John G. Fee and Religious Invasion

While most Americans recall John Brown, few scholars remember John G. Fee. Yet Fee, more than any other antebellum Southerner, deserves colorblind Americans’ admiration. The Kentucky preacher also became Northerners’ next hope, immediately after Brown, to assault slavery inside the South.

Fee believed that a Southerner’s preaching, aided by northern dollars and teachers, could convert at least the Border South’s Kentucky to antislavery. He correctly perceived that Yankees would pour millions into a nonviolent, constitutional assault on slavery, if slaveholders would allow a southern Christian free access to southern souls. For many months, Kentucky, the most enslaved Border South state, allowed Fee, the most extreme racial radical, freedom to agitate in the northern South’s most auspicious corner. That antebellum exception made Fee’s second act in America’s drama of late 1859 and early 1860 as intriguing, in its different way, as Brown’s first act.

The acts started with opposite invasive strategies. Brown sought northern spears. Fee recruited northern teachers. Brown meant to savage slaveholders’ bodies. Fee meant to seize slaveholders’ souls. Brown intended to smash inside an arsenal. Fee intended to hack inside Christian defenses. Both climactically struck, and were struck down, in the last months of 1859. Both defeats showed that antislavery Yankees had not yet found the path inside the South.

– 1 –

Some southern antislavery evangelicals departed to convert the North. Others compromised to persuade the South. But John G. Fee, unlike every other late antebellum southern zealot, sought to rally his native land for uncompromising emancipation. So why did fellow Southerners, however briefly, tolerate his extremism?

In part because Fee was to the manor born. His antislavery ideas were also from the proslavery manor taken. He burrowed inside orthodox southern postulates, turning patriarchs’ Christian assumptions into abolitionists’ heresy. His pilgrimage offers a tour of the marrow of proslavery divinity, conducted by a brilliant theologian who assaulted James Henley Thornwell’s subtlest proslavery assumptions at the highest biblical level.

According to proslavery assumption, erring humans must never loosely interpret Christ’s explicit commands. Instead, Christ’s unerring Word, strictly constructed, must order every Christian soul and Christian community. John G. Fee’s grandfather had transported this orthodoxy and the family’s slaves from Maryland to Kentucky before the frontier area became a slaveholding state. The founder dared to own slaves up in Kentucky’s Bracken County on the Ohio River, despite Kentucky and Ohio nonslaveholding neighbors. John G. Fee’s father continued to work slaves on Kentucky’s northern edge. Meanwhile, Fee’s mother deplored her fellow Quakers’ antislavery bias, cherished her household’s thirteen slaves, and wept that her son used the Word to serve the enemy.1

Her son met the enemy in 1842, when at the age of twenty-six he crossed the Ohio River and enrolled in Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary. Eight years earlier, the seminary had repelled the Lane Rebels. Those students, rebelling against Lane’s racist and proslavery teaching, had marched on Oberlin College. There, they had joined hands with such spirits as John Brown’s father to forge a biracial antislavery center. Since Fee’s father knew that the rebels had moved outside Lane, he assumed that only proslavery zealots remained inside. His son’s southern sentiments should be safe enough in antislavery’s deserted old arena.

He did not figure on a new generation of rebels. Two of John G. Fee’s Lane classmates pressed the slaveholder’s son. They insisted that the Word, strictly construed, demanded antislavery. Could Fee deny that Scripture contained the Golden Rule? Could Fee deny that some slaveholders’ practices desecrated the Golden Rule? Could any Christian deny that Christ’s spirit, explicitly rendered in Scripture, made defining aspects of slavery an abomination?

In the manner of the conversion experience, Fee wrestled down this version of strict construction gospel, time after time. Then he saw the blinding light: “Lord, if need be, make me an abolitionist.” Instantly, he “was conscious of an entire surrender—conscious that I had died to the world and risen with Christ.”

Fee’s father demanded that his son fall no farther from familial grace. “Bundle up your books and come home,” steamed the patriarch. “I have spent the last dollar I mean to spend on you in a free state.”2 Fee came home, stayed home, and turned strict construction against the home institution. He ultimately received nothing from his father’s estate.

