a state of bondage. Nay, further, if the principle of subjugation, founded upon intellectual superiority, be true, and be applicable to races and to nations, what is to prevent its being applied to individuals? And then the wisest man in the world would have a right to make slaves of all the rest of mankind!

If indeed we possess this intellectual superiority, profoundly grateful and thankful to HIM who has bestowed it, we ought to fulfill all the obligations and duties which it imposes; and these would require us not to subjugate or deal unjustly by our fellow men who are less blessed than we are, but to instruct, to improve, and to enlighten them.

A vast majority of the people of the United States, in every section of them, I believe, regret the introduction of slavery into the colonies, under the authority of our British ancestors, lament that a simple slave treads our soil, deplore the necessity of the continuance of slavery in any of the States, regard the institution as a great evil to both races, and would rejoice in the adoption of any safe, just, and practicable plan for the removal of all slaves from among us. Hitherto no such satisfactory plan has been presented. When, on the occasion of the formation of the present Constitution of Kentucky, in 1799, the question of the gradual emancipation of slavery in that State was agitated, its friends had to encounter a great obstacle, in the fact that there then existed no established colony, to which they could be transported. Now, by the successful establishment of flourishing colonies on the western coast of Africa, that difficulty has been obviated. And I confess that, without indulging in any undue feelings of superstition, it does seem to me that it may have been among the dispensations of Providence to permit the wrongs, under which Africa has suffered, to be inflicted, that her children might be returned to their original home, civilized, embued with the benign spirit of Christianity, and prepared ultimately to redeem that great continent from barbarism and idolatry.

Without undertaking to judge for any other State, it was my opinion in 1799 that Kentucky was in a condition to admit of the gradual emancipation of her slaves; and how deeply do I lament that a system, with that object, had not been then established! If it had been, the State would now be nearly rid of all slaves. My opinion has never changed, and I have frequently publicly expressed it. I should be most happy if what was impracticable at that epoch could now be accomplished. After full and deliberate consideration of the subject, it appears to me that three principles should regulate the establishment of a system of gradual emancipation. The first is, that it should be slow in its operation, cautious, and gradual, so as to occasion no convulsion, nor any rash or sudden disturbance, in the existing habits of society. Secondly, that, as an indispensable condition, the emancipated slaves should be removed from the State to some colony. And, thirdly, that the expenses of their transportation to such colony, including an outfit for six months after their arrival at it, should be defrayed by a fund to be raised from the labor of each freed slave.

1. Nothing could be more unwise than the immediate liberation of all the slaves in the State, comprehending both sexes and all ages, from that of tender infancy to extreme old age. It would lead to the most frightful disorders and the most fearful and fatal consequences. Any great change in the condition of society should be marked by extreme care and circumspection. The introduction of slaves into the colonies was an operation of many years’ duration; and the work of their removal from the United States can only he effected after the lapse of a great length of time.

I think that a period should be fixed when all born after it should be free at a specified age, all born before it remaining slaves for life. That period I would suggest should be 1855, or even 1860; for on this and other arrangements of the system, if adopted, I incline to a liberal margin, so as to obviate as many objections, and to unite as many opinions as possible. Whether the commencement of the operation of the system be a little earlier or later, is not so important as that a day should be permanently fixed, from which we could look forward, with confidence, to the final termination of slavery, within the limits of the Commonwealth.

Whatever may be the day fixed, whether 1855, or 1860, or any other day, all born after it, I suggest, should be free at the age of twenty-five, but be liable afterward to be hired out, under the authority of the State, for a term not exceeding three years, in order to raise a sum sufficient to pay the expenses of the transportation to the colony, and to provide them an outfit for six months after their arrival there.

If the descendants of those who were themselves to be free, at the age of twenty-five, were also to be considered as slaves until they attained the same age, and this rule were continued indefinitely as to time, it is manifest that slavery would be perpetuated instead of being terminated. To guard against this consequence, provision might be made that the offspring of those who were to be free at twenty-five, should be free from their birth, but upon the condition that they should be apprenticed until they were twenty-one, and be also afterward liable to be hired out, a period not exceeding three years, for the purpose of raising funds to meet their expenses to the colony and their subsistence for the first six months.

