“A Very Catiline”?: Finding Richard Henry Stanton

A few weeks ago, CWG-K was approached by Feliks Banel, a Seattle historian and radio broadcaster, seeking information about the man who named Washington state. A Kentucky Congressman in 1853, it seems, had suggested that Columbia—the name under which the territorial bill had been submitted—might be confused with the District of Columbia. So, Richard H. Stanton suggested the compromise name of Washington—which, he apparently thought, wouldn’t get confused with any other important center of political power in that District.

So, Feliks asked, did anyone in Kentucky remember this Richard Stanton? Turns out, the answer is generally no. Not in Maysville, where Stanton lived and is buried. Not in Powell County, where the county seat is named after him. But he was well known to CWG-K.

Listen to Feliks’s radio piece on KIRO, which features CWG-K project director Patrick Lewis summarizing Stanton and his place in Civil War Kentucky.

What do CWG-K documents tell us about Richard Stanton? He and his law partner (and brother-in-law) Thomas Throop were two of the most important attorneys in the state when the Civil War came to Kentucky. Stanton had undertaken the gargantuan task of compiling a revised and annotated edition of the Kentucky Revised Statutes in 1860, making Stanton a household name to whom attorneys and judges across the state turned for the latest interpretation of state laws. On a regional level, Stanton was Commonwealth’s Attorney (akin to a district attorney in most other states) for the Tenth Judicial District serving Mason, Lewis, Greenup, Rowan, Fleming, and Nicholas Counties.


But in CWG-K documents, Stanton conducts very little business as a Commonwealth’s Attorney. He appears most frequently in private practice requesting pardons for their clients, and they seem particularly close to the Democratic administration of Beriah Magoffin.

Why was such an influential attorney like Stanton unable to hold his position as Commonwealth Attorney after 1861? The first clue came from a letter of his partner Tom Throop to Magoffin in November 1860:

Your positions are undoubtedly correct, and if our union as states is preserved the movement must come from the north. They must abolish all these nullifying laws, carry out the provisions of the constitution, as to the comity between the states, carry out the provisions of the fugitive slave act, respect their so called personal liberty bills, allow the free transit of persons from the south with their families & property through their territories; acknowledge by their acts, not words only, that we as states have an equality of rights, with them: unless this is done, our union is a farce, it is effete, a humbug & a cheat.

Throop certainly seems a John C. Breckinridge Southern Democrat, but did he speak for his friend Stanton? Union General “Bull” Nelson certainly seemed to think so. He arrested Stanton and six other Maysville men on October 2, 1861. According to Nelson (a native Maysville man, himself) the group were “traitorous scoundrels who were engaged in fitting out men for the Southern army, subscribing moneys, getting up nightly drills and doing the manner of things usual among the secessionists. …with the Hon. R. H. Stanton at their head.”

In another letter, Nelson asserted that “This man Stanton is the head of secession in Northeast Kentucky” and that “He has harbored in his house an officer of the Confederate Army” and forwarded 259 men from the area to Humphrey Marshall’s rebel forces in Prestonsburg, Kentucky. This was entirely plausible. Stanton’s son returned from a law practice in Memphis at the outbreak of the war to raise a company of troops in Mason County for Confederate service. Henry T. Stanton may have been the very officer harbored by his father.

Whether with evidence or speculation, Nelson concluded that Stanton “is the soul of rebellion in this part of Kentucky.” “[M]orally a very Catiline” whose arrest “has struck secession dumb here.”

First taken to Cincinnati, then to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio, and finally to Fort Lafayette in New York City, Stanton proclaimed his innocence the entire time. As did many Kentucky secessionists facing the state and federal government crackdown on wartime dissent, Stanton proclaimed himself a strict neutralist. In a letter to Secretary of State Seward, Stanton argued that “we were in favor of Kentucky maintaining a neutral position in the contest…and advocated that policy, hoping that the State would be in a position to maintain peace within her borders and mediate between the two sections.”

Eventually, the Lincoln administration felt enough political pressure from undoubtedly loyal Kentuckians (including a petition from a majority of state legislators) and released Stanton on December 17, 1861, after taking the loyalty oath (read the whole case file in the OR, Series II, Volume II, pp. 913-33). Stanton & Throop continued to practice—carefully avoiding such overt political statements as Throop had made to Magoffin just after Lincoln’s election—for the rest of the war.

From the politics of Manifest Destiny to the mechanics of Confederate recruiting in Union territory to the ever-important American debate over civil liberties and dissent during wartime, Richard Stanton should not be a name that Kentucky historians forget again. Even at this stage, CWG-K has identified a host of mid-level political players like Richard Stanton, and as the project moves forward into annotation and social networking—identifying each unique individual mentioned in our documents and linking them and their known associates together into a massive research platform—we will find many more. What new life story will CWG-K uncover next?

Patrick A. Lewis is Project Director of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

Protecting Slavery in a Union State: The Letter vs. the Spirit of the Law

By Matthew C. Hulbert

In October 1863, the Mason Circuit Court (based in Mason County, Kentucky) hit Peter Miller, a legally licensed tavern owner, with maximum fine of $50 for tippling. If this strikes you as odd, it’s because by its very definition in 1863, tippling meant selling alcohol or operating a tavern in which said spirits were sold without a license. Miller balked at the ruling. “I have kept a Bar in Maysville for a number of years,” he noted confidently, “and have always endeavored to comply with the strict letter and spirit of the law.” The fundamental hang-up in the Commonwealth v. Peter Miller, however, was that in this case the letter and spirit of the law actually veered in wildly different directions at the crossroads of slavery.

