Rev. James G. Fee - a rarity in Kentucky
(September 14, 2012) - On this date in 1862, local Unionists drove the Rev. James G. Fee from his native Bracken County “for preaching abolitionism.”
The Union men forced Fee onto an Ohio River ferryboat, which carried him to Ohio, a free state. They threatened to hang him if he dared return, according to Lewis and Richard Collins’ History of Kentucky.
Fee was a rarity in Kentucky, a slave state. He risked life and limb by openly preaching against human bondage.
Fee practiced what he preached, too. In 1855, he founded anti-slavery Berea College in Madison County and opened the school to whites and African Americans, male and female.
Fee patterned his college after strongly abolitionist Oberlin College in Ohio. He said Berea’s mission was "to promote the cause of Christ," declaring that "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth."
Pro-slavery whites soon forced Fee to shut his school. Berea did not reopen until 1866, the year after the Civil War ended.
Fifteen years before, Fee had embraced the Christian faith. He was 14. He joined the Presbyterian Church and ultimately enrolled at staunchly anti-slavery Lane Seminary in Cincinnati.
After he graduated, Fee returned to Kentucky and began preaching that slavery was un-Christian. His first pulpit was in Lewis County in the northeastern part of the state, where slaves were few.
But the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky and the other slave states was pro-slavery. As a result, he ultimately left the denomination.
Even so, Fee continued to sermonize against slavery. As a result, he caught the attention of the fiery Cassius Marcellus Clay of Madison County, whose outspoken opposition to slavery--including the publication of an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington--almost cost him his life.
Clay was a rich man who owned slaves but he favored gradual emancipation.
Clay gave Fee land on which he founded the town of Berea—which he named for the Biblical Berea—in 1853. The community, like the college, became an anti-slavery center.
Many residents left town with Fee when the college, then a one-room schoolhouse that doubled as a church, closed in 1859. He took his family to Boston, a hub of abolitionism, before returning to Bracken County on the eve of the Civil War.
Bracken County was stoutly pro-Union. Yet almost all Bracken County whites—indeed, almost all Kentucky whites, Unionist and Confederate, were deeply racist. They claimed slavery was the “natural” condition for blacks; some said slavery was "heaven ordained."
Nearly every Unionist Kentuckian opposed secession but supported slavery. They “generally believed that the Union provided a safer bet for protecting their political and economic interests, including slavery,” Anne E. Marshall wrote in Creating a Confederate Kentucky. She added that “many Kentucky whites…traded their loyalty to the Union in return for protection of slave property.”
Conversely, secessionist Kentuckians, like secessionists in the 11 slave states that formed the Confederacy, were certain that disunion was the only way to preserve slavery and white supremacy against President Abraham Lincoln and his “Black Republican Party.” When South Carolina seceded, it besought the other slave states to “join us, in forming a Confederacy of Slaveholding States."
Kentucky refused to abandon the old Union, though many of Kentucky’s leading Unionists owned slaves. Many, too, argued that secession would doom slavery in the state.
On May 7, 1861, the Louisville Daily Journal, Kentucky’s leading pro-Union newspaper, editorialized: “In speaking of the many inevitable consequences of disunion to Kentucky, we have repeatedly mentioned the certain, the unquestionable fact, that if the State should go out of the United States, thus cutting herself off from the operation of the fugitive slave law, her slaves, learning at once, as they of course would do, the condition of things, would strike by the thousands and thousands for the Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois shores, and none of them would ever be sent back to us. This important truth we have considered, as others have done, self-evident—beyond dispute—palpable to every man of common sense.”
Also in May, 1861, Postmaster General Joseph Holt, an unwavering Kentucky Unionist who would become judge advocate general of the Army in the Lincoln administration, warned that disunion would cause slavery to “perish away…, as a ball of snow would melt in a summer’s sun,” according to The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky by E. Merton Coulter.
-- Berry Craig is a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and is the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. The books are being sold to raise money for scholarships at WKCTC. They are available by contacting Craig by phone at (270) 534-3270 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.