Religion, Race, and Robert J. Breckinridge: The Ideology of an Antislavery Slaveholder, 1830–1860
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Religion,Race,and Robert J. Breckinridge Ibe Ideology ofan Antislauery Slaue/ Jolder,18301860 Luke E. Harlow nearly.Tanuary1861,OldSchoolPresbyterianRobert].Breekinridge, one of the most renowned clerics in antebellum Kentucky,ascended a pulpit in his native Lexington to preach about the deepening sectional crisis. Breckinridge, a Unionist faculty member at Danville Theological Seminary,called for humility and repentance for n.ational ohe,; f·/ ferson bree / 2111mige. 11} e sins,with the hope that armed conflict might be avoided. " lhese are Filson Historical but the beginning of sorrows," Breekinridge exhorted. " If we desire to Society perish, all we have to do is leap into this vortex c-- ----- ,v -1 - ·*r = 9.3--« 9-V-rr- --7 3 of disunion. If we have any conception of the solemnity of this day,let us beseech God that our country shall not be torn to pieces. The message may have been one for a nation careening toward civil war but Breckinridge fashioned it singularly for his local audience. He argued that Kentucky and other states along the " slave line"held the key to preserving national unity because of their political moderation. The border states rejected the passionate violence of the extreme South and refused to follow " the turbulent fanaticism of the extreme North. Breckinridge minced no words: it would be " suicidal," he argued,to embrace secession and deviate from the moderate course: 4 The ideal of political moderation was not a new theme for Breekinridge. Indeed, for three decades the Presbyterian cleric and citizen of the border South had adopted a similar approach to the slavery question. Starting in the 18308,he led 4 2 churches in Baltimore, Maryland, in Lexington, Kentucky,and served on the faculty of Danville 1[ heological Seminary. Over the course of his ministerial career, Breekinridge opposed slavery, but he never pushed for what he considered extreme forms of social change, believing that slavery should be ended gradually. Like most FALL 2006 1 RELIGION, RACE,AND ROBERT J. BRECKINRIDGE white Americans of the period, Breckinridge was no egalitarian. I Ie believed in white superiority and saw in emancipation a way to facilitate the removal of the nation' s African American population, thereby separating the races. Yet if Breekinridge' s racial views were mainstreain, his theological understanding of slavery was not. Unlike the great number of white southern Christians who believed American slavery was divinely sanctioned by the Bible, Breckinridge rejected slavery on biblical grounds and argued that the institution was an affront to divine order. Such convictions led Breekinridge to oppose slavery,but his racial conservatism only enabled him to embrace gradual means to hasten its end. By 1861,Breckinridge had muted his gradual emancipation message. In light of contemporary political and social arrangements and the size of the Deep South' s black population, Breckinridge "[ knew]of no way that " slavery" in the " Cotton States" could " be dealt with at all." His conclusion was consistent with a longstanding acceptance of states' rights, but he had not abandoned his conservative antislavery stance entirely,nor did he believe that the Upper South should make common cause with the cotton states. Such a decision, he argued, would make the border states subservient to " the supreme interest of cotton," and throw amongst Kentucky and the Upper South's white population some millions more ofAfrican cannibals." Following the Deep South' s political lead in the sectional crisis would represent an endorsement of slavery and ensure the persistence of African Americans in tlie United States.2 Among Kentuckians,Breekinridge's conservative antislavery position had only a few vocal adherents, but it was not unusual. Opponents of slavery remained in the region into the 18605,and the longlived nature of Kentucky' s antebellum antislavery agitation has attracted considerable historiographical debate. Historians have studied the persistence of southern dissent against slavery in the decades immediately preceding the Civil War and they have highlighted the varieties of opinion among antislavery advocates. While the commonwealth featured abolitionists such as pacifist evangelical John G. Fee and the exiled James G. Birney who hoped for the immediate eradication ofslavery, Kentucky antislavery in the late antebellum period was dominated by emancipationists who sought to end the peculiar institution gradually, with compensation given to the...