The Pennsylvania system of emancipation fixed the period of twenty-eight for the liberation of the slaves, and provided, or her courts have since interpreted the system to mean, that the issue of all who were to be free at the limited age, were from their birth free. The Pennsylvania system made no provision for colonization.

Until the commencement of the system, which I am endeavoring to sketch, I think all the legal rights of the proprietors of slaves, in their fullest extent, ought to remain unimpaired and unrestricted. Consequently they would have the right to sell, devise, or remove them from the State, and, in the latter case, without their offspring being entitled to the benefit of emancipation, for which the system provides.

2d. The colonization of the free blacks, as they successively arrive, from year to year, at the age entitling them to freedom, I consider a condition absolutely indispensable. Without it, I should be utterly opposed to any scheme of emancipation. One hundred and ninety odd thousand blacks, composing about one fourth of the entire population of the State, with their descendants, could never live in peace, harmony, and equality with the residue of the population. The color, passions, and prejudices would forever prevent the two races from living together in a state of cordial union. Social, moral and political degradation would be the inevitable lot of the colored race. Even in the free States (I use the terms free and slave States not in any sense derogatory from one class, or implying any superiority in the other, but for the sake of brevity), that is their present condition. In some of the free States the penal legislation against the people of color is quite as severe, if not harsher, than it is in some of the slave States. As nowhere in the United States are amalgamation and equality between the two races possible, it is better that there should be a separation, and that the African descendants should be returned to the native land of their fathers.

It will have been seen that the plan I have suggested proposes the annual transportation of all born after a specified day, upon their arrival at the prescribed age, to the colony which may be selected for their destination; and, that this process of transportation is to be continued until the separation of the two races is completed. If the emancipated slaves were to remain in Kentucky until they attained the age of twenty-eight, it would be about thirty-four years before the first annual transportation began, if the system commences in 1855, and about thirty-nine years, if its operation begins in 1860.

What the number thus to be annually transported would be, can not be precisely ascertained. I observe it stated by the auditor that the increase of slaves in Kentucky last year was between three and four thousand. But as that statement was made upon a comparison of the aggregate number of all the slaves in the State, without regard to births, it does not, I presume, exhibit truly the natural increase, which was probably larger. The aggregate was affected by the introduction and still more by the exportation of slaves. I suppose that there would not be less, probably more, than five thousand to be transported the first year of the operation of the system; but, after it should be in progress some years, there would be a constant diminution of the number.

Would it be practicable annually to transport five thousand persons from Kentucky? There can not be a doubt of it, or even a much larger number. We receive from Europe annually emigrants to an amount exceeding two hundred and fifty thousand, at a cost for the passage of about ten dollars per head, and they embark at European ports more distant from the United States than the western coast of Africa. It is true that the commercial marine, employed between Europe and the United States affords facilities, in the transportation of emigrants, at that low rate, which that engaged in the commerce between Liberia and this country does not now supply; but that commerce is increasing, and by the time the proposed system, if adopted, would go into operation, it will have greatly augmented.

If there were a certainty of the annual transportation of not less than five thousand persons to Africa, it would create a demand for transports, and the spirit of competition would, I have no doubt, greatly diminish the present cost of the passage. That cost has been stated, upon good authority, to be at present fifty dollars per head, including the passage and six months’ outfit after the arrival of the emigrant in Africa. Whatever may be the cost, and whatever the number to be transported, the fund to be raised by the hire of the liberated slave, for a period not exceeding three years, will be amply sufficient. The annual hire, on the average, may be estimated at fifty dollars, or one hundred and fifty for the whole term.

Colonization will be attended with the painful effect of the separation of the colonists from their parents, and in some instances from their children; but from the latter it will be only temporary, as they will follow and be again reunited. Their separation from their parents will not be until after they have attained a mature age, nor greater than voluntarily takes place with emigrants from Europe, who leave their parents behind. It will be far less distressing than what frequently occurs in the state of slavery, and will be attended with the animating encouragement that the colonists are transferred from a land of bondage and degradation, for them, to a land of liberty and equality.