The disinheritance stung. The alleged ingrate cherished his father and fatherland. Yet he remained convinced that Christian patriarchs must repudiate their slave investments. In response, proslavery evangelicals proclaimed investments in slaves biblically safe. The exact words of the sacred text, they reiterated, proved that slavery had existed in biblical times. A precise reading of the Word also proved that Christ and His disciples had never condemned servitude, not even in a syllable.

Fee answered that Christ lacked enough syllables to condemn every human transgression. Instead, His every word condemns all loveless practices and ordains the “supreme love of God and equal love to our neighbors.” To achieve a kingdom of love, He commands His creatures to pursue the Bible. But masters decree that their creatures shall “scarcely be able to read a sentence of God’s holy Word.”

Again, the Word “says to the slave, ‘Go spend this hour at the house of God in prayer and praise.’ But slavery says … go and toil in the field.” And again, God says to the celebrants of marriage, “‘What I have joined together let no man put asunder.’” But “slavery says” that slaves must “go where … the will of the master shall demand,” whatever marriage is ripped asunder. And again, “God says to the parent, ‘train up your child.’” But slavery says to the enslaved child, go where the master or “his debts … shall choose,” wherever the parent lives. Above all else, the Word commands that we treat others as we wish to be treated. But masters, never wishing to be sold from kin, sell humans away from loved ones.3

Advanced proslavery theologians, including and especially Thornwell, answered that the Golden Rule hardly meant that inferiors must be given the freedom that superiors would deserve, if enslaved. Rather, superiors must bestow the Christian governance that inferiors deserve, in a kingdom of love. The Golden Rule, Fee conceded, required only that superiors govern inferiors lovingly. But slavery’s essence, the absolute power of the human owner over the owned human, gave bad masters authority to demolish such necessities of the Christian spirit as blacks’ families and their access to the Word.

Worse, good masters could not always preserve the Golden Rule, for slaves could be seized for unpaid debts. After a default, lenders could spray a seized black family in all directions. Heirs could also sever a deceased master’s slave families. The impersonal system, in short, blocked even saved Christians from saving the spirit of Christianity.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin preached the same message. Slavery smashed Uncle Tom’s family, the soul of his merely physical cabin, not because his master was evil but because Tom was property, pledged for Massa’s debt. John G. Fee suffered through his own version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His tale of how slavery savaged his family’s Christian home, this time no fiction, showed why even James Henley Thornwell sometimes despaired. Perhaps the Christian case against absolute power did trump the proslavery version of the Golden Rule.

– 2 –

The star of Fee’s true tale played a celebrated southern role: Mammy. The Mammy myth epitomized why slaveholders entitled slavery the Domestic Institution. Mammy raised all children in the Big House, her own and the patriarch’s. As a nurturer of both blacks and whites, she merged two races into one folk, often holding a black and a white child simultaneously at breast. All “her” children loved her, as did “her” whites. She returned their adoration. Mammy provided the best answer to John G. Fee’s heresy that slavery’s essence necessarily destroyed Christian love.

The best answer supplied the best retort. Most Big Houses contained several families, white and black. Mammy had to mediate at the center of their jealousies. Envious white children could think she played favorites among them. Her jealous black children could think she favored the patriarch’s offspring over them. Her black husband or her owner’s white wife could think she favored the patriarch, sexually or otherwise. The Man could think she should give him more favors, sexual or otherwise. If a patriarch resented Mammy’s domestic power, he could sell her out of the family circle, with the whites who disliked her cheering, the whites who revered her helpless, and her black children devastated.

The Fee family savaged its Mammy, Julett Miles, in this crossfire.4 John G. Fee and his mother adored Julett Miles. His father and his younger brother James resented Mammy. In 1848, when John was thirty-one and his younger siblings had also left home, his father resolved to sell the ex-nurse, while keeping her black children as slaves. James encouraged Mammy’s eviction. He claimed that the family contained “more women … than were needed.” His mother responded that she needed “her best help.” Mammy wept that she needed to see her black children.

John G. Fee temporarily saved the Christian home. Mortgaging to the losing point the only property he owned, he bought Julett Miles. He freed her, then convinced his father to let her serve his mother, without wages. The liberator could not raise the dollars to fulfill his further ambition: to free Miles’s five children and thus remove all Mammy’s blacks from all Fees’ absolute control.

