Historians of the antebellum United States have long needed a comprehensive account of Kentucky during the secession crisis to replace E. Merton Coulter’s dated 1926 study, The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky. Unfortunately, Gary R. Matthews’s More American than Southern, despite the claims of its jacket blurb, is not that book. Interpretive confusion, internal contradictions, unsupported claims and factual errors, and poor writing and editing undermine Matthews’s study, despite his diligent research and broad framework.
Going beyond the years mentioned in the subtitle, More American than Southern over its first one hundred pages reaches back into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to argue that a variety of factors—including geography and early settlement patterns, the state’s constitutions, shared economic ties with southern and northern states, the development of an urban middle class, the persistence of slavery and a master class, and partisan conflict—made Kentucky, by 1840, “an anomaly” among American states, possessed of both northern and southern characteristics (p. 16). Matthews’s efforts to understand how the state’s social, economic, and political history shaped its response to the sectional crisis is laudable, but his claim that these historical developments made Kentucky “unique” remains unconvincing because similar trends shaped all the border states, both in the Upper South and lower North. Moreover, the history of the state before 1840 cannot adequately explain the unusual path chosen by Kentucky’s white population in 1861 without a sharper [End Page 478] analysis that links these developments more clearly to the events of the secession crisis.
And here Matthews’s account suffers most, for he reaches a series of dated and contradictory conclusions, most problematically regarding slavery. Citing historians such as J. Winston Coleman and Harold D. Tallant, he argues that the slave regime in Kentucky “was not as harsh” (p. 58) as in the Deep South, of “limited utility,” and “marginally profitable,” especially as the state’s economy diversified (p. 28). Consequently, the state never became “integrated within the economic and ideological oligarchy of the Lower South” (p. 269). But such claims ignore the slave trade (a subject that merits only two pages), which by Matthews’s reckoning in the 1850s transported at least five thousand slaves per year from Kentucky to the Deep South. The trade destroyed black families and brutalized the men and women caught in its clutches (so much for a “tolerant slave regime” [p. 58]), while pumping a steady flow of capital into the state, which helped finance economic development, especially as the price of slaves rose in the 1850s. The slave trade, in short, linked the mutual welfare of the Upper and lower South and underwrote Kentucky’s relative prosperity.
Moreover, Matthews’s insistence on slavery’s economic backwardness—a claim rejected by historians such as Walter Johnson and Edward Baptist, among others—convinces him to slight (although not ignore entirely, see pp. 262–63) the primary motive of white Kentuckians’ Unionism: the protection of slavery. White Kentuckians saw no contradiction between slaveholding and economic development and looked for the best means to protect the institution that undergirded the state’s economy and social structure. Slavery also provided the foundation for the welfare of nearly forty thousand slaveholders in the state, a majority of whom concurred with William Stewart Bodley and concluded that the national government and federal Constitution offered a better means to protect slavery than becoming a “frontier state” of the Confederacy (p. 232). As Patrick A. Lewis argues in his new biography of Benjamin Buckner, such individuals believed slavery and union inseparable and thus rejected secession in 1861. [End Page 479]
Other problems mar Matthews’s study. He recounts episodes—the Bloody Monday riots, federal patronage appointments in Kentucky, the Democratic convention of 1852—that have little apparent relevance to his central argument or subject. The text includes many contradictory statements, with one paragraph, for example, claiming both that “daily life remained much the same as it had for...