- Evil Necessity: Slavery and Political Culture in Antebellum Kentucky
Harold Tallant's work of intellectual history examines the debate over slavery in Kentucky from 1829 to 1860. A large body of previous writing, ably synthesized in Lowell H. Harrison's The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky (1978), has shaped most of the subject's themes. Tallant does provide a more detailed discussion of antislavery thought than his predecessors and, most importantly, places the "necessary evil" view of slavery at the center of the story. His insightful thesis holds that throughout the period the "necessary evil" concept both encouraged attacks on slavery by spotlighting its evil nature and prevented effective action against it by stressing the need for white people to preserve control over African Americans. Few in Kentucky, unlike most other slave states, considered the institution a financial necessity because of the state's diverse economy.
The "necessary evil" defense originated in response to the American Revolution's ideal of equal liberty, which motivated most northeastern states to pass gradual emancipation acts. From Kentucky's beginning, a minority advocated such a law but quarreled over how cautious of a program would insure a safe escape from slavery. In 1829 these individuals also adopted African colonization of slaves to eliminate the possibility of conflict between the races after freedom. Colonization, however, had practical problems with high costs and some black resistance. The conservative methods for antislavery reform failed to win over most Kentuckians. [End Page 98]
Although general histories of the antebellum South commonly present the "necessary evil" theory as being replaced in the 1830s by the "positive good" articulation of proslavery ideology (seeing slavery as beneficial in all ways), Tallant demonstrates that Kentucky did not fit that pattern. Like him, other researchers have also found exceptions. The "positive good" ideology only started to rise in Kentucky during the 1849 Constitutional Convention at which the antislavery forces suffered a thorough defeat. Afterwards, a few frustrated reformers turned to immediatist and sometimes egalitarian abolitionism.
Throughout the period, the proslavery advocates stressed that only slavery could suppress inevitable racial conflict. Beginning in the 1840s, they increasingly denounced antislavery advocacy for supposedly stirring up slave violence. Tallant, though, asserts that the continued tolerance of some discussion of the issue until 1860 proved that most Kentuckians continued to believe in the "necessary evil" concept. However, this argument is weak. Tolerance existed only for the declining gradualist and colonization form of antislavery thought. Kentucky's abolitionists faced a rising tide of mob violence. Except for Cassius M. Clay, who had repeatedly and successfully defended himself, they were all eventually run out of the state. Reverend John G. Fee avoided attacks for a few years by confining his mostly educational and missionary work to areas with few slaves. In the future the debate about slavery in the state after 1849 could benefit from further study, especially if expanded through the Civil War years.
Tallant writes in a clear and smooth style generally with good organization. The author's impressively extensive research supports the bulk of his interpretations. The book presents a forthright argument with a detailed analysis of ideas and expands understanding of the topic. It underlines the need for historians to recognize the diversity of thought in the antebellum South.