Kentucky sits right in the middle of the list when U.S. states are ranked by either size or population, neither large nor small. It is also neither Midwestern nor fully Southern, occupying the border in between. Part of the state—the “Golden Triangle” formed by Louisville, Lexington, and Cincinnati and its Kentucky suburbs—is highly urbanized, while much of the rest remains rural. As you head west across Kentucky, its topography changes from the ancient Appalachian Mountains in the east to swamp-like wetlands where the Mississippi River defines its western border. Its people as a whole tend toward conservatism and strong religious faith, and yet the mainstays of the economy include the “vices” of horse racing, bourbon, and tobacco.
In short, it is a state without a single defining identity, 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 in Kentucky and have given the state a very complicated history—including the history of its relationship with native son Abraham Lincoln.
Kentucky’s contrasts were already in evidence when Lincoln was born on a farm outside Hodgenville in 1809. The state itself, the first created west of the Alleghenies, was just 17 years old. The largest city at the time was Lexington, where wealthy planters who owned large, fertile farms in the surrounding Bluegrass region were turning their town into a center of learning and culture. Louisville, on the Ohio River, was also growing rapidly and was on its way to becoming a major transportation hub.
But much of Kentucky was still a frontier, with a mobile population of people seeking land and opportunity. Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was one of thousands of homesteaders working small farms throughout the state. If success eluded them in Kentucky, they often moved on to an even less settled place to try another new start. Thomas Lincoln made the move to a wilderness area of Indiana when Abe was 7. A few years earlier, the Samuel Davis family had moved on to Missouri from Fairview, Kentucky; their son Jefferson had been born there in June 1808.
Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, of course, would grow up to have their names forever linked, as presidents of the United States and Confederate States of America during the Civil War. The fact that they were both born in Kentucky symbolizes how deeply divided the state was by that war and by its precipitating issue, slavery. The Bluegrass planters and other wealthier Kentuckians often did own slaves, and Lexington was a center of the slave trade. (Kentucky slaveholders included the families of both Lincoln’s eventual wife, Mary Todd of Lexington, and his best friend, Joshua Speed of Louisville.) But most people in Kentucky did not own slaves, since slavery was impractical either for small farms or for the burgeoning coal-mining industry of Eastern Kentucky.
With so much internal division, Kentucky tried to steer a neutral course as slavery became the overriding political issue of the 19th century. Another famous Kentuckian, Henry Clay, became known as the “Great Pacificator” for helping to craft several of the congressional 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. But Kentucky 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 war.
As a border state, geographically as well as politically, 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. 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 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 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.