Craig: Abraham Lincoln was no favorite son in his native Kentucky

Published 2:09 pm Friday, February 24, 2023

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By Berry Craig

Kentucky Lantern

No son of Kentucky is more famous or more revered than Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12, 1809, near Hodgenville.

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His birthplace is a national shrine. His statue stands tall in the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort.

Lincoln was the first Republican president, and today Kentucky is one of the reddest Republican red states. Yet no president was more unpopular in Kentucky than Lincoln, whose party was founded in opposition to slavery in 1854.

“The Great Emancipator” likely wouldn’t fare much better in his native state today, according to Murray State University historian Brian Clardy. “Lincoln would be a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in today’s Republican Party. In no way does the Republican party reflect the principles of Lincoln in regard to inclusion and universal freedom. The GOP is essentially a Donald Trump cult.”

Trump, who Clardy said ran the most overtly racist presidential campaigns since George Wallace in 1968, collected more than 62 percent of the Kentucky vote in 2016 and 2020. Both times, he carried every Kentucky county except Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington).

Lincoln twice lost the Bluegrass State by whopping margins. He managed less than 1% of the Kentucky vote when he won the White House in 1860. He lost every county and failed to tally a single vote in 36 of the state’s 110 counties.

Lincoln did better in 1864. But he got only 30.2 percent of the vote, “the lowest vote (he) received in any of the 25 states which participated in the balloting,” according to “Presidential Politics in Kentucky, 1824 to 1948” by Jasper B. Shannon and Ruth McQuown.

Though Lincoln was one of America’s greatest presidents, most Kentuckians are probably unaware how unloved he was in his native state.

Constitutional Unionist John Bell captured Kentucky’s dozen electoral votes in 1860. Vice President John C. Breckinridge of Lexington, the Southern Democratic candidate, finished second, followed by the Northern Democrat, Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.

Lincoln trailed the field with 1,364 votes, according to “Presidential Politics in Kentucky.” Hodgenville is the seat of Larue County, where Lincoln polled three votes. (Larue was created from southern Hardin County in 1843. Lincoln got six votes in Hardin; Douglas pocketed both counties.)

First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was from Lexington, the Fayette County seat. The wealthy Todds sent sons to both sides during the Civil War. Her brother, Dr. George Rogers Clark Todd, a rebel army surgeon, called Lincoln “one of the greatest scoundrels unhung.”

Lincoln notched five votes in Fayette, which favored Bell.

Apparently, no Kentucky newspapers — not even those that supported the Union in the war — endorsed Lincoln. The Lexington Statesman, which backed Breckinridge, characterized “the election of Lincoln and therein the success of the Republican party as the most serious and lamentable calamity which could have befallen our Republic,” according to “Lincoln and the Bluegrass: Slavery and Civil War in Kentucky” by William H. Townsend.

The author also cited a letter from a young Lexingtonian who ridiculed Lincoln as “an infernal old jackass.” The correspondent added, “I should relish his groans and agonies if I could see him put to torture in hell or anywhere else. He has chosen to become the representative of the Republican Party and as such I should like to hang him.”

Predictably, the Statesman panned Lincoln’s inaugural address. The paper, Townsend wrote, dismissed the president’s remarks as “radical, sectional and abhorrent.” The Statesman argued that “Lincoln’s silly speeches, his ill-timed jocularity and his pusillanimous evasion of responsibility and vulgar pettifoggery have no parallel in history, save the crazy capers of (Roman Emperor Caligula), or in the effeminate buffoonery of Henry of Valois (King Henry III of France).”

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in the harbor at Charleston, S.C. Townsend also wrote that the Statesman blamed Lincoln, “the miserable imbecile that now disgraces the Presidential chair” for starting what would become America’s most lethal conflict.

After a brief period of neutrality in 1861, Kentucky, though divided in sentiment, declared for the Union. As many as three times more Kentuckians donned Yankee blue than rebel gray.

But in Kentucky, loyalty to the Union usually didn’t mean loyalty to Lincoln. Almost all white Kentuckians hated the president’s Emancipation Proclamation, though it didn’t apply to Kentucky. Even the great majority of Kentucky Unionists were pro-slavery and pro-Union.

Lincoln won a second term in 1864, running on the Union ticket. But Democrat George B. McClellan, a Union general, buried him in a landslide in Kentucky.

Lincoln became popular in Kentucky after he was assassinated just after the war ended in April 1865. “A great transformation seems almost mysteriously to have swept over the people when the word came that Lincoln was dead,” E. Merton Coulter wrote in “The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky.”

“From their customary attitude of condemnation and vilification, they now turned to honoring and praising.”