“The Shattered Limb of Slavery”

By Patrick A. Lewis

This month 150 years ago, white Kentuckians were debating the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which would end slavery. Governor Thomas E. Bramlette weighed in with a pragmatic—if not enthusiastic—endorsement for the amendment.

Would he be deemed wise or prudent who having an arm shattered by a bushwhacker, and pronounced by the surgeon to be incurable save by amputation, yet would obstinately refuse amputation, solely upon the ground that he was not shot in open battle or fair fight? Would such a refusal change the character of the wound, or lessen the danger of mortification and death? Shall we refuse to have the shattered limb of slavery amputated, when none can think of saving it, merely because it has been destroyed by rebels and abolitionists combined?

What people, events, and policies shattered the limb of slavery in Kentucky? What does Bramlette’s lumping of abolitionists and rebels into the same category say about why he thought the war began? What does Bramlette’s allusion to “bushwhackers” say about how Kentucky slaveowners felt about the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment? Why did the General Assembly not follow Bramlette’s advice and reject the amendment?

CWG-K will help researchers, students, and teachers explore these questions and more through both public documents such as this but also through correspondence with military officials, President Lincoln, and regular citizens from every corner of the Commonwealth. Read more of Bramlette’s message and follow the ratification debate through the pages of the Frankfort Commonwealth at the Kentucky Digital Library.