Fee still felt that his emancipation had lived up to the Golden Rule. He had done to the slave what he would have wanted done, if he had been a slave and able to maintain a Christian family only by serving without pay. Thanks to his hard-earned arrangements, Mammy’s wageless service and her black family would continue as before. Slavery had here evolved not into whites’ ideal for themselves, egalitarian freedom, but into the only salvation John G. Fee could afford to bestow, an ex-slave’s unequal peonage.

Mammy’s peonage ultimately saved neither a Christian family nor the Golden Rule. Fee’s mother died. Fee’s father dispatched Mammy to earn wages in someone else’s home. Julett Miles found employment in a neighboring area of Ohio. By coming back across the Ohio River occasionally, the freed mother could visit her enslaved children, who still served in the Fee family’s Big House. Inside her Ohio safety from slavery, the ex-Mammy also bore free black children.

Safety ended. In 1859, Fee’s father died. With John G. Fee disinherited, his younger brother James, now a cotton merchant in New Orleans, inherited the estate. James Fee, resentful of Julett Miles, had previously wanted her sold. Now he could sell her five enslaved children and theirchildren. As an ex-Kentuckian, skilled in New Orleans transactions, James Fee knew the Kentucky property would fetch top dollar downriver, at a Deep South slave auction.

Julett Miles heard that James Fee intended to sell her children forever out of her sight. In desperation, she decided to kidnap her offspring. She would unite her enslaved Kentucky brood with her free Ohio brood inside her free state home.

In this year of John Brown’s raid, Mammy’s kidnapping scheme was as futile as the Harpers Ferry invasion. The free mother, her enslaved children, and her enslaved grandchildren all suffered easy capture. James Fee sold Mammy’s slave family downriver. The river also separated her Kentucky jail from her Ohio free family. The doubly savaged mother languished for a few months in prison (now as the warden’s unpaid peon!) before expiring. With this horror, an exasperated John G. Fee had unwittingly proved that you could do onto a slave as you would have done to you only by emancipating all servants from the danger of being bought and sold like cattle.

Proslavery evangelicals feared that moral of the story. They shuddered that sinning humans’ unrestricted power to sever parents from children, and to bar the heathen from Scripture, did invite biblical abominations, according to the strictest construction of the Word. A decade before Julett’s tragedy, evangelicals publicized their best answer: James Henley Thornwell’s inspired definition of slavery. The definition claimed slavery’s essence to be not ownership of man but obligation to perform service. A master purchased not everything about a human but only the obligation to serve during the workday. All perversions that abolitionists rightly considered Christian monstrosity, whether selling family members from each other or separating blacks from the Word, were incidental to slavery’s service essence. Slavery’s sinful incidentals must be abolished, while its service essence must continue.

Fee knew as an insider the soft underbelly of his fellow Southerners’ most advanced argument. He answered that a slave must be defined not as any Christian server but as a servant “who, without his consent, is held as property.” It was not incidental but essential to property in man that “the husband can be torn from the wife, … the child from its parents, and the Christian from the chosen service of his God.” To end Christian horrors such as Julett Miles’s nightmare, evangelists must strip “away the barbarous law that makes man the property of his fellow-man.”5

Proslavery evangelicals preferred to make slavery biblically right by convincing sinning masters to be Christian paternalists. Fee scorned the illusion that preachers could convert all sinners. Despite all the familial love bolstering his effort, he had failed to convert his father and brother away from their anti-Christian devastation of Mammy. Yet the Christian point transcended James Fee’s hard heart. Not the authority of unkind masters but the requirements of impersonal property often tore families asunder. The good master dies, his bad debts must be paid, and his executor must accept “the liabilities of property.”6

Proslavery preachers sometimes conceded that unless they could convert all sinning masters (and executors), the state must intervene. By outlawing masters (and executors) from separating black families and from separating heathen from the Word, southern governments could abolish slavery’s supposedly incidental crimes. Then all slaves, not just Julett Miles, would become Christian peons. Otherwise, an angry Jehovah might abolish slavery’s service essence as well as its anti-Christian incidentals.

