Social Development of Todd County, Kentucky

THE early society of Todd County was derived from Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. The natives of the latter State largely preponderated in the northern part of the county, while the Virginians and North Carolinians were found in about equal proportions in the southern part. The greater part of those who came here early were in limited financial circumstances, though the cheapness of the land and the opportunity of profitable speculation attracted a few who. were remarkably well-to-do for that period. There were few, if any, of outward marks of difference, and neighbors were too highly prized in the sparsely settled community for society to exact too much in the way of credentials. There was now and then a little disposition on the part of Virginians to assume some superiority because of their possible connection with the “F. F. V.,” but then was so little opportunity to display this innocent vanity that an aristocracy never gained a reasonably sure foothold. Society here was very democratic, and those who persisted in asserting any other pretension, found eventually that they had danced to an expensive piper, and left the country poorer if not wiser. As a rule, there was little ” book learning among the people, and schools were very slowly established. Public offices were filled for the period of ” good behavior ” by the Governor, and once supplied there was no ” rotation in office ” to act as a stimulant to the people to qualify themselves for places of trust and honor. It accordingly became very generally accepted that some were born to rule, and that the many were born to be ruled, and both parties accepted this division of labor as natural and desirable. This was the starting point with that harmless form of caste that has dubbed every man of parts with a title. Respectful deference to elders or those in official station was a marked feature of family training, though entirely unmixed with anything of servility.. Traditions of that chivalry which graced the court of Charles I. and found its way to Virginia, had also an important influence upon the early people here. But these influences found society generally obeyed. Now and then for some especial reason a single one was disposed of, but such cases were exceptions.

In the settlement of estates slaves were by law sold at auction, but the heirs felt under obligations to this sentiment to purchase the old servants, and often seriously compromised themselves financially to do it. Negro traders often’ attended such sales, and bidding for the Southern market would bid the prices up to a point which no planter here could afford, and while he often got the slave, got the hearty detestation of the community. The institution was probably found in its best form in Todd County. Brutality was condemned, and not more than three or four masters in the county could be charged with cruelty in the management of their hands. With the development of the county the institution grew more profitable, expanded into larger proportions and embodied a large proportion of the wealth; and when the ” logic of events ” wrought emancipation upward of a million of dollars in value was destroyed in Todd County alone. Among the earliest effects of the institution of slavery upon society was the building up of a spirit of caste. A male slave was valued very early at about $400, but from 1850 forward the value increased to a sum varying from $800 to $2,000. Slaves therefore represented wealth; but in addition to this fact the owner of such property, exacting and receiving the utmost deference from his chattels, unconsciously demanded something similar from his less fortunate white brother. This was felt at once by the non-slaveholding class of the hill country, who did not object to slavery but to the ” aristocracy of slave-owners.” It was very apparent also that there was a bond of sympathy between the large slaveholder and the one less wealthy that did not exist between either one and the equally wealthy non-slave-owner. A reasonable cause for this was the fact that all slave-owners had a vital interest at stake in all the political agitation of the day as well as in all the local legislation with which the domestic institution ” was helped about. The non-slaveholder seemed as bitterly opposed to ” abolition ” as any one, but he manifestly had not the strong motive of the pocket to insure his loyalty in an emergency. The spirit of caste which thus gradually sprang into being became widespread and determined. The opening of profitable markets soon made slave labor enormously profitable, and led to the accumulation of large areas of lands in the hands of a single owner. This in its turn made the necessity for a large number of hands, and the large land-owners soon became autocrats of the neighborhood. This led also to a lavish state of living and a hospitality which copied in its extravagance that of the older slaveholding States, which in turn followed English models so far as circumstances would allow. Here and there natural penuriousness led to the reverse, but the majority expended their income in ” riotous living” if not in ” purple and fine linen.” But little money was expended in surroundings, but lavish hospitality and prodigality of expenditure used up a revenue that would now be considered princely on the farm. All, however, were not of this type, but a majority of the planters in the more fertile part of the county lived a life of ease, and found no need for mental or physical exertion. Many who were not farmers owned slaves who were hired out by the year. The lessee provided food, clothing and maintained the slave, and paid a gross sum reaching as high as $200 per year for the services of a slave. Slaves of this character were very valuable property, and found ready employment. Many were trained as mechanics and were especially valuable to their owners. One man in Elkton had a large number trained as bricklayers, who was offered for them just before the war $60,000 and refused the offer. The royal road to wealth seemed to have been found, and idleness was bred in the dominant race. With many practical farmers the sons labored in the field with the blacks, but it was a frequent occurrence for them to leave the plow in the furrow on the impulse of a sudden whim.

