Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, usually finishes at or near the top when historians list the best American presidents. He led the country through its greatest crisis, the Civil War, preserving the Union after 11 Southern states had declared themselves a new country. He is revered for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, which decreed that slaves in the rebellious states were free, and then pushing for the adoption of the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery throughout the country. His image is on money and on Mount Rushmore, and his name, his face, and his words have been used countless times by everyone from politicians to advertisers who want to associate themselves with one of history’s greatest leaders.
Yet Kentucky, where Lincoln was born in 1809, was very slow to “claim” him as a favorite son. Lincoln got very few votes in Kentucky in the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864. And even decades after his assassination, as memorials to Lincoln and institutions named for him proliferated around the country, the main honor for Lincoln in his native state was the naming of the Lincoln Institute—a school for black students founded by the trustees of Berea College when the 1904 state legislature passed a law forbidding them from offering racially integrated classes. It wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s brought sweeping changes to society that Kentuckians really began to embrace the Great Emancipator as one of their own.
Kentucky’s complicated relationship with Lincoln reflects the state’s own complicated history. It is a place where sharply contrasting ways of life, economic classes, and political views have long existed side by side. These internal divisions and inequalities have often made change difficult to come by. Collectively, Kentuckians have tended toward social conservatism, a desire to maintain the status quo, and a distrust of “radicals” and “extremists” on both sides of issues.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, one of the issues Kentucky tried to remain “neutral” on was slavery. Kentucky’s central location within the United States and abundance of rivers and railroads made it a center for the trading and transporting of slaves. And though very few Kentuckians actually owned slaves, the ones who did were politically influential: wealthy planters in the Bluegrass region around Lexington and upper-class families in the growing cities. Kentucky slaveholders included the families of Lincoln’s eventual wife, Mary Todd of Lexington; his best friend, Joshua Speed of Louisville; and his political hero, Henry Clay. During a long career in the U.S. Congress, Clay became known as the “Great Pacificator” for helping to craft several legislative compromises that kept the peace when the admission of new states threatened to disturb the balance between free and slave states.
By the presidential election of 1860, most of the country believed that the time for such deal-making was past, and more radical measures were called for. Kentuckians actually had a choice between two native sons: Abraham Lincoln and John C. Breckinridge, vice president under James Buchanan. But they picked neither, voting for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, running under a platform of continuing to seek compromises and avoid the issue of slavery for as long as possible. Lincoln, representing the new and specifically anti-slavery Republican Party, was seen as a radical in his native state and got less than 1% of the vote. Kentucky, also the birthplace of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, was deeply divided, but did choose to remain in the Union after other slave states had seceded, under the condition that slavery be allowed to continue—one of four such “border states” during the Civil War.
Throughout the war, Kentucky was a frequent target for raiders from both sides, who pillaged for supplies and destroyed railroads and other property that might be useful to the enemy. On top of these hardships, many Kentuckians were outraged by Lincoln’s later decision to give slaves their freedom in exchange for joining the Union Army—breaking a promise he had made earlier not to interfere with slavery where it already existed. And the harsh conditions of martial law, imposed by Lincoln in June 1864, turned many more against the war. In the election of 1864, Kentucky again rebuffed its native son, becoming one of only three states to vote for Democratic candidate George McClellan over Lincoln.
The turn against the Union and the divisions caused by the Civil War continued to affect Kentucky for decades, as the state seemed more and more to embrace the “Lost Cause” of the South. After the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site was dedicated for the centennial of his birth in 1909, Confederate sympathizers countered by creating the Jefferson Davis Memorial, a concrete obelisk reminiscent of the Washington Monument that was dedicated in 1924 in Fairview, Kentucky. In 1911, a statue of Lincoln was placed in the state capitol rotunda. But it was not a public commission; it was paid for privately by a member of the Speed family after a personal request from a single legislator. And in 1936, another statue was placed on a wall in that same rotunda: fellow native son Jefferson Davis.