And 3d. The expense of transporting the liberated slave to the colony, and of maintaining him there for six months, I think, ought to be provided for by a fund derived from his labor, in the manner already indicated. He is the party most benefited by emancipation. It would not be right to subject the non-slaveholder to any part of that expense; and the slaveholder will have made sufficient sacrifices, without being exclusively burdened with taxes to raise that fund. The emancipated slaves could be hired out for the time proposed, by the Sheriff or other public agent, in each county, who should be subject to a strict accountability. And it would be requisite that there should be kept a register of all births of children of color, after the day fixed for the commencement of the system, enforced by appropriate sanctions. It would be a very desirable regulation of law to have the births, deaths, and marriages of the whole population of the State registered and preserved, as is done in most well governed States.

Among other considerations which unite in recommending to the State of Kentucky a system for the gradual abolition of slavery, is that arising out of her exposed condition, affording great facilities to the escape of her slaves into the free States and into Canada. She does not enjoy the security which some of the slave States have, by being covered in depth by two or three slave States, intervening between them and free States. She has a greater length of border on free States than any other slave State in the Union. That border is the Ohio river, extending from the mouth of Big Sandy to the mouth of the Ohio, a distance of near six hundred miles, separating her from the already powerful and growing States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Vast numbers of slaves have fled from most of the counties in Kentucky, from the mouth of the Big Sandy to the mouth of the Miami, and the evil has increased and is increasing. Attempts to recover the fugitives lead to the most painful and irritating collisions. Hitherto countenance and assistance to the fugitives have been chiefly afforded by persons in the State of Ohio; but it is to be apprehended, from the progressive opposition to slavery that, in process of time, similar facilities to the escape of slaves will be found in the States of Indiana and Illinois. By means of railroads, Canada can be reached from Cincinnati in a little more than twenty-four hours.

In the event of a civil war breaking out, or in the more direful event of a dissolution of the Union, in consequence of the existence of slavery, Kentucky would become the theater and bear the brunt of the war. She would doubtless defend herself with her known valor and gallantry; but the superiority of the numbers by which she would be opposed would lay waste and devastate her fair fields. Her sister slave States would fly to her succor; but, even if they should be successful in the unequal conflict, she never could obtain any indemnity for the inevitable ravages of the war.

It may be urged that we ought not, by the gradual abolition of slavery, to separate ourselves from the other slave States, but continue to share with them in all their future fortunes. The power of each slave State, within its limits, over the institution of slavery, is absolute, supreme and exclusive— exclusive of that of Congress or that of any other State. The government of each slave State is bound by the highest and most solemn obligations to dispose of the question of slavery, so as best to promote the peace, happiness and prosperity of the people of the State. Kentucky being essentially a farming State, slave-labor is less profitable. If in most of the other slave States they find that labor more profitable, in the culture of the staples of cotton and sugar, they may perceive a reason in that fact for continuing slavery, which can not be expected should control the judgment of Kentucky as to what may be fitting and proper for her interests. If she should abolish slavery, it would be her duty, and I trust that she would be as ready as she now is, to defend the slave States in the enjoyment of all their lawful and constitutional rights. Her power, political and physical, would be greatly increased; for the one hundred and ninety odd thousand slaves and their descendants, would be gradually superseded by an equal number of white inhabitants, who would be estimated per capita, and not by the federal rule of three fifths prescribed for the colored race in the Constitution of the United States.

I have thus, without reserve, freely expressed my opinion and presented my views. The interesting subject of which I have treated would have admitted of much enlargement; but I have desired to consult brevity. The plan which I have proposed will hardly be accused of being too early in its commencement or too rapid in its operation. It will be more likely to meet with contrary reproaches. If adopted, it is to begin thirty-four or thirty-nine years from the time of its adoption, as the one period or the other shall be selected for its commencement. How long a time it will take to remove all the colored race from the State, by the annual transportation of each year’s natural increase, can not be exactly ascertained. After the system may have been in operation some years, I think it probable, from the manifest benefits that would flow from it, from the diminished value of slave labor, and from the humanity and benevolence of private individuals prompting a liberation of their slaves and their transportation, a general disposition would exist to accelerate and complete the work of colonization.

That the system will be attended with some sacrifices on the part of slaveholders, which are to be regretted, need not be denied. What great and beneficent enterprise was ever accomplished without risk and sacrifice? But these sacrifices are distant, contingent and inconsiderable. Assuming the year 1860 for the commencement of the system, all slaves born prior to that time would remain such during their lives, and the present loss of the slaveholder would be only the difference in value of a female slave whose offspring, if she had any, born after the first day of January, 1860, should be free at the age of twenty-five or should be slaves for life.