The planter’s was largely an isolated life. Large farms made neighbors somewhat far apart, and trained in later years by pride and natural indolence to find their pleasures within their own resources, they confined themselves to their own premises. Beyond visits to their especial friends, a ride to town on occasion, they were little abroad. This gave occasion for little interchange of ideas, and surrounded by Negroes continually they even contracted their dialect and something of their primitive ideas. Situated thus, where there were none to oppose their views, and consorting principally with those of like mind when abroad, an intolerant spirit was engendered which, enforced by considerations of the pocket, gradually made them violent in their opposition to any independence of thought, and confined the vigorous intellect to philosophical speculations which, however, seldom took a high range, from the fact that such a flight must inevitably have brought them into contact with a subject which society was generally agreed should not be freely discussed. Such a state of things militated against liberal, popular education. A newspaper in such a society is handicapped, and in fact so far as Todd County is concerned, never had a vigorous existence. Schools, free and suited to the necessity of the common people, could not thrive if established, but they did not exist. Slavery could not exist beside such influences, and slaves were not only forbidden education by law, but the dominant class were also cut off from free schools by the demands of the institution. The natural result of all this training, a combination of pseudo-chivalry, intolerance and popular ignorance, could not fail to beget its natural offspring-violence. Like powder, with the ingredients brought together in proper proportions, it needed but the spark which whisky supplied to bring about a fatal explosion. Agitators did not supply in Todd County the fulminating power, nor was the subject of the ” domestic institution ” the direct origin of the deeds of violence so often perpetrated. It was sufficient that people brought up under this influence should get inflamed with whisky sufficient to lose the ordinary respect for others’ rights to bring on a murderous altercation. County Court days were the frequent occasions for fatal shooting matches. Two or three would be shot, and those not disabled would almost invariably escape. To such an extent was this carried that a man was killed within a hundred yards and within hearing of a large crowd gathered about a patent medicine vendor on the square, without for a moment thinning the crowd or interrupting the sale. The officials did not ignore their duty in such cases, but public apathy was so strong that society looked upon the matter as one in which the criminal and officials alone were interested, and an officer’s failure in bringing such cases to justice was never considered any evidence of his incompetency for the position.

Since 1865 a marked improvement has been gradually effected. The producing cause has been removed, ” local option” has given the people the opportunity to express the preference of the majority, and violence has been greatly restricted. The disposition to shoot is not less strong, but the provoking causes are less abundant. Stringent laws against carrying concealed weapons have been brought to bear upon the subject, but without any apparent effect in reducing the number of pistols in the community. It is a frequent remark that every man carries one, and the Negroes, imitating the superior race, increase the aggregate by substituting the razor for the pistol. The abolition of slavery was but one step toward the solution of this social problem. Notwithstanding the large pecuniary loss. which emancipation occasioned this county, society felt the relief of a patient whose life is saved at the expense of a limb. Slavery had become unprofitable, and was yearly growing more so, to an extent more marked in Kentucky than in the far South. The institution was hedged about by humanitarian instincts and laws in this State that were unknown to the far South; black labor, considering the total capital involved and the small returns received, was growing unprofitable in a rapid ratio, while the vast irreducible expense of the institution, the growing impoverished condition of the land under its regime, and its utter lack of adaptability to other pursuits, rendered ruin near and inevitable. And so, while the opposition to emancipation was unanimous and determined, when once it was effected the relief was immediately apparent and rejoiced in. The agricultural system has been vastly improved under the new order of things, farm labor is more profitable, the dominant class are more- enterprising and vigorous, and the old slave caste is broken down and the last vestiges of it fast disappearing. But emancipation while an efficient remedy was not a panacea. The conditions effected. by this radical change have been met with a creditable spirit by both races. Freedom found the Negroes destitute of everything but the meager clothing in their possession. A number anticipated the final abolition of slavery in the border States by going into the army, but those who remained found themselves wholly unprovided for and without resources. In this condition the greatest misery might have followed had the masters cherished a vindictive spirit. A few did try their new found wings only to fail utterly in their first flight, and begged to be taken back upon the old place. A characteristic incident is told of two pampered men-servants whose duties consisted in supplying their master’s table with game, feeding the poultry and bringing their master’s horse to the house. They were maintained as his especial servants, were well dressed, were fed with the best that came from the family table, and whenever the master took his glass of liquor they were called in and joined with him in a social glass. This was a regular occurrence, and glasses for their use alone were kept with the decanter. When the Federal army came up the Tennessee River they took their first opportunity to escape, and shortly afterward begged in vain to come back to their old master. It is. undoubtedly true that the physical condition of the freedmen here for the first year or two was worse than during the period of slavery, but the masters, partly from humanitarian sentiments and partly because they needed them, allowed their former slaves to remain. There was no necessity for so great a number, however, and large numbers found it to their interest to emigrate to Kansas and elsewhere. Those who remained found ready employment and considerate treatment. Many are doing well, many are doing but little better than under the old regime, and some are doing worse. This freeing a large number of ignorant Negroes, whose whole training has taught them to lie, pilfer, to live improvidently and unchaste, has imposed upon society here a heavy burden of responsibility. Twenty years have passed since the war which set them free, but society has not yet adjusted itself completely to the new order of things. Neither race fully appreciate the full extent of the change that has been wrought, and the responsibilities which it imposes upon each. The Negroes trained to an utter disregard of personal character in themselves have not yet learned that this must now be cultivated. The whites fail in the same respect. Negroes convicted of felony lose caste with neither race, and find employment at the hands of the whites as readily as the honest black. Women notoriously unchaste are readily employed by the whites as cooks or servants, and lose no standing in black society. This fatal lack of self-respect is encouraged by this heedless action of the whites, and so long as it exists is a menace against society and a fatal hindrance to the elevation of the race. Education to such a class is a dangerous power, and religion a sham. Both races need to learn in this respect. Under the old regime, no more responsibility was imposed upon the human chattel than upon a mule, and the dominant race has not awakened to the fact that this freedom can no longer be allowed. That it does exist arises from force of habit, and not from any ill-considered sentiment of humanity. Petty crimes, such as were winked at on the plantation, and offenses punished with severity, are dealt with in the same spirit now. The only remedy for the evil, which many see but do not entirely comprehend, is to put every man, black or white, upon the same responsibility before the law, and exact the same rigid obedience. Law admits no defense on the score of ignorance, and the result is that men inform themselves. The application of the same principle to the Negro question will make the blacks better workmen, better citizens, and an advantage instead of a curse to society.


Battle, J. H., W. H. Perrin, Counties of Todd and Christian, Kentucky : historical and biographical, Chicago : F. A. Battey Publishing Co., 1884.

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