Fee answered that the reformers would never prevail. “The moment you pass a law” forbidding masters to sell property when necessary, “you pass an abolition act—you hurl a death blow at slavery. For, no man will buy a slave under such restrictions.”7

Fee knew that his strict construction arguments had preachers on the run and running out of biblical places to hide. He believed that in a democracy, where “the free expression of opinion” must prevail, “truth has nothing to fear from error.” He concluded that slaveholders had everything to fear from their own Christian assumptions, in the democratic debate that the Lord had called him home to win.8

Having arguably bested the South’s finest minds in the Christian South’s most important intellectual debate, Fee acquired a counterproductive cockiness. If free to argue, he would prevail. No discrete calculation of what to say, when, would be necessary. Just as John Brown scorned planning past the first strike, since God would do the directing, so John G. Fee scorned discretion and trimming, since his strict biblical constructions could conquer all southern Christians, even James Henley Thornwell.

– 3 –

His confidence increased when Cassius Clay, Henry Clay’s cousin, called him to an auspicious new Kentucky home. In 1853, Cassius Clay sent Fee quite the invitation. Come build a dwelling on my lands deep in Kentucky, wrote this brawler for Border South free speech. Here I will protect your right to advocate biblical antislavery within hearing distance of friendly nonslaveholders—and antagonistic slaveholders too.

The invitation commenced a weird alliance between one of the Border South’s most important compromising antislavery politicians and its most important uncompromising antislavery preacher. From 1849 through 1851, Cassius Clay had been the star of the first full-scale southern debate over abolishing slavery since Virginia’s post–Nat Turner legislative discussion of 1831–32. In Kentucky’s constitutional convention of 1849, then again in his run for the Kentucky governorship in 1851, Cassius Clay had played the pragmatic moderate, using whites’ racism to urge that Kentucky should slowly be swept clean of slavery, and of blacks too. Clay would bar further slaves from entrance into Kentucky. He would enact a so-called post-nati law, decreeing that several years hence, say in 1860, any slaves born thereafter must be freed when they reached adulthood, if they still remained in Kentucky.9



Two unlikely allies, John G. Fee (left), uncompromising scholar of the Bible that he here clutches, and Cassius Clay (right), brawling deployer of compromised secular reform. Courtesy of the Berea College Archives, Berea, Kentucky (Fee), and Professor Stanley Harrold (Clay).

Clay claimed that few would remain by the time his law would emancipate anyone, an event that would occur no earlier than 1880. Masters would beat the deadline by selling most of their adolescent slaves in Deep South auctions, before the post-nati became free adults. Many years hence, the Kentucky legislature could afford to buy the few remaining slaves and send them to Africa.

Cassius Clay shed few tears over blacks. Under his version of antislavery, most Kentucky slaves figured to become Lower South bondsmen. Cassius Clay instead wept over Kentucky whites’ economy, especially nonslaveholders’. Clay claimed that slaves’ sweating labor made white sweat degraded. He argued that immigrants preferred a free labor society. He asserted that potential newcomers’ aversion to slave society left Kentucky with too few workers and thus too few land buyers. By making the state slaveless and lily-white, Cassius Clay would enable fertile Kentucky to compete with Illinois and Ohio for white immigrants. The shower of new citizens, eager to toil, would bolster Kentucky’s lagging land prices, and her sagging enterprise too.

Kentucky’s slaveholders feared this gradual, racist, crass, and cheap appeal to Kentucky’s overwhelming majority, the nonslaveholders. Deploying the Slave Power’s classic despotic answer to democratic challenge, nonslaveholder mobs with slaveholder leaders dumped Clay’s newspapers into the river and threatened to deport him from the state. But “Cash” Clay (one of Cassius’s revealing nicknames) would not be silenced. He earned another of his nicknames, the “Lion of White Hall,” by defying proslavery mobs. He brandished a bowie knife as chilling as the ones John Brown used for his spears. He killed one proslavery assailant. His supporters warned that if lynchers mobbed Clay, they would mob the lynchers. Thus did Clay’s famed bowie knife become symbol of an ominous fact, from a slaveholder’s perspective. In this system of democracy and despotism too, a heretic with enough supporters might have to be defeated with votes, not with tar and feathers and rifles and spears.