In the mean time, if the right to remove or sell the slave out of the State, should be exercised, that trifling loss would not be incurred. The slaveholder, after the commencement of the system, would lose the difference in value between slaves for life and slaves until the age of twenty-five. He might also incur some inconsiderable expense in rearing from their birth the issue of those who were to be free at twenty-five, until they were old enough to be apprenticed out; but as it is probable that they would be most generally bound to him, he would receive some indemnity from their services until they attained their majority.

Most of the evils, losses and misfortunes of human life have some compensation or alleviation. The slaveholder is generally a landholder, and I am persuaded that he would find in the augmented value of his land, some, if not full indemnity for losses arising to him from emancipation and colonization. He would also liberally share in the general benefits, accruing to the whole State, from the extinction of slavery. These have been so often and so fully stated that I will not, nor is it necessary to, dwell upon them extensively. They can be summed up in a few words. We shall remove from among us the contaminating influences of a servile and degraded race of different color; we shall enjoy the proud and conscious satisfaction of placing that race where they can enjoy the great blessings of liberty, and sivil, political and social equality; we shall acquire the advantage of the diligence, the fidelity, and the constancy of free labor instead of the carelessness, the infidelity, and the unsteadiness of slave labor; we shall elevate the character of white labor, and elevate the social condition of the white laborer; augment the value of our lands, improve the agriculture of the State, attract capital from abroad to all the pursuits of commerce, manufactures and agriculture; redress, as far and as fast as we safely and prudently can, any wrongs which the descendants of Africa have suffered at our hands, and we should demonstrate the sincerity with which we pay indiscriminate homage to the great cause of the liberty of the human race.

Kentucky enjoys high respect and honorable consideration throughout the Union and throughout the civilized world; but, in my humble opinion, no title which she has to the esteem and admiration of mankind, no deeds of her former glory would equal in greatness and grandeur, that of being the pioneer State in removing from her soil every trace of human slavery, and in establishing the descendants of Africa, within her jurisdiction, in the native land of their forefathers.

I have thus executed the promise I made, alluded to in the commencement of this letter, and I hope that I have done it calmly, free from intemperance, and so as to wound the sensibilities of none. I sincerely hope that the question may be considered and decided without the influence of party or passion. I should be most happy to have the good fortune of coinciding in opinion with the majority of the people of Kentucky; but, if there be a majority opposed to all schemes of gradual emancipation, however much I may regret it, my duty will be to bow in submission to their will.

If it be perfectly certain and manifest that such a majority exists, I should think it better not to agitate the question at all, since that, in that case, it would be useless, and might exercise a pernicious collateral influence upon the fair consideration of other amendments which may be proposed to our Constitution. If there be a majority of the people of Kentucky, at this time, adverse to touching the institution of slavery, as it now exists, we, who had thought and wished otherwise, can only indulge the hope that at some future time, under better auspices and with the blessing of Providence, the cause which we have so much at heart, may be attended with better success.

In any event, I shall have the satisfaction of having performed a duty to the State, to the subject, and to myself, by placing my sentiments permanently upon record.

With great regard, I am your friend and obedient servant,





NEW ORLEANS, March 3rd, 1849.


I WAS glad to hear by your letter of the 18th ultimo that you had returned from Missouri. Your journey must have been a dreadful one, but you will find some compensation for it in the profits which you expect to realize.

My health is better, and I can again walk. I hope to reach home toward the last of this month. The weather is now fine here, and I am desirous not to return until the winter breaks.

I have heard that Colonel Allen has discontinued his school, but I have not heard whether Henry is admitted at West Point. I declined going to Washington at the Call Session.

As you were absent, I sent to Richard Pendell a letter on the Emancipation question. As I regret to hear that it is not popular, I suppose that my letter will bring on me some odium. I nevertheless wish it published. I owe that to the cause, and to myself, and to posterity.

I am delighted to hear that dear little Lucy is better. You are perfectly right to take her to the sea-bath, if it be recommended; but ought you not to think of the Arkansas Springs?

My love to Susan and your children.