Chapter 212 of the Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Passed, Volume I, published in 1856, dealt specifically with the sale of spirituous, malt, or vinous liquors to both slaves and “free negroes.” (Note: the law more or less assumed that all slaves would be African American and thus did not label them “enslaved negroes.”) The statute read as follows:

It shall not be lawful for any person or persons in this commonwealth, either with or without a license, to sell, give, or loan to any slave or slaves, not under his or her control, any spirituous, malt, or vinous liquors, unless it is done upon the written order of the owner or person having the legal control of the service, for the time being, of such slave or slaves; and the written order here meant shall clearly specify the quantity to be sold, given, or loaned, and name the slave or slaves, and shall be dated and signed; and such order shall only be good for the one sale, loan, or gift; and the persons violating the provisions of this act shall be liable to pay the owner not less than twenty nor more than fifty dollars, or to be confined in the jail of the county, where such conviction is had, not less than thirty days nor more than six months, or may be both fined and imprisoned, at the discretion of a jury, for each offense, and also be liable for any actual damage sustained, to be recovered by suit in any court having jurisdiction.

The circumstances of Miller’s case aren’t all that complicated. In fall 1863, a “free negro barber,” Nathaniel Oldham, rented “the negro boy Ed” from a local slave-owner named Samuel W. Wood. And, according to undisputed court testimony, “while thus hired to Oldham, the boy and Oldham his master for the time, drank at Peter Millers bar and purchased from him at the County of Mason upon one occasion, the whiskey & beer drank having been furnished for & paid for by him in the presence of and at the instance of Oldham the free negro to whom he was hired.” So Miller was charged with tippling not for selling without a license, but for selling to someone who wasn’t allowed to be drinking alcohol, licensed or not. The bartender had a sturdy defense: Oldham temporarily owned Ed by virtue of the labor deal with Wood and that as Ed’s temporary master, Oldham held final authority over his chattel’s ability to consume alcoholic beverages. Miller further contended that Ed’s permanent owner, Samuel Wood, “cared nothing about the matter” and that the conviction had only been delivered because “political excitement was bitter at the time.”

Peter Miller on his Indictment

“Political excitement was bitter at the time and I was indicted…”

The law clearly favored Miller, especially on two points. First, As Ed’s temporary master, Oldham had legal control of Ed’s services and was in a position to legally purchase him liquor (re: “unless it is done upon the written order of the owner or person having the legal control of the service”); and, second, Miller clearly stated that the drinking only occurred once and it doesn’t appear that anyone disputed the assertion in court (re: “and such order shall only be good for the one sale, loan, or gift”).

The elephant in the room, then, is how Peter Miller was ever convicted of anything in the first place?

Our answer here lies not with the letter of the law—but with its spirit. The “political excitement” Miller referenced revolved around the increasingly-tenuous position of slavery in Kentucky. Lincoln’s war aims were changing; the demise of the Peculiar Institution had become a real possibility if the Confederacy faltered now and Conservative Unionists in Kentucky weren’t particularly pleased about it. (If slavery in the Confederacy went, what chance did it have in the nominally-loyal Border States?) So while he’d technically broken no laws in the Commonwealth, by serving two black men in his tavern—one free and openly exhibiting mastery over a slave, just like his white counterparts might do—Miller had violated the social and cultural mores that governed his own local, white community. In turn, the offended members of that community chose to ignore (that is, completely misappropriate) the particulars of the statute and punished Miller for his breeching of racial protocol.

Upon receiving Miller’s petition for executive clemency, Governor Thomas E. Bramlette quickly reversed the decision and remitted the $50 fine. In the process of interpreting the law, Bramlette exposed an ironic weakness within the institution’s white supremacist foundation: the spirit of slavery in Kentucky was unquestionably based on race (white > black) and constituted a pillar of the state’s social hierarchy (white slaveholders > white non-slaveholders > any African Americans).

But to protect the integrity of the legal codes which were intended to govern the behavior of slaves and how white Kentuckians interacted with them, Bramlette was forced to concede that, according to the letter of the law, a black master (albeit a temporary one in Nathaniel Oldham) could exert the same authority and claim the same legal rights as a white master. In short, Bramlette was forced to reckon with an unanswerable question: which was a higher priority, maintaining the racial hierarchy, or maintaining the institution (slavery) that enforced the racial hierarchy? Luckily, for thousands of men and women like Ed, before Governor Bramlette left office, President Lincoln and the Union army made his decision a moot point.

Matthew C. Hulbert is an Assistant Editor of the Civil War Governors of Kentucky Digital Documentary Edition.

SOURCES: Peter Miller to Thomas E. Bramlette, 12 Nov 1863, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Kentucky (hereafter KDLA); Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Peter Miller, Judgment, n.d., KDLA; Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Passed, Volume I (Frankfort, KY: A. G. Hodges, State Printer, 1856), 42-44.