While Clay won the right for Kentuckians to hear a reactionary version of antislavery, he lost his midcentury elections. He did receive a promising 10 percent of Kentuckians’ support in 1849. An agitator could build on that foundation. But his support drooped to 3 percent in 1851. He needed help to turn his antislavery fortunes around. In the emerging Northern Republican Party, Clay thought he saw his helpers.

Clay believed that with a National Republican Party’s aid, in the form of seductive patronage, he could be the southern titan of a triumphant ruling coalition. Northern Republicans would then gain what every dominant national party had developed: an important wing in every section. Clay’s Southern Republican movement would gain what every successful American reform crusade had secured: an honored and rewarded place inside the national twoparty establishment. As for Clay personally, he would no longer be Kentucky’s political outsider. Instead he would be at the center of National Republicanism, just as cousin Henry had been at the center of National Whiggery. He would thus be the second Clay to use national patronage to publicize a centrist route to Kentucky whites’ prosperity.

But only a truly centrist alliance would suffice. Cassius Clay could not afford identification with a left-wing version of Northern Republicanism. He could abide no talk of a higher law than constitutions, no proposals for making freed blacks equal citizens, no castigation of Southerners as sinners. But a Southern Republican could cherish Northern Republicans who repudiated federal intervention in southern states, who relied on their southern wing to secure southern reform, who scorned making ex-slaves citizens, who preferred that American freedmen be returned to Africa, and who emphasized that barring blacks from national territories would serve white men’s economic interests. If Northern Republicans would make Cassius Clay a national titan (maybe even a national presidential or vice presidential candidate) on that moderately antislavery basis, he could give northern antislavery an entrance into the South that John Brown’s higher law could never achieve.

The program made Cash Clay almost as different from John G. Fee as from John Brown. Cassius Clay, armed with his bowie knife, had fought and killed for his right to be heard. Fee, armed with the Word, extolled nonviolent resistance (although after mobs violated his person, the preacher would consider carrying a rifle). Clay’s delivered the politics of economics, emphasizing slavery’s harm to white men’s prosperity, especially the nonslaveholders’. Fee espoused the message of Christ, emphasizing slavery’s obstacle to sinners’ salvation, especially the slaves’ and the slaveholders’. Clay, pragmatic politician, sought a mainstream appeal to the Kentucky racist majority. Fee, antipragmatic zealot, aspired to convert racists to colorblind emancipation. Clay would induce masters to sell blacks outside Kentucky. Fee invited blacks inside his colorblind church.

Again, Clay aspired to lead as a Southern Republican from the governor’s mansion. He thus allied with moderate Northern Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln. Fee aspired to lead from a college president’s house. He thus allied with far-out Northerners such as immigrants from Oberlin College. What did Cash Clay and John G. Fee ever have in common?

They shared, in the beginning, a hope that their separate crusades could find a mutually nourishing meeting ground. They met first on Clay’s grounds. Fee supported Clay in 1849, when the Lion of White Hall espoused an antislavery amendment to the Kentucky constitution, then again in 1851, when Clay ran for governor, then again in 1856, when Henry Clay’s cousin sought the vice presidential nomination on a National Republican ticket. While the latest Clay could never be Fee’s antislavery hero, a compromising antislavery moderate could be the most congenial politician that Kentucky had to offer. Clay the brawler could also offer Fee the boon a democratic agitator most needs and a southern antislavery agitator usually least possessed: free speech.

While Clay, in turn, hardly saw Fee as the ideal pragmatic agitator, the preacher had been a loyal political supporter and could become a valuable religious revivalist. The evangelical extremist might stir the souls. Then the political moderate might harvest the votes. Thus was sealed a precarious Old South bargain. Thus began the ultimate southern test of whether slavery for blacks and wide-open democracy for whites could coexist.

– 4 –

Before Clay invited him to come rouse Kentucky’s whites against black slavery, Fee had worked the largely nonslaveholding folk near his ancestral Bracken County, 7 percent enslaved and on the edge of Ohio. Some of Clay’s lands lay over a hundred miles deeper south, in Madison County, 35 percent enslaved. Clay’s own acres comprised a classic intersection of two border cultures. On the one hand, Clay’s so-called glade consisted of a grassy valley, undulating much like the Blue Grass plantation region just to the north. On the other hand, Clay’s so-called ridge consisted of a seventy-foot cliff, rising much like the mountainous nonslaveholding region just to the southeast. From the semicircular ridge, Fee could see massively enslaved Blue Grass counties in one direction and scantily enslaved trans-Allegheny mountain counties in the other.

Fee’s new Berea habitat was like a funnel, aiming antislavery whispers that wafted over the mountains right at the Blue Grass. Fee aspired for a different mountainous funnel than did John Brown. Brown would use the mountains to pour fugitive slaves toward the free North, hundreds of miles away. Fee would rouse mountain folk to pour the Word at slaveholding areas, only dozens of miles away.

Fee brought to Clay’s glade and ridge some apparently curious weapons to triumph as orator. In the pulpit he rarely gestured, rarely screamed, rarely insulted the slaveholders. Nor did his short figure or squarish, balding head announce a charismatic leader. Next to hulking, hard, harsh Cassius Clay, with the weathered face and stubborn chin of a brawler, Fee almost looked effeminate. But the preacher’s soft pulpit voice fit his plea for a community of love; and his long, high forehead reemphasized his irrepressible logic on biblical strict construction.10

His Christian institutions at first seemed as innocuous as his person. He had scant use for a towering revival tent or a long anxious bench or a boisterous camp meeting of thousands. He favored a few tiny churches, a handful of intimate schools, and a dozen soft-spoken so-called colporteurs. These agents quietly went from dwelling to dwelling, handing out Bibles and antislavery pamphlets and seeking to persuade the homeowners.11

Fee and his compatriots reversed the conventional wisdom about how to persuade slaveholders. Masters supposedly would not tolerate outside agitators. Yet imported Yankees comprised over half of Fee’s teachers, preachers, and colporteurs. Southern churches supposedly had to admit slaveholders to membership, to convince patriarchs of Christian obligations. Yet Fee barred all slaveholders as unworthy of Christian fellowship. Antislavery Southerners supposedly had to be racists, determined to send freedmen to Africa, or to sell slaves down river, or to segregate blacks in church balconies. Yet Fee invited blacks to his schools and to his dinner tables as equals—and to come on down from the church balconies. A quiet man who embraced blacks, ostracized slaveholders, and recruited Oberlin saints as southern redeemers—this radical could revolutionize a skittish, suspicious culture?!

Not for a second, in the Lower South. But for an hour, in the Border South. No other Southerner ever tried anything so radical. No other Southerner ever spread antislavery so quickly. In the mid-1850s, the Fee movement stirred like the bracing mountain air. One church swiftly became a dozen. Lay schools opened. Colporteurs multiplied.

The Kentucky slaveholders, feeling the slight tremor, deployed the classic dictatorial answer to democratic whispers. In the spring of 1855 at Dripping Springs, a mob seized Fee, dragged him from the church, and escorted him miles away. Fee, beset with a splitting headache, asked the government to jail his savagers.12

Receiving no response, he asked his patron to reachieve free speech. Cassius Clay responded at Crab Orchard. Surrounded by armed followers, he insisted that the preacher must be heard. On July 21, 1855, Clay went further. He appeared with Fee, telling the hostile crowd that if they mobbed his colleague, they must lynch him and his supporters first. Few in Border South Kentucky dared start a war between lynch mobs. No such threat of an antislavery mob could have dissolved a Lower South proslavery mob.13

A year later, Fee and his protective patron appeared together in public yet again, at a Fourth of July celebration. The cocky preacher, orating first, declared that no proslavery law should be obeyed, for slavery violated God’s higher law. Clay, alarmed, answered that all constitutional law must be obeyed. Fee, warming to the conversion of a (he thought) permanent friend, asked if Clay would obey the Fugitive Slave Law. I would not, muttered an increasingly unfriendly Clay, but because the law violated man’s Constitution, not because it violated God’s law. Fee called this a higher law distinction without a difference. He chuckled that the moderate Mr. Clay had opted for higher law.14

Only an arcane abstractionist, brilliant in polemical battle but clueless about practical politics, could have proclaimed so impolitic a theoretical victory. This confrontation involved nothing practical, save the highly practical certainty that Fee would suffer a second disinheritance. Cassius Clay, like Fee’s father, disdained the dishonor of a creed dragged through the mud, especially when an insufferably ungrateful dependent issued the insult.

Moreover, Clay, like Fee’s father, believed that the ungrateful dependent menaced the assaulted titan’s basis of earthly independence. Just as Fee’s biblical position threatened his father’s base in slaveholding, so the ingrate’s higher law position threatened Clay’s base in practical politics. No Republican Party nominations or patronage, and few Kentucky votes, would be obtained if Cassius Clay, famous for dulled antislavery no less than for sharp bowie knives, was guilty by association of defying human law.

So Cassius Clay let it be known that he would no longer protect the loose cannon that he had unfortunately installed at the fag end of Madison County. In June 1857, arsonists responded to their new free rein by burning down a Rockcastle County church, full of Fee supporters. A mob then seized Fee from a house, jammed a pistol in his stomach, and forced him to march miles away. Threats and actions culminated in January 1858. An armed mob of thirty ruffians dragged Fee from a church in Estill County along with one of his colporteurs, Robert Jones. The armed marauders forced the two crusaders down to the Kentucky River. They ordered Brother Jones to strip. They lashed his back bloody. Fee, although untouched, thereafter suffered paralyzing headaches.15

In the manner of southern lynch mobs, extralegal violence then waned as it had waxed. White democracy remained cherished and free speech essential, unless racial control stood menaced. A frightened preacher might now have been rendered unmenacing. Subsequently, with no mobs striking, Fee’s headaches dulled. His energy returned. His oratorical successes increased—and the outside world spied his little earthquake.

In November 1858, Harriet Beecher Stowe urged northern missionaries to journey southward. Northerners fear being “driven out” of the South, Stowe wrote. But “Fee is not driven out of Kentucky.” True, he suffers “afflictions.” True, his antislavery churches are “feeble.” But every Christian “inch” gained is “mighty in moral force.” Northern migrants should extend Fee’s Kentucky inches into miles of “every slave territory.”16 Stowe rejoiced that the supposedly closed society had been opened a crack, that a native Southerner had gained a sliver of free speech, that his southern assumptions persuaded, and that northern Christians needed only to aid his preaching. With Fee as guide, Yankee saints might yet convert southern sinners, inside the South.

– 5 –

A half year after Harriet Beecher Stowe urged a Yankee infiltration of at least cash, Fee scored an astonishing success. The centerpiece of Fee’s triumph became a private elementary school, called Berea School, located high on the ridge. The school’s star teacher became a Connecticut Yankee educated at Oberlin named John Almanza Rowley Rogers, aided by his wife, Lizzie. Rogers’s long, thin frame and long, stern rectitude seemed as endless as his name. The teacher, sternest with himself, scoured his own pride, sloth, and idleness. The exasperated would-be saint also scoured his students, damming their complicity in the demon slavery.17

For all Rogers’s scourings, his genius (unlike John Brown’s) was to mix righteous religion with smiling gladness. His little disciples at Fee’s Berea School learned to add and subtract by counting the appearing and disappearing squirrels. They sang multiplication tables to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” They marched to recess chanting “I’m a Pilgrim.”

Pilgrims multiplied. Fifteen appeared at Berea School when Rogers began in spring term 1858, forty-five in fall term, over a hundred in spring term 1859. A third of them were slaveholders’ children. They learned that their parents sinned against Christ. They took the lesson home, to embarrassed mothers and fathers. Pretty heiresses, dressed in “bewitching little print dresses and white aprons,” intermingled with raggedy urchins, dressed in brown mountain homespun, learning together to be Christ’s classless warriors.

Almanza Rogers wanted still more egalitarian intermingling at Berea School. He laid down an ultimatum. Black children must be allowed to join the little white pilgrims. Otherwise, he would transfer his call for pilgrims to a more Christian school elsewhere. Under threat of losing the glad puritan, Fee approved Rogers’s proposed racial intermingling. But would Madison County, over one-third enslaved, allow this apparent southern monstrosity?

The folks had a chance to kill the monster democratically, with votes instead of mobs. In April 1859, rival boards of trustees of Berea School bid for ballots. One ticket favored a racially integrated school, with Rogers continuing to weave pedagogical magic. The rival ticket favored a school without blacks or the magician. The pro-Rogers slate won by a three to one ratio.

Citizens here hardly endorsed antislavery, much less racial integration. They voted to retain a colorful teacher, where not even a drab school had existed before. Their endorsement still encouraged Fee and Rogers to act as if they had won a colorblind mandate. The two would expand Berea School into Berea College. Berea “shall be to Kentucky” breathed Fee, “what Oberlin … is to Ohio.”18 In the fall, Fee marched on the North, seeking more Yankee migrants and more Yankee dollars to make his southern Oberlin the nation’s best antislavery vehicle.

His plea for northern funds and invaders was a little like—and vastly unlike—John Brown’s late pleadings. The differences could not save Fee from the similarity, not at John Brown’s traumatic moment. On October 5, 1859, Fee arrived in the North. On October 16, Brown descended on Harpers Ferry. Fee, undeterred by the Brown uproar, traveled ever farther northward, begging for peaceable northern raiders and dollars.

His pacific plea climaxed on November 13, when he charmed the congregation at Henry Ward Beecher’s Brooklyn, New York, church. Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother, introduced Fee with the same high praise that his sister had showered on the Berea saints. I “give way tonight,” announced Beecher, “to a better man than I am” and “ask you to contribute toward” his magnificent “cause.”

Fee begged them to contribute Northerners “like John Brown—of his boldness and honesty—of his self-sacrificing spirit—not to carry the sword, but the Gospel of Love.” Beecher’s flock sent Fee away with the loving tidings of $217.50. Beecher’s parting words cheered the refortified zealot: No contribution would do more “good in the cause of Emancipation.”19

Brooklyn’s contribution instead ended any good Fee could do in Kentucky. Not even Fee’s tactical blunder of needlessly taking on Cassius Clay could compare to the blunder of explicitly asking Yankees for more John Browns (albeit peaceful ones), at the peak of the hysteria over Harpers Ferry. Only John Brown’s decision to hole up in the engine house could compare as tactical stupidity. Both suicidal strategies drew from the same well: a conviction that the saint who marches with Christ need not plot cautiously about how to step carefully among humans.

Kentucky newspapers summed up Fee’s careless outburst with black headlines: “JOHN BROWNS FOR KENTUCKY.” In early December, rumors blazed through the state that a crate from the North, addressed to Fee, contained Sharpe’s rifles. (It turned out to contain candle molds!) Worse, before Fee could bring dollars for Bibles and Berea School back to his endangered flock, Madison County slaveholders gathered their rifles. Gentlemen claimed that the “right of self-preservation” must supersede state law, especially when “our enemies” seek to administer “a higher law than … the Constitution.” On December 23, some sixty armed men on horseback besieged Almanza Rogers’s house. They demanded that all Feeites leave the state in ten days.

On the anniversary of Christ’s birthday, Berea’s teachers asked Kentucky’s governor for a democrat’s rightful protection. Democracy’s chief executive offered no such Christmas present. So on December 29, thirty-six stricken crusaders commenced their antipilgrimage toward joining their leader in northern exile. Hearing tidings of exodus, Fee wrote that “my heart almost crushes me.” In the remaining prewar months, the crushed Southerner would wander around alien northern acres, his head feeling as if weighed down under lead, his spirit sunk in a paralyzing depression. The Border South, if too unlike the Lower South to stop Fee from planting on Berea’s auspicious ledge, had been similar enough to stamp out his fragile plant. He would not be replanting what became Berea College until the Civil War gave way to Reconstruction. In slavery times, republicanism, southern style, had once against shut down unlimited freedom to agitate.20

Still, Cassius Clay survived the antidemocratic intransigence. It was one thing to deport a scantily supported extremist who could rally no countermob and whose proposed immediate emancipation could turn racial control upside down. It was quite another to oust a rather popular politician who could raise a countermob and whose gradual antislavery program would leave Kentucky lily-white. While Fee’s uncompromising voice had been silenced, Cassius Clay’s compromised appeal still echoed in the slightly open spaces that distinguished Border South from Lower South. From his borderland base, Clay could still urge moderate antislavery men, North and northern South, to collaborate in a National Republican Party. After John Brown had proved too violent and John Fee too radical, Fee’s ex-patron, having renounced Fee, might yet star in a third act of the drama that had commenced at Harpers Ferry.

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